Half-Blood Prince a cliffhanger lacking in momentum

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

The end is near, for Harry Potter and his gang.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the sixth movie to be based on J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally popular books, and like all the previous sequels, it is darker and more mature than the instalments that have preceded it.

But there is only one book left to be adapted, and so this film is filled with a sense that things are coming to a head. Secrets are revealed, the nature of the evil Dark Lord Voldemort’s futile plan to cheat death is finally spelled out, and the film ends on a major cliffhanger that will set the story spinning towards its inevitable climax.

The best thing about the film is the way it finally – after all these years – gets Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) right, giving the Hogwarts headmaster just the right mix of absurdist whimsy, personal authority and startling vulnerability. Also very good is Jim Broadbent, the actor hired to play Horace Slughorn, the new potions professor.

But the film is regrettably lacking in other areas. There is very little spectacle, for one thing; in an odd way, it feels like one of those small character-based British dramas, except that there happen to be lots of visual effects in the background. And yet, ironically, the film pays very little attention to the supporting characters who have given this series some of its best grace notes.

While some major plot twists do transpire in this film, it feels strangely inert, and lacking in momentum. Hopefully, the powers that be will fix this problem when they adapt the seventh and final book – and bring the story to what should, by rights, be a stirring conclusion.

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The release date has changed a few times, but as of this writing, a movie based on the true story of an Iranian woman who was stoned to death in the 1980s, shortly after the rise of the ayatollahs, is set to open in Vancouver-area theatres July 31.

The Stoning of Soraya M. is written and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, an American of Persian descent, and it features many Iranian actors in its cast – including Shohreh Aghdashloo, who was Oscar-nominated several years ago for House of Sand and Fog, and has since had prominent supporting roles in films like The Nativity Story.

But the film also marks the reunion of a few people who collaborated on The Passion of the Christ, including producer Steve McEveety, co-star Jim Caviezel (who plays the real-life French-Iranian journalist who first reported this story) and composer John Debney.

What is more, the new movie also has some narrative parallels to The Passion, since it, too, is set in the Middle East and revolves around an innocent victim whose slow, torturous execution is portrayed in brutal, harrowing detail.

My interview with McEveety and Caviezel is up at ChristianityTodayMovies.com.

I also posted a couple of ‘bonus quotes’ at my blog, in which McEveety talks about some of the other films he is working on, including: Left to Tell, which concerns the ‘spiritual warfare’ behind the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; and Snowmen, a family film written and directed by Rob Kirbyson, a UBC film-school graduate who happens to be a Christian.

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Speaking of Kirbyson, his short film Ctrl Z, which played at the local film festival last year, has been picked up by NBC and turned into a series of short webisodes, all written and directed by Kirbyson himself. Check ‘em out online at NBC.com/ctrl.

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Kevin Miller must like controversy.

Last year, the Abbotsford-based screenwriter, occasional actor (he played Lex Luthor in an episode of Smallville) and sometime BC Christian News contributor, co-wrote the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed – which provoked a lot of debate about creationism, evolution, intelligent design and the social ramifications thereof.

And now, this year, he has a new documentary coming out that just might offend some of the conservatives who rallied to his previous film’s defense. It’s called With God on Our Side, and it’s about Christian Zionism – a theology which, as Miller puts it at his blog, leads “some Christians in the West to give uncritical support to Israeli government policies, even those that privilege Jews at the expense of Palestinians. This leads to great suffering for Muslim and Christian Palestinians alike, and threatens Israel’s security as a whole.”

The film, he adds, “suggests that there is a biblical alternative for Christians who want to love and support the people of Israel, a theology that doesn’t favour one people group over another – but instead, promotes peace and reconciliation for Jews and Palestinians.”

The filmmakers hope to release the movie sometime later this year. You can watch a trailer and read a bit of info about the film at its website, WithGodOnOurSide.com.

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

There is a lot that could be said about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It is the longest of the books in J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally popular series, yet it is also the shortest of the five movies that have come out so far.

