So, so much Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s seven books about the Boy Who Lived are lethal-weapon-size; each of the corresponding film adaptations have pushed, if not exceeded, two and a half hours. At the beginning of the first half of the seventh part of the tale (Rowling’s finale has been split into two films), our whip-smart but Muggle-born Hermione is wiping the minds of her parents, protecting them from a wizarding government that’s hellbent on destroying so-called Mudbloods. “Obliviate,” she whispers. The spell may as well be cast on the consumers of all things Potter. No matter how well-written the books or absorbing the movies, the trouble with all this excess has been that once you’re done with the ride, you can barely remember what just happened.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is no different. At 145 minutes, it illogically breezes by, even if much of the story shows our heroes doing little but hiding, fighting, and strategizing. With returning director David Yates at the helm and the most experienced Potter scripter, Steve Kloves, adapting, Deathly Hallows is the darkest installment yet, both literally and figuratively: Even in daylight, this world’s a dark gray-green as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) talk about Death Eaters and their minions gaining control of Hogwarts, not to mention Harry’s status as Undesirable No. 1. The trio decide not to return to their beloved school, instead tasking themselves with finding Horcruxes, talismans containing bits of the wretched soul of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the You-Know-Who who killed Harry’s parents when he was an infant and now plots to kill Harry. There are car crashes (!), reverse witch trials, and lots of talk about death, with a particularly black sequence of shadowy animation describing exactly what the Deathly Hallows are.
But Harry Potter 7 is also funny and sexy. (Yes, accept it: These kids are all grown up.) The most amusing bits involve Polyjuice Potion, an elixir that allows wizards to assume the guise of another; one early scene offers seven Harrys before transporting the real one to a safe house, the better to confuse Voldemort. This scene, like another in which the threesome infiltrate the now-evil Ministry of Magic, skillfully balances humor and danger like a mystical take on the buddy-action flick.
Outsiders may be a bit puzzled by some of the plot developments here—why, for example, Harry, Hermione, and sometimes Ron need to spend a great deal of the film living outdoors in various locations isn’t fully explained—but Kloves does do some dialogue-rejiggering to render some exposition without completely dumbing things down for neophytes. As always, the story boils down to Good vs. Evil; newcomers should never feel too lost.
The film’s biggest flaw is one that couldn’t be helped: Rowling places all the emphasis on the kids, who are usually sulking, and tosses the franchise’s colorful supporting characters to the sidelines, if they show up at all. We get only glimpses, for instance, of the Dursleys, the horrible Muggle family Harry’s grown up with, as well as Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Their relative absence might not have had as big an impact if Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint were more than merely workaday actors, but the young’uns occasionally have difficulty carrying big chunks of the movie by themselves. Still, their relationships with each other are evolving just enough to keep things interesting. In fact, how the characters interact is ultimately more memorable than what, exactly, they do.
Ahead of Time Directed by Robert Richman
Who is Ruth Gruber, and why should you care? Well, this now-99-year-old Brooklyn native can still tell a good yarn. And according to Ahead of Time, a documentary about Gruber’s life, her accomplishments make a pretty compelling story, too.
Accepted to New York University at 15 and becoming the world’s youngest Ph.D. at 20, Gruber defined herself as a writer—but to think of the woman as merely that is to blind yourself to all she achieved. As Gruber says, a crush on a college German professor “set the whole course”; she became enamored with Germany as well, and a fellowship allowed her to scratch the restless itch to study there she experienced while growing up in New York. (Her world felt so small, she says, that she “thought the whole world was Jewish.”) Her visit corresponded with the rise of Hitler, but instead of being repulsed by the man, she went to hear him speak, in an effort to “understand him” and what it was about him that won people over.
This compulsion toward compassion took Gruber around the world, where she documented previously unforeseen lands (while writing for the New York Herald Tribune, she became the first foreign correspondent in Siberia and the Soviet Arctic), served as special assistant to the Interior secretary during World War II, and was even appointed a general in her role as the latter, protecting her under the Geneva Convention should Nazis catch her in her secret mission to ferry Jews and wounded American soldiers to the U.S. Later, she returned to journalism but became deeply involved in the issue of Jewish displaced persons and their immigration to Palestine.
These experiences, and the rest of Gruber’s trailblazing professional life, resulted in 19 books and demand as a lecturer, which, as of the filming of the documentary (when Gruber was a mere 97), she continued to do. First-time director Robert Richman incorporates Gruber’s remarkable photos and films from her time as a reporter with present-day interviews with the woman herself, children and grandchildren of her colleagues, and various people who became dear to Gruber, some of whom are older than she is.
Throughout, Gruber’s fearlessness can’t be denied; in fact, it’s as if she never even considered her gender to be a hindrance. It helped that she seems to have had plenty of support, including a female editor who remarkably advised Gruber not to change her name when she got married in 1951. She still talks—dressed to the nines and made-up like she’s ready for a date—as if her many accomplishments are no big deal. When she’s literally telling one of her war stories, she notes, “That story, it has everything.” So does this doc.