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Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (8/6/11)

Movie Poster: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Screenplay by Pierre Boulle

James Franco as Will Rodman
Freida Pinto as Caroline Aranha
John Lithgow as Charles Rodman
Andy Serkis as Caesar

How long is Rise of the Planet of the Apes? 105 minutes.
What is Rise of the Planet of the Apes rated? PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language.

CLR Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

An adequate summer movie: big, pretty and little else.

As summer is winding down around us, so is blockbuster season. Studios are prepping audiences for next summer’s big releases and autumn’s crop of horror flicks. Meanwhile, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been released after the last big popcorn movies of the season, Captain America and Cowboys and Aliens. Why we needed another Planet of the Apes movie, I don’t know. That horse kicked the bucket and has been thoroughly beaten for the last few decades. It’s okay, though: this reboot is a perfectly adequate summer movie.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, gifted young scientist Will Rodman (elusive everyman James Franco) struggles to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease while the illness decimates his formerly brilliant father (John Lithgow). Gen-Sys tests Will’s breakthrough drug ALZ-112 on chimpanzees. The drug is built to assist the brain in repairing itself, effectively stopping Alzheimer’s in its tracks. The results, as in any sci-fi scenario, are astonishing. But when one ape becomes aggressive, greedy CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) shuts down the trials. Here’s where everything really starts to go awry: Will ends up with a baby chimp named Caesar who was dosed in utero with the drug. Caesar speeds rapidly through cognitive development living in a beautiful San Francisco home – it’s entirely implausible that anyone could hide a pet chimpanzee in a suburban neighborhood for eight years, but we’ll let that slide. Of course Caesar comes to realize he’s little more than a trapped animal, and when he ends up in the local primate shelter he begins to enlist other apes in his struggle for freedom.

The story is, at the very least, completely silly. But the story isn’t what gets people in theater seats these days (the movie made a solid $1.25 million in midnight shows); it’s the visual effects. Weta Digital, the studio that brought us Avatar, made a bunch of damn dirty apes look frighteningly realistic. The fantastic Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake, plays Caesar – and Serkis is a genius. The ape looks exactly the way you’d figure a creature in the midst of a rapid-fire evolutionary jump would look. He moves the way you see chimps move in the zoo, but with an added humanity. His facial expressions, created digitally by Weta, are downright eerie; audiences in 1968 may have been stunned by the makeup effects of the original Planet of the Apes, but that movie (classic though it may be) looks like child’s play in comparison. I’m generally not a proponent for heavily digitized film characters – we seem to be losing the subtle art of makeup. But while Rise of the Planet of the Apes is occasionally distractingly digitized, the effects don’t detract from the tale being told (mostly because the tale isn’t that important).

Franco, whose gig as Academy Awards host earned him jeers, must’ve needed a paycheck. That man is attending college classes full-time, acting on daytime soaps, and continuing in the movie biz. He basically phones it in, but that’s okay. It’s not his fault, he didn’t write this movie or the flop that was Your Highness. He was just doing his job. (If you sense a raised eyebrow, that’s because you should.) The insanely beautiful Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) makes a totally unnecessary appearance as Will’s love interest Caroline. Costume designer Renée April committed a crime against nature in clothing Pinto; a smart woman can still dress in clothing that flatters her. John Lithgow, whose turn as the Trinity Killer on the last season of “Dexter” brought out the fangirl in some of us, is great as always. Harry Potter’s Tom Felton is unfortunately just another version of Draco Malfoy, an unnecessarily cruel bully who gets what he deserves.

The movie’s major flaws are its pacing and its complete superficiality. The story takes place over nearly a decade, and the only character who ages at all is Caesar. There’s too much information squeezed into a tight runtime, and characters remain static in favor of pretty effects. Most of the characters are pointlessly evil – it’s a jab at big pharma and animal research, certainly, but it’s unnecessary to continually shove it down the audience’s collective throat. There’s also a “big scary virus” twist that isn’t fully explored; this leaves the door wide open for a sequel, for better or worse.

Fortunately, what audiences want around this time of year is something big and pretty. The writing isn’t great, the story is quite ridiculous, and the acting is only passable (with the exception of Serkis). But Weta gave us the kind of effects worth drooling over, and if all you’re in search of is a massive, beautiful no-brainer, then this is the movie for you. There’s something curiously triumphant about the apes’ battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, about the way they ascend the enormous redwoods of Muir Woods. It’s uncanny to watch very real human expressions on chimp and orangutan faces. When Caesar spoke, the woman two seats down from me said “WHOA” to the completely silent theater – and that’s a fair way to sum it up. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not a good movie, but it will probably make you go “whoa.” Sometimes that’s all you need.

