POSTED ON NOVEMBER 24, 2010:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I entertains, but something is missing
On the Run. Harry, Hermione and Ron are fleeing Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I. The trio sets the stage for the final confrontation next July.
I'm not a member of the Cult of Potter. I have friends -- whose taste I trust -- who assure me they are great books. I'm not against getting into them one day, having seen a few of the film adaptations and more or less enjoying them. It's been on more than one occasion that I've reminded myself that I really need to get around to reading J. K. Rowling's stratospherically popular fantasy epic. It just hasn't happened yet.
As a result, my investment in the films has been fairly minimal. I checked into Hotel Potter with Chamber of Secrets and enjoyed it well enough. It might have ended right there but for the fact that the follow up, Prisoner of Azkaban (hey, spell check knew what Azkaban was: no surer sign of cultural significance) was directed by Alfonso Cuarón, whose Y Tu Mama También was lovely and exciting enough to ensure I'd be watching anything he made. Azkaban's visual beauty and Cuarón's deft direction of the somewhat convoluted material resulted in a satisfying film for someone who hadn't read the book -- though fans of that book seemed to disagree.
But after Goblet of Fire -- also a good film with some great action sequences and a narrative that matured with its protagonists -- I checked out of Hotel Potter. It was clear I wasn't enjoying these films on the same level as those who know the books inside and out. The fact that the films seemed to take for granted that I did, probably contributed to my growing indifference. Kind of like the third and fourth seasons of Lost, sans the interminable wheel spinning.
So jumping back into the series with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was bound to be even more confusing for me than your dyed-in-the-wool Hogwarts obsessive. Apparently a hell of a lot happened in two flicks (why can't Twilight figure out how to do that?) and within minutes I was bombarded by questions: Why does everyone want to kill Harry? What happened to Dumbledore and Sirius Black? Why is Snape helping Voldemort turn everyone against the good guys? What the fuck is a Horcrux? Unless you already know the answers to these questions you might want to catch up on the other films because Deathly Hallows hits the ground running.
The Ministry of Magic is the last bastion against the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his Death Eaters, who seem as bent on conquering the world as they are in killing Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). Turns out Harry's under the protection of The Order of the Phoenix because he's been prophesied to kill or be killed by Voldemort.
Meanwhile, Harry is on the run with Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint). The Order wants to move Harry to a magical safe-house a few days before his 17th birthday, which puts a kink in Voldemort's plans to kill him before he becomes a legal Wizard. Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) gives Harry's friends a potion -- Polyjuice, I had to look that up -- which transforms them into doppelgangers of Harry who act as decoys as they make a break for the safe house.
But the safe house turns out not to be so safe, so Harry leaves, with Hermione and Ron, in order to find the remaining Horcruxes (artifacts containing the individual shards of Voldemort's soul) and destroy them, thus rendering Voldemort mortal. Or something like that.
Voldemort, however, has a plan for his eventual world domination and the key to it lies with the Deathly Hallows, a trio of magical tools -- a wand, a stone and a cloak of invisibility -- that Voldemort needs in order to achieve uncontested supremacy. And invulnerabilty. Or immortality. Something like that.
And as much as I was scratching my head, trying to keep up, I was also enticed. I haven't seen a bad Harry Potter film yet, though Deathly Hallows suffers not just from its assurance in the audience's familiarity with its arboreal plot lines but also because it is half a film. Even if you know why Mudblood's are important -- Aryan implications aside -- have memorized the family trees of the Malfoy's, Weasley's, and Dumbledore's lineage or are picking out every infinitesimal change from the books, Deathly Hallows cuts itself short.
