By Amy Nicholson
By Chris Packham
By David Kipen
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Caira LaVelle
By Zachary Wigon
By Scott Foundas
Directed by Danny Boyle
7 p.m. Sunday, November 14 at the Hi-Pointe
Watch what James Franco — actor/sleepy grad student/tepid writer/viral video comedian/ conceptual artist/aficionado of gender fuckery — can accomplish when he actually focuses for a couple of weeks. In Danny Boyle's latest, Franco plays Aron Ralston, who in 2003 cut off his own arm after being stuck for five days under a rock in a Utah canyon. The boulder drops about twenty minutes into 127 Hours. Ralston begins devising clever systems of survival and, he hopes, mechanisms of freedom, all the while narrating his predicament into the video camera he's brought along, a device that seems awfully blunt at first, but becomes a fascinating window into how a smart, funny, non-action-hero guy might behave as he tries to think his way out of a catastrophe. Soon enough, the descent into delirium begins. As Boyle's film flits from the real world — the heavy reality of a man in a canyon, pinned, near death — to the world of hallucinations and memories, so Franco's performance transforms, encompassing both universes. Unlike Boyle's flashback-dependent Slumdog Millionaire, we're not meant to draw explicit lines from past to present — there's no scene of a young Ralston, like, learning to tie a double overhand stopper knot. Instead, the glimpses of his past build an impressionistic picture of a young man so devoted to the pursuit of experience that he's left human connection behind. It's fitting that the film likely to turn Franco — dilettante, enigma, artistic adventurer — into an unapproachable celebrity is itself a passionate, bloody argument for engagement with the world.
— Dan Kois
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector
Directed by Vikram Jayanti
9:30 p.m. Saturday November 13 at the Tivoli
A portrait of a pop music genius as (pre-)convicted murderer, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector lives up to its grandiose title. Vikram Jayanti's BBC production is culled from 50 hours of interviews made during the reclusive Spector's first trial — he was accused of sticking one of his many guns in actress Lana Clarkson's mouth and blowing out her brains — but it's less a documentary than a Top 40 opera. The Agony begins with Spector bitching about the jury and the judge (not fair that he keeps reminding the court that somebody died). Then Jayanti segues — bang! — to a vintage kinescope of the Ronettes performing songwriter Spector's infectiously plaintive "Be My Baby." Pure ecstasy! And so it goes for the next 100 minutes, as Spector's discourse is interwoven with his greatest hits, often played in their glorious entirety. Spector's rage is constant, his grudges are boundless (Tony Bennett seems to be a particular bête noire), and his paranoia (persecuted because he created the '60s) is indistinguishable from his self-importance. The artist refers to his early-'60s hits as "little symphonies for the kids" — hardly an exaggeration. To have been in junior high school when rhapsodic fugues of yearning like "Uptown" or "Be My Baby" first poured from the radio is to have a sensibility, if not a fantasy life, in some way molded by this monster of self-absorption. To see The Agony and the Ecstasy is to be haunted by the specter of that long-ago innocence.
— J. Hoberman
The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek
Directed by Wendy Jo Cohen
2 p.m. Saturday, November 13, at the Tivoli
A Civil War "documentary" of the Ken Burns school — lots of pan and scan photos set to folksy music, melodramatic recitations of old letters and a host of talking heads — Wendy Jo Cohen's The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek uncovers a forgotten battle that was won by Jonathan Franklin Hale, the Union Army's only openly gay officer. This skirmish was forgotten not only because of Hale's sexuality, but also because his cohorts include an aged Chinese general/laundry magnate, a nerdy escaped slave and a vengeful one-armed teen prostitute disguised as a drummer boy — not your typical (white, male, heterosexual) soldiers by any means. The subtlety with which Cohen weaves these elements together slips away so gradually that it's difficult to determine when the film veers into anarchic silliness. Is it the photo of a Civil War pimp or the moment when history expert Sheeba Lejeune is revealed to be a prostitute herself or when the battle is fought with hot air balloons armed with laundry-detergent bombs? A delightfully wry film that satirizes Civil War fetishists, history buffs, PBS-type programming and America's lingering racial and gender issues.
— Paul Friswold
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