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (7/15/11)

Movie Poster: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

Directed by David Yates
Screenplay by Steve Kloves

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort
Michael Gambon as Professor Albus Dumbledore
Alan Rickman as Professor Severus Snape
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley
Emma Watson as Hermione Granger

How long is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2? 130 minutes
What is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 rated? PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort and Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s All Over

For a month, marquees and enormous posters across the globe have shouted ominously, “It all ends 7/15/11.” No, they weren’t warning of the coming apocalypse (that’s not until next year, you know); they were preparing us for the end of the Harry Potter series. Fans of the wizarding world and the boy with the lightning bolt scar flocked to theaters in November for Part 1 of Warner’s final installment of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful fantasy novels. The decision to split the movie in two was met alternately with rolling eyes and gleeful squeals – although it seems to be a blatant moneymaking scheme (Summit is doing the same with the last Twilight movie), the seventh book of the Harry Potter series contains far, far too much vital material to squeeze into two and a half hours. Part 1 left Potter fans with an agonizing sense of anticipation, and at last night’s midnight premiere, we finally achieved the climax we yearned for.

First things first: if you’re seeking this review, you should know the final Harry Potter movie will turn your emotions topsy turvy. The movie is everything you wanted and more – but it signals the end of an era. Rowling published her first book fourteen years ago, and as the stories matured, so did the readers. A great many of them grew up right alongside our protagonist Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). Some have been avidly watching the series unfold for a decade, and although Rowling’s Pottermore website opens in October and there’s already speculation she’ll write another book set in the wizarding universe, this is the end — of the world she so meticulously constructed, of Voldemort, of Harry Potter’s childhood (and many of ours).

In Part 1, Harry, Ron, and Hermione set off to search for Horcruxes (parts of Voldemort’s split soul) in the English wilds. Meanwhile, they research and discover the meaning behind the Deathly Hallows, a trio of objects that ensure world domination at the hands of whatever wizard possesses them. In the final minutes of Part 1, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) located the all-powerful Elder Wand by removing it from the grave of former headmaster of Hogwarts School Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) – bringing the Dark Lord one horrifying step closer to ultimate supremacy. The second movie picks up exactly where that one left off, and from there it only gains momentum, smacking you with death, war, pain, and perhaps most importantly, love, faith, and loyalty.

Professors McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Flitwick (Warwick Davis), Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), and Sprout (Miriam Margolyes) become formidable figures in the war against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. The Weasley family experiences a tragic loss, but mother Molly gets her final say (so to speak) against insane witch Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Ron and Hermione, whose love story developed from book one, finally share a passionate kiss. Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who in the sixth book and film murdered beloved mentor Dumbledore, reveals just how deeply he has been entwined in the war from the very beginning, and on which side he was actually fighting. (Rickman wrote a very sincere, gracious letter to Rowling published in Empire thanking her for trusting him with the role – when he took it on in 2001, he had no way of knowing where the character was going, but Rowling certainly did.)

Director David Yates, who also helmed the last two films, has earned his due. Not only is the 3D done correctly (not as a gimmick but to supplement an already beautiful film), but Bruce Delbonnel’s cinematography is brilliant. In a series like this, acting often takes a backseat to the real treat – the fantasy – but the acting leaves little to be desired in the final movie. The extremely talented Rickman finally gets his chance to play a different version of the sadistic professor than the one in which we’ve been invested from the beginning. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint, who’ve been playing these roles for half their lives, matured into, if not Oscar potential, then at least decent actors. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a silent, omnipresent character in every book and film, falls victim to the whims of Voldemort and his scraggly, brutal followers – and to see it demolished is both astonishing and heartrending. Although the films have left out a number of important storylines (most notably Hermione’s foiled attempt to start a Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare – S.P.E.W.), they have closely paralleled the books and work fairly well as a standalone series.

