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Column Fri Jul 15 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Winnie the Pooh, Tabloid, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest & Public Speaking

As a lover of film, I've really enjoyed watching the parade of great British actors come in and out of Harry's work as various professors or bad guys or parents of Harry's classmates. It seems like nearly everyone of them makes an appearance in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, whether their characters are dead or alive, but I didn't really care because I love seeing them. Although I will admit it's bizarre spotting a fleeting glimpse of Emma Thompson's Prof. Sybil Trelawney in one sequence in this film and realize she never utters a word. And she's not the only prominent actor whose appearance here is reduced to a single line or no lines at all.

There's no real need to recap the plot of Deathly Hallows, Part 2. If you saw the last film, it's more of the same. Harry, Hermione and Ron are still chasing down the remaining Horcruxes. Lord Voldemort (the fantastic Ralph Fiennes) launches an assault on Hogwarts that results in some phenomenal destruction. And secrets involving Harry, the late Prof. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, seen a great deal in flashback here), Prof. Snape (possibly my favorite Potter-verse character, played by Alan Rickman), and many others are revealed. The amount of pure information unleashed on the audience in this two-hour-plus film is exhausting, and while I'm sure it will please the fans of the books, as a means of moving the story forward, it feels like maybe the filmmakers are pushing too hard. The film's most emotionally devastating moments are slower, quiet events, in particular, the absolutely perfect epilogue set many years after the end of the great war between Potter and Voldemort.

I was patient with the plot-heavy Deathly Hallows, Part 1 because I'd assumed Part 2 would be the magnificent payoff of a full-blown battle to end all battles, and there is certainly more destruction per capita than any of the other Harry Potter films, but it still left me feeling a bit underwhelmed, with some exceptions. This is the most I've felt Fiennes' Voldemort is an actual character, for no other reason than he gets a great deal of screen time for once. I sometimes enjoy when the villain is more an unseen force than a physical, menacing body to fight off. But Fiennes is so strong as the character, he needs to be seen. And any time he and Harry lock in actual combat, I was mesmerized. I also enjoyed watching Hogwarts' destruction; there's a real sense of loss witnessing that, although I don't think the film deals with how much death was caused during the war, save one startling shot of the corpses of a couple of well-known characters next to each other.

I don't mean to imply that I didn't like The Deathly Hallows, Part 2. It moves really well, and I enjoyed the tremendous number of flashbacks that give us much-needed puzzle-solving moments about many of the characters. I think I was most startled by one featuring Dumbledore revealing the true nature of his interest in Harry since he was a baby. I don't want to talk too much about story, but I was surprised how many characters from years past make their way into this film; sometimes I felt like constant writer Steve Kloves and returning director David Yates were using a crowbar to get people into this movie, but I didn't care because I missed Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, and others. I also dug the new characters brought in for this ride, including Dumbledore's brother, Aberforth (Ciaran Hinds), and the ghostly Helena Ravenclaw (Kelly Macdonald).

I'm not sure how much I can add to this review, except to say that this is not my favorite of the series (that honor still belongs to The Prisoner of Azkaban); it probably lies somewhere in the middle of the ranking. I still am getting no real development from the characters of Hermione and Ron (Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, respectively). They are without a doubt faithful companions, but there's zero growth for them in this chapter. The only thing I truly loathed about The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 was the miserable 3D experience. Seriously, 85 percent of this film is set in extreme darkness. I can't believe the filmmakers or the studio would curse us with darkening the screen further with 3D glasses. Seriously bad call. If you care about this series, avoid the 3D screenings at all cost.

I'm guessing most die-hard Potter fans are going to cheer, weep and feel their hearts fill with joy as the movie version of these adventures wraps up with a "pop" rather than a "bang." Maybe that's the way this uniquely British storytelling ought to conclude, but the American in me wanted just a little more kick out of The Deathly Hallows, Part 2. The films is stunningly shot (at least the stuff you can make out behind the dim 3D), the music is loaded with threatening vibes, and the acting is superb. That's a pretty strong set of pluses to put against my mild disappointment at the turns the story takes and what the filmmakers chose to emphasize. Still, a mild recommendation, but I really would like to see it in 2D to really gauge my feelings on it.

