"Let me count the ways I love the Harry Potter movies," wrote Amy Taubin in the summer of 2009, as if asking permission to do so in Artforum's virtual pages. First, they "remind me of growing up enthralled with English childhoods," but "mostly I love Harry Potter for the actors." Singled out in particular are "Alan Rickman's Professor Severus Snape, looking more than ever like a formaldehyde version of John Cale in his Velvet Underground days. Rickman is a genius at allowing conflicting thoughts and impulses to flicker across his face while keeping most of what he's up to under wraps. He is also the winner of a tough competition with Maggie Smith (as Professor Minerva McGonagall) over who can deliver the most plumy version of dry wit; he bridges the second and third words of a three-word sentence with a full five-second pause."
In other words, it's the diction. And the Englishness, which is the coincidental theme of this week's roundup of reviews of films now opening in theaters. Those names — Severus Snape, Minerva McGonagall — could have come straight from Dickens, of course, and a large part of the attraction of the Harry Potter franchise is the idea that in some dimension just around the corner, there's a sort of a Victorian amusement park anyone might enter with the utterance of just the right spell. Prime Minister David Cameron has even gone so far as to call on British filmmakers to make them more like Harry Potter — films that, like a good old-fashioned royal wedding, will "encourage people to come and visit our country." (James Russell comments in the Guardian.) There's a certain frisson, too, in the sight of Harry and friends whisking through contemporary London on their flying brooms that, while not as radical as, say, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, conjures a delight in the incongruity.
Before sampling some of what's being said about Harry Potter 7A, I should note that if we had such a feature as "Film of the Week," it'd be Claire Denis's White Material, and the entry on that one is being updated here. William S Burroughs: A Man Within is also on a few screens, and that entry's going on here. (And off screens, but still being updated, is the entry on this week's DVDs, with Chaplin and The Night of the Hunter and all.) But back to the English.
And to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, "the finest Potter film yet," according to Kimberley Jones in the Austin Chronicle. "To any agnostic who squirmed through the early, lightly cartoonish pictures, that may sound like qualified praise. Let's try it again: I came to the first six films of the Harry Potter cycle as both a fan and a film critic — two discrete personages with sometimes competing interests and expectations. This is the first film in the series in which I didn't have to distinguish between the two, or make apologies for one to the other. Top to bottom, it's a thrilling piece of cinema, from the superlative digital effects and original score from Alexandre Desplat — the best movie-music maestro working today — to the saga-scoped camerawork of cinematographer Eduardo Serra and Steve Kloves's deft distillation of one-half of 784 pages."
"For die-hard fans of the novels (those of you who recognize Mundungus Fletcher and understand splinching), the movie's haste is merely aggravating," writes Dan Kois in the Voice. "But casual viewers — who last visited Harry's world in the summer of '09 — might well tune out the details and just enjoy the scenery. Which, it should be said, is very scenic! There's the action scenery: The fights, both airborne and grounded, are exciting and unusually coherent, and the special effects are top-notch as usual. There's the scenery-scenery: Our on-the-run heroes set up camp on any number of windswept British heaths and hillsides, majestically shot by Eduardo Serra. And of course there's the acting scenery: Aficionados of Brit drama can play the customary game of spot-the-thespian."
"The production design is dense with visual allusions to 20th-century totalitarianism," notes AO Scott in the New York Times, "while the battered and dispersed good guys carry some of the romance of guerrilla resistance, taking to the countryside and living rough as they search for weak spots in their enemy's strategy.... Not that Deathly Hallows is grim, exactly. But it is, to an unusual and somewhat risky degree, sadder and slower than the earlier films."