And that's a problem because, at nearly two-and-half hours, Deathly Hallows doesn't feel like a whole film. The previous Potter flicks that I've seen are serialized parts, as well, but they felt like complete films with full arcs that landed at their conclusions, teasing enough loose ends to connect to the next entry while establishing closure. They had a sense of fruition within their overarching mythology. With Deathly Hallows I feel like reserving judgment till I've seen the rest of the movie. If they wanted to make a four-hour flick they should have done it (runtimes never stopped Peter Jackson) but the decision to chop the book in half feels more like a money move. Four-hour films have fewer screenings.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is beautifully photographed and gamely acted by a slew of wonderful British favorites (Fiennes, Gleeson, Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent, Robbie Coltrane, Bill Nighy and on and on) supporting the fine work by Radcliffe, Watson and Grint. Director David Yates, from the script by series vet Steve Kloves, blends the narrative colors on a dark palette of atmospheric set design and top-notch FX work that makes for some thrilling and magical looking sequences and compelling character moments. But the script doesn't really find its footing until Voldemort's endgame is revealed and by then the flick leaves you to wait for July 2011; if you can maintain your sense of urgency for that long.
For the die-hards that shouldn't be a problem though I can only imagine how frustrating that is. It makes me kind of glad that I'm not as enamored of the arduous adventures of Harry Potter as they are, even when the films do such a good job of convincing me I should be.
I don't want to make fun of The Next Three Days since it's almost a good movie. It just takes itself so seriously while never realizing how inherently dumb it really is. Loaded with talent who put their best feet forward into the story of a community college professor who decides to break his wife out of prison, it's clear everyone involved has a genuine belief that this is a smart, important film.
But while writer/director Paul Haggis's uneven, sporadically effective remake of the 2008 French film Pour elle (Anything for Her) has the advantages of its A-list helmer's gravitational pull on powerhouse actors as well as his ability to mold quasi-naturalistic situations out of staple dramatic conventions, the mounting implausibility of the story winds up clashing with the deadly earnestness of its execution.
When we meet John and Lara Brennan (Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks) The Next Three Days is already acknowledging its implausibility with vagueness. After an adversarial dinner establishing some relationship dynamics and Lara's contentious relationship with her boss, the Brennan's go home for the night.
The next morning, over breakfast, Lara is arrested for the murder of her boss. Apparently, the evidence is ironclad because, three years later, Lara is serving time in Allegheny County jail awaiting a life sentence in prison while John exhausts their appeals process. When John runs out of options, being the academic, he decides to start studying jail escapes. You can figure out where it goes from there.
The plot relies so much on artificial circumstance -- John seemingly has a contingency plan for almost everything -- that despite the gravity of the performances The Next Three Days becomes a rote thriller that has Crowe's character evolve from a two-dimensional, loving father and husband, into an ultra-capable prison-breaking impresario bent on saving his family. The film nods to its unlikely story in a scene during one of Brennan's literature lectures where he pontificates on the nature of self-created realities. If you can will something into existence, insane though it might seem, why not aspire to that?
The reality for John is unshakeable. His wife cannot be guilty.
The direction from Haggis, and his script, has a halting quality that makes the film seem longer than it actually is. Never really boring, The Next Three Days struggles to blend the immediacy of its plot with the pace of its narrative, as Brennan maps out his plan; forging skeleton keys, finding neat ways to break into vehicles -- who knew YouTube could be that useful? -- or trolling the bad side of Pittsburgh to obtain counterfeit passports (coincidentally aided by a lip-reading biker, yes, read that again). Once he gets to the escape things pick up, but Haggis's predilection for ancillary characters that only minimally serve the narrative in some key way, combined with a misplaced dramatic tonality, tends to kill the momentum just as it begins to accumulate.
Many of those ancillary characters are at least filled by some interesting casting. Daniel Stern, RZA, Kevin Corrigan, Olivia Wilde, Brian Dennehy and Liam Neeson all pop up for quasi-pivotal moments and even perennial "that guy" Jason Beghe gets a fairly decent supporting role as the cop who's a breath away from realizing how stupidly circumstantial the case against Lara Brennan actually is; a reveal that collapses The Next Three Days' house of cards.
Crowe and Banks turn in fine performances -- they trick you into actually caring -- and Haggis shoots a good looking film, capturing the charming shabbiness of Pittsburgh as well as slew of talented character actors in the service the film's dubious construction. He's not completely unsuccessful at making it all feel like it matters, but The Next Three Days would have been better served by abandoning some of the self-seriousness (and about 15 minutes of time) and embracing the genre conventions at its core.
Or, put another way, if The Next Three Days weren't as concerned with seeming smarter and deeper than it actually is, it would have been more fun.
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