Movie Diary 11/30/2010

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010). In case you hadn’t heard, each of us has a dark and a light side. Go figure. (full review 12/10)

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Robert Aldrich, 1964). A few afternoons of the “Big Money Movie” were devoted to being freaked out by the idea of Bruce Dern getting his hand and head chopped off in the prologue. It still wears pretty well, although – nothing against Olivia de Havilland – it’s too bad Joan Crawford backed out of the reunion with Bette Davis.

Special early hour for the KUOW-FM (that would be, too) stint Wednesday morning: 9 a.m., along with writers Dana Stevens and Julia Turner.

Movie Diary 11/29/2010

Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio, 2009). A boy visits his father, a fisherman at a remote Mexico seashore, and for 70 minutes or so we watch the Edenic cycle of catching fish, cleaning them, and eating – a cycle through which a certain mode of living is passed on. Beautiful film. (full review 12/3)

Burlesque (Steve Antin, 2010). It lands in an unsatisfactory zone: not bad enough to be risible camp, not good enough for anything. However processed she looks, Cher retains a sense of humor about the whole deal, and the movie allows her a roof-raising anthem; Christina Aguilera appears computer-generated.

The Portuguese Nun (Eugène Green, 2009). Behaviorally stylized, and a bold you’re-gonna-love-my-movie-or-hate-it approach. Really has some moments, though, and Leonor Baldaque comes across as a poor man’s Sandrine Kiberlain. (full review 12/3)

Rare Exports (Jalmari Helander, 2010). Well, this is something odd – Santa Claus dug up out of the Finland ice, ready to renew his rampaging violence against the world’s children – all measured out with Finnish humor the color of coffee grounds. It also seems to be parodying the kind of movie it wants to be. (full review 12/10)

The Ugly American (George Englund, 1963). A curious study of U.S. bumblings in Southeast Asia, with Marlon Brando looking at sea and an ingenious final sequence – which leaves you understanding why it didn’t connect with the public. The director was married to Cloris Leachman for many years.

What a Feeling!

Hereby announcing a new website to go along with this one. It requires some explanation.

I reviewed a lot of movies in the 1980s, and the review clippings have been sitting in accordian folders ever since. Now, common sense would suggest that this juvenilia be left where it is; I was a mere lad at the time (I was in my twenties, anyway) and still cutting my teeth with the writing thing. However, I have always loved reading old magazines and newspapers, and when I was in high school and college I would go to the library and drift through bound copies of Time and Life. It was always fascinating to read the movie reviews, because they carried on-the-spot first impressions – they weren’t burnished by subsequent history or conventional wisdom.

And I thought it might be allowable to revive my old articles and present them as they were – sort of a diary of the decade in movie reviews. And then annotate them at the end of each piece. Eventually this would become a big, thicket-like record of an extremely peculiar period in film. And so this is What a Feeling!, a website that begins today with ten reviews, but will probably grow to the hundreds. Because people, I wrote about the weirdest, oddest things – at times I will stare at a review and have no recollection that the title in question ever existed, let alone that I saw and wrote about it. Maybe by doing this I’ll begin liking the decade more than I do. (And it launches the day Leslie Nielsen dies – that’s right on the money. RIP Frank Drebin.)

There’s more about the site in the “What This Site Is” tab. I’ll be throwing in a new movie every weekday, more or less. Enter the vortex here.

The Last Refuge (The Cornfield #9)

The Last Refuge is Part 2 of Ken Burns’s 2009 documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. It uses 130 minutes of the series’ 12-hour-plus running time to cover the years 1890 to 1915, a rich period that includes meaty stuff about Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, the notorious dam at Hetch Hetchy Valley, and the invention of the rather astonishing Antiquities Act of 1906, which created broad presidential powers to set aside land for protection from development (originally intended to keep some ancient Indian sites safe from looting, the Act was promptly used by Roosevelt to place large natural wonders such as Devil’s Tower under federal protection; in 1908 he blithely declared that 800,000 acres surrounding the Grand Canyon were a National Monument, which is surely one of the great fuck-you moments of the Conservation movement).

