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Harry Potter and the Blah-Di-Blah-Blah

So Harry Potter, the latest one. How many more to go? Only two? Well, good, that means they'll finish up before the kids turn 30.

So Harry Potter, the latest one. Making a lot of money. Yep. How many more to go? Ten? Oh, only two? Well, good, that means they'll finish up before the kids turn 30.

I'm not into the Harry Potter phenomenon. I have friends who are fans. I also have friends who are foes, who find it a source of intense bitterness that Diana Wynne Jones -- a vastly superior writer, they tell me, within the same genre of young adult fantasy fiction -- has never had a fraction of the recognition or reward spewed at J.K. Rowling.

But I've got no investment one way or another beyond liking genre stuff, plus a vague interest in seeing what supposedly creative types do when they have all the money and attention in the world, when they're in Fat City. The film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a good example of what often results: a bland, safe bet, plush and comfy, taking no chances and pleasantly vegetative to watch.

It's old news that, when directing the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Alfonso Cuaron came up with the bright idea that these films ought to look good, at least. Previous director Chris Columbus hadn't thought of that. He'd been too busy documenting every time Dumbledore blew his nose, in deference to the fans' obsession that he omit nothing of vital importance from the books, in which everything is, of course, vitally important.

Cuaron put the production designers and CGI people to work bringing gorgeous gloom to the series, its rains and mists and rich colors and trails of black smoke. That's done a lot to ease the pain of watching these things. The current director, David Yates, follows Cuaron's lead in dedicating a chunk of the budget to beautiful weather effects. Nice snow scenes!

A much bigger chunk went, as usual, to buying up British actors and not challenging any of them, so they noodle around at their individual crafts, presumably to stave off boredom. Alan Rickman practices his vocal exercises, for example, in the role of Severus Snape. He tests how long he can draw out dramatic pauses, how sonorously he can extend syllables versus how severely he can clip off the final consonant, how nasal he can get if he really tries, which is so extremely nasal it's like that old commercial with the giant stuffed-up nose talking about allergy relief.

Don't misunderstand, I actually like Snape, I look forward to Snape scenes. He's one of the few dark, interesting characters in Rowling's world who gets to stay center stage for any length of time. She's forever shoving the villains and weirdos and monsters to the margins, or converting them, or revealing them to be really good underneath, so we can spend more time with all the virtuous types. (Sirius Black was a potentially great character who could never be wholly "safe," so she killed him off.)

The film directors, sadly, follow her lead. No proper sense of sustained menace. Jeez, people, Dickens laid all this out for you. The villains must be scary, powerful and ascendant for the bulk of the story, squeezing the virtuous into tighter and tighter corners, with everything light turning dark, until the sudden reversal at the very end! As Snape would say, the very ennnnnnd!

The Half-Blood Prince was structured to be suspenseful. It sets up the gathering evil right away: Death Eaters have so broken the bounds that they're even attacking the Muggle world, students are dropping out of Hogwarts, and Snape is involved in some mysterious double-dealings, taking "the vow that can't be broken" to defend and protect the vile Draco, who has been commissioned to do some awful deed, etc.

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