PICKS OF THE WEEK
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (A-)
U.S./U.K.; David Yates, 2011, Warner Bros.
All fine things must come to an end, and so finally has the Harry Potter series: the books first of all, and now the movies, climaxing at last in a final explosion, a last spell, and a last credit-crawl, that closes the long-awaited unreeling of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.
It is, as we expected, a slam-bang finale to an increasingly ambitious and increasingly accomplished film series, a string of eight rousing and well-produced (by David Barron, David Heyman and others), superbly scripted (Steve Kloves) and mounted movies based on J. K. Rowling's seven outrageously popular best-selling novels for children and young adults: a parade of literary/cinematic magic tricks that started with the expected and obvious -- the spectacular but almost ponderous cuteness of the first two Potter movies (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) directed by Chris Columbus -- took a jaw-dropping leap into art cinema with the trail-blazing third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (directed by Alfonso Cuaron of The Three Amigos), marked time with the fourth entry, Goblet of Fire by steady, workmanlike British director Mike Newell, and then plunged into the magical murk and mire of hazy gray British literary nightmare with the last four Potter films, all helmed by the lesser known (at first) David Yates, who did most of his previous work for British TV (State of Play) but now was apparently assigned, in the last three Potter novels-into-films (Haryy Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Jarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and Part 2) to distill as much of the pure, raw Rowling's Potter as a moviemaker with indulgent, Potter-loving producers (one of whom was Rowling herself), with an endless stellar ensemble of prestigious, British character actors (from Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, together again, at least in the same castle, to Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Miranda Richardson, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton and Timothy Spall -- and what seemed an almost limitless budget (recorded here in endless sentences endlessly unleashed), possibly can.
After last year's surprisingly morbid and gloomy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, we left our three somewhat fagged schoolmate/heroes -- bespectacled target-of-all-evil Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), lean and redheaded sidekick Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and the now wistful and womanly Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) -- temporarily exiled from the castle battlements and halls of learning at Hogwarts, an institution now firmly in the hands of the satanic and hideously noseless (and hot-to-kill-Harry) Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). That palace of magical knowledge was now sadly in the grip of wizardly doom and 1984-ish fascism. So the three tried to figure out Voldemort's downfall.
The three Hogwarts amigos start their quest in the gray haze that Yates brought with him, with the aid of a heady goblin (Warwick Davis) and a gray-haired acting genius (John Hurt). Neither is sanguine about the trio's prospects for survival, but soon the three chums in disguise are back in school, back in its hallowed halls and its deathly depths.
We are back with them too in the grisly groves of academe. There is a walk though studious rows of stooped Hogwarts goblins and a descent into hell. Beasts appear. Rooms piled with books and furniture burst into flame. The snake slithers. Old friends and foes pop in and out. The forces of evil cavort: Voldemort and his cohorts, steely-eyed Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, who will cry) and the mad, cherry-tart-faced Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, God damn and the devil bless her), and others up to no good.
Up to good, by contrast, and braving Voldemort's noseless wrath, are our friends, the Potter trio, plus stately but worried-looking Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and the great tall, rowdy Rubeus Hagird (Robbie Coltrane), and Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) somewhere, dithering. There's a feint. Voldemort seems briefly banished from Hogwarts, but returns, arrogant as a CEO in a GOP administration, backed by a huge army of evil-doers. Danger looms. There is an incredible revelation from the departed soul of ex-Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). Harry overhears. All hell, alarmingly breaks loose.
What happens, and what we've always expected will happen, explosively then…happens. Hogwarts may well be reduced by the credits, to a smoke-choked rubble that summons up London after the blitz. But...
Ah, no more, no more, no more! No more dark temptations to spawns of hellfire, and to the dark, dark arts of Spoiler Alert. This last part of the last Harry Potter ends where we want it to. There are no more battles to win, no more dragons to ride, no more magic to trick. There also may be no great British actors left to stick in the cast. Gambon, at any rate, wins the Great British Potter Actors trophy hands down, as he also did in Altman's Gosford Park, with Maggie Smith right behind him, as she also was in Gosford Park.