I haven’t watched the subsequent episodes yet. It’s only a coincidence that I’m writing about it a week after writing about Sarah Palin’s Alaska, another TV show ostensibly about natural wonders that carries a political argument within it. In the case of Palin’s campaign informercial, the methods are crude and the arguments sometimes incoherent, in the way that one can be for a Bridge to Nowhere but also be against it. (SPA should get credit for alerting Americans to the dangers of halibut violence against humans, however.) With Burns, who sticks to his tried-and-true style, the method is calm, measured, and frequently devastating.

Burns is a very fine filmmaker. Something about his style (or his success) has generated sarcasm and skepticism in his critics; I guess he must seem like an old fogey to somebody who’s exploring the boundaries of where reality and fiction overlap or some crap like that. And his commitment to storytelling is out of step with academic ideas of history; Burns is more an heir to the movie storytelling of John Ford, especially in his eye for contradictory characters – the conservative Iowa congressman John F. Lacey, for instance, who became the driving force behind the Antiquities Act and efforts to protect the wildlife of Yellowstone.

In this episode, Burns has people like Roosevelt, who was probably the most interesting human being in the history of American politics, so the storytelling is especially endless. He also has the National Park ranger Shelton Johnson, a poetical type who went into Whitmanesque thrall the first time he saw the Roosevelt gate at Yellowstone, and seemingly has never come out of it. Burns himself can be criticized for lapsing into that mode too often, perhaps; yet there’s something about his dogged rhythms and lucid argument that prevents the scales from tilting too far in that direction.

While watching The National Parks, one is frequently reminded of how Burns uses his subjects to go beyond the thing at hand. It didn’t take long, in watching Baseball, to see that while the massive project displayed a deep understanding of the national pastime by a true believer, it was actually a history of race relations in America. The National Parks is (so far, anyway) full of the expected paeans to the natural world, but it is also fundamentally about a central division in U.S. politics, between development and conservation – but “conservation” isn’t quite right, actually. The division is between people who would exploit absolutely everything until it is cleaned-out and dead, and those who wouldn’t. There is barely a minute of The National Parks that doesn’t remind you of something going on right now.

Pastry and Other Drugs (Weekly Links)

Tangled up in blond

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Tangled. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Since 1999’s “Tarzan,” which concluded a classic decade that restored a glorious image, the Disney animated unit has operated at a more modest level of achievement, with its offerings tending toward the glib (“Bolt,” “Lilo & Stitch”) or the overly safe (“The Princess and the Frog”).

With their new film—officially the 50th animated feature from the legendary company—Disney is back in form. “Tangled” returns to the fairytale sources that have served its animators so well in the past, this time drawing on “Rapunzel” for inspiration.

In this version of the story, Rapunzel is a princess stolen in infancy by a wicked witch, Mother Gothel (voiced by Broadway star Donna Murphy). This mean lady uses the magic powers contained in Rapunzel’s long, blond hair to keep herself eternally youthful. She locks Rapunzel in a tower—you knew that part was coming—and that hair grows out to incredible length. When the innocent Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) approaches her 18th birthday with a yen to see the world, an adventure commences.

The action is triggered by a rakish thief called Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi), and is helped along by a comical frog, a very determined horse that acts like a dog, and a variety of rogues and ruffians.

The songs by Alan Menken and Glen Slater add to the general sense of zest, especially a wild barroom number so fun you won’t care how closely it imitates “Gaston” from “Beauty and the Beast.” And the wicked stepmother has a song, “Mother Knows Best,” that reminds us of how the villains always get the juiciest stuff to do. This character is the most striking thing about the movie, both fairytale monster and a textbook modern example of bad mothering: she’s sarcastic, vain, and relentlessly belittling toward her charge. It’s a surprisingly direct portrait of what a lousy parent looks like.

Donna Murphy nastily curves every sneer in her dialogue, and Mandy Moore does nicely with the typical sweet/spirited Disney heroine. Zachary Levi (from TV’s “Chuck”) is completely charming despite not being a Prince Charming. These voices are supported by handsome animation (rendered in unobtrusive 3-D in most theaters) and the just-right tone of Dan Fogelman’s amusing script.

Even though the Disney folk have embellished a great deal of the fairytale and invented much of their own, “Tangled” still captures a pleasant “once upon a time” feeling. And it will delight children while keeping adults diverted, which is always the litmus test for a really successful animated feature.

Unless, that is, the adults are like Mother Gothel. But that’s the only audience that should avoid this movie.