In line for the midnight premiere, costumes included lion hats (a nod to Luna Lovegood, whose hat in the films roared), the bleach-streaked locks of Narcissa Malfoy, and dozens of pairs of round wire-rimmed glasses like Harry Potter’s. As always, there were a number of Bellatrix Lestrange lookalikes – she looks most like what we Muggles assume a witch would. A palpable glee wafted through the theater as cameras flashed and 3D glasses shaped like Potter’s rested upon hundreds of noses. Gasps, sobs, and cheers reverberated while sniffles and furtive nose-wiping punctuated the quietest scenes. This is true fandom, and it’s wonderful. Some would see this as insanity, some would laugh derisively – and to that I’d ask, “Well, what are you passionate about?”

From day one, through four directors, seven novels, and eight films, the world has watched in awe as spells were hurled, broomsticks flown, ultimate evil overthrown. We witnessed magic come to life in a fictional universe in which kids have agency, epic battles are fought not with nukes but wands and dragons, and real teenage life marches on in the face of adversity. It’s been a trip, and it may not be over yet, but it’s certainly bittersweet to know we’ll never wait with bated breath for another midnight premiere of a Harry Potter film. Those who love the movies and/or the books will feel elated, triumphant, saddened, and most importantly, thrilled that we got to be a part of it all.

Movie Review: Super 8 (6/11/11)

Movie Poster: Super 8

Super 8

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Screenplay by J.J. Abrams

Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb
Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard
Kyle Chandler as Jackson Lamb
Amanda Michalka as Jen Kaznyk

How long is Super 8? 112 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Super 8

Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), and Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb) in Super 8.
Photo credit: François Duhamel
© 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Action-adventure flick throws us back to the days of yore, gives us something to smile about.

A group of plucky, slightly foulmouthed teenagers inadvertently witness the release of an alien creature onto their small town. They must subvert the sinister military presence to discover the mystery behind its origins, and soon they discover it only wants to go home. Sound familiar? Perhaps a little “E.T. phone home?” Well, Super 8 producer Steven Spielberg knows from whence he comes, and he and director J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) fashioned a summer movie that’s both homage to and a playful jibing at 1980s action/adventure filmmaking. Since the first full-length trailer released, people have guessed that Super 8 is a cross between The Goonies, E.T., and Cloverfield, and that’s exactly true. But luckily for us, those flicks were pretty great.

In 1979 in Lillian, Ohio, thirteen-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in a gruesome accident. He’s harboring a problematic crush on tall, willowy blond Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), and only just getting to know his gruff deputy father (Kyle Chandler). Meanwhile Joe and his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) are making a Romero-inspired zombie movie along with Alice and three friends. When they sneak off in the dead of night to film at a train station, the six teens witness a train crash that is certainly the coolest you’ve seen in years. While the accident miraculously only leaves them a little charred and jarred, the thing that escapes from an armored train car causes very real, very frightening troubles in Lillian.

The film’s opening features the Amblin logo writ large, the soaring bicycles silhouetted on the moon deliberately evocative of that other alien movie. Super 8 is a very purposeful throwback to early 80s filmmaking, from color scheme to tone to subject matter. Even more than that, though, Abrams and Spielberg made certain the camera itself plays an integral role in the film. Lens flares chop through characters’ faces, obscuring them in favor of reminding us we’re watching a movie. Blatant Steadicam is a continuous reminder that this is all playing out in front of a camera. The movie is sprinkled with dual focus shots, which are as jarring as they are captivating – and were heavily used by Brian de Palma in the heyday of 1976’s Carrie. Super 8’s title is derived from the most readily available home video film in that era. Charles’s room is adorned lovingly with posters for Halloween and Dawn of the Dead, and it escapes exactly no one that what’s happening in Lillian is exactly the plot of a disaster movie. The self-referential tone reminds us that we’re watching a movie that’s as much about aliens in small-town America as it is about other movies.

Abrams brought crew members from “Lost,” including composer Michael Giacchino and cinematographer Larry Fong, onto Super 8. Giacchino’s score seems to be aping those of Spielberg’s most frequent musical collaborator John Williams, but that works here. Fong’s experience occluding monsters in “Lost” and “Fringe” comes in handy; although a super 8 camera is the first thing to capture our E.T., we first see the creature in the reflection of a puddle. Just as it becomes maddening that we can’t get the bigger picture, Abrams finally hands it to us – and the creature won’t disappoint. Abrams wrote the script, which manages to balance wit, sweetness, and scares with aplomb.