Winnie the Pooh

I hate to begin a positive review so negatively, but screw all CG animation. If a one-hour feature (plus a five-minute short) can make me laugh and feel as much as this classically rendered Winnie the Pooh did, then I'm in favor of banning it forever. What I wasn't prepared for was how instantaneously my childhood came rushing back to me. I'm not sure if it was just seeing these wonderful characters back on the big screen (for the first time in 35 years) or hearing their voices again or seeing this collection of talking stuffed animals under the guidance of Christopher Robin, but my God, this one had me captivated. And as much as this film is clearly aimed at young children, there are going to be more than a few weepy and/or giddy adults by their side.

There is something undeniably moving about the innocence of Winnie the Pooh stories by A.A. Milne. And I'd forgotten how much I adore the supporting players as well. My favorite is still Eeyore, the depressive donkey, who clearly needs therapy and a steady dose anti-depressants. He's also the funniest of the Hundred Acre Woods gang. A contest is devised among the animals to replace Eeyore's missing tail. The prize is an overflowing jar of honey (or should I say hunny?), so the always hungry Pooh is hellbent on winning. These are the stakes of a typical Pooh story, and that's why my heart leapt out of my chest watching this glorious little movie.

Jim Cummings (who has been voicing Pooh and Tigger since the 1980s) gives Pooh the voice of an old soul, who is never confrontational and can rarely control his impulse to seek out and eat honey. A sequence involving Piglet and Pooh going after a bees nest is downright hysterical, partly due to Piglet being so agreeable as Pooh wantonly puts his life in danger to dislodge the nest. Rounding out the cast of characters are Rabbit (voiced by Tom Kenny), Owl (Craig Ferguson), and the mother-son team of Kanga and Roo (I'll let you figure out what animal they both are). To add the icing on the cake, John Cleese acts as narrator of Winnie the Pooh.

A second story has the gang building an elaborate trap to capture the legendary (according to owl) woodland monster known as the Backsoon, who the group believes has kidnapped Christopher Robin. Naturally, the animals immediately get caught in their own trap. Directors Stephen J. Anderson (Meet the Robinsons) and Don Hall (a great Disney story artist) hit all the right notes by keeping things simple and traditional. I especially liked the way the characters sometime bump into the letters of the book that features their story, or the letters tumble into the story if jostled. It's a gimmick that is used quite effectively.

Winnie the Pooh avoids all the trappings of today's animated features. There's no 3D, no elaborately rendered backdrops, no zany voice actors. There's a grace and dignity to these creatures and to this simply told stories. I'm not sure how else to put it, but revisiting Pooh and his friends put me in a place where being a kid was fun and treasuring the small things was a fine art. This is a beautiful, elegant work that no child should miss.

Tabloid

Oscar-winning master documentarian Errol Morris has a singular way of making decades-old stories (such as The Fog of War, Mr. Death, and The Thin Blue Line) seem as relevant today as they were when they were fresh news. And while his latest, Tabloid, may seem to tackle a slightly lighter-weight than he usually does, the subtexts of a Mormon coverup, persecuting women who are sexually liberated, and turning possible criminal into a celebrity (hello Casey Anthony) ring as true today as they did 30-plus years ago when former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney may or may not have kidnapped her Mormon lover and had sex with him repeatedly in a hotel in Britain, where she became a celebrity for her escapades.

The way Joyce tells it today, the tryst was mutual, and she's a convincing storyteller. Although age has taken away her youth, she's still an attractive woman with a charming demeanor. She flirts relentlessly with the camera and Morris, and her story of the Mormon Church taking away her boyfriend and brainwashing him to lie about what she did to him seems like a classic smokescreen. But as Morris picks apart Joyce's life after the scandal (with the help of the tabloid journalists who covered the story all those years ago), there is a life that is a far cry from the innocence one she says she lived prior to her kidnapping charge. Morris' approach goes beyond the titillation of the time and really digs into the mind of a woman who may be a chronic liar who believes her own fictionalized biography. I believe some people call that delusional.

Joyce went into seclusion for many years, and then suddenly re-emerged recently when she engaged the help for a South Korean cloning facility for a groundbreaking procedure. You literally can't make this stuff up, although Joyce does a great job trying. Despite its title, Tabloid is not a exposé or condemnation on newspapers that live to wreck the lives of celebrities and/or politicians with naughty photos, wiretaps, or other legally or barely legal surveillance devices. Instead, Morris paints a portrait of a woman who plays the victim of the tabloid press but courts them for fear of not being written about or photographed. I don't know if Joyce was the first of her ilk, but she certainly was one of the best at generating ink through appearances and paid-for interviews. Much like Morris' Standard Operating Procedure, Tabloid may be one of his most timely works, and it's certainly among his strongest pieces of investigative journalism. You'll dig it. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

As eye-opening as some of the archival material and memories are in this documentary about the influential hip-hop act A Tribe Called Quest, it's the hear-and-now footage (from the group's 2008 reunion tour to more or less present day) that is the most gripping and startling as band mates Q-Tip and Phife Dawg (with members Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White sit patiently on the sidelines) battle over things that only two men who grew up together could fight about. You almost can't identify what the beefs are about, but the tension is undeniable, and actor-turned-director Michael Rapaport is there to capture every nasty word of it.