Love and Other Drugs. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Two movies fight it out inside “Love and Other Drugs.” The first looks like a sharp little satire of the pharmaceutical industry–or at least of the world of drug reps who push their wares at doctors, with whom they sometimes enjoy overly cozy relationships.

The second (the title gives it away) is a love story. This, too, has its moments of sharp observation and spirited acting … it just doesn’t seem quite in tune with the other, more caustic movie.

The lovers are Jamie and Maggie, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. Before we meet her character, the movie sets up Jamie as a virtually irresistible charmer who uses his shallow skills on women and doctors alike. He’s a drug company sales rep, circa 1996, and he’s working his way up the ladder with the help of a veteran salesman (Oliver Platt). The movie’s big twist is the arrival of Viagra, which abruptly turns Jamie into the most popular man in his district.

Not that he needs it himself (although the film isn’t above a little slapstick comedy involving his accidental ingestion of a pill—a nod to the Judd Apatow audience). But Jamie does stand in for a certain kind of vapid go-getter who might thrive in a culture that relies on pills to make things happen. Based partly Jamie Reidy’s memoir “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman,” the film never pauses to consider the ways Viagra and other drugs might genuinely improve people’s lives.

Director Edward Zwick seems to see this set-up as a kind of “Shampoo” for our times, a good metaphor with which to play social critic. Maybe that’s why he cast 1970s-era actors as Jamie’s parents: George Segal and the late Jill Clayburgh. Fair enough. But the shift to straight-head love story doesn’t quite come off.

Jamie meets Maggie because she’s a patient of one of his best physician clients (Hank Azaria); she’s got early-onset Parkinson’s Disease. They flirt, they date, they take their clothes off a lot—that’s another way Zwick seems to be recalling the films of the 1970s (violence seems to be so much more popular than nudity at the movies these days).

The relationship pushes back and forth: she keeps him at a distance because she knows he’ll eventually leave; he keeps pursuing her because she’s his chance to be something other than a superficial jerk.

Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are attractive actors who can sometimes coast on their appeal (they appeared together in “Brokeback Mountain”). Zwick is trying to push them past that, and they’re capable—but at times you might wish they could just go back to being easy and attractive.

After it loses its satirical snap, “Love and Other Drugs” grinds away in an intelligent and well-meaning manner. There might be an incisive film to make from these ingredients, but a different recipe is indicated.

Marwencol. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Sometimes it takes extreme cases to fully illustrate the incredible phenomenon of human resilience. In detailing one such extreme case, the documentary “Marwencol” creates something close to awe in its depiction of how the brain deals with trauma.

The background is this: ten years ago, a 38-year-old man named Mark Hogencamp was beaten by a group of thugs outside a bar in upper New York state. When he came out of his coma, his memory was gone, and he had to re-learn basic living skills. In order to channel his frustration and confused mental state, Hogencamp began constructing fictional dioramas in his backyard. Populated by G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls and designed to resemble a World War II-era Belgian town, this miniature setting became the source of a variety of storylines.

It’s called Marwencol (the word is a combination of female names of women Hogencamp has known, and whose personalities come out in the doll characters). Not only are the settings and situations remarkably detailed, but so are the beautiful photographs Hogencamp takes of his scenarios. True: Hogencamp has a real artist’s eye for how to tell his story, and he has camera angles and lighting effects that would make Steven Spielberg sit up and take notice.

The fascination of the movie, directed by Jeff Malberg, is that Marwencol has become Hogencamp’s chief activity. His injuries have left him functioning but just a little too damaged to execute the regular social niceties of normal life.

This is a fascination situation on the surface, but the movie becomes more intriguing as it goes along. More is revealed about Hogencamp’s life, and the New York art world becomes interested in his photographs. He himself must ponder the haunting idea that in his previous life he probably wasn’t a very pleasant person. He was formerly an alcoholic, but since the beating he hasn’t had the desire to drink.

The town of Marwencol is a kind of substitute for the real world, and it’s both beautiful and sometimes creepy. But the amazing thing is the spectacle of how the imagination struggles to express itself, despite huge obstacles placed in its way. That’s the real takeaway of “Marwencol,” as filtered through the sad specifics of Mark Hogencamp’s complicated life.

Kings of Pastry. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

In France there is a tradition of awarding the country’s best craftspeople the designation of Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, an exclusive membership for superior talents in each trade. In the world of pastry chefs, becoming an MOF allows the chefs to wear a striped collar on their white cooking smocks.