Twelve-year-olds the world round will shortly be nursing a crush on Joel Courtney, whose infectious grin, floppy mop of brown hair, and button nose would’ve landed him on the cover of Tiger Beat twenty years ago. Kyle Chandler, AKA Coach Taylor on the brilliant “Friday Night Lights,” may be a one-trick pony, but damned if he isn’t great at playing a brusque but caring father. Elle Fanning, younger sister to Dakota (whose child-star trajectory seems the least disastrous of any recently, and who whipped out a great performance in The Runaways), captures the camera’s attention with her ability to change personas in a flash. Good genes and an almost eerie maturity must run in the Fanning family.

Super 8 is by no means perfect. It’s a little trite, a little sentimental, and glosses over a few plot points that should’ve been fleshed out. The military men are unreasonably evil – no Peter Coyote to play the friendly believer in uniform here. The Romeo and Juliet subplot that underscores Joe and Alice’s innocent romance could’ve used a little more development. The troupe of kids doesn’t quite have the rapport they did in The Goonies or E.T., but their reactions to catastrophe are charming all the same (the screaming, cussing, and puking are reminiscent of another period favorite, The Sandlot). Finally, this creature is no cute little humanoid that heals wounds, though our protagonists do form a psychic connection with it; Abrams smoothes over its penchant for brutality with a slightly ham-fisted attempt at humanizing it.

These small flaws aside (and they really are small), Super 8 is quality filmmaking. This is what a PG-13 summer blockbuster looks like. For those of us who grew up on 80s action flicks it’s a delightful return to form. Hopefully it will engage a whole new crop of kids and entertain their parents in the process. Smart, scary, sweet, and witty are not attributes you often get to assign to one film, but this one takes them all. We’re in the midst of a country-wide heat wave, so what better thing to do than retreat into a cool, dark theater and let Abrams and Spielberg thrill you? Go. Enjoy.

Movie Review: Sucker Punch (3/26/11)

Movie Poster: Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch

Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya

Emily Browning as Baby Doll
Abbie Cornish as Sweet Pea
Jena Malone as Rocket
Vanessa Hudgens as Blondie
Jamie Chung as Amber

Running time: 109 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language.

CLR Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Sucker Punch

Jena Malone (Rocket), Abbie Cornish (Sweet Pea) and Vanessa Hudgens (Blondie) star in Sucker Punch
[Photo by Clay Enos]

A convoluted, disappointing fever dream with a muddled message.

The marketing for Zack Snyder’s new flick Sucker Punch was ingenious and ubiquitous: “Here!” the trailers proclaimed, to the tune of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” “Hot girls fighting robots and dragons! Massive explosions! Archival, steampunk-influenced imagery!” What’s not to like? As it turns out, there’s a lot to hate about this newest feat in CGI. What could’ve been a powerful, cathartic fantasy turns out to be an exploitative head-scratcher that’s little more than a good-looking dragon and a lot of flesh.

After the death of her mother, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) tries to protect her younger sister from their lecherous stepfather. When this goes horribly awry the potential rapist promptly dispatches her to the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane. At Lennox House, a foreboding, Victorian structure reminiscent of Session 9’s Danvers State Hospital, Baby Doll meets Rocket (Jena Malone), her older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). Ostensibly presiding over them is voluptuous Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino), but in reality psychotic orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac) is pulling the strings. Baby Doll has a vision during a group therapy session in which she meets the David Carradine-like Wise Man (Scott Glenn), whose wisdom includes trite aphorisms like “Don’t write a check with your mouth you can’t cash with your ass” and “Remember: if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” The Wise Man tells her to locate a map, fire, a knife, and a key. Somehow she convinces her cohorts to join her in an escape scheme that occurs in a fantasy within a daydream.

