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Column Fri Nov 19 2010
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, The Next Three Days, Monsters, White Material & Today's Special
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
I always feel compelled to mention at some point in my reviews of any Harry Potter film that my sole exposure to this material is the film franchise. I've had access to the books for years, but once I realized that most of the movies were going to be works of quality, I thought they should be able to stand on their own with no prior knowledge cluttering my brain and filling in gaps that the book would plug. If I got lost or confused, then the movies failed me on a cinematic level. So far, that hasn't happened to any real degree. And while I fully intend on reading the books after the second part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hits theaters, the only way I'm prepping for wrapping up my years-long journey with Harry, Ron, and Hermione is by doing a marathon of all the films that came before leading up to seeing the final chapter.
The first part of Deathly Hallows is exquisite and exists on a plane that none of the other films have so far. And that plane is maturity and all the pain and responsibility that entails. Gone are the confines of Hogwarts, which I don't think is ever seen outside of flashbacks and visions. This is not a film about school children any longer. The reality for Harry Potter is that a legion of evildoers want to murder him, and these killers will accept any level of collateral damage to make that happen. An early scene in Deathly Hallows is exquisite shows shows Voldemort (the splendid Ralph Fiennes) prowling around a table of his minions, setting the stage for what is to come and the lengths that they must go to to get Harry. The scene reminded me of the one from The Untouchables, where Robert DeNiro's Al Capone walks around behind his lieutenants with violence in his eyes. The danger is exponentially more palpable in this Harry Potter story than in any of the others.
Here's another thing I realized watching this story: There are so many great actors doing terrific work in this chapter, the plot could have been weak and it still would have been a strong movie. Fortunately for us, the story is quite good and does a solid job balancing the rather steady barrage of death-eater attacks with the more intimate, personal stories involving the kids' evolving friendships, which I'll get to in a minute. But seriously, has there even been a more impressive collection of British acting talent in one series? One movie, for that matter? With the addition of such new faces as Peter Mullan, Bill Nighy, and Rhys Ifans added to a veritable who's who of familiar faces, most of whom are relegated to one or two scenes each, since the kids take center stage in this portion of Deathly Hallows.
While the mystery surrounding the remaining Horcruxes still to be found is compelling on a certain level, I found myself more intrigued by the ever-changing nature of the relationships among the three leads. It is a love triangle in the truest sense of the word. When Ron gets jealous of how close Hermione and Harry get on their travels, which one is he more jealous of? He's in love with Hermione, but he also has an unbreakable connection to Harry. Deathly Hallows also made me keenly aware of one thing — Ron Weasley is a useless character. Funny, yes, but useless. I'm pretty sure he doesn't use a single bit of magic in this entire movie. He has one moment of heroism late in the film, but nothing about him feels essential here. I'm not criticizing Rupert Grint's acting or Steve Koves' superb writing; I'm just saying he doesn't actually do anything here except cause friction. He's like Ringo — he's there for the vibe more than anything else.
Still, the way one particular Horcrux uses Ron's weak mind to almost tear up this small fellowship is captivating, almost shocking. But for large sections of the film, the young heroes are in hiding, talking, deciphering, and looking for clues as to where the Horcruxes are hiding and attempting to unlock the secrets of the Deathly Hallows. And now that Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, and Emma Watson have finally come into their own as actors, returning director David Yates can feel secure in allowing the characters to have long conversations and express genuine emotion. It's refreshing, actually.
I also truly enjoyed the way that the Ministry of Magic's Dolores Umbridge (the wicked Imelda Staunton) is finally able to reveal who she really is: Hitler. Seriously. Ministry soldiers are in full jack boots, the emphasis on eliminating Muggles (humans) or even half-breeds is completely overt now. The propaganda posters, architecture, rhetoric — it's all there, and director Yates goes to town with the metaphor. And in the sequence in which Harry and his friends must sneak into the Ministry courtroom (where a woman is on trial for being a Muggle while trying to pass as a witch) is probably the best action sequence Deathly Hallows has to offer, especially when Peter Mullans' death-eater character is thrown into the mix.
Perhaps my favorite of the newly introduced characters is Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood (Luna's father), who is about as trippy as his daughter. It's no coincidence that he also gets more screen time than most of the other supporting characters, and he introduces the story of the Deathly Hallows at a critical time in the adventure. Ifans has always been an under-appreciated actor, but what he brings to this role is the right mix of whimsy and flat-out fear that I don't think a lot of actors could have pulled off. But perhaps the most unexpectedly welcome reintroduction of the film is the appearance of Dobby the house elf (voiced by Toby Jones), whose devotion to Harry Potter is beautifully established and fatefully dealt with. If you are ever tempted to cry watching Deathly Hallows, it will be because of Dobby.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows creates more mysteries than it solves, but I assume all will be dealt with in eight months when Part 2 is released. It's kind of incredible to believe that I've been watching the same actors play the same parts for 10 years, but as a result, I feel beyond invested in what is to come and whether or not Yates and company can sustain the emotional intensity required to end this series at a peak we've come to expect. July 15, 2011, cannot get here fast enough. If I begin my marathon now, I might be finished by then. Now, I need to start dusting off those books...
