The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

The end is near, folks. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 begins the conclusion of a cinematic saga that will help define the 21st century. The books have made an obvious impact, but as popular the movie adaptations have been, I don't think they will reach their own true impact until a few years down the road, when fans (not to mention new generations) can watch them on DVD in close succession and experience the entire thing as a unit. The series may be ending, but I believe its influence will continue to grow. Hard to believe now, but I actually gave a negative review to the first Harry Potter installment. What was I thinking?

If you've made it this far with the boy wizard, I'm going to assume you know what's happening, so I won't waste a ton of time on plot description. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are now gone from the relative safety of Hogwarts. They're out in the real world, trying to track down “Horcruxes” - the magical things that give the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) his power. Voldemort's minions, the Death Eaters, are hot on their trail, and since the Ministry of Magic has been taken over by dark forces, there's nowhere for Harry to turn for help.

Deathly Hallows Part 1 is the best-looking film in the series so far. I don't know what director David Yates did differently – maybe it's that the images obsessively reflect the story's haunting, enveloping darkness – but the visuals create an atmosphere that sucks you right in. There's little light to be found; scenes take place in foreboding locations where blacks and browns are most prominent in the production design. Even the outdoor scenes are set against gray, overcast skies. One particularly striking moment comes as Harry, Ron, and Hermione break into the Ministry of Magic and then have to fight their way out of it. While being chased through its black corridors, a stack of “Wanted” posters (bearing Harry's face, naturally) gets blown into the air, surrounding everyone as they flee. It's a gorgeously constructed piece of action.

Another scene ranks among my favorite movie moments of 2010: an animated sequence detailing the myth of the Deathly Hallows. The scene, which runs about 4 or 5 minutes, evokes such menace that it makes you dread the thought of Harry actually having to face the Hallows. This is the show-stopping scene, which I suspect people will leave theaters buzzing about.

In addition to being the best visually, Deathly Hallows Part 1 is also the best acted of the films. Isn't it amazing how accomplished these young stars have become? The original movie required them to be cute. As the series has rolled along, they've had to mine some pretty heavy emotions, and without fail, they have nailed it. Emma Watson is the paticular standout this time, showing us how Hermione's pluckiness has evolved into genuine fear of losing her friends in the upcoming battle. Late in the film, Hermione comes face-to-face with the evil Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter); notice the intensity of her performance in this scene. Girl can act.

Many of the distinguished British actors who make up the supporting cast return, and while there are too many to mention, all of them prove to be invaluable in bringing the world of Harry Potter to life.

As much as I like the movie, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out a couple of small flaws. First, as you may suspect, this episode is like going to a rock concert and sitting through the opening act: the band may be good, but you're waiting for the big event. The stuff we're all clamoring to see will take place in Deathly Hallows Part II, meaning that what we get here, while entertaining, is mostly set-up for the dramatic conclusion. As with Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, you come out thinking, “Show me the rest right now!” There's a lot of buildup, but no payoff. Granted, that's understood going in, yet it also prevents one from having a feeling of complete satisfaction afterward.

There's also a middle act that drags. For close to 30 minutes of screen time, Harry, Ron, and Hermione hide out in the middle of nowhere to develop their battle plan. For as long as this goes on, not a lot happens. Yates would have been smarter to pare it down a little bit, to make the point and move on, given that this chapter is all calm-before-the-storm anyway. Young viewers, especially, may grow a bit antsy during this section.

My final gripe is one not everybody will share. The movie assumes you have an encyclopedic knowledge of J.K. Rowling's universe, which I do not. There are moments where I felt a bit confused as to who some of the minor players were, or what they were doing. I understood things overall, but some of the details were sketchy.

Happily, the good outweighs the bad (which isn't all that awful anyway), and I doubt fans will be disappointed. I wasn't. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is, overall, a solid wind-up for the grand finale. It's going to be hard to say goodbye to this beautiful, sprawling, enchanting saga.

( out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 arrives in a Blu-Ray/DVD/digital copy combo pack, and on single-disc DVD, on April 15. Additionally, it will be available for rent On Demand through digital cable, satellite TV, and via select game consoles. Redbox and Netflix will get it on May 10.

Bonus material on disc one of the Blu-Ray set begins with the awesome Maximum Movie Mode. Hosted by actor Jason Isaacs, various making-of and behind-the-scenes features play picture-in-picture, synced up with the movie, giving you specific information related to what you're watching. Other cast and crew members join Isaacs to offer their personal insights or bits of Harry Potter trivia, while actor Tom Felton reads passages from J.K. Rowling's novel. Watching Maximum Movie Mode makes the film about 20 minutes longer, but the depth and scope of the information imparted will enthrall fans of the series.

Also accessible on disc one is a series of seven Focus Points, totaling 19 minutes. These short segments hone in on the final days of shooting the scenes with Harry's family; how effects and stunts were used to create Hagrid's flying motorcycle; the set design in the magical tent scenes; the fight choreography in the café attack; the creation of Dobby and Kreacher; and the makeup effects used to turn actor Warwick Davis into Griphook. I found these Focus Points to be very informative.

The features on disc two kick off with "The Seven Harrys," which gives viewers an in-depth education about how they pulled off one of the movie's signature scenes: the moment in which several supporting characters turn themselves into Harry clones. The green-screen effects used were complicated, but what you may not have consciously realized was that Daniel Radcliffe studied his fellow cast members in order to mimic their movements; this allowed the audience to know who was who, even when they all looked the same.

"On the Green with Rupert, Tom, Oliver, and James" is a feature devoted to the actors who play Ron, George, and Fred Weasley, and Draco Malfoy. Having developed a strong friendship over the last ten years, the gentlemen head out for a round of golf shortly before filming on the series ends. They offer up personal recollections and feelings about having worked on such an ambitious project.

"Dan, Rupert, and Emma's Running Competition" is a shorter piece, in which the three main stars detail their competitiveness while filming a chase scene through the woods. All claim to have run the fastest; behind-the-scenes footage shows us the true winner.

Also on the disc, you will find about 11 minutes of deleted scenes - mostly odds and ends. Nothing terribly consequential. Then there's "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Promotional Trailer," which is designed to make you want to visit the newest Universal Studios attraction in Florida. Self-promotional? Sure, but it also works. Get ready for call your travel agent.

Perhaps the most exciting feature is the sneak peek of Deathly Hallows Part 2, which understandably but regrettably was not included on preview discs. So while I can't comment on it, be aware that it will come on your Blu-Ray when you add the penultimate Harry Potter adventure to your home library.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images. The running time is 2 hours and 26 minutes.