Rated PG for scary images, some violence, language, and mild sensuality. Three and half stars out of four.
In "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the sixth cinematic installment in the "Potter" series, Harry and his Hogwarts cohorts face the most fearsome adversary of all – adolescence. Or to be more exact, adolescent romance. There's no potion strong enough to cure it.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is warming up to Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright); her brother Ron (Rupert Grint) is besieged by Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), whose ardor resembles commando raids. This does not sit well with Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), who fumes with jealousy as only she can fume.
It was inevitable that the "Half-Blood Prince" would involve itself in more Muggle-ish matters as teen romance. The lead actors in these films have grown up before our eyes, and their acting has grown up, too. There's something inherently funny about the romantic predicament of Harry and Ron and Hermione. As if it wasn't bad enough having to deal with the Dark Lord and the Death Eaters and all the rest, now they have to square off against … raging hormones.
"Half-Blood Prince" is in every way superior to its immediate predecessor, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," which, like this film, was directed by David Yates. Maybe he just felt more comfortable this time around dealing with kids whose emotions were rampagingly human.
The relationship between Harry and Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) also gains from the age progression. Yates, and his screenwriter Steve Kloves (who has written all but the last of the "Potter" films), capture the ways in which a student-mentor relationship can evolve into a kind of odd equality.
It really helps in these situations to have first-rate actors. Gambon, with his voluminous, dishevelled grandeur, fills the screen even when he is filmed from afar. In his own antic way, so does Jim Broadbent, making his first appearance in the "Potter" series as Horace Slughorn, the former Hogwarts potions professor who is recruited by Harry and Dumbledore because of revelations about Voldemort's past. Slughorn is a frazzled dandy in tweeds and bow ties. His association with Voldemort, whom he knew and taught years ago as the student Tom Riddle, is both a source of pride and anguish to him. Broadbent's performance makes us aware yet again how Dickens-like J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books can be (starting with the names of the characters). The "Potter" movies in general, and "Half-Blood Prince" in particular, are at their most engaging when the characters are giddily, or grotesquely, outsized. Has there ever been a better villain in basic black than Alan Rickman's Severus Snape?
As is true of the other "Potter" films, this one, at 153 minutes, suffers from an overload of exposition, and some of it feels like marking time until the next, and final installment "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (which will be released in two parts, in summers 2010 and 2011). But, as megamovie franchises go, "Harry Potter" is disporting itself far better than most. If you're a repeat viewer, you might want to wait to see "Half-Blood Prince" again on July 29, when it goes IMAX. Outsize characters were made for outsize screens.
'500 Days of Summer'
PG-13 for sexual material and language. 96 min. Three stars out of four.
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to win girl back: It's a tale you've heard a million times before. But it's told here in such a relatable, inventive way, it almost feels like the first time.
It is the first time for director Marc Webb, who puts his music video and commercial background to good use with stylish tactics that are lively — a cheeky dance sequence, perfect song choices, a clever use of split screen — but never feel gratuitous.
And the script from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber keeps things moving by jumping around in time between Day 500, Day 1 and everywhere in between; the structure also creates a feeling of curiosity throughout, because we know the relationship is doomed, we just don't know how it falls apart. We see that through the lovelorn eyes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom Hansen, a would-be architect toiling away at a greeting card company. He thinks he's found the perfect girl in Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), his boss' beautiful new assistant who's just arrived in Los Angeles.
"500 Days of Summer” allows Tom to regale us with memories of this life-altering romance — and because they're his memories, told entirely from his perspective, they're more than a little romanticized in both the highs and lows. But that's part of the film's charm: the spot-on observation that everything seems magnified and it matters more when it's happening to us.