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 11/16/2010

Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen (Margarethe von Trotta, 2009). An intensely focused look at the intellectual curiosity of the famed 12th-century nun, who is rendered not as a reclaimed heroine for modern times but as an ambiguous mover and shaker with complicated motives. In the title role, Barbara Sukowa rules. (full review 11/19)

Today’s Special (David Kaplan, 2009). Co-written by and starring Aasif Mandvi, whose acting roles are rather more ingratiating than his “Daily Show” persona. This film leans heavily on the foodie-movie formula. (full review 11/19)