Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


New releases this week on Blu-ray and DVD: Daniel Radcliffe stars in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1; Gwyneth Paltrow and Garrett Hedlund show off their singing skills in the musical drama Country Strong; and Pixar’s animated adventure The Incredibles lands on Blu-ray for the first time with a pile of features.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane
Director: David Yates

Rated: 7/10

[Available Friday, April 15]

Welcome to the beginning of the end. For fans who are either sad that the franchise is about to end, or glad that the films have been solidly enjoyable renditions of J.K. Rowling’s books, I can promise you that David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a solidly memorable experience. It’s not always magical though.

Following the book very closely, part one of the Deathly Hallows has Harry Potter, played as always by Daniel Radcliffe, dealing with the loss of his mentor, Dumbledore, and beginning to look for the missing Horcruxes that contain pieces of the evil wizard Voldemort’s soul. If Harry can’t find all of the Horcruxes, Voldemort will never truly be defeated, and the world will never be free of his evil power.

Protected by the members of the Order of the Phoenix, Harry ends up with the Weasley family, but amidst all of the upheaval and chaos, Voldemort’s Death Eaters come looking for Harry as the Ministry of Magic collapses. That leaves Harry, Ron and Hermione, the latter two played of course by Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, on the run and alone for the first time in their lives.

Camping out in the wild, and hiding from Death Eaters, the trio search for answers that will lead them to one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes–a locket that was once in the possession of someone with the initials R.A.B.

While the friends hunt for clues, there is tension between them as Ron worries about his family, who may or may not be alive, and wonders if Harry and Hermione are becoming too close for his liking. Harry also has to deal with the questions surrounding Dumbledore, and why this great man, who he thought was a close friend, never really opened up to Harry.

Like the book it’s based on, this seventh chapter in the series is dark, tumultuous, and it features some of the more disturbing moments of the entire franchise. The mood is exactly what this chapter needed to ground it, but there is no question that this story feels unbalanced and removed from the Harry Potter world simply because we don’t have the same touchstones that were present in all the other books and films. Of course Harry Potter and his friends have grown up, which is a big point, but it is a jarring change.

The complaint I’m obviously levelling here is that the original book failed to tell a strong story at this point as well, and I frankly found this problem an even bigger one on screen.

There was no need to follow a cookie-cutter mentality, but the problem I have with both the book and the movie is that we’re left alone in the wild with these three characters, and it can get a little dull at times. On top of that, being separated from Hogwarts makes this part of the finale a wholly new experience that needed more energy, wit, and a deeper plot. The characters literally feel like they’re stuck, and going nowhere for over half-an-hour.

Looking at the whole film, I realize I’m not making this sound very good, but my big problem with Yates’ attack on the first part of the finale is that it feels like he was bound too tightly to the source material.

As a fan, I’m glad to see that Yates was true to Rowling’s book, but as a movie critic I can’t help but look at it as a half-hearted rendering. Maybe the producers didn’t give Yates a chance to be original, but something is definitely missing in the film, and something should have been done to develop tension, if nothing else.

While I do agree with most people, that the film needed to be split into two parts to give the final segment of Harry Potter’s story a proper ending, that meant to me that the filmmakers should have made an effort to enhance the story so it didn’t feel so cut apart.

Unlike the last film, I will also say that Yates found some grounding to bring heart and emotion to some of the tender scenes where we lose some of our favorite characters. Although I think he totally missed the biggest opportunity in the last film, he left me feeling some of the loss when three of my favorite characters left the story in this film. (This is also important since it means he hopefully can do the same for the last film.)

Thankfully, the beginning of this film makes up for the weary middle, and the ending provides a solid jumping-off point for the final film, which will come out this July. Until then, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is enough to whet your appetite, even if the lame title (Part 1?) should tell you something about how much effort was actually put into adapting this story for the screen.

The Blu-ray edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 was not available for review at the time I wrote this column, so I can’t comment on the special features included in the release, but if I’m going to be honest I suspect most fans may not care much about the features compared to the value of owning the film itself.

What you can expect on the Blu-ray release though is Warner’s unique Maximum Movie Mode with actor Jason Isaacs (who plays Lucius Malfoy), a collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted scenes (including a couple of poignant scenes at the Dursley’s house), and a sneak peek at the final film.

