Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Gambon, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent
Directed By: David Yates
Written By: Steve Kloves (from the novel by J.K. Rowling)
Warner Bros., 2008
PG; 153 minutes
2.5 stars (out of 5)



My initial impression of the sixth Harry Potter movie was exactly thus: that it was disjointed in a way that made parts of it almost dreamlike--you know, the way dreams jump around or abruptly change? I don't know if this is a result of the writing or editing or directing or all of the above. It seems that perhaps the whole of the crew was trying to be all things to all viewers--that they were trying to include the cute and funny adolescent love/angst as well as advance the plot--and so they put all the elements in some kind of cinematic blender and we ended up with a strange smoothie of a movie.

Half-Blood Prince has, for one thing, a fair bit of humor, mostly stemming from the budding emotions of its principle characters. Harry is starting to realize he likes Ron's sister Ginny as more than just, er, his best friend's sister. And while Hermione has acknowledged to herself (and eventually Harry) her warm feelings for Ron, it takes Ron a little longer to begin to sort things out. In fact, by the end of the movie it hasn't yet become clear to him that maybe Hermione is more than a really good friend.

Yet one of the most humorous scenes involves Harry's getting high on a luck potion that is designed to ensure his success is getting some information from Potions professor Horace Slughorn (played to perfection by Broadbent). Radcliffe plays Harry as punchy and carefree, sort of a side to Harry everyone has always wanted to see; the boy as he would have been if such heavy cares had not been pressed upon him. The scene is a fun turn.

Meanwhile, Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy finally gets a chance at some real acting in Half-Blood Prince, managing to portray the almost paralyzing fear that Draco endures as he attempts to carry out Voldemort's orders. For not having many lines, Felton uses his facial expressions and body language to full extent and allows the audience to almost sympathize--while still maintaining the distance required from the character. Not even in the book is it quite as clear that Draco has the opportunity to become the next, or another, Voldemort--that he's standing on the precipice of a chasm and it's a question of whether he'll step back or fall in.

Alan Rickman, too, did well with his few scenes; in the moment he is forced to kill Dumbledore, his delivery is especially keen.

That all said, much is lacking in Half-Blood Prince, including cohesion. I've mentioned the jumpy aspect of the way the movie is pieced together. Another problem is the fact that the more "real" elements--the character development and interaction, including Draco's anxiety and the lovesick drama/humor of the others--simply is far more interesting here than the plot line. The audience is supposed to be curious about Draco and the Vanishing Chest, but we really aren't. The mystery of who the Half-Blood Prince really is gets tossed aside into one throw-away line by Rickman's Snape, in which he informs Harry that he is the Half-Blood Prince. Should we care why he gave himself such a moniker? Evidently not. Even the core story of Harry looking at memories of Voldemort's time at Hogwarts and getting information from Slughorn so that he and Dumbledore can go in search of the horcruxes stutters in intermittent fashion until the near end of this long film, only to have it all come up short in the last scene, in which Harry reveals the horcrux he and Dumbledore went to collect is a fraud. And Dumbledore's funeral, which was a touching scene in the book, has been eliminated from the film.

In the end, Half-Blood Prince works only as a bridge to the saga's looming end (said to be coming in two final movies as they divide Rowling's Deathly Hallows). It does not stand on its own merit, and its singular entertainment value is decidedly limited.


Book Review: Annie's Ghosts

Steve Luxenberg
Hyperion, 2009
402 pages


In Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, Steve Luxenberg delves into the divide between the knowable and the unknowable--that is, the space between what can be discovered by dogged detective work, and what can only be guessed at because the answers to some questions die along with the people who know those answers.

The situation is in itself a compelling mystery, both to the author whose story it is, and to the reader. Luxenberg's mother Beth had always made it distinctively clear that she was an only child. In fact, it was something she seemed proud of, given how often she would bring it up. And no one in the family thought much about it until they discovered it wasn't true.

What Luxenberg would eventually discover is that his mother had had a younger sister named Annie. An aging Beth had said as much to one of her doctors, though she'd said the sister was sent away at age two. Picking up this thread, Luxenberg would go on to find out after his mother's death that his unknown aunt was actually sent away at age 21 . . . And so the detective work would begin. How had his mother managed to hide an entire childhood spent with a younger sister? And why hide it at all? Meanwhile, why had Annie been sent away to a mental institution?

In Annie's Ghosts, Luxenberg details the slog through old records and red tape that was required to get to some of the answers he desired. That might sound dull, but Luxenberg is a good writer and spins everything into a mix of journalistic integrity and personal human interest. The result is a fascinating read.

Below I have an article by Luxenberg regarding that mix of truth and fiction, which I hope you'll enjoy. (Used with permission of FSB Associates.)

Memoirs, Movies and Those (Mostly) True Stories
A Writer's Take on Reality's Rough Edges

By Steve Luxenberg,
Author of Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret

Why do they do it?

Why do so many film makers put "based on a true story" or some variation as one of their opening frames, when they have freely altered the truth of the story?

Because it works. Because those words retain their mesmerizing power, even though they are misused or stretched at times to the point where there's little relationship between the story being told and the facts that gave rise to them. Truth-twisting in film has become so accepted that reviewers rarely comment on it or point out the discrepancies between fact and fiction, between information and invention.

As a long-time journalist and a first-time author, I'm probably more fascinated than most people at the transformation of a nonfiction work from book to screen. In researching and writing about a family secret that took me back to the beginning of the 20th century, I chased down many leads to ambiguous and not entirely satisfying conclusions. I joked with friends that I envied the novelist's license to invent what could not be learned or verified.