It’s amazing what people will do for a decoration. The competition for the MOF is held every four years (someone rightly compares it to the Olympics), and involves a grueling three-day contest judged by the nation’s elite chefs.

If you think “grueling” is an exaggeration, try watching “Kings of Pastry,” a new documentary from the veteran filmmaking team of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (“The War Room”). They followed one such MOF competition, and it is no—how shall we put this—piece of cake.

The participants practice for months in advance, as though for a boxing match. They massage spun sugar into elaborate shapes, create endless variations on designs, and throw away the delicious-looking test runs. Like most “competition documentaries” (think “Wordplay”), the film focuses on a few participants, following them through the process. The central figure is a man named Jacquy, who lives in Chicago with his family but returns to France six weeks before the actual contest in order to practice his stuff.

The challenge is to create a wedding-table display. Although we assume that the concoctions taste good, the actual designs are amazingly tacky. Nobody ever seems to notice this. Along with the limited time to create their pastries and the crazy pressure in the competition kitchens, there’s a final step that adds sadism to the mix: the chefs must carry their heavy, delicate creations to a display area table. It’s not giving anything away to say that not all the cakes survive—we see four years of anticipation shatter with one misjudged step.

There are no women in the competition, nor amongst the judges. As far as I could tell, this goes unmentioned in the movie. Maybe it’s just one of those French things.

As interesting and colorful as the movie is, the longer it goes on the more you might find yourself thinking the MOF contest is far too much hassle to be worth it. Most of the contestants fail to achieve the level of MOF, even though most of them are probably brilliant pastry chefs.

But the tearful awards ceremony shows how much they’ve all come to depend on the process. In a quiet break during the competition, one participant, visibly near the point of breakdown, dramatically declares that he’ll never try again, whether or not he makes his MOF. Ah, but the allure of the tricolor collar may prove too sugary-sweet to resist.

And a holiday preview thingie from last Sunday.

Also, after some publishing delays, issue #8 of Rotten is out.

And next Monday, look for a second website to debut in conjunction with The Crop Duster. It will be like totally awesome.

Movie Diary 11/22/2010

Tangled (Nathan Greno, Byron Howard, 2010). Best Disney animated feature in ten years? Why is there a question mark there? (full review 11/24)

All Good Things (Eugene Jarecki, 2010). Seedy true story of death among the New York richies. It’s not similar in style, but this movie might not have existed without the example of Zodiac. (full review 12/17)

Kings of Pastry (D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, 2009). A horrifying competition in France to determine a certain level of greatness in pastry chefs. That’s far too much pressure on these poor people. The movie, of course, is full of suspense. (full review 11/26)

The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector (Vikram Jayanti, 2009). An intriguing film in many ways. Its design might not make a lot of sense, but Spector is some kind of good interview. (full review 12/3)

Sarah Palin’s Alaska (The Cornfield #8)

The longest and best-produced political campaign infomercial in TV history, Sarah Palin’s Alaska is (contrary to the avowed purpose of it) unabashedly in the service of promoting its star, the former governor of Alaska. You may well ask: promoting her for what? Nowhere during the first episode of the program does Palin state she is running for president (or anything else) in 2012. No, Palin is a good example of the modern phenomenon of free-floating candidacy, in which promotion of the self exists outside of a specific goal. It’s one of the many ways politics has merged with Hollywood, where a star can maintain a high profile and influence without actually appearing in any good or successful projects.

This is why her critics were so laughably wrong when they declared her career over on the day she awkwardly resigned from the governorship. Palin understands this stuff perfectly, and apparently intuitively. Having reached a certain level of prominence, the governing of a state became utterly irrelevant to the larger project—not just irrelevant, but a drain away from the big picture.

The surprising thing about Sarah Palin’s Alaska is that, even with this in mind, the first episode is barely underway before the political slaps arrive. Palin and her husband point out that writer Joe McGinniss has moved in next door and ruined their summer (filmed from afar sitting on his porch, McGinniss’s face is blurred out, as though he were a sexual predator on a reality crime show; this is done because he presumably didn’t sign a release form for the production company, but that’s not how it reads). Sarah doesn’t miss a chance to note that the fence extension her husband and his friends have built between properties is a metaphor for how we might keep out illegal immigrants. Or no, she doesn’t say this, quite; she says, “Others might look at it and say, ‘This is what we need on our nation’s border.'” Note the avoidance of owning this as her opinion and the use of a favored construction of political discourse: “Americans are tired of Obamacare and taxes on small business and Democrats who use infants in human sacrifice.” It’s not just my opinion—Americans factually feel these things, and the more times I say this, the more you are accustomed to accepting it as truth.