We have followed our brave threesome, Potter-Beasley-and-Granger (how very English they sound, like a firm of solicitors or like fine candymakers), and we will follow them to the end, and then 19 years past the end. (Spoiler, Spoiler!) Voldemort, you dog, you swine, you devil: die and die and die again! Harry, take a bow. Quickly lad, clean your specs. A pretty lady (not Hermione, she's Weasley's) awaits you. And destiny! And glory! And a train! Matriculate and graduate with grandeur, you blazing little star.
And graduate from Hogwarts must we all, sadly, inevitably. Youth fades and time flies, especially when you're having fun and making billions. (Extras: conversation with J.K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe; additional scenes; Maximum Movie Mode; featurettes; Warner Brothers London Studio tour.)
Park Row (A-)
U.S.: Samuel Fuller, 1952, MGM Limited Edition Collection
Sam Fuller, one of the toughest of the tough-guy auteur/directors, is best known for his two-fisted war movies (The Big Red One) and his hard-as-nails film noirs (Pickup on South Street). But the show he often called his best and favorite work focuses on a profession seemingly much less violent, albeit one Fuller once practiced and knew very well: journalism.
Park Row, which Fuller wrote and directed in 1952, is set in the 1880s, on New York's fabled Newspaper Row, and it begins with a tribute to all the daily American newspapers then operating in '52: a showy complex crane shot that takes in statues of two journalism or print icons -- Benjamin Franklin and Gutenberg -- while also sweeping over the bustling streets and sidewalks of New York, in Fuller's bravura re-creation of the '80s, with men in derbies and fancy vests downing beers in rowdy saloons, while horse-drawn buggies clip-clop outside, all in a world that seems to scream out those immortal lines "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!"
Just because Fuller isn't making a movie about war or crime this time out, though, doesn't mean he won't work in a war (circulation, that is) somewhere, show us a few crimes and lots of fisticuffs and steep us once again in that special brand of Fullerian violence that made him a B-movie legend.
Gene Evans, the husky, surly-mugged Tennessean and Bronze Star and Purple Heart-winning World War II vet who played Sgt. Zack in Fuller's great Korean War low-budget shocker The Steel Helmet, here puts a ruthless shine on Phineas Mitchell, a taciturn, extremely idealistic journalist (insults to Horace Greeley are fighting words for Phineas), who insults his boss (Mary Welch as the beautiful but dangerous Charity Hackett), quits his paper, and starts up his own hard-hitting journal, The Globe, to compete with her and hers.
On the way, Phineas suggests to Steve Brodie (George O'Hanlon) that he make himself famous by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge (he does), oversees the invention of the linotype machine by Ottmar Mergenthaler (Bela Kovacs), spurs a public campaign to raise money for the Statue of Liberty, survives the circulation wars and a bomb or two (and lots of booze ) and gives not just Charity but Joseph Pulitzer himself a run for the Park Row roses. The movie ends as you knew it would, as any veteran newsman from the dear dead days of print and linotype would end it: with that newsmen's classic typewriter signoff, -30-.
Fuller fills Park Row with bravura visuals: swooping crane shots and nosey tracks gliding through crowded newsrooms and noisy taverns. This movie may not be his best movie. (Fuller financed it himself and lost his shirt, which may perversely be one of the reasons he treasures it.) But it will take you into Sam Fuller's newspaperman's heart and soul the way few others can. It's also one of the few movies I can think of that would really work well on a double-bill with Citizen Kane -- which is certainly one of the pictures that inspired Sam. If you've got printer's ink in your veins (or wish you had, or even if you don't), Park Row is one boisterous, precious old front-page file you'll be happy MGM pulled out of the morgue.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Change-Up (C)
U.S.: David Dobkin, 2011, Universal
The Change-Up, a big star body-swap comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman, is a movie that begins with baby poop jokes and climaxes with its two "heroes" urinating together in a public fountain, before an audience. The only thing that keeps the movie afloat is the show's look of sexy professional Hollywood gloss, and the talent of Bateman and Reynolds playing each other inside each other -- despite the fact that The Change-Up unites the director (David Dobkin) of the highly popular (and highly lewd and scatology-packed) buddy-buddy wedding comedy Wedding Crashers, with the writers (Jon Lucas and Scotty Moore) of the unprecedentedly popular (and highly lewd and scatology-packed) buddy-buddy wedding comedy The Hangover.