I'm not suggesting that there's a grand deception here. It's news to no one that movies change certain facts, sometimes for legal and privacy reasons. But film makers increasingly want to have it both ways. What began as a safeguard ("some facts have been changed to protect . . . ") has turned into a genre. Why not just come out and say it? "Some facts have been changed to protect the innocent, streamline the plot and increase dramatic tension. But the story is still (mostly) true."

Instead, the trend line is moving in the opposite direction. Recent case in point: The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie as the mother fighting a corrupt Los Angeles police department that had declared a stranger to be her abducted nine-year-old son, begins with the words "a true story" appearing on a black screen, holding for a few seconds, and then fade out.

Not "based on" or "inspired by." Just that flat, unambiguous statement: "a true story." Then, in the fine print at the end the closing credits, the film makers fess up. "While this picture is based upon a true story," we're told, "some of the characters have been composited or invented, and a number of incidents fictionalized." In other words, (which I liked and admired for its storytelling as well as its artful re-creation of the 1920s) improved on the remarkable tale of Christine Collins and her young son Walter. The true story wasn't quite good enough.

Moviegoers seem to accept this hybrid genre, and the industry celebrates it (Oscars, etc.). Is it any wonder that it has crept into the world of nonfiction books, where memoir writers have claimed a license to "fill in the gaps" (based on truth and memory, of course)? Or that universities now offer courses in "creative nonfiction"?
Truman Capote gave us the "nonfiction novel," stealing a page from the film world. Tom Wolfe chose to take his new journalism into novels, which solved that problem. James Frey obviously crossed the line, however, in embellishing and inventing some of his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces about his drug use and brushes with law. A screenplay version of Frey's work could have said "a true story," and no one would have batted an eye.

Subsequent editions of Frey's memoir have carried an apology from the author that is a model of muddle. "I didn't initially think of what I was writing as nonfiction or fiction, memoir or autobiography," he wrote. "I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection. This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments. It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Ultimately, it's a story, and one that I could not have written without having lived the life I've lived."

Frey's right on one score: Others disagree, and there's a lively and continuing debate in the writing community about these issues. On a Facebook discussion the other day, for example, the question came up: How far should memoir writers go in reconstructing scenes and dialogue?

I draw a harder line than most. I favor the rough edges of memory over neat and pretty reconstructions. (More interesting, usually.) Invention? As I wrote in the Facebook discussion, that's why we have novels.

Readers, I think, are smart. They know that most writers don't have notes or documents to back up dialogue from long ago. So what's the problem? In a word: Credibility. As a writer, I want readers to grant me some license to tell my story. But if I present lengthy dialogue as fact, I risk losing their trust -- and their interest. Bad deal for me.

There's a scene in my new book, Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, that illustrates the difficulty of reconstructing past events. I'm at a restaurant outside Detroit, interviewing a cousin about the secret that stands at the center of the book. The secret was my mother's. Throughout her life, my mom had hidden the existence of a disabled sister. I was trying to find out why. My search had led to my cousin, someone I had never known.

In the early 1950s, I learned, my cousin and my mother had argued about the secret, leading to a life-long rift between the two women. Just as my cousin is recounting a climatic moment in their dispute, we're interrupted by the waitress's offer of coffee. After the waitress leaves, my cousin resumes her account -- and offers a different (and more dramatic) version of the key moment she had described only seconds before.

I had no doubt about the crux of my cousin's story. My mother had, after all, kept the secret. But if I wanted an "accurate" version of their conversation, I was out of luck. My cousin was giving me the version that reflected years of thinking about that moment, that reflected her feelings as much as her memory.

"The nuances lie beyond my reach," I wrote in the book. "Fifty years later, this is the best my cousin can do."

I saw no reason to choose between the two versions. I would present both, and use the scene to point out the intricate patterns of trouble imposed by time and memory. That would be better than presenting a reconstruction of their argument.

That would be something closer to true.

©2009 Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret

Author Bio
Steve Luxenberg has been a senior editor with the Washington Post for twenty-two years, overseeing reporting that has won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for explanatory journalism. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

For more information please visit www.steveluxenberg.com


Music Review: cradlesong

Rob Thomas
Atlantic, 2009


While I enjoyed perhaps 2/3 of the tracks on Thomas' first solo album Something to Be . . . (2005), I find that I like all the songs on cradlesong--rather in the same way I tend to like all the songs on matchbox twenty albums as well. Additionally, while I found some of the juxtapositions of songs on StB rather jarring, cradlesong flows and fits together well, rather like the musical equivalent of a Dove chocolate melting in your mouth.

Of course, the cover art for cradlesong is decidedly unattractive, but never judge an album by its cover, I suppose.

While the single "Her Diamonds" is now in heavy rotation on Mix-style radio stations everywhere, it's only the first of many strong compositions on the album--and, possibly not coincidentally--the first song on the album as well. The upbeat "Give Me the Meltdown" has garnered some attention as well and also sports an erratic music video (while the video for "Her Diamonds" features Alicia Silverstone encased in ice and slowly thawing). I have a decided preference for "Meltdown," as does my three-year-old son. Not sure what that says about me, my son, or the song really.

For the most part, cradlesong is full of songs dealing with relationships, and specifically difficulties in relationships; Thomas has admitted in interviews that he does most of his writing when he's having a bad time. Still and all, songs like the title track and "Mockingbird" have a sweetness to them that impart the bittersweet that comes with loving someone, even when there are problems and despite the imperfections in oneself or one's partner. If music, like any writing, is at its best when it can be appreciated in the absence of its author--by which I mean, one understands the meanings and feelings behind it without having the composer explain separately what he or she meant by something, and one can also relate on a personal level regardless of the original intention of the composer--then cradlesong meets this criteria, far better than anything on the rougher StB ever did. Thomas has long been lauded as a fine songwriter, and this reputation is deserved, but he does especially well here, having knit together both the powerful and the soothing in a way that is almost seamless and thus pleasing to the ear.