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Holiday Movie Guide

Politics At The Movies: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

Now playing at the Esquire IMAX (non 3D) and theaters everywhere
Directed by David Yates

Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

Is Harry Potter a libertarian? University of Tennessee Law Professor Benjamin Barton thinks so, and he’s been teaching a class about it. He’s argued in print, repeatedly, that his fellow conservatives need to get off the mistaken idea that the virginal and rather square Potter is Satanic because he’s going pro in witchcraft.

Instead, Barton says, you should look at what he’s actually doing – uncovering an evil conspiracy (led by Voldermort) over the opposition of a shadowy, bloated and unelected bureaucracy, itself unhinged by power and ruled by a combination of fear and stupidity (The Ministry of Magic). The Ministry, of course, has been thoroughly infiltrated by a tribe of foppish elitists, the long hair and eyeliner of the evil metrosexual wizards contrasting with the fashion-free wholesomeness of the heroes. Voldemort himself, meanwhile, starts out as an overly curious student with an obsession with the dark arts that eventually allows him to split his soul in seven pieces (just like stem cell research, right?). And in an era when movie heroes and heroines seem to be really, really special for no apparent reason (entitlement culture much, Bella from “Twilight”?), the kids at Hogwarts get their skills with lots and lots and lots of hard work.

OK, I’m not entirely sure where in there Barton’s ideas ended and my old English major deconstructive instinct kicked in. The point is, while hip Internet bloggers may like to compare Glenn Beck to the Dark Lord, it’s Potter whose mission would appear to match how the weepy Fox News thespian sees himself and his followers: wholesome and caring, loyal to family, set upon by dark forces, patriotic to the deeper ideals that once stood behind the very edifice they now fight.

I should probably mention I’m pretty much a Harry Potter novice. I hated the first two movies, whose endless wide-eyed looks and soaring music left me feeling bludgeoned by whimsy. I’ve never read any of the books and, until recently, had written off the entire cultural phenomena. The third movie, “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” changed all that. A better director (Alfonso Cuarón, “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) helped.

But it also seemed to be when the story turned political in a whole new way. Who was the Prisoner (Sirius Black), if not a political prisoner, silenced by a media smear campaign even when he’d gained his freedom? I still haven’t seen the fourth film, but last weekend turned into a Harry Potter marathon around here, with home viewings of numbers five and six wrapped around an IMAX screening of part seven.

“The Order of the Phoenix” was Potter as written by George Orwell, with Hogwarts School taken over by Ministry-thought police. They want to make the students passive and, most important, defenseless – a charge that the right and the left often throw at each other when it comes to education. This time, it’s Harry as John Conner or Che, secretly training a rag-tag group of students to be a wizard army.

“The Half Blood Prince” was a disappointment, mostly a meandering setup for a far superior “Deathly Hallows” (in case you’re lost, the one that was just released). But “Half Blood” does bring in another interesting element. The series has long been obsessed with the tension between muggles (non-magic normals) and the witch/wizard class. Now elements in The Ministry are pushing a pure-race ethic – but one key character finds his way into the inner circle via one single anti-heroic act, despite being a half-breed himself.

Which, in turn, is liable to make you think of Nazis. Which is what Fox News chairman Roger Ailes called the folks at National Public Radio recently, in the kind of rhetorical flourish he’s become known for. Seen through the lens of British history, though, all of this may look a little different. The Ministry may play the part of the apologist prime minister Neville Chamberlain in the eve of World War II. The endless obsessions with mudbloods and muggles funhouse mirrors the British obsession with class – a society in which a gentlemen was expected to know immediately up to 200 regional and class accents and exactly where each placed the speaker in the status hierarchy. The boarding school setting follows a long British genre tradition of Eton and Oxford and the other places whose petty infighting trained the next generation of the political class.

In other words, the whole Harry Potter series is iconic, which is a nice way of saying utterly derivative. A messianic hero, orphaned and marked? Check. A mythology mash-up where familiar creatures are trotted out to play new roles in new adventures? Check. A series of items that have already appeared everywhere from King Arthur to Dungeons & Dragons? Check. A magical locket with a soul-eating power which is like a lite, teenage angsty version of the Ring the Lords were obsessed with? You got it.

Author J.K. Rowling’s brilliance is not originality. It’s how these elements are layered together into something both comfortingly familiar and yet fresh and completely realized enough to be entertaining, woven together with clever wordplay and interesting, appealing characters. In other words, any of us could see ourselves and our causes inside it.

Besides, there’s another reason why conservatives should love Harry Potter: Rowling is the first and only person in history to become a billionaire by writing books. Viva la resistance!

Holiday Movie Guide 

Reviews by Tony Sheppard

Love and Other Drugs

Directed by Edward Zwick
This is a surprisingly serious drama masquerading as a romantic comedy. But it manages to do both parts quite well, providing genuine laughs as well as causing a few Kleenex moments as it explores the serious dynamics of falling in love with a partner who has a degenerative disease (Parkinson’s).  

