By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire July 15, 2011 at 2:32AM
While the last installment in the "Harry Potter" film franchise is poised to break box-office records this weekend, a slew of indie releases also drop today to keep you away from the millions of Potter Heads lining up to see the boy wizard take on Lord Voldemort. To get an idea of what else is worth checking out, browse through all the reviews posted this week on indieWIRE and The Blog Network.
The enjoyably wacky scenario of Errol Morris’s “Tabloid” is cookie-cutter material for the documentarian, but Morris wields his cookie cutter like a pro. Doing penance for the grim, sterile polemics of “Standard Operating Procedure,” Morris bounces back with the sort of phenomenally surreal weird-but-true tale in which he excels. The result is not a major work, but still a wildly funny portrait that succeeds at inducing the incredulity Morris always seeks out.
Joyce McKinney is an interviewer’s dream come true: outgoing, garrulous, articulate, dramatic, and extremely self-aware. She’s also nuts, and part of the game in watching Tabloid is trying to determine how much of what she says is true and how much derives from her imagination.
The Playlist: A
Lately, documentarian Errol Morris has focused his films on terribly serious subject matter. 2003’s “Fog of War” centered on Robert S. McNamara, one of the chief architects of the bloody, morally nebulous Vietnam War, and 2008’s underappreciated “Standard Operating Procedure” told the story of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal through the photos themselves. The films were great, but they lacked the playfulness and oddball charm of earlier Morris films like his debut “Gates of Heaven” (about a pet cemetery) and 1997’s “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” about a bunch of weirdos with amazing professions (lion tamer, topiary artist, robotics expert, and a man devoted to blind, mutant-looking mole rats). So it’s something of a relief that Morris has largely left the dark stuff behind for his latest film, “Tabloid,” a gripping, thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud love story that turns out to be one of the documentarian’s very best films.
“Tabloid” has everything a fascinatingly salacious story requires and more—not just the kinky sex and layers of intrigue to keep you guessing about who’s lying and who’s telling whose version of the truth, but the humor, smarts, skill and sizzle to make it all irresistibly enthralling. Just because it has so much fun being naughty, though, doesn’t mean it’s nothing more than lightweight entertainment.
"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan"
“The world is always changing,” says one character in the 19th century. The line inevitably comments on the other era, where Shanghai continues to rapidly develop even as it maintains strong ties to the values of the past. Wang relies on that perspective to give “Snow Flower” the aura of importance, and initially succeeds, but the overarching philosophy gradually dissolves in a string of pretty pictures.
The Playlist: C+
Religion remains the one cinematic taboo. As it should be: developing belief systems to create order in a world that, to some, appears chaotic is as human as eating and breathing. To say it is the territory of the idle-minded is to neglect the healing power of a belief system, theistic or otherwise. But more often than not, it allows the eloquent and duplicitous an opportunity to capitalize on those that seek guidance.
The Playlist: C+
Gainsbourg is terrific as Dawn with whom we oscillate between sympathy and frustration. As an actress, Gainsbourg is just beginning to get the attention she deserves. Her work with Lars von Trier in 2009’s “Antichrist” and this year’s “Melancholia” has proven her to be a brave and intelligent performer. It is young Davies as Simone, however, that steals the movie from start to finish. She is perfect in her role as the hard-headed and determined daughter who wants nothing more than her father back. While Simone is at times infuriating for her refusal to be reasonable, these are the moments when Davies’ skills as an actress are most obvious and enjoyable.
The home invasion thriller is a genre that typically engages with issues of class and human instinct. In first-rate examples like “Funny Games” and the recent Spanish entry “Kidnapped,” a small group of captives face off against their oppressors under exceedingly frightening circumstances, and the stand-off almost always leads to a violent outbreak. The criminals usually target affluent homes and rarely get away with it. Out of the tension between their motives and the victims’ passage into Darwinian survival mode, these movies explore the danger of envy with near-biblical finesse.
The Playlist: B
Few people will disparage an expectant mother. People are people, good and bad, but there’s something majestic, alluring, and graceful about a pregnant female. It’s some inexplicable aura that surrounds them, a soft soothing light that alters the mood of anyone they come in contact with. A meaningful moment with one is akin to a divine experience. It’s this logic that permeates David Barker‘s “Daylight.”
"Life, Above All"
The reason to care about “Life, Above All” doesn’t stem from its bleeding-heart plot, which constitutes a mild act of poorsploitation (the same critique leveled at “Slumdog Millionaire” and other tales that use third-world backdrops for dramatic shorthand). The reason to care is newcomer Khomotso Manyaka, who nimbly shoulders a role that places her front and center in nearly every scene.
One of the year’s most striking and memorable performances is given by a 12-year-old girl who never set foot in front of a camera before she was chosen to play the leading role in Life, Above All. This moving adaptation of Allan Stratton’s award-winning novel Chanda’s Secrets was directed by Oliver Shmitz, who was raised by German parents in South Africa, where the story takes place.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two"
While Part One of The Deathly Hallows played like a place-holder this eagerly-awaited finale, directed by David Yates, offers excitement and resolution, as it should. The subject is Harry’s showdown with the malevolent Lord Voldemort, and I won’t reveal more than I ought to, but it shouldn’t be a great secret that good triumphs and evil is vanquished. It’s the journey, as well as the destination, that matters here, and there are definitely surprises along the way.
The Playlist: A-
But no matter how spectacular these battle sequences are (and they really are dazzling), it all comes down to Radcliffe. This entire series has been about his character’s arc, his emotional transformation from a scared little kid to a fully accountable adult. And truth be told, Radcliffe, who has probably matured the most as an actor as the series has rolled along, totally delivers. In this final film (we hope), he truly comes to grips with what his mere existence means to those around him, and makes boldly selfless decisions. If you tear up, it’ll largely be due to Radcliffe’s sensitive, well-drawn performance.
The previous Potter films, all seven of them, have not always been equally good though. Until now, Alfonso Cuaron’s dark, stylish Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was unquestionably and by far the best. David Yates, who has directed every Potter movie since number 5, has too often emphasized soaring action over the human heart.
"Winnie the Pooh"
In an era of hyperactive, overly verbal 3-D animated entertainment, I hope there is still room for a film as sweet and gentle as Winnie the Pooh. At the screening I attended it seemed like the young adults in the audience were enjoying it even more than the kids, reliving their childhood memories of the “stubby little cubby” and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood.
The Playlist: A-
Originally conceived as a kind of “Fantasia 2000”-esque anthology, where some classic bits from the Disney short films would be intertwined with new segments (one was planned that would explore Rabbit’s family, which brings to mind Chewbacca’s brood from the disastrous “Star Wars Christmas Special” – it was wisely scrapped), along the way that plan was jettisoned. Instead, this is an all-new affair, with the narrowest of narrative paths but, somehow, an abundance of both emotional and stylistic enhancements that give the movie an unexpected punch.