But Rapaport wisely reminds us that what made ATCQ worth caring about in the first place was only partly about the ying and yang personalities of its two frontmen. The music, trippy lyrics, and unique samples made these guys pioneers of the genre. The filmmakers have lined up an army of famous musicians, actors and others to sing the praises of the group, and that's all great but it's also expected. The film shines brightest when it sticks to telling the sometimes stranger-than-fiction stories of its members, particularly Phife Dawg, whose medical condition nearly cost him his life when the group was at its peak and then again more recently.

But for as much as we learn about Phife Dawg's life, we learn very little about the world that Q-Tip inhabits outside of the studio and the stage. He and everyone around him knows he's a perfectionist and workaholic. Some of their albums had to be forcibly removed from his hands (he was also the group's producer) by the record company or management. But there is no getting around the fact that most ATCQ's five records were highly influential and all were successful. Music experts and group members dig deep into the creative process, making the film not only a fun trip down memory lane, but also a guide to opening up an artist's mind and seeing what makes him tick.

It's the film's final act that is the most emotional, as the rift between Q-Tip and Pfife Dawg grows and Pfife's health deteriorates. There's a final sequence that takes place in a New York rehearsal space shortly before a too-much-money-to-turn-down tour of Japan that is perhaps the greatest moment of Beats, Rhymes & Life, because it gives us hope that these inventive, creative masters may rise again. Here's hoping. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Public Speaking

As bizarre as it might sound, the voice of author and self-declared know-it-all Fran Lebowitz is one that has made me laugh and given comfort since I was a teen watching one of her dozens of appearances on David Letterman's old NBC show. I've still never read a word from one of her books--although this documentary from director Martin Scorsese (which ran on HBO earlier this year) may finally make do so, so it's purely through her thoughts and voice that I discovered her take on popular entertainment, technology, New York, the arts, gay culture, and so many other topics.

Public Speaking isn't so much a biographical exercise through Lebowitz's life; we get bits and pieces about her childhood, experience moving to New York, and rising through the ranks of literature to be one of the more celebrated humorist writers of our time. We see extended segments of her in conversation with Scorsese in a Greenwich Vilage, and the way her brain works fascinates me. She enjoys conversation, but not as much as she enjoys lecturing because she doesn't have to listen to anybody else but her. Her belief that her ideal job would be a Supreme Court justice because they answer to no one makes sense under those parameters. Other segments show her in a Q&A session with friend Toni Morrison, and it's strange to see Lebowitz challenge Morrison on topics of race, literature and gender identity.

The scattered archival footage is also kind of great, especially when Lebowitz talks about her time in the '80s writing for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, or taking part in a vapid interview inside Studio 54, with every answer being a dig at the glossy reporter interviewing Lebowitz. And Lebowitz's analysis of Warhol's theory of stardom is fascinating and probably 100 percent true. Scorsese also includes older clips of other noted thinkers and speakers, such as James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote makes complete sense in the context of the Lebowitz framework. One of the more tense moments in the film comes in front of what I believe is a college crowd, when she talks about how gays fighting to get in the military and get married might be one of the most pointless endeavors she's ever seen. "Why are we fighting to get into the two most restrictive institutions on the planet?"

I lived in New York for a couple of years in the early '90s, and I ran into Lebowitz a double feature at the now defunct St. Marks Place Theater. I foolishly approached her, said I loved her appearances on Letterman, and walked away before she had a chance to say more than "That's so sweet, thank you." This film reinforces my belief that walking away was the wrong thing to do, but I didn't feel my mind was sharp enough at the time to enter into a conversation, but the story would be better if I had. To Lebowitz, the story, the anecdote, the observation is always the greater good. And Public Speaking is the greatest good. It opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Mike Gebert / July 15, 2011 12:57 AM

"I'm not sure if it was just seeing these wonderful characters back on the big screen (for the first time in 35 years)"

Huh-uh. Both of these got theatrical release:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0323642/

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0220099/

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