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Ripped from the headlines: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.

When Eliot Struck Out

By Laura Leon

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Directed by Alex Gibney

Aside from my initial, possibly sophomoric, reaction to the title, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. That said, the immensity of my liking, the specific whys and wherefores, are rooted more in my love of hard-hitting politicking as sport and not so much because this is a stellar documentary.

Director Alex Gibney, who impressed mightily with his documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, here falls short, but not for lack of worthy subject matter. As anybody in this state capital knows or should know, Eliot Spitzer handily won the governorship following a stunning term as the Sheriff of Wall Street, (aka Attorney General). The voting masses seemed to like his gung-ho approach to felling investment and prostitution rings with equal aplomb, even as insiders and sage observers wondered aloud if he was perhaps setting himself up for a giant fall. We Americans love our John Waynes, but we hate the holier-than-thous. After a little over a year, it was all over, gone in an instant—or rather, in the two days it took between the revelation that Spitzer, as “Client 9,” had frequented an escort service, and his stone-faced resignation from public office. Since then, with the spate of scandals involving political officeholders, one can wonder why he didn’t just apologize and hold on. (But then again, there is the matter of the Mann Act.)

Using stock footage, news reports, still photos, voiceovers and interviews with people like former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Home Depot’s Kenneth Langone, Gibney builds an at-times-tantalizing web of intrigue/conspiracy which suggests that Spitzer’s downfall may well have been hastened by his enemies. At the same time, Gibney wisely allows Spitzer himself to answer probing questions, like “What the hell were you thinking?” To his credit, Spitzer seems genuinely embarrassed by his poor judgment, and acknowledges the role his own hubris had in his downfall. He’s not casting aspersions on his foes, at least not directly; leave that to Gibney, whose interview with the creepy Langone in particular is startling, even Hitchcockian. What’s even more eerie is the absence of one or two powerful legislators who absolutely despised Spitzer.

What goes wrong, then? For one thing, Gibney hires an actress to portray an escort called “Angelina,” supposedly the former gov’s fave provider of the “girlfriend experience,” to read the words she supposedly told him in private interviews. I don’t know who this actress is, but she stinks up the joint, and her very presence breaks up the conspiratorial pace of the story. It’s as if Gibney realizes he needs some sex and innuendo to keep people interested, so “Angelina” dispels the oft-repeated story that Spitzy kept his (black) socks on.

Toward the end, the movie brings up the lovely and tragic Silda Wall Spitzer. Obviously, the classy Mrs. Spitzer was a compelling, empathetic figure to many New Yorkers, but do we need the performance artist Karen Finley to imagine her reaction?

It seems clear that a variety of forces, including Spitzer’s ego and his inability to brook compromise, combined to wreak havoc on a man who may have been this state’s best choice of leader in quite some time. The documentary is very good at relaying the rise of power of the Wall Street firms, but fails to include any reference to why the success of those firms mattered so very much to our state economy, let alone budget. The powers that be who are on display are more than just stereotypes, and I wish that Gibney had done more to draw viewers into the complex, even Byzantine power plays that make state government work (in the best of times). In the end, he doesn’t do enough to get people thinking about who has the real power, and how they maintain and wield that power, in favor of pat villains exploiting phallic foibles.


On the Other Hand

127 Hours

Directed by Danny Boyle

If you have any interest in 127 Hours at all, you probably already have the answers to the most common questions asked about movies, generally: “Who’s in it?” and “What’s it about?”

Furthermore, you likely know not only what it’s about, but pretty much the whole plot. The movie stars James Franco in a depiction—“dramatization” seems almost the wrong word for a fictional rendition of such a harrowing true-life tale—of a hiking accident that outdoorsman Aron Ralston survived only by amputating his own arm, below the elbow.