In Baby Doll’s head, the girls are not in a mental hospital but a brothel ruled by smarmy, unbalanced Blue. The young women are essentially slaves in miniskirts, bustiers, and fishnets. And although we never see her do it, Baby Doll can apparently dance in such a titillating fashion that her gyrations hypnotize every male within a mile, allowing her compatriots to do her dirty work. Here’s where the dual fantasy worlds come in: the Wise Man sends the five women on four missions (“Good morning, Angels. This is your mission, should you choose to accept it”), allowing them to play the roles of samurais, soldiers, pilots, and dragon slayers. Sure, these are roles that are stereotypically masculine, and it’s great to see miniscule young women fighting the baddies. What’s unfortunate is the fetishistic garb in which the women are dressed. The lingerie, stockings, and headgear the actresses don are visibly constricting—making it pretty hard to believe they’d be kicking so much ass (for reference see also: Ultraviolet, Aeon Flux). HD may extol the virtues of computerized imagery, but it is extremely unkind to the kind of pancake makeup and goopy eyeliner under which our protagonists toil. One assumes the filmmakers intended the costuming and makeup to mean Baby Doll and the other young women are embracing their sexual power in the aftermath of attempted violations. Though there’s certainly power in being an object of desire, it’s hard to take seriously when the women do so little to assert themselves in the real world—and appear to revel in the trappings of weakness. When Blue, really a nonthreatening (though creepy) character with a ridiculous pencil-mustache, confronts the women, all of our tough-as-nails heroines just weep in their skimpy burlesque costumes. Come on, ladies, were you or were you not just slaying dragons and shooting machine guns?

Disclaimer: I’m not a humorless killjoy. Who doesn’t enjoy a good old exploitation flick on occasion? Unfortunately, Sucker Punch fails even at exploiting its strengths. It’s rated PG-13. There’s not even the barest hint of actual sexuality despite all the breasts and thighs on display; there’s no real bloodshed and definitely no cathartic, satisfying culmination. In between extended fight sequences during which you’ll find yourself zoning out, the characters remain static, their stock traits on display for simplicity. Sucker Punch strove to be what the trailers made it out to be: a comic-book-influenced tale of female empowerment—Alice down the rabbit hole with big guns, robots, and mythical creatures. It didn’t succeed. Duly unfortunate is the fact that Snyder, much like M. Night “What a twist!” Shyamalan, has officially figured out his signature: slow motion. Sucker Punch could easily have cut its run time by a quarter if there had been fewer protracted, sluggish shots fetishizing either flesh or brutality.

In the past Snyder has brought us some fantastic eye candy: Watchmen, 300, and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Sucker Punch is at times a treat for the senses; the graphics and fight sequences are well done. Bafflingly, Snyder utilized a soundtrack that includes Bjork’s “Army of Me” and covers of The Smiths’ “Asleep,” Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” and The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Normally when a filmmaker uses covers, it’s to poke fun at or make a statement about the film’s derivative or self-referential content (Snyder did this well in Watchmen); here it doesn’t work and the music simply feels incongruous.

If you see Sucker Punch, you’ll probably get the faintest grasp of what the filmmakers meant to do. It’s too bad the end product doesn’t live up to it. Some people will love it—as I said, who doesn’t love a good movie about sexy women fighting sweet battles against big bad monsters? But those of us who wished for catharsis this spring or expected the first colossal blockbuster of 2011 will probably leave wishing we’d been lobotomized—and drooling at the prospect of Captain America and X-Men: First Class.

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (11/19/10)

Movie Poster: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Directed by David Yates
Screenplay by Steve Kloves

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley
Emma Watson as Hermione Granger
Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange
David Bradley as Argus Filch,

Running time: 146 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
[Photo by Jaap Buitendijk]

Wizards at war: seventh Harry Potter film is not an uplifting holiday classic, but it certainly won’t disappoint avid fans.

An hour before the midnight premiere of the anxiously anticipated seventh installment of the Harry Potter films, a teenage girl makes an entrance: she’s wearing a gray sweater vest, a pair of thick, black-framed glasses, and a bike helmet with a stuffed lion strapped to the top (which avid readers will recognize as an adorable attempt at a Luna Lovegood costume). Others file in behind her clad in maroon-colored robes, plaid skirts, and Gryffindor scarves. The air is rife with the telltale sounds of unabashed fandom: “I brought Star Wars gummies!” cries one girl, while another squeaks, “Do you think they’ll show a Narnia trailer?” Midnight screenings of epic franchises have become a time-honored tradition for the young and fanatic (like this reviewer), and they always provide a great opportunity to let your geek flag fly. What better opportunity to express your love for an artfully rendered fantasy unlike anything we’ll ever experience in our mundane day-to-day lives? (Apparently none – Deathly Hallows broke the franchise record for a midnight opening with a whopping $24 million in box office earnings).