Which is a problem for more than a few critics. The set-up has Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) fleeing to the countryside, "where they set up tents, debate how to find and destroy 'Horcruxes'... and generally fret about their on-the-lam circumstances," sighs Nick Schager in Slant. "When during this do-nothing period Ron freaks out at Harry for being clueless about how to save them, as well as for supposedly putting the moves on Hermione, his rage is at once misplaced (Harry's no amorous backstabber!) and yet completely justified, as it's all too easy to relate to frustration over such a static, navel-gazing scenario." Director David Yates's film "is a thoroughly inert affair, and even in those more action-packed moments, the director sabotages any potential tension and excitement by editing his CG-heavy centerpieces to ribbons.... Yates not only delivers all setup and no payoff, he delivers a setup that's neither thrilling nor consequential."
More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 3 out of 5 stars), Richard Corliss (Time), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3 out of 4), David Edelstein (New York), Giovanni Fazio (Japan Times, 3 out of 5), David Gritten (Telegraph), Ann Hornaday (Washington Post, 3 out of 4), Tom Huddleston (Time Out London, 3 out of 5), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 3.5 out of 5), Peter Keough (Boston Phoenix, 3 out of 4), Drew Lazor (Philadelphia City Paper, B), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe, 3 out of 4), Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune, 3 out of ?), Anthony Quinn (Independent, 2 out of 5), Jasper Rees (Arts Desk), Tasha Robinson (AV Club, C), Dana Stevens (Slate), Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times), Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 4 out of 5), Kim Voynar (Movie City News) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 8 out of 10).
"A lot has happened since the screenwriter Steve Kloves began working on his adaptation of the very first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, in the late 1990s." A profile by Sarah Lyall in the NYT. James Rocchi talks with just about all the leads for MSN Movies and Tom Huddleston interviews Yates for Time Out London. For the New Yorker, Macy Halford reports on Christians who've come to the defense of the series, following, of course, attacks on the books by other Christians. Mike Everleth recommends "entertaining documentary We Are Wizards," which he's embedded at Bad Lit. "The film specifically focuses on the multimedia aspect of fans' engagement with the source material and with each other, particularly the music subculture called Wizard Rock."
"Why are Brits so much more adroit than Yanks at pumping fresh blood into hoary melodramas?" asks New York's David Edelstein. "My guess is that it's their social-realist tradition: They know if they don't get the milieu just right, they'll get a stern talking-to from Michael Apted. The latest UK winner is the true-life-inspired feminist-union picture Made in Dagenham, which, beat by narrative beat, ought to have you rolling your eyes instead of balling your fists and audibly urging on its heroine, Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins)."
Nigel Cole's Made in Dagenham "closes with a few moments of documentary footage that provide a vivid glimpse at the real women behind a 1968 strike that shut down Ford production in the UK in the name of achieving equal pay for equal work for women." Keith Phipps at the AV Club: "Though just a fraction of the Ford workforce — fewer than 200 out of thousands — they held the line in spite of pressure on several fronts to bow down or settle for an unacceptable compromise. The women look like ordinary people pushed too far. They also look like they have far more interesting stories to tell than those found in the rest of the film."
"Though nothing here is as rousing as The Pajama Game's raise-baiting 'Seven and a Half Cents,'" writes Melissa Anderson in the Voice, "the always-welcome Miranda Richardson steals the film in a small role as Barbara Castle, Labour PM Harold Wilson's secretary of state for employment and productivity, threatening to 'go all womanly' on two puffed-up lad staffers."
More from Chris Barsanti (PopMatters, 6 out of 10), Stephen Holden (NYT), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Michelle Orange (Movieline, 7 out of 10), Mary Pols (Time), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 4 out of 5), Andrew Schenker (Slant, 1 out of 4), Justin Stewart (L), James van Maanen and Armond White (NYP). Interviews with Miranda Richardson: Matt Mazur (PopMatters) and Ella Taylor (NPR).
Moviegoers in the UK are spoilt for choice this week. For one thing, there's a 50th anniversary release well worth catching. "The tale of Peeping Tom is the tale of a man who made a film that ate him up, like Frankenstein with his monster, or an X‑rated riff on The Sorcerer's Apprentice," writes Xan Brooks. "Before its release, Michael Powell was an ageing lion of the British film establishment, the revered director of The Red Shoes, Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death. Afterwards he was a pariah, an exile. All it took was one movie to kill his career stone dead."