The book, which came out in 2003, was the first to be written after the movies went into production –- and it is tempting to wonder whether Rowling’s description of her characters was influenced in any way by the actors assigned to the roles.

The book was also the first to come out after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which lent a heavy subtext to the plot of the novel – which concerns a cultural and political establishment determined to do anything but deal with the evildoers in its midst.

But if there is one thing Harry Potter fans remember about the book, it is that it was something of a disappointment. Despite its length, and despite the fact that a significant character dies, not a lot seems to have happened by the end. And this is a problem the movie version never really overcomes.

The previous film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, ended on a dark and serious note – with the return of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and the murder of a student by his hands. These actions were witnessed only by Voldemort’s followers, known as the Death Eaters –- and by Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), who barely escaped alive.

To this darkness, the new film adds a sense of mounting frustration. Just as the greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince the world he did not exist, so too Voldemort keeps a low profile throughout most of this story – allowing the wizarding world to think rumours of his return have been greatly exaggerated.

Thus, when Harry and his mentor, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), try to warn their fellow wizards that Voldemort has come back, and that the wizarding world needs to prepare for the inevitable showdown, they are accused – by the government, the media and their friends –- of lying and fearmongering.

Chief among these accusers is Dolores Umbridge (Vera Drake’s Imelda Staunton) –- an official from the Ministry of Magic who has been appointed the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, so the government can keep an eye on Dumbledore.

Unlike previous DADA teachers, who were all buffoonish or sympathetic, Umbridge is a genuinely nasty person. Her exceedingly proper etiquette and her demure sense of style –- the smiles, the wee laugh, the pink clothes and the china plates with cute animated kittens –- mask a cruel authoritarianism. She is, in fact, a sadist.

Thanks to story elements such as these, the film version of Phoenix was never going to be the fun, escapist lark the previous movies were. But one still cannot help but think the film could have been more than what it is.

Where, for example, is the sense of wonder and enchantment? Once again, Harry learns a few new things about Hogwarts and the wizarding world in general; but there is little sense of awe about it this time. For example, when a door to a secret room appears in the wall of one corridor, it is a convenient plot device, nothing more.

And where is the humour? At times, the film aims for a little levity; but more often than not, these moments feel forced, dutiful –- even recycled from earlier movies.

Worst of all, with the exception of a few scenes featuring Alan Rickman’s delectably devious Severus Snape, there are few –- if any –- of the ‘grace notes’ which have made each of the previous films memorable in their own way. Indeed, it is striking how this film brings together so many talented British actors, yet gives them so little to do.

This may be because the film is directed by David Yates, who is the fourth director to work on this series and the first with no experience on a Hollywood movie. But a bigger problem is probably the screenplay, by Michael Goldenberg. The earlier films, all of which were written by Steven Kloves, had to leave out bits of the books, and sometimes the omissions were puzzling –- but they were never this clumsy.

At a few points in this film, we get flashbacks to Harry’s younger days – to scenes from the earlier movies. It is startling to realize just how much growing up Harry has done since the first film came out six years ago.

It is also sobering to think that a series which began with such potential is beginning to show serious signs of sequel fatigue. Let us hope that the franchise gets its second wind, and soon.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Scene from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Another year, another Harry Potter product. The Harry Potter franchise has produced one new novel or film every year since J.K. Rowling published her first book in 1997, and Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban may be the most entertaining installment to date — at least as far as the movies are concerned.

This is the story in which the titular wizard becomes a teenager, and the actors’ increasing physical maturity is matched by a more complex thematic and artistic sensibility. Cuaron brings darker colours and bolder visuals to this film and, for once, it can be said that a Harry Potter movie has been made with something resembling a genuine cinematic vision.

And just in the nick of time, too. The Prisoner of Azkaban is perhaps the most emotionally complex of the Harry Potter stories to date; it is here that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) first encounters the Dementors, fearsome creatures which can suck the joy out of anyone who crosses their path, and it is here that he wrestles with his most murderous impulses.

And thanks to Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher and a former classmate of Harry’s parents, Harry also develops what may be his first meaningful friendship with a grown-up.