The Next Three Days
The latest film from writer-director Paul Haggis (following Crash and In the Valley of Elah, as well as numerous writing credits from Million Dollar Baby to Casino Royale) is his first remake, in this case, of the worthy 2008 French film Anything for Her (Pour elle), starring Vincent Lindon and Diane Kruger. As Haggis constructs his version, The Next Three Days is actually two films mashed together none too gracefully. The first section is about Lara (Elizabeth Banks, stepping away from comedy quite nicely), who is arrested for murdering a coworker, much to the shock of everyone, including her loyal husband John (Russell Crowe). John never doubts his wife's innocence even as the evidence piles up against her, and Lara is eventually put into prison for the rest of her life, keeping her isolated from both John and their young son.
Much like the still-in-theaters Conviction, the filmmaker has decided to keep the guilt of the person in jail a mystery to the audience for drama's sake. I'm not sure it works as well here, but let's just say that I thought there was a very good chance Lara killed this woman in a fit of rage for most of the film. An early scene in which Lara puts a stop to her future sister-in-law flirting with John shows that the lovely Lara has a temper and isn't above a little hair pulling. This section of the film works most of the time, as Haggis lets us see the slow disintegration of the marriage as the behind-bars Lara slowly begins to realize the she needs to let John go and let him live his life or he will die a sad and lonely man, unable to raise their child the way he deserves to be brought up. Those scenes of John visiting Lara in jail are tough to watch, especially since Crowe does an admirable job conveying John's deeply rooted sorrow.
The second half of The Next Three Days is an escape movie, as John decides he'd rather take his chances busting his wife out of jail and running for the Canadian border than live life without her. The journey John takes toward this attempt borders on the outrageous and unbelievable a great deal of the time, but the wacky nature of John's plotting are also sometimes interesting, even if they are batshit crazy. Beginning with a brief meeting with a man (a cameo by Liam Nesson) who has broken out of jail several times, John starts to pull his plan together, and this takes him all over the place. He buys a gun ("Tell me where to put the bullets," he asks the clerk), he acquires fake IDs and passports, he confronts drug dealers and junkies. Crowe isn't playing a typical hero here. John is a bit of a nerd who has never handled a weapon before or committed a crime. He makes stupid mistakes, gets his ass kicked a few times, but eventually, he gets to the point where he's ready to either make his move or die trying.
Making appearances along the way are Kevin Corrigan as a drug dealer, Brian Dennehy and Helen Carey as John's parents, Lennie James as the main cop investigating some of John's handiwork who ends up being the lead investigator on the breakout, and Olivia Wilde, playing Nicole, the hot mom of a classmate of John's son. Nicole is an interesting role, because she is clearly meant as bait for John to leave his wife for, and she seems like a great person. Wilde or Banks? Tough choice.
There are times when I felt pretty sure what John was up to or going to do next, and then he fooled me, so predictability isn't a big problem in The Next Three Days. My bigger issue has to do with the scope that John must exist in to pull this off. For a story like this to work, I need something resembling plausibility, since the first part of the movie does a solid job establishing a very real relationship in this couple. But there are just too many moments in the Big Chase that I just didn't buy. And this isn't the kind of movie where checking your brain at the door is appropriate. And my overly active brain kept saying, "I don't believe that," or "John wouldn't do that." Deciding to recommend this film or not is a tough call. There's a great deal to like. Banks really pulls off the nasty prison bitch act pretty well. And I couldn't help but think about the movie Haggis should have made about Lara's sexy adventures behind bars. And I enjoyed Crowe more in this film as the grieving husband than the would-be man of action.
Your enjoyment of the film may simply depend on what you're in the mood for. Action lovers will probably enjoy themselves for the back half of The Next Three Days, while fans of serious dramas might get pulled in for the first hour. And if you're flexible and don't mind the shift in mid-stream, you might actually get a kick out of the whole movie. I guess that counts as a mild recommendation.
To read my exclusive interview with The Next Three Days star Elizabeth Banks, go to Ain't It Cool News.
I've seen this film a couple times now over the last eight months or so since it premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, and I'm still very much in awe of what writer-director (and creator of many other creative elements) Gareth Edwards has achieved. Monsters isn't just a great first feature from the British filmmaker; it would be an enviable fifth or sixth feature from someone who possesses a level of maturity in his storytelling and character development. Monsters is pure and simple a character-driven science fiction piece with a few tentacled aliens tossed in just to keep things moving. But the honest truth is, the film would have been just as strong if the creatures were entirely unseen.
The backstory involves a probe that returns to Earth from one of Jupiter's moons and crash lands in Central America. Scientists believe that the probe contained proof that life existed somewhere other than Earth, and guess what? It did. Within months, creatures begin appearing all the way up through much of Mexico, and the entire area is cordoned off as the Infected Zone, effectively blocking any way to get from South America to the United States by land.