Also in the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw: "Carl Boehm plays Mark, a focus-puller at a movie studio, part-time porn photographer and compulsive amateur filmmaker, who has amassed a huge snuff-porn collection of black-and-white footage showing him murdering prostitutes — with a still more horrendous refinement, not revealed until the very end.... There's hardly anything more extraordinary in British cinema than Mark's Ballardian passion in the seedy photo studio, seeing his new model has an ugly deformity: 'They said you needn't photograph my face,' she sneers with poignantly empty bravado. 'I vant to... I vant to!' he gasps. An intimately disturbing experience." Also: "Peeping Tom was about porn, a subject broached explicitly yet casually — an act of taboo-busting far more sensational than the lavatory glimpsed in Psycho. More than this, it is about the way porn is a hidden, flourishing adjunct to the notionally respectable worlds of cinema and, specifically, the newspaper industry."
"Asking Moira Shearer to dance on a deserted movie set, before she's stabbed to death by Boehm's customised tripod-spear, Powell, who directed her in The Red Shoes, is hardly letting himself off the hook," notes the Telegraph's Tim Robey. "By now the film is a canonical favourite of film theorists and horror buffs, its reputation even a little distorted in the opposite direction. But Otto Heller's Eastmancolor photography hasn't looked this obscenely ripe since 1960, thanks to a bang-up restoration job that flatters all Powell's intentions."
More from Dave Calhoun (Time Out London, 5 out of 5; explore, too, "Michael Powell's London") and Anthony Quinn (Independent, 5 out of 5). And here's an online viewing tip. Seriously: For just over 22 minutes, Mark Kermode talks with Martin Scorsese about Peeping Tom, Powell in general and why he's making Hugo Cabret in 3D. And a listening tip. Kermode and Simon Mayo talk with Thelma Schoonmaker about her husband's Peeping Tom.
Patrick Keiller's London "was made in the wake of a political non-event, the general election of 1992, when change was supposed to come," writes Mark Fisher for Sight & Sound. "The end of Tory rule was widely expected, not least by the Conservative Party itself, yet John Major was re-elected. Robinson in Space was released in 1997, the year the long-awaited change finally arrived. But far from ending the neoliberal culture that Keiller anatomised, Tony Blair's government would consolidate it.... The traumatic event which reverberates through Robinson in Ruins is the financial crisis of 2008. It's still too early to properly assess the implications of this crisis, but Robinson in Ruins shares with Chris Petit's Content (a film with which it has many preoccupations in common) the tentative sense that a historical sequence which began in 1979 ended in 2008. The 'ruins' Robinson walks through here are partly the new ruins of a neo-liberal culture that has not yet accepted its own demise and, for the moment, continues with the same old gestures like a zombie that doesn't know it's dead. Citing Fredric Jameson's observation in The Seeds of Time that 'it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations,' Robinson nevertheless dares to hope, if only for a moment, that the so-called credit crunch is something more than one of the crises by which capitalism periodically renews itself."
More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 3 out of 5), Wally Hammond (Time Out London, 4 out of 5), Nick Hasted (Arts Desk) and Tim Robey (Telegraph, 2 out of 4). Update, 11/20: "Much of Keiller's output since Robinson in Space has been concerned with the Blairite period of fervent and doomed hope regarding Britain's potential urban modernity," writes Brian Dillon in the Guardian. "In 2000 he made The Dilapidated Dwelling, a more conventional documentary (though still framed in fiction, and this time voiced by Tilda Swinton) about the decline of British housing stock. The City of the Future, an interactive installation shown at the BFI in 2007, revealed through archive footage how little the fabric of Britain's cities has altered since the invention of cinema. With Robinson in Ruins, Keiller embarks on a wider survey of the conundrum of the English landscape: the way the countryside has long been the seat of industry and infrastructural innovation, but is still culturally figured as natural, homely, picturesque. Some of Keiller's thinking on this subject has been nourished in collaboration with the geographer Doreen Massey and the cultural historian Patrick Wright, both of whom have written compellingly on the power structures that link city, country and global capital."