The Harry Potter novels have caused a great deal of concern for Christian parents and others who wonder if these books might get children interested in the occult, and of all the stories Rowling has written to date, The Prisoner of Azkaban may supply the strongest evidence for both sides of that debate.

Many Christians — and I am one of them — defend the books on the basis that the ‘magic’ within them serves the exact same purpose as the technology in science fiction. And nothing has convinced me of the link between these books and science fiction more than the fact that this story introduces time travel to the wizards’ bag of tricks. Somehow I think most children are smart enough to recognize that this is pure make-believe.

But this is also the story in which Harry starts attending a course in divination taught by the loopy Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson); exercises include gazing into crystal balls, reading palms and studying tea leaves. For the most part, Trelawney is held up to ridicule, but the mere existence of this class, combined with the fact that one of her prophecies is uttered under eerie circumstances and does come true, is admittedly problematic.

Spoilers prohibit me from saying more about this, but suffice to say that Christian responses to these scenes range from those who think they provide the clearest evidence of demonic activity in Rowling’s world, despite the fact that Rowling has never made demons a part of her sub-creation (see Richard Abanes’s Harry Potter and the Bible), to those who think they expose the folly of superstitious beliefs (see Connie Neal’s The Gospel According to Harry Potter).

Then there is John Granger, who argues in his newest book Looking for God in Harry Potter (Tyndale, 2004) that the Harry Potter books are actually deeply Christian; little may be known about Rowling’s own faith, but her books are so soaked in medieval concepts and images that they cannot help but express the Christian truths embedded within those symbols.

Prominent among those is the white stag which appears at a very significant moment in The Prisoner of Azkaban. The film, alas, never explains what this symbol represents, but Granger makes a very interesting argument to the effect that Rowling has found a poetic way to express through this the unity of God the Father and God the Son.

Since the children who were Harry’s age when the first book came out seven years ago are now ready for college, it behooves us to go beyond trite discussions of whether the books are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Granger’s book, informed by his own deep appreciation of classic literature and medieval lore, helpfully points the way to a deeper and more educated engagement with these stories.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Danier Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Chamber of SecretsHarry Potter and his friends may soar through the air on broomsticks and dangle from flying cars in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the latest chapter in J.K. Rowling’s ongoing saga about a young orphan and his classmates at a boarding school for witches and wizards, but the film itself never takes flight the way it ought to.

Despite the wealth of special effects that fill nearly every frame of this film, director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves bring the same pedestrian sensibility to this story that they brought to the earlier installment. They faithfully cram as many of the book’s plot twists into their two-and-a-half-hour running time as possible, and in doing so, they unintentionally sacrifice much of the story’s personality and charm.

Another scene from Harry PotterUnlike the first film, which had to set up the entire wizarding world from scratch as well as tell an intriguing tale in its own right, The Chamber of Secrets can devote all its energies to telling its central mystery story — and so it does. But it is precisely because the film assumes our familiarity with its setting and its colourful cast of characters that it loses some of the magic of the earlier film; in a word, the sense of discovery is gone.

Still, there are a few moments when a sense of wonder does peek through, such as when Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) visits the home of his friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and sees for the first time how everyday wizards live; the dishes wash themselves, and so forth. Harry’s awe is amusingly reciprocated by that of Ron’s father (Mark Williams), who is intrigued by the way things work in the non-magical world; at one point, Mr. Weasley asks Harry intently, “What exactly is the function of a rubber duck?”

The film introduces a few new characters, including Gilderoy Lockhart (a cheerfully flamboyant Kenneth Branagh), a vain but cowardly celebrity professor who would much rather sign autographed copies of his memoirs than teach the children anything useful, and Dobby (voice of Toby Jones), an obsequious “house elf”, or domestic slave, who bangs his head on things to punish himself whenever he speaks ill of his unidentified master.

Harry also meets Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs, who mastered the art of the contemptuous sneer as a British officer in The Patriot), a racist, classist wizard whose son Draco (Tom Felton) is Harry’s chief rival at school. The Malfoys scorn Ron and his family for their poverty, and they also look down on Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Harry’s other best friend besides Ron, because she is the offspring of non-magical parents.

