In his last two movies, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) was becoming an adolescent. In this gripping and atmospheric film, based on the sixth book in the series, Harry Potter is becoming a man. He knows who he is and what he must do. He is angry and at times he is still impatient. He is developing confidence and judgment. But he is not yet ready to admit to himself, much less to Ron Weasley’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) that he likes her very much.
Once again, author J.K. Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves expertly blend the most intimate and personal of teenage feelings with the grander concerns about the fate of the world. Indeed the two themes do more than blend; they complement each other. The threats deepen and become more complex as the children grow up. The personal is political, and vice versa.
As the film begins, the disturbances in the wizard world have become so pervasive that even the muggle society is affected. In an early scene that highlights sleek, post-industrial London, we see a bridge collapse due to a form of terrorist attack by the Death Eaters, the followers of He Who Must Not Be Named. But then we are back to the Victorian intricacies of the wizard world of Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. Harry is reputed to be the “chosen one” who can defeat Lord Voldemort. But there is another chosen one. Draco Malfoy, his father disgraced and in prison, returns to Hogwarts having undertaken some task so dangerous that his mother and aunt have visited Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) to insist on his unbreakable vow to provide support and protection.
Director David Yates and “Amelie” cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel brilliantly evoke the magical world, narrow, constricting spaces emphasizing the dire circumstances and adult awareness closing in on the characters. The special effects are organic and absorbing. Oddly, just moments after a beautiful transformation from easy chair to wizard, the one effect that does not work as smoothly is the simplest, as the footage is run backwards to magically restore a room that has been trashed. But the more complex effects and the overall look of the film are superb.
There is a new teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts, of course. This time it is Snape, his Potions class taken over by Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who shows a special fondness for “collecting” star students like Harry but whose memory holds a crucial key to Voldemort’s strength — and his vulnerability. An exposition-heavy entry in the book series that sets up the powerful final volume (being split in two for filming) is absorbing on screen due to its control of tone and atmosphere and some truly creepy moments involving Helena Bonham Carter, happily gruesome as Bellatrix Lestrange and a couple of marvelously-staged action sequences.
There are classroom scenes as Harry finds help in an old potions textbook with an inscription that says it belonged to the “Half-Blood Prince” and extensive annotations that help him become a top student. There is a Quidditch game and a battle in one of the huge Hogwarts bathrooms. But increasingly the activities of Harry and his loyal friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson).expand beyond the classrooms. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) relies on Harry for help in exposing Voldemort, their relationship developing into more of a partnership. Dumbledore’s most important lesson may be that Harry can do some things that even Dumbeldore cannot. This makes us, as well as Harry, all the more eager to see what comes next.
When all the world is caught up in Christmas, it can help to have some DVDs on hand to explain that some people celebrate a different holiday at this time of year, especially when the stories and songs are told by familiar friends. Here are some of the best:
Lights: The Miracle Of Chanukah Judd Hirsch, Leonard Nimoy, and others tell the story of the Macabees in this 1987 animated story.
Lambchop’s Chanukah and Passover Surprise Sheri Lewis and her puppet Lambchop bring a sense of curiosity and wonder to the celebration, and a sense of fun, too as they sing while they make latkes.
A Rugrats Chanukah Unfortunately available only on VHS, this is a charming introduction that includes some historical context and prayers as well as the usual Rugrats silliness.
Chanuka & Passover at Bubbe’s A nice introduction to the history and traditions of the holiday.
There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein This is a rare movie that frankly and sensitively portrays the pressure on kids to conform and how it feels to be left out of a celebration that seems to occupy the entire world in December. It gives families a way to acknowledge and even share the celebrations of others while feeling pride in their own traditions.
A Taste of Chanukah A delightful concert performance with Theodore Bikel.
Designer Tom Ford has exquisite taste, and his first movie is an exquisite movie. Based on a story by Christopher Isherwood, as adapted by Ford, it is the story of one day in the life of a British literature professor in Los Angeles, shortly after the loss of his male lover in a car crash. It is November 30, 1962. And so the awful isolation of grief is multiplied by his inability to acknowledge what they were to each other and who he really is.
Ford’s images are so meticulously arranged they feel like a perfume commercial. There is a remote quality that distances us from what is going on. But there are moments, as when we see a flashback of the professor (Colin Firth) getting the news from a sympathetic relative who has to deliver the message that the funeral is “family only” where the grief and the pain of holding it in is raw and real and devastating.
Firth is revelatory as the professor who feels that his truest self and his deepest emotions are invisible in a world in which being gay is still “the love that dare not speak its name.” We see in memory the man he loved (the always-enticing Matthew Goode) and in the present his encounters with a curiously attentive but respectful student (Nicholas Hoult, all grown up since “About a Boy”). And he spends the evening with his closest friend, a boozy fellow British expatriate (Julianne Moore) with whom he believes he can be almost completely honest, but who still sees him as she wishes he was. There is a hint that all of what happens on this last day could be in his mind; I suspect that it is, but either way, we are caught up in his emotions and his story.
How many of these Christmas movie questions can you answer?
1. Two successful male performers have to step in for a sister act to perform one of their signature songs.
2. There are many versions of the Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol,” but only one has dual Marley ghosts. Which one?
3. And which version has an aptly-named performer playing the lead role?
4. Which classic television movie features the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser? Extra credit: Who is their mother?
5. Name three inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys.
6. What classic has a child recite the story of the nativity from the Gospel of Luke?
7. Which Christmas classic has two characters named Bert and Ernie?
8. Which movie has one character ask whether Santa sleeps with his beard outside or inside the covers?
9. Which movie features Cindy Lou Who?
10. What was the secret message revealed by Ralphie’s decoder ring?