The title of the movie, itself, announces director Danny Boyle’s intention to keep his focus on the experience Ralston had while trapped. Indeed, it’s a short 20 minutes into the film that our reckless hero gets his hand pinned beneath a rock and the wall of a narrow canyon. So, the backstory and character context the viewer gets is largely in flashback and hallucination.

The question asked most frequently about 127 Hours, specifically, is, then, “Is it gross?” So, let’s get that out of the way: Eh, a little. But it’s nothing that’d freak out anyone who’s ever watched a forensic drama or played a video game. The truly squeamish can cover their eyes without missing much.

Boyle’s handling of the scene is appropriate: It’s grisly but not gratuitous. The amputation itself is less the point than the decision to amputate. Ralston’s fortitude, his motivation to survive and to return to his life, is, no doubt, what attracted those involved to make this movie. But for all the fascination that such a high-stakes real-life situation has inherently, something about the filmic version is flat.

Neither Boyle nor Franco is to blame, I think. Boyle’s antic direction (split screens, fast-and slow-mo, odd angles, stunning FX, shots from within water bottles—not to mention forearms) gives music-video energy to a movie about a guy trapped beneath a rock; and Franco is very good at creating a Ralston who is in equal parts annoyingly self-pleased, ingenious, charismatic and vulnerable.

The problem, I think, is that Ralston lived.

Dramatically speaking, of course.

The movie Ralston is, as mentioned, a bit of a rake. He’s capable and charming and well aware of it. Straight-up hubris. He’s due a comeuppance. Few would argue that his ordeal is insufficient chastisement. But because we get to know Ralston only through his own imaginings, his own confession, as it were, of selfishness, and because we’re told that after his escape the real Ralston returned to his adventurous ways, we’re witness to little character growth. The great change in Aron Ralston, after his death-defying, life-affirming, own-arm-cutting-off cosmic rebuke for selfishness, is that he now leaves a note.

Oh, uh . . . yay.

Well, you know, good on ya, real Aron Ralston. Seriously. But imagine what such precautions would do to Shakespeare.

—John Rodat


She can’t cook, but she wields a mean cast-iron pan: Tangled.

Sister Golden Hair


Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard

Disney reportedly was so afraid that the “old-fashioned” Tangled would not be accepted by a Pixar-lated moviegoing public that they didn’t seem to notice that they’d made a genuine classic.

That’s OK, Mouse House: DreamWorks didn’t have any faith in How to Train Your Dragon, either. It’s worth mentioning last year’s DreamWorks 3D hit because, like Tangled, it put a premium on story over gag-filled (gag-inducing?) scenes that take you out of the fairy-tale mood.

Tangled is “Rapunzel,” renamed. No, really: The title was changed from Rapunzel as the result of fear that boys would stay away from yet another Disney princess movie (the way they avoided The Princess and the Frog).

Tangled works not because it’s a fairy tale or a princess flick, or because it balances this with enough added action to keep the ADD boys of America from being bored, but because the characters are fully developed. Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore), stolen from her royal parents and locked away by the greedy Mother Gothel for the magical powers of her golden hair, is a convincing mix of naïveté and youthful self-assurance. And she’s an honorable person. Mother Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy) is evil, but a more subtle variety of evil than is usually found in fairy tales: She’s a passive-aggressive abuser. Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi), the handsome thief who gets tangled up in Rapunzel’s life (and hair), is more of a stereotype. However, he’s given more dimension than one would expect.

The other surprise Tangled has in store for audiences is purely aesthetic. It’s CGI animation that doesn’t have the usual “hard” look of CGI animation. The colors are warm, and the textures varied; there’s a floating-lantern sequence that’s truly gorgeous. The 3D version I saw made good use of the format, with the occasional shock effect thrown in to make the kiddies giggle.

And the obligatory anthropomorphic menagerie? It consists of a very imperious, very funny horse and a salamander who doesn’t act much like a salamander. Or, as one young moviegoer exclaimed, pointing at the personable lizard: “I want a puppy like that!”

