When we last left Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), he had destroyed only three of the seven Horcruxes in which the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) had stored pieces of his soul, which was one way to stretch out the last volume of J.K. Rowling's phenomenal cash cow into two movies. This final installment is in 3-D (which is only tacky if you take Harry Potter seriously), and there are rows of goblin bankers and rows of dragon gargoyles with slithery tongues and rows of stone sentries marching into battle, all the better to 3-D you with my dear, and one gets from the goblin bank into the vault of Voldemort lieutenant Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) via rollercoaster.
Harry and his friends return to Hogwarts, which has been taken over by Voldemort's Death Eaters, and stage a coup, which is just Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) brandishing her wand at new headmaster Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, speaking five words a minute) until he flies away. And thus the Battle for Hogwarts commences. Snape learns he's picked the wrong side, and Harry pours Snape's tears into the Basin of Flashbacks, and young Snape and his friends are frolicking in the shade of a great tree and a woman whispers, "Your mother loves you" just like in The Tree of Life. And then, after plot developments it would be churlish to reveal, Harry finds himself in an all-white room without his glasses, and there's a mewling, bloody Voldemort fetus on the floor, and it's all very 2001. Which is to say that the makers of this movie give you plenty to look at.
The rest depends on your tolerance for J.K. Rowling's bait-and-switch plotting and whether you mind that the series never gets beyond good vs. evil, never considering what good should do — in the Muggle world, perhaps — only that it must triumph.
Two years ago the British filmmaker James Marsh won an Academy Award with an only-in-the-'70s story, some arresting footage and a naked play for the emotions. (If Man on Wire had been about Philippe Petit's walk between the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, would it have gotten an Oscar?) He's up to the same tricks in Project Nim, about a chimpanzee who learned sign language. In 1973, 2-week-old Nim was plucked from his mother by Herbert Terrace, a Columbia behavioral psychologist, and Stephanie LaFarge, who would become the chimp's first surrogate mother. Nim moved into the LaFarges' Upper West Side brownstone, where their large family haphazardly taught Nim a few signs, although no one had training in American Sign Language. When that proved too disorganized, Terrace took Nim to the Delafield Estate in Riverdale, where the latter lived with a succession of psychology undergraduates. In 1979, Terrace determined that the experiment had been a failure and returned Nim to the primate research center in Oklahoma where he was born.
Terrace is as arrogant academic with a villain's mustache, a clueless combover and a habit of bedding his students (shocking!), a portrayal enabled by Marsh's oversimplification of the project and the lack of context; the object of Terrace's experiment was not, as the film presents it, to see if a chimp could learn sign language (which had been done), but to see if one could construct sentences using a grammar. Similarly, Marsh presents Nim's second surrogate mother, Laura-Ann Petitto, as a bridge-and-tunnel bimbo who answered the right ad; she is actually a much-lauded cognitive neuroscientist whose achievements have long surpassed her teacher's. In another significant lapse, Marsh does not refer to his subject by his full name, Nim Chimpsky (glimpsed in a New York magazine headline); Terrace had named him for Noam Chomsky, playing on the linguist's assertion that only humans can acquire language.
One can't help wondering what a more intellectually inclined filmmaker might have done with the questions Nim's story raises, particularly after Nim was returned to Oklahoma. And Marsh cannot leave this heartbreaking footage alone: is that Nim's finger tightening around a bar of his cage, or is it Peter Elliott, Hollywood's top ape impersonator? And if that is a man's hand in an ape glove, what does that say about a film that critiques an attempt to make an animal human?
Azazel Jacobs' first feature, Momma's Man, was set in his parents' cluttered loft in Lower Manhattan; his second begins in a ramshackle house in the woods where the title character, an obese teenager (Jacob Wysocki), cares for his uncle (Creed Bratton of "The Office"), who has Alzheimer's. After a breakfast of baked beans on toast he descends from a clearing and is off to school, still wearing his pajamas, as one of his uncle's opera 78s plays on the soundtrack. It's a magically enchanted opening, soon followed by a section in which Terri, having overcome his fear of trapping mice in the attic, begins trapping them in the wild just for kicks. But then Terri pulls back from the edge and becomes just another misfit teen story set in a cartoonishly awful high school in which lessons consist of learning how to crack eggs and the assistant principal's secretary is half-dead.
That assistant principal (John C. Reilly) tries to take Terri under his wing, but he's a glib blowhard who talks the same talk no matter the kid's problem. Eventually Terri sort-of bonds with an annoying boy with trichotillomania, among other impulse-control disorders (Bridger Zadina), and a popular girl (Olivia Crocicchia) who falls from grace after she lets a kid named Dirty Zack finger her in Home Ec, and in one very long, climactic scene they have their own little Breakfast Club in the uncle's tool shed, drinking whiskey and sampling the old man's pills.
Wysocki often resorts to staring gape-mouthed, as if he were in a Disney Channel sitcom, but then this movie asks us to believe that there would be a kid in an American high school in 2011 named Dirty Zack, so you might as well stare. A bunch of things happen (Terri was adapted from a series of short stories by Patrick deWitt), the best of which involve Bratton, and then it's over. "Life's a mess, dude," says Assistant Principal Reilly, "but we're all just doing the best we can." Is that the best you can do?
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org
¿¿¿ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
¿¿¿ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Directed by David Yates. Written by Steve Kloves, based on the book by J. K. Rowling. With Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Ralph Fiennes. (PG-13)
¿¿¿1/2 Project Nim
¿¿¿1/2 Project Nim
Directed by James Marsh. (PG-13)
Directed by Azazel Jacobs. Written by Patrick deWitt. With Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly and Creed Bratton. (R)Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times