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Randall – the kind of character who is only an apparent loser because he comes from a family of over-achievers. Having dropped out of medical school, he enters the world of drug sales (as in pitching prescription drug brands to doctors) for its promises of easy high salaries and advancement. It’s a tough business and very competitive. However, for all of the crass aspects of the film, it may still fall short of the business and the period it depicts, in terms of the sheer bulk of freebies that drug reps used to hand out to doctors. I had a friend in the business, and I still have a box with desk clocks, mugs, and knee-jerk hammers emblazoned with the names of cholesterol medications.

While plying his wares, he meets Anne Hathaway’s Maggie Murdock, a young artist who has convinced herself that her disease will preclude her from having long-term relationships. As in all movies where both leads express their desire to avoid such things, love and relationship are apparently unavoidable.

For some, this will be thought of as the Viagra movie, but in the scope of the story, Viagra is just a device to move Gyllenhaal’s character along. It was such an immediate success that Jamie goes from being a struggling sales rep to a success overnight. It could have been any drug, it just happens to have been Viagra as a drug that is easy for audiences to both appreciate and giggle at, without having to second guess the ethics and outcomes of an additional serious condition.

Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are assisted by an able cast, most n
otably Oliver Platt and Hank Azaria, who each have roles that are smaller than some they have played but which needed to be played well. Together they deliver a movie that is deeper and more meaningful than might be expected. If all you want to do is laugh, this might not be the right choice – but if you’re looking for something more emotional, it might work for you.

Tangled

Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard

“Tangled” is a very traditional outing from the animation folks at Disney, complete with songs, an evil maternal figure, animal sidekicks, and a princess – but it’s generally successful application of that formula. As a re-telling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, it tells the story of a young girl with magic hair who is kept locked in a tower by a woman who claims to be her mother in order to harness the magic for herself. Of course she’s also a lost princess and yada yada yada.

Rapunzel’s sidekick in “Tangled” is a chameleon, which makes for a great animal character as it blends in with its backgrounds and fires its lengthy tongue at key moments. But even this appealing little guy is out-classed by a palace horse, which is vying with the eponymous dragon from “How to Train Your Dragon” as this year’s best animal character. Where that dragon was drawn and animated to appear catlike, this horse is more like an overgrown dog and steals most of the scenes it’s in.

I was moderately disappointed by some of the songs which, by Alan Menken, are fun while they last but also less catchy than the Randy Newman numbers that appear in some other animated fare. I didn’t leave with any of them stuck in my head (perhaps a good thing?). I also felt that there was a bit of a plot hole towards the end – I’m probably judging the film too harshly for its own genre and intended audience (but nobody seems to question the princess’ identity – there’s no glass slipper or critical characteristic to prove who she is). But, that said, I enjoyed this far more than last year’s “The Princess and the Frog,” which dabbled with much of the same formula, with another central female character, but which seemed to miss at almost every turn.

Overall, “Tangled” is a fun ride and is likely to have some appeal for most members of the family.  I wasn’t totally thrilled, but I’m also a tough audience – and even I had a good time. Although I’d still vote for “How to Train Your Dragon” over this and “Toy Story 3.”

127 Hours

Directed by Danny Boyle

In 2003, Aaron Ralston (James Franco) escaped the rat race, as was his habit, and disappeared for a couple of days in the canyonlands of Utah. Except that the trip didn’t go quite as planned. He found himself stuck in one of those canyons, trapped by a rock which crushed his right arm. The result was several days of introspection as he figured out how to free himself.  This may not sound like a great premise for a film, but the result is really quite cinematic, as directed by the excellent Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Millions,” “Slumdog Millionaire”).
The film does a neat job at the start of stressing what he’s getting away from, with split screens of traffic and the hustle and bustle of the city. Franco displays a change of expression and attitude as Ralston arrives in his wilderness happy place, away from those aspects of modern life. Boyle has explored these escapist themes before with Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Beach.”

Franco is good in the role, also, and commands a range of emotion that makes watching a guy trapped under a rock for five days surprisingly engaging and engrossing. He seems like an interesting guy in real life too, having put himself through the creative writing program at UCLA, graduate programs at NYU and Columbia, and now an English PhD program at Yale. Indeed, it has been reported that he had books hidden under the rock so that he could study between takes in the canyon.

Some of the choices Ralston had to make were not easy. He didn’t leave that canyon quite the same guy who fell into it – in more ways than one.  The film never shies away from sharing that experience, to the extent that any film can. It also captures the emotional film within a film as he records what he expects to be his last thoughts and statements on his ever-present camcorder.  

I was impressed by this film, and would recommend it to the non-squeamish. It’s a rare film that makes me want to meet the director, the lead actor, and also the subject of the story – and, on top of that, if this film doesn’t make you tell your friends where you’re going when you leave the house, nothing ever will.

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