Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

‘allo, beau’iful

Whilst standing in line for David Yates’ second jab at directing the later entries in the Potter film series (Half-Blood Prince), I overheard/eavesdropped on a conversation between two young men, or “bros” to use the parlance of our time.  “They’re making the seventh movie into two?  Why?” one asked.  “Because they’re douchebags” was the other’s response, and it occurred to me that when the average film-goer uses the term “they,” it comes out in a tone just so dismissive that for a moment I wonder whether these folks don’t believe films are put together in one day and delivered to the theatre by the Celluloid Stork.

Now, I would have though the series’ devoted fans would be thrilled that they’re getting more content.  Even at two hours twenty minutes, the first installment of Deathly Hallows feels jam-packed with events, superfluous characters, frustrating loose ends and exhausting sequences of suspense.  Given the source material, however, Yates handles the material well, managing to make it more than a jumbled attempt to correct previous acts of over-zealousness.  We get a veritable A-list of British actors, and despite the fact that most of them have tiny roles (or even cameos in some cases), it’s something of a delight to see John Hurt, Bill Nighy, Warwick Davis, Nick Moran, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Brendan Gleeson, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham-Carter, Timothy Spall, Ralph Fiennes and Robbie Coltrane in the same film.  It doesn’t have quite the same effect as Machete‘s ensemble cast, but this is quite a different kettle of fish, isn’t it?

A lot of what holds the film down is, again, the source material.  The seventh story focuses so much on “items” and “fetch-quests” that for a moment you may think you’re rifling through your RPG inventory trying to figure out what half of these baubles are for. Here’s a comprehensive list:

Horcruxes– Seven objects selected by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) which contain a piece of his soul.

Deathly Hallows– Three MacGuffins of massive power that everyone wants.  If you’re keeping score, Harry has two and Voldemort has one.

Broken Piece of Mirror– If you haven’t read the book, put a giant question mark here, because it’s never explained in the film or any before it.  If you have, you’re already angry at me.

Hermione’s Purse– A magic bag which contains…well, everything.  To the director’s credit, this is the first time in a film I’ve seen the classic “bottomless bag” gag used in a scene where it wasn’t the center of a joke.

In the proper tradition of MacGuffins, none of the above items will have any significance by the end of the third act (Part II, which comes out in July).

Finally, in this film, the acting skills of the three leads comes full circle.  Up until the fifth film, the shaky performances of the kids were padded by the slew of excellent actors surrounding them, but this time they’re on their own, and they carry the film well enough.  Rupert Grint’s acting has come the furthest (in the film, at least), and it becomes difficult to stifle chills during a scene in which Ron Weasly lives up to his name and…well, weasels his way out of the Quest.  Emma Watson also steps up to the plate, becoming Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) mature guiding hand, and the film doesn’t quite clarify with which of the two strapping young lads she’s in love, especially during some tender moments with Harry in the tent.

The story has all the makings of a young adult fantasy classic: the Quest, a bunch of magical items, amazing spells; as well as the stuff modern youths and fanboys get off to: kids with superpowers, needless love triangles, you know the drill.  The inner soul of the series has always been rather hollow in the sense that, besides the absence of the author’s writing chops, the protagonist never changes.  Harry walks the straight and narrow so consistently throughout seven books that the inevitable victory over unbridled darkness is not only routine, but tiresome.  Rowling throws in a few deaths and maimings of beloved secondary characters for dramatic impact, but most of us aren’t fooled nor distracted.

One of the most striking aspects of the film are the little touches that make it different than the last.  While Half-Blood Prince is a quieter tale about personal discovery and teen angst, this one is told on an epic scale.  For the first time, we see all of Voldemort’s followers in one room.  We see the changes in the Ministry of Magic, whose influences cast a heavy nod in the direction of George Orwell, as the slogan “Magic is Might” looms over a statue of a wizard trampling normal humans (“muggles”).  Pay close attention to the costumes chosen for the footsoldiers of the Ministry – a nod to Nazi Germany?  We also get new characters such as Yaxley (Peter Mullan), who nonchalantly leans back in his chair as “blood traitors” are sentenced to death.  The gorgeous Clémence Poésy returns as Fleur Delacour, who is to marry Ron’s oldest brother, Bill (Domhall Gleeson, son of Brendan), the victim of a werewolf attack, and the choice to have Bill report the news of Mad-Eye’s death is both inspired and startling.  Perhaps my favorite of the additions is Nick Moran, best-known for his role as Eddie in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, as Scabior, a dirty-haired bounty hunter known as a Snatcher.  Moran is not only allowed to retain his amazingly-pleasant-to-listen-to East End accent, but his role is expanded from that of the novel, and in the film it seems that Scabior is the leader of the Snatchers, barking out orders even to savage werewolf Fenrir Greyback (Dave Legeno).  For a moment, I could have sworn I was in the London underworld.