The legitimacy of Harry’s magic, and its relative worth compared to the magic practised by Gandalf, Aslan, and the witches in Madeleine L’Engle’s books, has been a subject of intense debate in Christian circles and will likely continue to be so. For now, it is worth noting that there are no angels or demons in Harry’s world, and that the magic he practises is really just another form of technology; note how Ron’s wand backfires on him, or malfunctions, after he breaks it and tries to fix it.

The important lesson running through these stories — and it is one Christians can appreciate — is that people should neither abuse the power they have nor look down upon those who are not as gifted as they.

Parents and other adults have raised other concerns regarding these stories. Some object to the violence, and understandably so; at one point in this film, Harry stabs a giant monster through the roof of its mouth. But children do hear similarly bloody stories in Sunday School — recall how the young David kills and beheads Goliath — so there may be a place for that sort of thing for children who can handle it.

Others have criticized the Potter stories for being little more than a flavour of the month, a passing fad that publishers and filmmakers are exploiting for financial reasons. There may be some truth to that, but the striking thing about The Chamber of Secrets is how it can stir the longing to be part of something much older than oneself. The first film was largely about Harry’s need to get in touch with the memory of his parents, but the new film revolves around a mystery that goes back to the founding of Harry’s school a thousand years ago, and it reaches its climax when Harry brandishes a sword left by one of the school’s founders.

As the film ends, Harry is beginning to find his place within an established tradition, and this can speak very powerfully in this day and age to people who feel rootless and long to be connected to a community with a past. If anything, Christian parents should be able to embrace this longing, and to encourage their children to find its fulfillment in our own faith, which has a colourful history and tradition of its own.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone

If there is one thing the movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone may prove, it’s that being faithful to the original text can be both a strength and a weakness.

For over a year, director Chris Columbus has assured fans of the young orphan wizard that he intends to stay as true to J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally popular novels as possible, and to be sure, his film gets many details right. But Steve Kloves’ script tries so hard to cram so many of the book’s subplots into the film that you are constantly made aware of the fact that much of the original story is missing; the film omits many of the little character details that made the book so whimsically appealing, and that made the conclusion to its mystery so compelling.

Apart from the sometimes less-than-satisfactory special effects, which are so extravagant only a Hollywood studio could have afforded them, this is a thoroughly British production, full of sets and costumes that capture the sometimes medieval, sometimes Dickensian charm of Rowling’s books. The adult cast is a “Who’s Who” of English character actors, many of whom are exactly right for the roles they were called to play. But the movie is ultimately about Harry and his classmates at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and it is to the credit of the film’s young and mostly inexperienced cast that they give performances every bit as convincing as their grown-up colleagues.

Some parents have expressed concern that the Potter stories will introduce their children to real-life witchcraft, but I think most children (at least those of Potter’s age, ten and up) are smart enough to realize that the stories are fantasy, and that the sort of magic depicted there (magic potions, flying broomsticks, invisibility cloaks) is purely imaginary. If anything, the movie tones down some of the book’s potentially occultic elements, and with them, Rowling’s implicit criticisms of the occult; for example, the film omits a scene in which three centaurs debate whether their interest in astrology has made them complacent and fatalistic, and unwilling to take part in the fight against the evil Lord Voldemort.

The more serious criticism of the Harry Potter stories is that they may embody a selfish and relativistic morality. Most of the characters, young and old, break the rules when it suits their purposes, and the heroes often don’t have to face any consequences for their transgressions. There is nothing wrong with moral ambiguity, to a point — some of the things that biblical heroes like Jacob and David got away with were rather iffy, too — but this is one area where parents may want to help their children learn to discern the messages they are picking up from their culture.

And the film does teach some valuable lessons: it takes courage to stand up to your enemies, but even more to stand up to your friends; evil is not always as obvious as we might want it to be; heroes are those who sacrifice themselves for the greater good; and, perhaps most important of all, it is better to be loved than to know all the tricks of wizardry.