Now, it is true that throughout this show it is easy to observe the irony of Palin decrying the lack of privacy for her life (because of “kids” and “family,” inevitably) when she’s got a camera crew intruding on their world. Or the irony of her promoting herself as jes’ plain folks when she’s got a sea plane pulling up to her lakefront property and a camera studio in her backyard where she and hubby Todd prepare her Fox News appearances. (Todd: that mysterious, ravaged-voiced Fred Ward character, who comes across like Christian Bale’s assistant in The Prestige: he’s deliberately kept on camera just long enough so that you can’t quite form a picture of him.)

But wait. Apparently it’s not easy to observe that irony. Not for forty percent of the country, anyway. We’ve had a few decades now with irony and satire and sarcasm in the ascendency, and it hasn’t made a spot of difference to the forty percent that thinks Sarah Palin is a terrifically refreshing and feisty gal who represents family values while traveling around the country to soak up the spotlight and millions of dollars in fees (do all the kids travel with her all the time, or is the mama grizzly away from the den a whole lot)? Forty percent of the country does not see a contradiction in Palin’s energetic flaunting of her children and her schoolmarmy wrist-slappings toward those who would mention this reality, as when David Letterman made an actually quite funny joke that referred to her daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But to understand such a joke would require an understanding of—all right, I’ll let it go.

The TV show has the kids, or some of them (it’s almost impossible to get a fix on how many of them there are), and Sarah going fishing near a bear enclave, and Sarah going rock-climbing. She reminds us that these rough Alaskan adventures, even if undertaken with expensive equipment and a full camera crew nearby, are the stuff of character-building, and we could all learn lessons from the wild. Yet they actually look like the actions of someone irresponsibly trying things they probably shouldn’t be doing without more preparation and training. In the political world, this means you end up looking glassy-eyed when Katie Couric asks you what newspapers you read; in nature, it means you end up dying alone in an abandoned bus in an Alaskan summer. The remarkable thing is that Palin has made advantages out of even her Couric moments. And however goofy or stomach-turning her TV series might be, there’s surely no downside in it for her. People know what they like, and they like this.

Addendum: Just watched Episode #2. All right, possibly some downside. Palin’s repeated descriptions of the dangers of live halibut inflicting bodily harm carry a faint echo of Jimmy Carter’s brush with a killer rabbit. Plus, after watching her enthusiastically club the fish to death, it is nerve-wracking to see her enter the proximity of whales and otters – nothing seems safe in the lady’s orbit. Strangely, though, as the show goes on the brief but frequent glimpses of Palin’s own fears and anxieties make you suspect that her loud saber-rattling is an enormous act of over-compensating.

The Next Three Deathly Hallows (Weekly Links)

Harry Potter and the Pull-My-Finger Gag, Part1

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, plus the usual KUOW link.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. “So slow, yet so packed with meaningful portents, that at times it resembles a European art picture from the 1960s.”

127 Hours. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

There’s a strip-tease aspect to watching “127 Hours,” the new film from Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle. We all know what’s coming, but we’re not sure when, and we need to sit through a great deal of build-up before we get there.

What’s coming is the resourceful amputation of a forearm, as famously executed by stranded hiker Aron Ralston in 2003. Ralston was wandering alone through Utah’s Canyonlands National Park when he fell into a crevice and had his right hand pinned by a heavy boulder; in order to save his own life, he had to sever the limb between his elbow and his wrist.

Does this sound like a movie to you? It did to Boyle, the clever and hyperactive Brit whose jumpy style is either a symptom of attention-deficit disorder or a sign of his playfulness. Or possibly both.

James Franco plays Ralston as a 21st-century American goofball, the kind of guy who does crazy stuff for no other reason than it feels good at that exact moment. The movie gives this loose-limbed character some credit, though: he also knows how to use his hiking equipment and he’s willing to do the inevitable.

