'The Next Three Days' is a great B-movie

"The Next Three Days" is, in some ways, similar to the recent and decidedly harrowing "Unstoppable."

While any comparison may seem a stretch, both films are polished B-movies with A-list actors. This represents an encouraging change. B-movies have long been the repository of second-tier talent as well as writing that lacks, well, complexity. But thankfully, this genre has experienced a renaissance of sorts over the last decade. B-movies represent, increasingly, raw and edgy filmmaking, and when done well — and these two films are well done —— they offer raw, edgy entertainment.

Unlike "Unstoppable," which gets quickly up to speed, "The Next Three Days" involves a long and complex setup. John Brennan (Russell Crowe), a local college teacher in Pittsburgh, is living a nightmare. His wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), has been tried and convicted and recently sentenced to 20 years in prison for murder. Some two years have passed since the crime. He is raising his son, with the help of his parents, and trying to understand how he and his wife might ever wake up from this debilitating horror.

A plan begins to take shape in John's mind. The only alternative, he concludes, is to break Lara out of an impenetrable maximum-security prison. The question is: how? Soon the wall in his dining room is filled with maps, bold notes regarding passports, escape routes, locations, times, and elaborate strategies. The wall becomes the nexus of the film and as it fills, the tension builds.

This is high-risk, high-gain planning and seems all but impossible from every angle. Not to forget that John is a teacher of literature and clearly unprepared to cobble together a Quixotic escape (actually, there is a nice scene where he is teaching Don Quixote to his students, something about belief in virtue is more important than virtue itself).

Knowing that John is an amateur adds hugely to the sense of foreboding that gives this well-crafted thriller its impetus and tautness. Ultimately the execution of what is on that wall defines act three. And there is not one moment when the conclusion is foregone. This will not have a right ending. How could it? John is an amateur, he'll end up in jail along with his wife and his parents will then have to raise his son.

What's wonderful about top drawer B-movies — and this one was written and directed by Paul Haggis ("Crash," "Million Dollar Baby," "Letters from Iwo Jima") —— is that they are focused on solving an external problem, one that takes the characters to the edge of a precipice and happily leaves them there. With solid actors such as Crowe and Banks carrying the weight, and delivering exceptional performances, the entertainment payoff can be gripping. As it is in "The Next Three Days."

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

And so, finally, the popular culture juggernaut known as Harry Potter — meaning the gripping, stand in front of a bookstore at midnight to get the next book because this adventure is just too good — is coming to a close. The penultimate film, "Deathly Hallows: Part I," has arrived. It amounts to a long setup, preparing the legions of serious fans for the grand finale that will screen next summer.

Beginning in 1998 with "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the books and the films all have defied expectations. Start with the idea that young readers would lug home the equivalent of a phone book, eagerly squirrel themselves away in their rooms and read, and read nonstop. And with each movie, wait in long lines, impatient to see Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) survive their days at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Legions of young and old readers have taken the journey with Harry as he has morphed from a young orphan at Hogwarts, filled with uncertainty, into a young man who, along with his friends, now stands alone against his nemesis, the epitome of evil, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

If you're not a Potterhead, then this movie will be a complete mystery. Not a thing will make sense. But then, these films are not made for walk-in-cold audiences who wouldn't know a wizard from a Muggle. What is indisputable is that it's beautifully shot, made possible by state-of-the-art CGI, and filled with first-rate performances by endlessly talented English actors.

For the fans, who are completely plugged-in, then all is wonderfully clear and the summer of 2011 can't come soon enough. A footnote: That this story, when taken as a whole, sprang from the imagination of J.K. Rowling represents a stunning achievement in storytelling and is truly remarkable.

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