Movies invade us, and we invade them. It’s a personal transaction. When the Harry Potter film series launched, my children were close to the ages of kid Harry and his new chums at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They have grown together, shared the vision, forged a fidelity. With personal interest, I turn to:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
J.K. Rowling’s inaugural Potter novel stormed bookstores in 1997, and the first film (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) was released in 2001. Veteran fans have lived a long stretch of life inside Harry’s world. In love with candles, steam trains, and heavy, crafted objects, the Potter realm has the stuffed richness of Dickens. Rowling is no Dickens, but her compulsive creative energy has made her the auteur of the series far more than any director could be. David Yates, again relying on principal adapter Steve Kloves, directs his third Potter with Part 1 of the final book, The Deathly Hallows (Part 2 arrives July 15).
These are movies you make when you don’t have to worry about making money. Hallows sold 15 million copies in one day, and the film series has made over $5 billion. There is a vast, built-in audience for the saga’s increasing darkness, which in last year’s Half-Blood Prince included the exit of Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon left movingly, in a style worthy of the late Richard Harris, who wore the epic Dumbledore beard in the first two films). Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) have fully sprouted and suffer some adult frictions, yet devout fans can still see the adorable kids inside. Watson is the most expressive, Grint the funniest, and hero Radcliffe soldiers on, small but intrepid. Maturing performances are a bonus, but the show’s the thing, and by now it seems much richer than any theme park that could ever be made from it.
The evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is gaining the upper hand. Hogwarts is absent. The huge Ministry of Magic has become monstrously fascist. If, like me, you find some plot elements too soaked in arcane clues and murky myth, the glorious production design, effects, and some elegant animation will carry you along. Harry is on the run, a boy hunted into manhood, pursued by Voldemort’s furies. The breaking of the final book into two movies pays off in this film’s meditative middle. Under slate skies, Harry and his two pals wander like little Lears, across desolate, beautiful terrain (Scotland?). The story takes time for fateful moods as Harry, Ron, and Hermione survive without Hogwarts and Dumbledore. Emma Watson’s lovely face is a fine weather vane for the turbulent emotions.
There are subtle shocks, such as Hermione sadly but compassionately erasing her parents’ memories of her. Also, harsh ones, such as the shrieking close-up of crazy Bellatrix (Helena Bonham Carter), reminiscent of Caravaggio’s Medusa. Emotionally, this movie is tougher than its PG-13 rating. John Hurt, Rhys Ifans, and Bill Nighy drop in, vividly. I always want more of Alan Rickman’s brooding Snape, who can make each syllable sound like a royal telegram from the dark side. J.K. Rowling employs her fabulous wand any way she wishes, and the theme song of the great Potter epic could be Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” (In Hogwarts days a touch of tragic/ Was looked on as simply magic/ As Harry knows, anything goes). By now, the painful end of certain of these Potter figures does feel tragic. But, like Harry, we press on. One can only graduate from Hogwarts by going all the way.
Rio de Janeiro’s immense landfill dump is Jardim Gramacho, where catadores (scavengers) pick every day among 200 new tons of garbage. Fortunately, Lucy Walker’s documentary Waste Land is not smellable, so we can savor the colorful variety of Brazilian trash bags, the carnival castoffs strewn about like festive notes, the moving stoicism of many of the pickers.
Their labor union is led by the young, charismatic Tiao, a black Orpheus for this septic underworld. A long day’s work can bring $20 for recycled materials. Kids play amongst trash, and women show a desperate pride in not being reduced to prostitution. The film centers on Vik Muniz, an engaging émigré artist and a big success in his adopted New York. He returns to Rio for creative and humanitarian reasons.
With Walker and cinematographer Dudu Miranda, Muniz has a hawk’s eye for the weird beauty of bulldozed hillocks of trash and the catador faces that he chose to star in photographic portraits. The subjects frame their pictures with gaudy collages of junk. Their own lives are being recycled as art. Many are impressive figures, including a delightful woman who seizes on the project as her exit ticket from the depths. In a strong light, dark birds circling above the dump can remind us of Van Gogh’s masterpiece, Wheat Field with Crows. Think what Vincent could have done with Jardim Gramacho.
Bill Nighy is Victor, the hired killer in Wild Target. His dry, prim manner and moustache revive fond memories of Clifton Webb (Who? Check him out on YouTube). Victor extends a proud lineage of assassins, as his bossy mother (Eileen Atkins) keeps reminding him. Still sexually vague at 54, he feels demurely drawn to both a klepto-nympho (Emily Blunt), who has foolishly shopped a forged Rembrandt, and a youth who becomes Victor’s apprentice. He is Rupert Grint, far from Harry Potter, with a fuzz of ginger beard.
A few tart, amusing lines (“I’m not a gangster, but I was in real estate for 20 years”) echo the fabled Kind Hearts and Coronets, yet this British movie based on a French farce falls into morbid silliness. Bodies pile up and director Jonathan Lynn settles below his best form (My Cousin Vinny).
This lark has sparks but never quite catches fire. Not even Nighy’s exquisite timing makes up for the pushy music, the frantic car chase, the disposable deaths. Too often, our chuckles remind us that we aren’t really laughing.
Kings of Pastry
When Audrey Hepburn’s soufflé refuses to rise at the Paris cooking school in Sabrina, it’s cute. When a young chef’s confectionary sculpture collapses in Kings of Pastry, it’s a culinary Pearl Harbor. It is also the high (and low) moment of this documentary.
Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker are married documentary veterans (The War Room, etc.) who film an elite contest for pastry chefs held every four years, the M.O.F. (Best Craftsmen in France). For three days in Lyon, the invited masters concoct virtually Proustian goodies and build lavish, fragile displays that they must carry, at high risk, to buffet tables. It is clock-driven, grueling work, and while the sweet treats are tempting, by film’s end I wanted something salty or a salad.
Certain figures are followed closely, notably a fretful Alsatian who runs a pastry school in Chicago, but it is the group that stars — the fraternity of cooks and judges. At the prize ceremony, the head judge gets so amped, you’d think he was announcing the return of Charles de Gaulle. This handsome movie has French flair. It is also a wedding cake with 16 grooms and no brides. No females have competed, ever. By not examining that and other issues (such as why much of the sugary art is kitsch), the makers are left, finally, a few cookies short.