The movie offers Bateman and Reynolds as Mitch Planko and Dave Lockwood, two longtime buds whose lives have diverged yet merged in ways that only a Hollywood rom-com buddy-buddy writer could properly understand or explain. Dave is a well-paid corporate lawyer with a rosy future, heavy corporate responsibilities, poop-happy tots and a discontented wife (Leslie Mann as Janie). Mitch is a sometimes-paid playboy and occasional porno actor on semi-permanent vacation from responsibility, whose various main and subsidiary and one-shot squeezes, including the ferocious Tatiana (Mirceau Monroe), keep him jumping.
Neither guy is really happy; both think the other guy has it made. So... one night while pissing together in a park fountain (natch), they unwisely make a double wish, and the God of Indecent Exposure grants those wishes. They wind up inhabiting each other's bodies. Soon Mitch-in-Dave is trying (not too hard) to master his role in a corporate merger showdown without offending everybody, and to keep his hands off Janie. And Dave-in-Mitch is partying hearty without feeling really comfortable, especially when Dave's sexy assistant, Sabrina (Olivia Wilde) shows a yen for Mitch, not realizing it's Dave inside. Also, the damned fountain has been carted off somewhere else, leaving the cancelled-wish option temporarily kaput.
Wedding Crashers and The Hangover were both very funny comedies, with funny premises, good casts and good execution. The Change-Up, on the other hand, is just sort of funny, with a good cast and half-good execution. Its main pluses are the performances of its leads, the way Reynolds and Bateman push their own mannerisms at the start and then mimic each other's tics after the switch. Bateman lays on his white-collar neurotic inwardness and sneakiness, and Reynolds sells his jock stud affability. Then Bateman puts Reynolds's jockishness and irreverence under his skin and Reynolds goes ditto with Bateman's establishment-man-with-a-twitch routines. They're good, but not good enough to put us inside the movie.
U.S.: Gela Babluani, 2011, Anchor Bay
13 is director-writer Gela Babluani's English-language version of his smash European hit 13 Tzameti, about a secret, illicit high-stakes sort of semi-Russian Roulette tournament. (The contestants, all wearing numbers and observed by a rich, jaded, sick audience, twirl their partly-empty gun barrels, point the guns at each other, and pull their triggers.) The original worked on some levels -- at least I don't remember being violently annoyed by it. But this one is an ugly, sordid bore, with dialogue so empty-formulaic and bad that not even a top-notch tough-guy cast including Sam Riley (the protagonist/outsider), Ray Winstone (his main competition), Jason Statham (Winstone's brutal manager), Mickey Rourke, Michael Shannon, Alexander Skarsgard, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, David Zayas and Ben Gazzara (assorted creeps, villains, observers and participants) can redeem it, or make it more than marginally involving.
It seems to me the movie is up against a major obstacle, along with the lousy dialogue. Despite The Deer Hunter and despite the popularity that Reservoir Dogs brought to movie Mexican standoffs, Russian Roulette, or at least this circle-jerk variation on it, is not very photogenic or dramatic. In fact, this daisy chain of armed contestants is a little silly-looking. You get sick of the premise pretty fast. The movie's theatrical release seemed to be a few minutes before the DVD release, which suggests somebody didn't want to let the word get out. They were right on target.