With the Potter books, J.K. Rowling fashioned one of the most intricately detailed fantasy lands in popular culture: a world adjacent to but concealed from normal British life, a universe in which witches and wizards matriculate at the vast castle that is Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is based upon the last book in J.K. Rowling’s ubiquitous series (unless you’ve been living under a rock you’re surely aware of this). Due to the last book’s length (800-some pages) and the importance of the series finale, the movie is split into two halves, the next to be released in July, 2011. The first few films in the series feature young witches and wizards learning how to make objects float, how to avoid passing out from the mandrake’s scream, and how to fly on broomsticks; it was all quite adorable and fantastic. Not so in the last few movies: as the material got darker and more mature, so have the films. The Death Eaters are out for blood, and the benevolent wizard populace experiences great losses. Even the films’ coloration under the latest director, David Heyman, has grown gloomier. The wizarding world is at war, and the seventh movie’s material is no picnic.

Led by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the Death Eaters are out of hiding and inside the Ministry of Magic. Homicidal double agent Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), insane Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter in fine, crazy-haired form), and the Malfoy family (each of whom look the worse for wear) are among Voldemort’s beloved servants—but the Death Eater storyline doesn’t take up much space in Deathly Hallows. Instead, the film follows Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) as they take to the British forests to evade capture while searching for Horcruxes (pieces of Voldemort’s split soul). As the trio flits across the dismal, bitterly cold English countryside, Ron and Hermione, at odds throughout most of the films, fall for each other. The Horcruxes prove more difficult to destroy than anyone thought, and the characters snap and squabble under stress. Members of the Ministry produce Nazi-inspired propaganda about the evil of Muggles while they interrogate and torture Muggle-borns and half-blood wizards. Readers of the books will find little to quibble with in the seventh movie; almost every plotline from the book translates directly into the film. Unfortunately the previous three or four films dropped an integral arc involving house elves, and to pick it up in the seventh film cheapens the character (though many would argue that the movies’ squeaky version of Dobby was obnoxious from the start, and they would not be wrong).

Any two and a half hour movie might test audience attention spans, but screenwriter Steve Kloves, who’s stuck with the whole series, manages to keep the plot moving swiftly despite a few jerky moments. A pall seems to hover over characters’ heads, even though Kloves interspersed hostility and tension with a few comical scenes. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra makes the most of the gorgeous English cliffs and forests on which the protagonists take shelter, languishes on fantastic wizarding homes and villages, and uses fisheye lenses to make the Ministry even more foreboding. Visual effects by Motion Picture Company leave a little to be desired—Voldemort’s snake Nagini is undeniably spooky but doesn’t quite look authentic, and the two house elves might have looked better. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint have grown into their characters, and though the performances aren’t Oscar-worthy, they’re pleasantly good. Grint’s comic timing and simple grin provide comic relief while Watson and Radcliffe play earnest. The movie earns its PG-13 rating: multiple characters are badly wounded, and there’s an unexpectedly sexy kissing scene. Both films were meant to be in 3D (damn you, Avatar, for bringing this plague upon on us), but Warner Brothers announced a few short weeks ago that Deathly Hallows: Part 1 would be released in 2D. It certainly looks none the worse for it. The movie ends on a particularly disheartening cliffhanger, and no one will leave the theater feeling uplifted. But let’s face it: if you’re reading this review, you’re probably already invested in the series and know what you’re getting into.

The first Potter film, Sorcerer’s Stone, released nine years ago, three years after Rowling published the first book. Bite-sized Brits Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson were around eleven years old, had no acting experience, and basically carried the movie on cuteness alone (although the presence of veterans Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, and the late Richard Harris didn’t hurt). In the following five movies, the world watched them grow up—we heard Radcliffe’s and Grint’s voices deepen at puberty and saw their limbs extend through gawky teenager-hood; we watched Watson gracefully age into the unbelievably composed young woman she is today. The last films, though eagerly anticipated, are bittersweet for those of us who have been paying attention for the last ten years. Some people grew up alongside these kids, and almost anyone who’s seen the films or read the books has found himself suddenly invested, soldiering on for the next installment. As the end of the series draws near, we’re already mourning the loss of the world to which many are so devoted (and grieving over a number of major characters in advance).

Those unacquainted with the books or films won’t be rushing out to see Deathly Hallows: Part 1. Cast and crew made Deathly Hallows one of the most satisfying in the franchise, but at this point the Harry Potter films are comparable to nothing else but each other. Those who are invested will probably love it by default. It will not disappoint, but it will leave you longing for more. July can’t come soon enough.