Country Strong
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester
Director: Shana Feste

Rated: 7/10

In director Shana Feste’s twangy drama, Country Strong, Garrett Hedlund stars alongside Leighton Meester, and Gwyneth Paltrow as a down-home country singer named Beau who just wants to play his music, but he might also have a shot at super-stardom if he’s willing to go on the road.

When the country mega star Kelly Canter, played by Paltrow, gets her walking papers from the rehab clinic where Beau works by day, Kelly tries to convince her husband and manager, James (Tim McGraw), to bring Beau on tour with them as the opening act. At the same time, James has his eye on the young beauty-pagent-winner-turned-singer Chiles (Leighton Meester), but the girl can hardly perform on stage. It’s only with Beau’s reluctant help that Chiles can get through a song, which ultimately convinces James to bring both of them on tour.

On the road, the four duelling personalities will come up against old and new troubles, and face off against conflicting emotions that could ruin them all if they don’t get their feelings under control.

Although Country Strong could have had a better script, the film is still an appealing musical road drama, with great songs and a very good cast. Gwyneth Paltrow’s damaged songbird routine gets a bit stale late, but she’s still perfect for this part, and she’s a good match beside the ever-charming Hedlund.

Hedlund is in fact exactly the lead this film needed more than anything. While he was good in Tron: Legacy, he’s far more interesting in Country Strong, and it shows just how much range he has as an actor, despite my own expectations otherwise. Considering Hedlund needed to be coached to sing the country music in the film, he also clearly came a long way, and deserves a measure of respect for that alone.

On the Blu-ray, some of the extras you can expect include deleted scenes, an extended performance of “Shake That Thing”, an alternate ending, two music videos, and thirty minutes of featurettes on the making of the film. Overall I really enjoyed the film and the features, especially the making-of features, and if you are at all concerned I don’t think you necessarily need to be a country music fan to enjoy this inviting story.

The Incredibles [Blu-ray]
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox
Director: Brad Bird

Rated: 8.5/10

Although Finding Nemo may be Pixar’s best film to date, The Incredibles is still my all-time favorite Pixar film, and it’s because of all the little details.

Starring Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible and Holly Hunter as Elastagirl, Brad Bird’s animated action extravaganza is funny, silly, intense, and yes, even heart warming.

Mr. Incredible and his wife Helen, also known as Elastagirl, have settled down and raised a family of supers. The Parr’s, as they’re known in public, have their son, Dash (Spencer Fox), who is super speedy, and their daughter, Violet (Sarah Vowell), who can turn invisible, and the baby Jack-Jack who has yet to really show what he can do. Together the family lives a fairly happy life, but none of them are exactly feeling fulfilled in life, least of Mr. Incredible.

That’s probably why he’s listening to the police scanner secretly, and trying to do little acts to save his city from bad guys. He would love to do more, and put on his costume again, but after a public outcry years ago, when the supers were told their help wasn’t needed any more, the government quietly asked Mr. Incredible to step aside and try to just live a normal life.

The nearly invulnerable hero can’t live like that though, and when a mysterious woman named Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) tells Mr. Incredible that they need him to do something for them, he jumps at the opportunity to leave his day job behind.

Directed by the great Brad Bird, who also brought The Iron Giant to life, The Incredibles has a visual style all its own, and it’s remarkable for being a fully computer animated film that actually renders humans wonderfully. At the same time the script is clever, making you care for this weird family, and worry about them as they take on their greatest challenge.

Featuring action-packed animation, a perfect score, and Brad Bird’s own voice work as the hilarious Edna Mode, The Incredibles is one of my all-time favorite animated action films, and it comes with an astounding number of features.

The four-disc Blu-ray package includes two audio commentaries (one with the director and producer John Walker, and one with the supervising animators), making-of features (like the Ending with a Bang feature that looks at the closing credits), original DVD features, two animated shorts (Boundin’ and Jack-Jack Attack), deleted scenes, a mockumentary on the rebirth of Syndrome’s lair, plus my absolute favorite, a round-table discussion called The Incredibles Revisited with the filmmakers behind The Incredibles, including Brad Bird, Mark Andrews, Rick Sayre, among others. The Incredibles Revisited is unabashedly honest about what it took to make the film a reality, and many of the biggest obstacles they had to overcome over the years of production.