The actual, ah, cutting only consumes five minutes or so of screen time. (And for that brevity, thank you; some folks at early showings have been reported to faint during the ordeal.) Most of the movie is build-up, as Ralston treks through the desert, briefly plays with a couple of hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), and then takes a wrong step.

If the film sounds static, think again. Boyle flashes back, forward, runs clips on Ralston’s video camera, and all but creates music videos through his usual kind of mix-tape approach to the soundtrack.

Well, all right, maybe this is the way someone’s mind would work if he were stuck in a hole for a few days. But it also feels like the director attempting to generate some hyped-up energy when faced with a storytelling limitation.

It’s a strange film to sit through—both inventive and annoying, sometimes within the same scene. The final sequence has some actual power, but I couldn’t help thinking that most of the movie would play better with fewer gimmicky mannerisms.

James Franco’s best example of this kind of hang-loose dude was in “Pineapple Express,” but he certainly gives himself over to Ralston’s soul-searching here. He’s got the advantage over Ryan Reynolds in “Buried,” another film about a man stuck in a tight space: at least Franco gets to be in the light. It’s been a rough year on leading men.

The Next Three Days. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Most thrillers require some suspension of disbelief—we agree to give the moviemakers a little leeway in what we’re willing to buy into, as long as aspects of the story are sufficiently grabby.

That audience agreement is tested in “The Next Three Days,” a wild tale of an ordinary man determined to break his wife out of prison, where she languishes on a murder rap. The movie provides the breathless moments required of the genre, but it really needs you to take a leap of faith.

The people in question are ordinary enough, a Pittsburgh couple with a young child, and the murder charge comes out of nowhere. The convicted wife (played by Elizabeth Banks) has a bit of a temper, but otherwise fits in the mainstream world; her husband (Russell Crowe) is not the criminal type. Or so we think.

He’s sure she’s innocent, and believes no legal recourse can help them, now that she’s been in the system for a while. Only one thing to do: go rogue and leave the system behind.

The intricacies of planning a prison breakout are a large part of the appeal of this movie, as is Russell Crowe’s robust performance. Crowe can do single-mindedness as well as anybody, and the husband in this scenario needs to be completely, almost insanely single-minded. Banks is fine in a break from her recent comic roles (she’s got just a slight edge of spookiness about her, so the delayed answer to whether she might have committed the crime is actually in doubt), and there’s a cameo scene from Liam Neeson, who brings his authority to bear at a crucial point-of-no-return moment for Crowe’s character.

The story is taken from a 2008 French film, “Pour Elle,” as adapted here by director Paul Haggis. At first glance the material looks like a curious match for Haggis, who is known for his very serious, Oscar-winning “Crash” and “In the Valley of Elah.” Nevertheless, having claimed his desire to do a film in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock, Haggis throws himself into the workings of a thriller. While Haggis has proved himself an adept writer, he doesn’t have the directing chops to make a really charged, urgent movie out of this stuff.

Maybe if the film were crazier, in line with its hero’s obsessive quest, it would play better. As it is, Haggis’s style is stalwart and sincere and maybe just a little too normal for the overheated plot imported from the French original. With some movies, it’s better to go too far than not far enough.

Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Had she been born a man, Hildegard von Bingen might have been a famed scientist, writer, or advisor to a royal court.

But born a woman at the turn of the 12th century, she became a nun. As depicted in the austere German film, “Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen,” this restless intellectual led as broad a life as she could have, given the social limitations of the time.

Hildegard is brought to life by the veteran director Margarethe von Trotta and the actress Barbara Sukowa, who collaborated many years ago on the excellent “Marianne and Julianne.” Their portrait is not varnished hero-worship, however, which is why the film becomes so absorbing.

Elected leader of her nunnery, the movie’s Hildegard becomes adept at outpointing the male authority figures in her circle. Proclaiming that she had received visions from god for years, her writings become highly prized, and she turns into something of a star—a status she uses to reach past her superiors and get what she wants.

What she wants includes: freedom to write religious and social texts, and to compose music; access to the great books of antiquity (which few women of the time would have seen); and eventually to move her nuns to an entirely new abbey, which would have to be built with the patronage of wealthy believers. It is convenient for Hildegard that when obstacles arise, she has a tendency to fall into a catatonic state, or receive a new divine transmission. The movie never questions her religious devotion, but it makes clear that her understanding of politics and tactics is extremely shrewd.