The songs, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, don’t try very hard to evoke a fairy-tale world; instead, they straddle contemporary pop and classic Broadway styles in ways that, at some moments, strain the mood. Still, the tunes themselves are strong enough not to be a serious distraction, and, in at least a few instances, deepen the story: “Mother Knows Best,” sung by Murphy, as Gothel, to Rapunzel early on is genuinely disturbing, and the incantation Moore sings, as Rapunzel, to put the magic hair to work does sound enchanted.

It isn’t just the complete absence of not-so-sly contemporary references and endless, semi-adult in-jokes—a practice perfected, for good or ill, at DreamWorks Animation—that makes Tangled different. When the drama reaches its climax, Rapunzel’s life and freedom are truly at stake. The decisions Rapunzel and Ryder make have dramatic weight and consequences, and the resulting pathos is real and affecting.

This is the kind of stuff that made “classic” Disney animation classic.

—Shawn Stone


Girly Show


Directed by Steve Antin

Burlesque is a throwback to a completely different era in filmmaking, spiritually nestled in that space of time after the institution of the Production Code and before the Vietnam War made movies about kids putting on a show something better suited to TV. Ali (Christina Aguilera) is an Iowa waitress longing to break into song and dance in LA. In case there’s any doubt about her career prognosis, or in case you’ve lived under a rock the past several years and are unaware of the former Mickey Mouse Club star’s power and range, Aguilera belts out a soulful number in the empty diner while the credits roll. With pluck and determination, she finagles a waitress job at a club called Burlesque, owned by redoubtable Tess (Cher). It’s only a matter of time before Ali grabs the spotlight, but it still seems to last forever, taken up by half-baked plot threads. Nikki, a hard-drinking prima donna (Kristin Bell), resents Ali’s burgeoning friendship with Tess. Jack (Cam Gigandet), a cute bartender from Kentucky, offers Nikki a place to stay while trying to jumpstart a songwriting career. Businessman Marcus (Eric Dane) tries to interest Tess in a deal to save her struggling club while showing Ali the glories of living large.

Writer-director Steve Antin apparently knows or cares little for modulation, preferring to throw all manner of plot at us while keeping the long playlist going at full volume. Some of the numbers are pleasing, but am I the only viewer who noticed that as the movie wore on, the stage in Tess’s jewelbox of a club gets bigger and bigger? Also puzzling is the question of where Sean (Stanley Tucci), Tess’s long-suffering friend, colleague and musical director, stores the ever-expanding props used throughout the movie, let alone what kind of budget he must have. Still, the movie’s strongest moments are those in which Tess and Sean chat, conspire or argue; Cher and Tucci are the kinds of performers who can make a discussion about stitching versus glue-sticking compelling, even sexy.

The movie is clearly Aguliera’s, and she demonstrates accomplished presence and surprisingly sweet appeal (think Debbie Reynolds). Still, she’s no Cher, who is given scant little to do. One of the movie’s crying shames is the leaden direction given her big power ballad; elsewhere the visuals of the film are lush and honeyed, courtesy of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, evoking a nostalgic Americanization of Moulin Rouge. Incomprehensibly, Cher delivers her song practically inert, on a darkened jumbled stage, with the camera seemingly stuck several yards away from her. Another problem is Bell’s one-note character. To be fair, she gives it her all, including a dynamic lip-synch of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” but her anger at Tess for having thrown their friendship over for the new girl feels completely unfounded. The idea that Nikki would even imagine a spiritual sisterhood with Tess perhaps is meant as evidence of how far her case of wet-brain has developed. Other than act drunk and pouty, Nikki hardly seems a worthy contender in any battle, although her line about Ali’s “mutant lungs” is very funny. At every turn, Burlesque fails to take advantage of its preponderance of riches, such as Alan Cumming gamely channeling his Cabaret role and, it cannot be stated enough, letting Cher be Cher.

—Laura Leon

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