By Christopher Campbell | Spout November 19, 2010 at 9:02AM
I'm attempting a new approach to movie discussions on Fridays so as to cover more of the new releases readers want to talk about, regardless of whether or not I've seen them all (yet). For instance, of this week's major openers I've only seen "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1," and of course that's the obvious frontrunner for both box office and chatter. But what about the little Faustian art-house horror flick "Heartless," which opens in New York today? It's getting some pretty good reviews, it apparently has something to say in terms of social commentary, yet it hadn't been on my radar at all. I'm intrigued. Meanwhile, there's Paul Haggis' "The Next Three Days," which is getting relatively poor notices but which is "good enough" and redeemed by a "zippy climax" involving a "supremely exciting chase sequence," all according to indieWIRE's Eric Kohn. Again, I'm intrigued.
Obviously I can't spout too much about the two titles I haven't seen, so this post will primarily address talking points for the "Potter." And if I do end up seeing either of the others this weekend and I have anything to raise on their behalf I'll likely start another discussion piece. If you have anything to say of either, though, especially reasons they're worth seeing, drop me a comment. Let's begin the conversation after the jump.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" - In this seventh installment of the "Harry Potter" franchise, the three main kids are pretty much on their own as they embark on a mission to find some horcruxes. Why and what for seems to be of little concern to the audience given that there's little reminder of their significance. It's okay if you think of them merely as macguffins employed to take us on a trip through bleak, seemingly post-apocalyptic landscapes as Harry, Ron and Hermione journey throughout a wizarding world during wartime and struggle with allegiances and friendship. But the film's choppy narrative and lack of proper exposition does raise an issue about whether or not non-readers can appreciate the film sufficiently. There's a poll over at Cinematical at the moment in response to a certain spoiler trending on Twitter today, and that site's readers fall more on the belief that the films are for the real fans, who've already read the book. Having stopped reading after the fifth novel, I disagree. I became more interested in the movie versions, and I want them to stand on their own.
I also want them to stand alone compared to the other films, and for much of this first half of "Deathly Hallows" I couldn't escape the feeling that I was only watching part of an episode. I kept waiting for a cliff-hanger. I also constantly viewed the film's major flaw -- in spite of being choppy it also at many times feels very stretched out and uneventful -- as an effect of the adaptation being split. And through to the end I knew that the good stuff will all come in the next part. That makes Part 1 kind of the equivalent of a "transition episode" in serial television. The problem with this is that transitional episode movies are very expensive and there needs to be something worth our money. Neither the messy aerial battle at the beginning nor the climactic fight against Bellatrix has that value. Then again, few of the "Harry Potter" movies have really strong climaxes, in my opinion. Meanwhile there are a lot of potentially humorous awkward bits in this film, including instances of shape-shifting and a strange encounter with what I can only refer to as a "CG fear monster," which conjures up golden-bodied representations of Harry and Hermione in coital embrace. I think all of these sequences could have been utilized better for comedy, but they mainly just come off as disturbing and scary.
The film is being recognized as the scariest "Harry Potter" yet, but aside from one instance in which a large snake lunges out unexpectedly (and ripe for the 3-D conversion that didn't happen), it's really just dark and creepy. It is too frightening for little kids, though, which makes me wonder if the filmmakers mean for these movies to be maturing with their original audience. In that case, however, it could be a little more intense and also a lot more grown-up. That original audience is in their 20s now and can certainly deal with the CG sex but they can also deal with a better address of sexual themes than the film has. Same goes for the topic of death, which is still thought of in immature fable-like terms (that isn't to say the film's employment of a literal death fable, animated beautifully as a much-welcome interruption from the monotony of walking through landscapes, is out of place).
Same goes, too, for the political ideas rushed over in the military-like coup and subsequent "witch hunt" happening within the Ministry of Magic. I would have liked more of that stuff over the overwrought jealousy stuff and horcrux searching. But I guess that wouldn't have enough Harry Potter in it (even the scenes inside the Ministry feature different actors used as disguises for the real Harry, Hermione and Ron). It also could veer too much into the over-complicated political the way the "Star Wars" prequels did. And we don't need that. The contemporary allegory stuff is quite subtle instead, such as the minor mention of how going through with a wedding during wartime is necessary for morale (and because otherwise the Death Eater "terrorists" win?). Speaking of that "Rachel Getting Married"-like wedding, I would have loved more of it, as well.
Finally, there's the amusing and also subtle address of the "Twilight" vs. "Harry Potter" thing. I wrote about one initially coincidental one the other day, and a commenter pointed out another.
"The Next Three Days" - One of the only things I have to spout about with this, without seeing it, concerns the fact that it is a remake and hardly being discussed as such. This could be due to the difficulty of seeing the original, "Pour Elle" (aka "Anything for Her") here. I often like to seek out a film being remade before seeing the second version, but unfortunately I have been unable to find a copy of Fred Cavaye's French original -- to rent, that is. I'm not going to buy it on Amazon, where it is indeed available. Has anyone seen it? Any comparisons between the two out there yet?
"Heartless" - Few of the positive reviews seem to say this is a great film, but it's also worth noting that the good reviews are from some of the more respected critics out there. It's a curious division, and I'm all for films that divide critics right in half. It's got a great cast, including Jim Sturgess, Eddie Marsan and two people who are actually also in "Deathly Hallows," Timothy Spall and Clémence Poésy. If you aren't in New York, it will also be available on IFC On Demand beginning Wednesday. I'll hopefully watch it by then. Here's a trailer: