New ‘Harry Potter’ film a dark start to the finale

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures
Posted Nov. 25, 2010, at 11 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

In theaters

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART I, directed by David Yates, written by Steve Kloves, 146 minutes, rated PG-13.

The new Harry Potter movie, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I,” is the seventh film in the franchise, and time is on its side.

The actors possess their best chemistry yet (as well they should — they’ve practically shared each other’s Pablum), and the chemistry shows. With seamless ease, they slip into this darkening otherworld of growing evil and deliver performances that deepen the story to such a degree, you now can fully feel just how high the stakes have become.

Unlike the previous films, there are almost no comic asides in “Hallows.” We’re at the boiling point now, so much so that Dumbledore is dead, Hogwarts has shaken Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) free, all must flee their homes and their families — and all because of the vicious Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who at last is ready to undo them all over the course of two movies. This is the first. The final installment is set to appear in July 2011, where it will own the month.

David Yates directs from Steve Kloves’ script, itself based on J.K. Rowling’s book, and what they’ve created is a grim movie that stacks the deck for all that will come next. As such, a good deal of “Hallows” is unsettling and intense, more grounded and focused than any other film in the series. Here, we’re after Horcruxes again, which if all are found and smashed, will take Voldemort down forever.

Trouble is, when you find a Horcrux and wear it, which is the best way to protect it, its darkness tends to darken you.

A good deal of “Hallows” is spent either searching for the Horcruxes or hiding from Voldemort’s smoky minions, such as the Death Eaters or Helena Bonham Carter’s wonderful Bellatrix Lestrange, a wild toss of Gothic frizz who gives the movie a wild edge during those few moments she’s allowed onscreen. Also back is Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape, who now sits at Voldemort’s table, where a serpent is invited to eat a living woman whole while no one objects. In fact, they encourage that act, which happens off-screen.

To get through this PG-13 horror, Harry must rely more than ever on those close to him, so much so that in one scene, his friends literally become him. Imagination always has marked this series, with Rowling taking obvious delight in squeezing her characters into dire of situations. That’s the thrill and, for some characters, also their undoing.

Charged to gather up and obliterate the four remaining Horcruxes, Harry and company have no choice but to do so to defeat Voldemort. And so the movies plunges forward, with audiences treated to stories tucked within stories and a handful of harrowing scenes, not the least of which involve Harry trapped beneath ice and another scene that involves animation so beautifully rendered, it’s by far the film at its best.

For a series that, once finished, will have taken a decade to tell just one story, it’s remarkable that with few exceptions, this story has been told so cleanly and well. “Deathly Hallows Part I” is no exception. The movie satisfies with new revelations and twists, one of which is so unexpected (at least for those who haven’t read the books), it left many in attendance at my screening angry and saddened — but also charged for the epic revenge that must occur if “Deathly Hallows Part II” hopes to be the best and most rousing movie of the “Potter” of the lot.

Grade: A-

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

EAT PRAY LOVE, directed by Ryan Murphy, written by Murphy and Jennifer Salt, 133 minutes, rated PG-13.

Though many movies have explored Eastern culture and juxtaposed it against the American experience, there still is something to learn from “Eat Pray Love,” especially since it repeatedly challenges our culture and questions what’s important in life.

Based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Oprah-fueled best-selling memoir, the film is a travelogue of despair and enlightenment. It’s slick entertainment with just enough depth to make it engaging.

In its most streamlined form, the movie explores what happens when one woman comes undone by her own mistakes, and then gets it together again when she leaves her husband (Billy Crudup), dumps her boyfriend (James Franco) and goes on a spiritual journey that involves pizza, Italy, ice cream, India, prayer, a hot man (Javier Bardem), Bali and meditation. Lots of meditation.

The woman in question is Liz Gilbert, a successful writer played so appealingly by Julia Roberts that she helps you to overlook how manufactured the film is.

With its wheels greased, the movie zips from point A to point B without a shred of surprise. Still, tucked within the predictability are excellent performances, a message that matters, and in the end, perhaps a few reasons to reflect on what matters in your own life. Add to this some gorgeous vistas and the commercialized dream of finding that magical box of Calgon to take you away, and you have an entertaining movie that balances fantasy with something meaningful and real.

Beyond the festive globetrotting, this is a movie lifted by its terrific supporting performances, including Richard Jenkins as a troubled man seeking inner peace and depth in New Delhi. When he spars with Liz, those moments are alive with mounting frustration and eventually friendship.

In Italy, Giuseppe Gandini, Andrea Di Stefano, Tuva Novotny and Luca Argento all leave behind memorable characters. But it’s Hadi Subiyanto’s tricky performance as a toothless Bali psychic that’s most satisfying. While there’s no denying that this endearing elderly gentleman comes off as a human Yoda, there’s also no question that Subiyanto has real comic timing and an easy chemistry with Roberts that ranges from funny to touching, but not cloying.

Finally, Roberts should be commended for toning down her bag of tricks. She gives an honest performance, mostly letting go of everything audiences have come to expect from her — her impossibly wide smile, that barking laugh of hers, the tough edge she’s embraced in later films — in favor of conveying the highs and lows of Gilbert’s personal journey. This could have just been another slight Julia Roberts movie, but the actress obviously took a cue from the book’s themes and was shrewd enough to dig deep, find her center and offer something reasonably rich and satisfying. Grade: B

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WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s film reviews appear Fridays in Lifestyle, and his video movie previews appear Wednesdays in the Lifestyle section of bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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