Also opening in the UK this week is Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, "a total wonderwork: enchanting, bizarre, complex, original," for Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times. "Buddhistically, it is all about reincarnation and transmigration. Simultaneously, the film is for all creeds and continents, a rapturous unfolding of realities within realities. We are the sum not just of other, connected lives — ancestors, offspring — but of shape-shifting states of being (dreams, hopes, illnesses, fears, premonitions). Only Apichatpong among contemporary filmmakers dares to realise these themes in their unapologetic allegorical glory. He made the luxuriantly symbolic Tropical Malady, where meanings grew like jungle plants and where, as here, the charm of naivety — only partly faux — rioted in an Henri Rousseau primitivism incandescent with wonder." More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 5 out of 5), Ryan Gilbey (New Statesman), David Jenkins (Time Out London, 4 out of 5) and Tim Robey (Telegraph, 4 out of 4). Interviews with Apichatpong: David Jenkins (Time Out London) and Steve Rose (Guardian).
"The director Philip Ridley scares up a sinister-spooky atmosphere straightaway in Heartless, a horror movie that's art-house aspirational and involves violence, madness, faith and the evil that men, demons or just filmmakers do," writes Manohla Dargis in the NYT. "Set in a contemporary East London churning with dark shadows and inexplicable savagery, this digitally shot, visually murky movie is a muddle of tones ranging from the grotesque to the queasily comic to the absurd."
"The London of Heartless is dark, sordid, and unknowable, a shadowy realm of secrets and lies, but it doesn't come alive until the great Eddie Marsan (Happy Go Lucky) surfaces for a game-changing supporting performance," writes Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. "Marsan plays his emissary from hell as a dry-witted, genial mid-level bureaucrat whose business just happens to involve coercing unfortunate souls into committing gruesome murders. Marsan's virtuoso turn signals a tonal shift from pretentious atmospherics into a more conventional tale of a deal with the devil gone awry. Heartless gets progressively better as it goes along, and benefits from a poignant late cameo from Timothy Spall as [Jim] Sturgess's beloved father, but it never recovers from a dull first hour."
More from David Fear (TONY, 2 out of 5), Nick Pinkerton (Voice), Nick Schager (Slant, 1 out of 4), Henry Stewart (L) and Scott Tobias (NPR). James van Maanen talks with Ridley and Sturgess.
To the States. "If you want a solid, no-frills example of A-list talents stooping to B-movie pleasures, I hereby direct you to Unstoppable, the runaway train movie currently in theaters," advises Ty Burr in the Boston Globe. "The Next Three Days represents the opposite approach: a name filmmaker and star trying with all their might to pump a slender genre flick into an Oscar-caliber action-drama — and failing."
"Astounded to see his vaguely hot-tempered wife imprisoned for a murder she swears she didn't commit, a vaguely even-tempered professor concludes that he must try to break her out," explains Jonathan Kiefer in the Faster Times. "The professor is played by Russell Crowe, and his wife is played by Elizabeth Banks. He has cleverness and tenacity; she has a sweet face that makes it easy to believe she doesn't deserve her plight. If only that were enough. [Writer-director Paul] Haggis, the Oscar-laden ex-Scientologist who wrote and directed Crash and In the Valley of Elah, wrote Million Dollar Baby and Clint Eastwood's two Iwo Jima movies, and co-wrote two recent James Bond movies, has a penchant for agitators persevering through desperate situations. He also has a bent toward bloat, and at times his title The Next Three Days seems like a disclaimer about how much time this movie actually will take to get where it's going."