Key relationships outline her fierce focus, such as the loyal support of a priest (Heino Ferch), or the resentment of a childhood friend (Lena Stolze) whose own life has been completely overshadowed by Hildegard’s brilliant rise.

Margarethe von Trotta shows her discipline as a filmmaker with Hildegard’s mentor-pupil (bordering on master-slave) relationship with Richardus (Hannah Herzsprung). Another film might play up the possible romantic aspects of this intense friendship, but von Trotta shows that the non-erotic energy is plenty intriguing all by itself.

Barbara Sukowa, like Liv Ullmann, has one of those faces that somehow lend themselves to spirituality: the pale blue eyes and the stark features and a certain faraway quality. She’s exactly the right person to lead us into the world of this historical figure, this nun who was both ahead of her time and outside of it.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Eliot Spitzer has been a national punchline since he resigned as governor of New York in 2008, having been brought down by his enthusiasm for high-priced prostitutes. Lately he’s turned up as the co-host of a new CNN talk show, which is perhaps its own kind of punishment. But he also participated in a new documentary about his strange saga.

This is “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” which undeniably tells a colorful story of Shakespearian proportions. But along with other issues it raises, it argues one powerful point: that Spitzer, virtually alone among clients of prostitutes, was singled out for investigation and exposure.

That’s the main thesis of director Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” Gibney tends to be a busy, hard-charging filmmaker, but he’s got a good story here.

The movie reminds us that in the early part of this decade, Spitzer was considered something close to the second coming of Theodore Roosevelt. Here was this tough, law-and-order guy who set his sights on busting corporate fatcats and Wall Street buccaneers. As state attorney general, Spitzer went after those types, perhaps at his own peril. Gibney strongly implies that angering some of the wealthiest, best-connected men in America might not be the wisest course of action for a politician’s survival (and in the latter stages of the film, some of those Wall Street types look like the fatcat that ate the canary, given their satisfied smiles).

At the same time the Wall Street traders were in their final feeding frenzy, the Department of Justice in Southern New York had other priorities; they were looking into this prostitution ring that Spitzer had frequented. Well, prostitution is illegal, after all.

Gibney also suggests that if other regulators had been as dogged as Spitzer, we might not have had the economic collapse of 2008. That will have to go in the “what if” file for now. As to Spitzer’s habits with members of the world’s oldest profession, the man himself doesn’t try to shirk any responsibility for that. One of his regulars is depicted by an actress in the film, speaking words that the actual call girl said—a slightly bizarre tactic that doesn’t quite work.

It will be interesting to see where Spitzer goes, now that the first act of his drama is concluded. David Vitter’s past transactions with prostitutes did not keep Louisiana voters from returning him to the U.S. Senate earlier this month, so “Senator Spitzer” might not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

Today’s Special. (Link dead; review below)

By Robert Horton

Because “The Daily Show” is such a visible TV program, people know contributor Aasif Mandvi as a comedian. But this guy has actually been a busy stage and screen actor for the better part of two decades.

Along with large roles in film such as “The Mystic Masseur” and (unfortunately) “The Last Airbender,” Mandvi wrote and performed a one-man off-Broadway stage show called “Sakina’s Restaurant,” for which he won an Obie award. That property has now become a movie, “Today’s Special,” co-written by and starring Mandvi. But it’s no longer a one-man show—the story is populated with a teeming cast of characters.

Mandvi plays a chef named Samir, whose interest in food has led him away from his father’s modest Tandoori restaurant and into the world of fine French cuisine. But wouldn’t you know it (and if you’ve seen a few movies, you probably would know it), circumstances conspire to bring Samir back to his family business.

This is the extent of the central plot. With his father sidelined, Samir returns to the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights and tries to clean up the untidy little diner. The movie makes a half-hearted effort to spice up Samir’s love life in the form of another chef (Jess Weixler, the star of the memorably strange horror film “Teeth”), but she seems to be more of an obligatory presence than anything else.

More amusing is his encounter with a cab driver who becomes the restaurant’s new cook. A man with a seemingly endless store of dubious past experiences, he is played with great warmth by Naseeruddin Shah, a Bollywood pro who made a cool impression as Captain Nemo in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”

Director David Kaplan creates a pleasant sense of community around the many denizens of this neighborhood, and Samir’s parents are around to give the usual bad guidance. Considering that Mandvi is best known for such a cutting-edge TV show, the humor in “Today’s Special” is very homely and old-fashioned. This isn’t all that far from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” including the emphasis on mouth-watering ethnic food.