Ultimately, the film succeeds, not only for the fresh-faced teenage girls in hand-me-down robes and five-inches-too-short skirts who attended every midnight premiere and annoyed the hell out of the adults in the middle row who wanted to listen to the dialogue, but also those adults themselves.  The only disclaimer I can put on the film, for those who want full enjoyment, is this: don’t get too wrapped up in the details.  There are unnecessary name-drops and sideplots that are picked up and thrown out faster than sale-price egg salad, but what really matters is the characters, how they’re going to deal with what’s ahead (once they actually figure out what that is), and how the whole journey makes you feel when it’s done.  That said, I believe the end of the franchise is in good hands.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows : Part 1 (2010); written by Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); directed by David Yates; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Ralph Fiennes.

Unstoppable

Thank goodness the word itself is never spoken in the film

My father worked on the railroad during most of his early years of employment.  He was out on the tracks repairing switches, one of the more dangerous jobs in the field.  He’s told me countless tales of his railroading adventures.  As a sort of homage to the old days, he keeps an ever-expanding model train set (Lionel O-Gauge) in the basement of his house.  Back to that in a moment.

My love for the films of Tony Scott is no big secret.  True Romance is one of my favorite films (see my discussion of that film), and if you haven’t seen Spy Game or Domino, I’d urge you to do so.  Do I even need to mention Top Gun?  This year’s lick from the younger Scott brother is Unstoppable, a fairly straightforward thriller concerning a runaway train.  The cast includes Denzel Washington as Frank Barnes, a veteran railroad engineer who recently received his 90-day notice; Chris Pine in his second-ever leading role as Will Colson, a young conductor paying his dues; Lew Temple in an excellent supporting role as Ned Oldham, lead railroad welder and “country boy;” and Rosario Dawson in a mature turn as Connie Hooper, a train dispatcher.  Ethan Suplee, Jessy Schram and T.J. Miller also appear, as does Kevin Dunn as the greedy railroad boss more concerned with property than personnel, though whenever I see him I can’t help thinking of his role as the annoying Joel Hornick in the early seasons of Seinfeld.

What keeps Unstoppable from becoming popcorn pre-holiday movie fare is the heart behind it and the attention to realistic detail when it comes to the railroading profession.  Train 777 runs away fairly early in the film, and from there on it could have been nonstop shirtless Chris Pine action, but the film actually goes against the grain.  Colson isn’t an action hero: he has issues at home that eat away at him throughout the workday, and he genuinely tries to learn from Barnes.  Barnes has his own sob stories, including a dead wife and apathetic daughters (who work at Hooters).  These back-stories serve as little more than ways of setting up reasons for Barnes and Colson to survive the ordeal, but the characters introduced are interesting, almost becoming the audience ourselves as we watch the crisis unfold on the faux news reports (though the fact that a single news chopper is following the 70+ miles-per-hour train the entire time becomes a bit silly).  The opening of the film does not concede to the trappings of the action genre, as we slowly pan over the yard, watch the trains rotate on their platforms, and witness the mundane grit and grime of the workday.

Scott’s unique visual style really shines here, with arguments between characters escalating into choppy, curse-laden montages, and shots of train 777 barreling along the Pennsylvania tracks take the form of morphing, multiple-shot images from the underside of the moving behemoth.  Leave it to Tony Scott to say to a camera crew, “I’d like a shot from under the train, while it’s moving.  Thanks.”  Where this could have been a standard autumn thriller to hold us over for True Grit and the obligatory holiday blockbusters, each little facet of Unstoppable goes above and beyond.  You may even get a laugh or two before you leave the theatre.

A film like this reminds me of my dad’s train set.  It’s full of visual candy and rapid movement, but it draws a deeper interest in how the railroad works.  Of course, it is not the railroad itself, in fact little more than a complex diorama, but it’s an entry in a proverbial museum, facilitating the process of chronicling the history of a vital and beloved profession.

Unstoppable (2010); written by Mark Bomback; directed by Tony Scott; starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson and Lew Temple.