Harry Potter's magic continues

It's important to understand going in that the Harry Potter films — six thus far — are the equivalent of chapters in a book. Each entertains, some more than others, and there is a great deal of backstory already detailed, with more to come.

In fact, it's fair to view the just-released "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" as a protracted setup for the two-film conclusion (2010 and 2011) of the seven-book saga that has so captured the imaginations of Harry Potter Heads worldwide. The books have sold more than 400 million copies and have been translated into 67 languages.

Keep in mind that the final Harry Potter novel, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," is a 784-page beast weighing 2.4 pounds, a book that small children hauled out of bookstores in their wagons after waiting in long lines — many wearing round peepers — until the stroke of midnight.

Each of the movies has been solidly entertaining as well as an artful blending of characters, plotting and computer graphics. It must be a thrill for the legions of fans to read and reread the books and then sit in a darkened theater and give themselves over to the sheer wonder of seeing those images they have constructed from the words of J.K. Rowling now on the screen. "Half-Blood Prince," coming some eight years since the first film, when Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) was about to turn 11, now shows Harry and Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) in full-bloom adolescence — hence much of the plot has to do with bumper-car romance and its many inherent misunderstandings. Of course, since Hogwarts is a school of magic, there are love potions being concocted with humorous effects.

Of course, Lord Voldermot has returned, as have the Death Eaters, and there's a mystery to be solved involving young Voldermot, aka Tom Riddle, Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), Harry, and the head of Hogwarts, Professor Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon).

Without question, the Harry Potter films are filled with some of England's finest actors, and "Half-Blood Prince" is no exception. It's a veritable smorgasbord of fine performances by Gambon (Dumbledore), Broadbent (Slughorn), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), and, of course, the wonderful Alan Rickman, back again as Severus Snape, a dark, word-clipping character who steals every scene.

Can "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" stand alone? No. But it's not meant to. It is, however, a wonderfully entertaining film that will more than satisfy the millions of Harry Potter fans. In fact, so satisfied are audiences with the series that the first five movies have grossed some $4.8 billion worldwide and counting. As to the question, Do you believe in magic?, well, it seems the answer for the countless Potter Heads is a loud, unequivocal "Yes!"

Summer Hours

"Summer Hours," written and directed by Oliver Assayas, is a film with an almost imperceptible narrative arc, a film absent moments of great tension, high drama or irreparable confrontation. Instead, it is a film that mirrors life in all its subtlety and nuanced moments.

And later, audiences may weigh the film's richness and modulated pace, and acknowledge that perhaps French sensibilities are different from our own; or conclude, after some discussion, that perhaps they're not.

If there's a dearth of such films made in America, perhaps it's because Hollywood fears that movies like "Summer Hours" will never find an audience. Filmgoers, it is assumed, are interested only in the explicit, hence the weekend gross will be anemic and the industry, while cognizant that films can be art, is, after all, in the business of making money.

"Summer Hours" opens with a French clan having its yearly summer reunion at the country home of the family matriarch, Helene Bertheir (Edith Scob), 75. She has three children, Frederic (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jeremie ( Jeremie Renier).

Alone with Frederic, the oldest, mother and son have a difficult though prescient conversation about what should happen in the event of her death. She possesses museum quality art and furniture, inherited, along with the magnificent house, from a long-ago deceased uncle who also was a famous artist in his own right.

Not long after this summer gathering, Helene does indeed pass away, unexpectedly. Now the siblings and their wives are left with sorting out what they should do with the house where they grew up and disposing of their mother's elegant and treasured possessions.

And so, by the end of act one — the film is wonderfully constructed in three acts with a nice, unexpected denouement — it is clear that "Summer Hours" is about relationships and the subtle contrasts between brothers and sister.

It also is about how families fragment when the glue that binds them together ceases to be, in this case, Helene. She was the catalyst for their gatherings, as was the house, the gardens, the lovely grounds, all of it representing the essence of their being a family.

So the siblings, while negotiating the many decisions confronting them, make choices that say a great deal about them as people and about their values and about how much they care for one another.

Those conversations, negotiations, really, and the occasional flare up essentially summarize "Summer Hours." Yet, there is so much that is deeply human and recognizable in every scene: Frederic's sentimental attempt to keep things as they are; Jeremie and Adrienne, whose lives have moved on beyond France, argue for change. It's time to move on — Jeremie, lives in China with his family, where he heads a shoe factory, and Adrienne resides in New York, where she is a designer. Both have stepped outside the circle that once was so familiar. Without Helene, the center cannot hold.

French films are different. Is that fair? Part of it is cultural. Consider but one example from the film: a long, lovely scene where family members are seated at a table in the garden. Talking. Eating. The sun giving everything a patina of gold, the foliage so deeply green its almost purple, the languid space between conversations punctuated by laughter and interrupting children, the universality of imperfect relationships, deep love, and long-held grievances gently revealed. That's life in a microcosm, all of it captured in a garden, in a moment that portends great change and wrenching sadness. Is that the difference? Is it the belief that such moments possess a relevance and import and will, indeed, resonate with the audience? Perhaps.

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