It all comes down to Yoda-like advice about trusting one’s heart rather than one’s brain, which isn’t really great advice in most life situations, even though the movies keep pushing it. Samir is told to mix his culinary dishes without a plan or recipe—which could work out for him in making his way through the world, but might make me think twice about visiting his restaurant.

Colony. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Because the curious case of the disappearing bees has been described on “60 Minutes” and in newspaper reports, a documentary film needs to find a fresh way into the subject.

“Colony” has found a way, by making the honeybee die-off personal. Honeybees play a crucial role in agriculture because of their incredible potency in pollinating crops, and a large portion of the bee population has being vanishing over the last few years.

The directors of “Colony,” Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell, focus on individual stories to measure the impact of the phenomenon. They meet the beekeeper who coined the phrase “Colony Collapse Disorder” to describe the fact that his bees were leaving. If he were in a disaster movie, he’d be the crusty old-timer who nods sagely and says things like, “I’ve been in the business a long time and seen a lot of things, but I ain’t never seen nothin’ like this.”

We also meet David Mendes, who’s lived the life of a migratory beekeeper for years: he travels to different areas in different seasons, taking his crates of bees to growers whose orchards need pollination.

At the other end of the experience spectrum, we also meet the Seppi family, with whom we spend the most time. A very religious California clan, the Seppis are led by an extremely enterprising son, who treats beekeeping with the fervor of a true believer.

The problem is, Colony Collapse Disorder has hit the Seppis just as the California almond season is underway. They must scramble to negotiate a contract dispute with a customer, or possibly go out of business just when they were getting the business going.

The parents have invested heavily in the business, and their life savings are hanging in the balance. The mother is particularly outraged at the idea that a businessperson would try to renege on a contract, as though she’d never imagined such a thing was possible.

Along with sketching these character studies, Gunn and McDonnell attempt to capture a certain poetry about the world of bees. This is not difficult; gaze at a cloud of buzzing honeybees for a while, and the sight is mesmerizing.

We also watch the busy work of a hive being built, and the mad instincts that lead bees to work together in their coordinated project. One expert describes the amazing way such a communal system works, and then observes that if mankind operated in a similar way, it would be “an utterly ruthless society.”

That comment helps us avoid romanticizing the bees. But still, you’d hate to try to get through life without them.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talked with Marcie Sillman about the Harry Potter series and whether there has been a previous movie phenomenon along them lines; it’s here. The movie bit kicks in at the 14-minute point. No KUOW appearance next Wednesday, because of the whole Thanksgiving thing.

Movie Diary 11/18/2010

Puppet Master: The Legacy (Robert Talbot, 2004); Puppet Master; Axis of Evil (David DeCouteau, 2010). This is the end, but only of the current PM box set – the ending of Axis of Evil makes it clear that more WWII-era string-pulling is coming. For the record, Legacy is a real stiff, just a bunch of excerpts of the previous films, laid in chronological order, with a pitiful wraparound thing. But really, the franchise-makers must be pissed that at the moment they put their box set out, Glenn Beck decided to co-opt the  title to hatch his far-ranging exposé of the fascist-Nazi-commie-Wilsonian-Mussolinian conspiracy.

A High Wind in Jamaica (Alexander Mackendrick, 1965). Having recently read Richard Hughes’ novel, I wanted to finally see the film version, especially because it sounded intriguing as a project for the director of Sweet Smell of Success. It isn’t quite the book and it can’t possibly be as tuned to a childhood viewpoint as the book is, but it has some good things going. I have to say the casting of Anthony Quinn as the main pirate takes away some richness and depth; because if you cast Anthony Quinn as a pirate, you’re going to get Anthony Quinn, pirate.

Movie Diary 11/17/2010

Starcrash (Luigi Cozzi, 1979). I am not entirely sure where this movie has been all my life, but you know what they say – some things come to you when you’re ready for them. Or words to that effect. It’s got Caroline Munro and Marjoe Gortner and a perfectly unlined David Hasselhoff, with an extended cameo by Christopher Plummer an an Emperor. Don’t let any tongue-in-cheek enthusiasts fool you – this really is an atrocious movie, except that some of the nonsensical visuals are kind of fun to look at and the score is by John Barry.