The aliens have been threatening to get past the majorly reinforced fences set up along the Mexico-United States border, but the military runs regular raids into Mexico to kill any aliens that come into populated areas. Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist from a U.S. magazine, has been tasked by his publisher to escort the publisher's daughter Sam (Whitney Able) back to the safety of the States, but after missing the last plane for quite some time, the two decide to walk back through the Infected Zone. One of the elements of Monsters that is fascinating is that it turns the Americans into the ones attempting to sneak into America with the help of various protectors and other guides who take them a certain distance for money.
Also along the way, the pair begin to discover certain things about the habits and patterns the aliens seem to follow, all leading to an exquisite ritual that I'm guessing we're supposed to assume no human eyes have seen before. It's probably no surprise that Andrew and Sam have a bit of chemistry, but it's more about them discovering what this corner of the world has become after being inhabited by aliens for a half-dozen years. I liked the characters a great deal, and I think Edwards' idea of redefining "resident" and "alien" is quite cool. Feel free to compare Monsters to movies like District 9, and I'll feel free to call you an idiot, since the two films couldn't have less in common. If you're in the mood to discover new talent in genre films, Gareth Edwards' Monsters is a great movie to seek out as it expands its release this week. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Monsters writer-director-cinematographer-and special effect creator Gareth Edwards.
I'll admit this film had me equal parts baffled and terrified, as director Claire Denis (Chocolat, Trouble Every Day, 35 Shots of Rum) sets her latest bit of surreal and all-too-real drama on a coffee plantation in an African nation in the midst of a bloody and chaotic revolution. The always haunting Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, the matriarch of the plantation and one of the only whites left in the territory after a not-so-veiled threat is broadcast against any lingering "colonists." But Maria wants to stay just long enough to harvest the latest crop of beans, even though her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) is in the process of selling the land. Maria's lazy son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is robbed by children with guns at one point, and somehow the incident causes him to snap and take up the cause of revolution by aiding the very people who would destroy his family's land. Rounding out the cast of misfits, Maria gives shelter and medical help to the wounded rebel leader (the great Isaach de Bankole).
The director seems almost more interested in the surrounding beauty of Africa (where Denis was raised) than she is in the plot or characters, which is in no way to suggest that she short changes either. She does a remarkable job of allowing the tension and sense of danger to creep up ever so slightly during the course of the film, and by the time we realize how terrifying things have become, we're already neck deep in it. Huppert is great as the archetypical woman of denial, and no one drifts with purpose quite the way she does. Denis doesn't shy away from the racial issues of the region, which run both ways, but really what the film is about truly is a woman determined to hold onto the shattered pieces of her life. White Material (a nickname given to the whites in Africa) is a sometimes shocking, beautiful, stark and piercing work that ranks among Denis' finest efforts, thanks in large part to Huppert's sorrowful, soulful performance. The films opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Predictable? Yes. Original? Not really. Formulaic? Without a doubt. But even with these ingredients as part of the mix, what makes Today's Special work to a certain degree is a highly likable cast, led by Aasif Mandvi (a semi-regular on "The Daily Show," as well as appearing in Ghost Town, The Proposal and The Last Airbender) as Samir, a sous chef in a respected restaurant with dreams of being head chef of his own establishment soon. When his boss (Dean Winters), gives the job of chef in his new restaurant to another, younger chef and calls into question Samir's abilities and passion as a cook, Samir quits with no prospects for another job. Instead, he begins to plan a trip to Paris to work under a well-regarded chef when his father (Harish Patel) has a heart attack, leaving Samir the unenviable task of taking over the family Indian restaurant. Despite being of Indian decent, Samir has never cooked the cuisine.
Today's Special is based on Mandvi's one-man show Sakina's Restaurant (adapted by Mandvi and Jonathan Bines), and there is something thrilling about watching good cooking done right. Yes, this is one of those food-porn movies, without question. The sexy food comes in quick when Samir decides to fire the cook and hire a taxi driver named Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah), whom he met and claimed he could cook authentic Indian food. Naturally, Akbar not only teaches Samir how to trust his instincts and stomach to prepare food rather than follow a recipe, but he also instructs Samir on how to live a life less structured and more fully of joy. Within weeks, the struggling restaurant begins to turn itself around, much to the chagrin of Samir's father, who had been ready to call it quits and sell the property.
Subplots involving Samir's dead brother, his mother (Madhur Jaffrey) badgering him about finding a wife, and even a budding romance between Samir and Carrie (Jess Weixler), a new chef he met just before he left his old job aren't nearly as compelling or entertaining as what goes on in that tiny kitchen between Samir and Akbar. Even their trips to the grocery store or farmers' market are interesting. Directed by David Kaplan, Today's Special is a quick and painless bit of sustenance, and it's great to see Mandvi finally come to the forefront and get to really show his talents as an actor, even if he had to write the part himself. Throw in a little comic relief from Kevin Corrigan and a group of three elderly Indian gentlemen (playing regulars at the restaurant), and you've got yourself something pretty tasty. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.