More from Melissa Anderson (Voice), Josef Braun, Ed Champion, Roger Ebert (Sun-Times, 2.5 out of 4), David Edelstein (New York), Ben Kenigsberg (Time Out Chicago, 3 out of 5), Matt Prigge (Philadelphia Weekly, C+), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 2 out of 5), Nick Schager (Slant, 2.5 out of 4), AO Scott (NYT), Scott Tobias (AV Club, C+), Lindy West (Stranger), Mike Wilmington (MCN) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 7.5 out of 10). Interviews with Haggis: Scott Foundas (Film Comment) and Mike Ryan (Movieline). Steven Zeitchik profiles Crowe for the LAT.
"Mumbai-born, British-raised [Aasif] Mandvi won an Obie for his 1998 one-man show Sakina's Restaurant and has graced numerous movies (The Mystic Masseur, Spider-Man 2, It's Kind of a Funny Story), but he's best-known here as a correspondent for The Daily Show," writes Andrea Gronvall in Time Out Chicago. "Refreshingly, Mandvi and ex–Daily Show scribe Jonathan Bines relegate snark to the back burner in their screenplay for Today's Special, an intimately scaled domestic comedy that, like a well-spiced meal, gradually radiates warmth without overwhelming its main ingredients." More from Roger Ebert (Sun-Times, 3 out of 4), Mike Hale (NYT), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe, 3 out of 4), Michelle Orange (Voice), Nathan Rabin (AV Club, C), Nick Schager (TONY, 3 out of 5), Andrew Schenker (Slant, 2.5 out of 4) and James van Maanen.
"Pablo Pineda, the first student with Down's syndrome in Europe to obtain a university degree, plays a fictitious version of his over-achieving self, Daniel, in Me, Too," writes Diego Costa in Slant (3 out of 4 stars). "As a new employer at the Disability Services office of Seville, Spain, 34-year-old Daniel quickly becomes enamored with workplace cock-tease Laura (the excellent Lola Dueñas), a spunky, chain-smoking peroxide blonde with bad roots who goes around saying she's an orphan, even though she isn't. Pablo's Down syndrome is more quirky conduit than obstacle for their friendship, until it becomes obvious that Pablo wants more than what Laura can give." More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT) and Ernest Hardy (Voice).
"In America, where family values, talk therapy and on-camera confessions are equally popular, it's no surprise that the dysfunctional-childhood documentary is something of a specialty," writes Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT. "Yet even in a field becoming more crowded by the year, Family Affair emerges as one of its more complex and unsettling examples." More from David Fear (TONY, 3 out of 5) and Andrew Schenker (Voice).
"Largely a two-character psychological drama, writer-director Urszula Antoniak's Nothing Personal has sufficient visual and performance-driven smarts, despite shortcomings of structure and plot, that its maker's promise is more solid than this debut feature," writes Bill Weber in Slant. More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT) and Ernest Hardy (Voice).
"Bob Ray, Austin's newish lowbrow Maysles brother, has taken his two latest features on the road, comprising the pro-am doc equivalent to being piss-drunk and lost in a tattoo alley in Texas," writes Michael Atkinson in the Voice. Mike Hale for the NYT: "Hell on Wheels, from 2007, and the new Total Badass, playing in repertory at the ReRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn, focus on a lower-middle-class world where drugs, beer and tattoos compete for attention with paying the rent and getting the kids to school."
"For the fifth year running, MoMA's Department of Film, in association with IFP and its quarterly publication Filmmaker, screens the five nominees for the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You award." Through Monday. Michael Tully has an overview at Hammer to Nail.
"A sequel to his 2006 Hollywood Dreams, Henry Jaglom's Queen of the Lot again stars Tanna Frederick as Maggie, an Iowa farm-girl-turned-action-starlet-turned-TMZ-staple," writes Karina Longworth in the LA Weekly. "In an obvious nod to Lindsay Lohan, a series of DUIs have left this redhead shackled with a location-monitoring ankle bracelet and a dearth of acting work.... Queen of the Lot is sort of sweet in its earnestness, sort of frustratingly delusional, and ultimately unsubstantial — but there are moments of self-awareness that almost justify the lopsided enterprise."
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