HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
Chris Columbus was unfairly lambasted in some quarters for the first two Potter pics, but I think his comparatively lighthearted approach worked since the early chapters were as much about the Disneyland appeal of the Hogwarts school as anything else. But as J.K. Rowling's books progressed, the child actors matured, and the directors changed, the franchise began to take on a decidedly darker tone, with a likable character killed off in each of the three most recent works and teen protagonists Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) continually having to contend with raging hormones that prove to be as challenging to conquer as any Dementor.
The evil Lord Voldemort was finally given human form in the previous two pictures (Ralph Fiennes oozed slithery menace in the part), but in Half-Blood Prince, he's never seen, only felt (Tom Riddle, who became Voldemort, is spotted as a student in flashbacks, however). But as in the last movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there's the feeling that the bad guys are winning, and Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) needs to quickly come up with some sort of game plan. He enlists the unwitting aid of a former professor, the jovial if distracted Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), and instructs Harry to discreetly probe him for information that might help them defeat Voldemort and his minions.
Harry takes on the task, albeit not at the complete expense of a social life. He finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to Ron's younger sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright, the weak link in the cast), even as the once-spindly, now-buff Ron finds himself the object of attraction for the mature Hermione and the hyperactive Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave).
Yates, the first director since Columbus to helm more than one installment, picks up where he left off with Phoenix, mixing personal scenes involving the students with more weighty material that furthers the blackest aspects of the saga. These latter-named segments are suitably moody -- and often allow the FX team to show off their handiwork -- yet the heart of the piece remains the interactions between the characters, both teen and adult. Indeed, if there's a problem with the newer flicks, it's that there's no longer any quality time to be afforded to most of the grownups in the cast. The gentle giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), my personal fave, now puts in what basically amounts to cameo appearances; ditto the droll Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith). On the other hand, the intriguing Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) continues to figure in the proceedings, and, among the kids, it's nice to see the delightfully airy Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) again.
Folks who see this typically accomplished - if occasionally choppy -- entry will immediately be anxious to view the adaptation of Rowling's seventh and final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Yet it'd be inaccurate for me to urge readers to mark the date. Instead, mark the dates, as Deathly Hallows will be released as two separate films: Part I on Nov. 19, 2010, and Part II on July 15, 2011. Buy those calendars early.
To paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen's smackdown of Senator Dan Quayle during the 1988 Vice Presidential Debate: "Bruno, I screened Borat; I knew Borat; Borat was a review of mine. Bruno, you're no Borat." Perhaps not, but there's still plenty of laughs to be found in Bruno, which finds creator Sacha Baron Cohen employing the same guerilla tactics and faux-documentary style that made Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan such an unlikely box office winner back in 2006. This time, the uncompromising comedian adopts the personage of Bruno, a gay Austrian model who, after his career flames out in his homeland, comes to America -- specifically, Hollywood -- to reinvent himself as an A-list celebrity. That's easier said than done, as Bruno's flamboyance repels practically everyone he meets. The first half of the picture provides some hysterical material, but what's the target being punctured? Bruno's antics would seem outrageous to folks even if they were coming from a straight man, so, for example, you can't really fault the talk-show audience who finds his (fictionalized) treatment of his adopted baby reprehensible. Cohen is at his best when nailing specific people but he's less successful when trying to shock viewers with naughty gay routines that encourage the audience to laugh at him rather than with him. Fortunately, the picture hits its stride in the second half, when Cohen exclusively sets his sights on various bigots. This is what we've been primed to see, and the actor doesn't disappoint as he places his character in situations (some genuinely scary) with monosyllabic Alabama hunters, extreme-sports-loving rednecks, and, most reprehensible of all, two Christian counselors who bill themselves as "gay converters" (these vile creatures prove to be as misogynistic as they are homophobic). These scenes provide the film with the clarity of mission lacking in the earlier segments, as Cohen expertly alternates between subtly mocking his subjects and outright infuriating them. But never enlightening them, sorry to say -- that's probably too much to ask from any major-studio summer outing.
THE MERRY GENTLEMAN
If there's one fault to be found with the Coen Brothers' superb Oscar winner No Country for Old Men, it's that there simply aren't enough scenes featuring Kelly Macdonald, the wee Scottish lass who's previously appeared in such diverse works as Trainspotting, Gosford Park and Finding Neverland. Her No Country role as Josh Brolin's sympathetic wife is small but pivotal; to catch her in a part that's both large and pivotal, check out The Merry Gentleman, a low-simmer drama that marks Michael Keaton's directorial debut. In addition to directing, the former Batman stars as Frank Logan, a despondent hit man. Yet the film belongs completely to Macdonald, who wields the largest role; she plays Kate Frazier, who escapes an abusive relationship and starts again in a place where nobody knows her. But the fragile, soft-spoken Kate is the sort of vulnerable woman who seems to draw the attention of all sorts of men, both good and bad. Among those she attracts are an overweight, alcoholic cop (Tom Bastounes) and the bullying ex (Bobby Cannavale) who's determined to bring her home. Yet her most unusual relationship is the one she shares with Logan, a stone-cold killer who nevertheless softens whenever he's in her presence. Working from a script by Ron Lazzeretti, Keaton has managed to fashion a nicely modulated film that overcomes any hesitancy one might have about yet another movie centering on low-life assassins. Crucially, the picture isn't really about Logan, whose screen time is even less than that of Bastounes' well-meaning cop; instead, its primary focus is on Kate and how she works hard to make her life an acceptable one. Macdonald's performance is one of understated beauty, and the film's lucky to have her on board.