Saturday, November 27, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One

Though Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One is a blockbuster about teenage wizards, the seventh in the Harry Potter series is more ambiguous and thematically relevant than many movies about adults. The plot will baffle those who have either not seen the previous film or read J. K. Rowling's bestselling books.

The wicked Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) gathers his band of Death Eaters to create a world where muggles (non-magical humans) are subservient to wizards. Voldemort himself echoes Hitler's makeup in that he is half-muggle, and pamphlets strewn throughout the film (including one titled "when muggles attack") resemble Nazi propaganda.

Meanwhile, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) abandon their final year at the magical school of Hogwarts to embark on a quest to destroy Voldemort. To do this, they must find six horcruxes, objects containing pieces of Voldemort's soul.

Deathly Hallows: Part One, the second to last film, is more appropriate for teenagers than young children. From the barren scenery to the shuddering, downcast portrait of Harry on a wanted poster, a sense of despair pervades the atmosphere. As our three young heroes struggle with uncertainty, their friendship is put to the test.

Seasoned British thespians including Bill Nighy and Helena Bonham Carter have little more than cameos, but most minor characters are well handled. Memorable roles include Alan Rickman's icy Snape, David Thewlis's kind werewolf Lupin (in human form), and Imelda Staunton's creepy interrogator Dolores Umbridge.

Voldemort's hosts, Death Eaters Draco (Tom Felton) and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), exemplify the crumbling upper class. Humiliated by Voldemort and lower-class thugs, the snobbish Malfoys discover how overturning the social order can negatively affect them.

The odious but helpful house-elf Kreachure, a CGI creation, is marvelously voiced by Simon McBurney. The more heroic house-elf Dobby (Toby Jones) is less successful. He comes across as more cartoonish than inspiring.

But the heart of this film is the trio. Due to the amount of material crammed into each movie, Hermione and Ron have often felt more like sidekicks than complete characters. Here their acting, especially Ms. Watson's, has improved and their conflicts are fleshed out.

We see Hermione's sacrifice as she erases her muggle family's memories in order to protect them. One of the youngest and least powerful in a large family of strong wizards, Ron and his insecurities also emerge, as does his resentment about the relationship between the famous Harry and overachieving Hermione.

Ron and Hermione's unspoken romance is humorous, frustrating, and sweet. While Hermione notes that she is "always mad" at Ron, she and Harry have a more harmonious and platonic connection. Their closeness is demonstrated in the film's most moving scene, when Harry dances with Hermione. Though not in the book, this moment of joy is a counterpoint to the darkness that takes up so much of the film, and the dance dissolves when they recall the complexity of their situation.

The most creative part of the film, arguably of the entire series, is a curious but fascinating animation of The Tale of the Three Brothers. Nicely read by Ms. Watson, the story of Death's encounter with three brothers is grim, eerie, and hauntingly beautiful.

The film is by no means perfect. It has its share of melodrama, and Alexandre Deslpat's usually lovely score can be laughably over-the-top. Long pauses prolong an already lengthy movie. Part One's abrupt ending isn't particularly satisfying; the audience will have to wait until Part Two for a real conclusion.

Still, it is touching to see the tired and worn triumvirate walk past charred trailer homes as they listen to death tolls on the radio. Hardly older than children, they have to learn that heroism is more tedious than glorious. With only one more film to go, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One manages to be the most emotionally resonant Harry Potter movie yet.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Though The Kids Are All Right never surpasses the threshold of greatness, the film is an intelligent take on familial and romantic relationships.

While Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) struggle with their marriage, their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) faces graduation. Meanwhile, their son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) contacts his biological father, the free spirited Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who donated sperm when he was a young man. As Paul is increasingly intertwined in his "children's" lives, his role in the family becomes more complex.

There are no villains here. Nic's controlling nature is somewhat overemphasized, but Bening remains sympathetic and humorous. Moore is likewise engaging as the appealing but insecure Jules. Ruffalo is excellent as the laid back Paul. His unexpected reactions to having a family of sorts are fascinating but a tad underdeveloped.

Joni and Laser are perhaps the most well drawn characters. In fact, their stories could have been explored more. The siblings have a close but imperfect connection. They are sarcastic, naive, endearing, and a refreshing departure from unrealistic teenage stereotypes.

The Kids Are All Right touches on everyday questions of patience, disappointment, and love. The movie sometimes strains to find the right amount of quirk, but it's a rare film that is both enjoyable and smart, and thus worth seeing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Daniel & Ana

Daniel & Ana is named after the wealthy siblings Daniel and Ana Torres. Daniel attends high school as Ana prepares for her wedding. Daniel tentatively moves forward with his girlfriend. His biggest concern is not owning a car. Ana's problem is that her fiance Rafa has been offered a job in Spain. He wants to take the job; she wants to remain in Mexico City with her family. Then three men kidnap the brother and sister and sexually assault them in a way that makes them feel especially culpable. They are released physically unharmed but in a state of complete shock.

The acting is excellent, especially by Marimar Vega as the sexy and confident Ana. The scene in which she and Daniel are kidnapped is chilling and graphic. The also beautiful Dario Yazbeck Bernal successfully conveys Daniel's vulnerability. However, though their initial paralysis is portrayed with painstaking realism, the audience sees absolutely no line between the initial assault and Daniel's eventual actions. His later reaction comes across as unbelievable and sensationalistic. The clueless parents are not at fault, but they are pushed to the background and thus not particularly sympathetic.

Clinically shot and scored with overplayed bits of classical music, this attempt to raise awareness about coerced victims of pornography is ostensibly a true story. Unfortunately, this tale of close siblings forced apart is more disturbing than moving, thanks to muddy psychology.

Spanish with English subtitles

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Young Poisoner's Handbook (1995)

Benjamin Ross's gruesome but hilarious The Young Poisoner's Handbook is based on the true story of Graham Young. Played by Hugh O'Conor, Graham is a teenage genius whose fascination with chemistry doesn't bode well for those who rub him the wrong way. The movie's cast of cartoonish characters are as unlikeable as Graham, though not nearly as intelligent. Graham's awful family is a macabre parody of an ideal British 1960s household. A psychiatrist played by Antony Sher is the only character with any sign of subtlety or decency. In spite of its disturbing content, this fast paced film is filled with humorous juxtapositions and ironies. Still, The Young Poisoner's Handbook is, at the end of the day, a strangely believable portrait of cold madness.