Monthly Archives: March 2007

A Lawyer Walks Into A Bar . . .

Too slick and sound-bitey for its own good, this documentary about U.S. lawyers aims for the smart-aleck tone of its title while throwing out punchy statistics as if it were a PowerPoint presentation. Director Eric Chaikin interviews many of the usual suspects (like the ubiquitous Alan Dershowitz) and several wannabes preparing for the California bar exam. But apart from learning that the U.S. has about 800,000 lawyers (reportedly four times as many as the rest of the world combined), I didn’t emerge from this feeling any wiser about the subject, and the strident efforts to entertain, including a few animation segments, only made the experience more wearying. 89 min. (JR)… Read more »

High School Ii

High School (1968), Frederick Wiseman’s second film, avoided overt editorializing but clearly indicted the authoritarianism, banality, and mediocrity of American public education, as exemplified by a typical high school in Pennsylvania. Twenty-six years later, Wiseman investigated the more ethnically diverse Central Park East Secondary School in Spanish Harlem, and High School II (1994), three times as long as the original, offers an inspiring brief for the virtues of progressive education. Whether the topic under discussion is the Rodney King verdict, the practical complications of teenage parenting, the structure of literature courses, or individual student performances, the interactions between students, teachers, and parents mostly seem like models of intelligent and enlightened behavior. 220 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ballet

During the early stretches of Frederick Wiseman’s 1995 documentary on the American Ballet Theatre, it’s great to see rehearsing dancers and their prompters thinking with their bodies, then trying to explain their thoughts and feelings in words. In keeping with his interest in institutions, Wiseman looks occasionally and tellingly at other parts of the company’s operations, particularly its handling of business. The final 70 minutes shows the dancers on the road in Europe, resting, practicing, and performing; apart from a thrilling performance of The Rite of Spring, this section is oddly anticlimactic, perhaps because the camerawork has become more touristic. 170 min. (Jonathan Rosenbaum)… Read more »

The Hoax

As Orson Welles demonstrated in F for Fake (1974), the true story of novelist Clifford Irving, who sold a fraudulent autobiography of Howard Hughes to McGraw-Hill for a fortune, is a classic tale of consummate con artistry. So it’s pretty perverse for William Wheeler, who scripted this feature, to get most of the facts wrong, inflating details that don’t need any spin. (As Irving himself remarked, You could call it a hoax about a hoax.) Director Lasse Hallstrom does an OK job with this dubious property; Richard Gere is less charismatic than Irving and Alfred Molina turns Irving’s assistant into a buffoon, but the secondary cast (Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy, Eli Wallach) is fun to watch. R, 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Meet The Robinsons

This lively Disney animation about an orphan inventor has been widely distributed in a 3-D process requiring special screens and projection, though it’s been shown in 2-D as well and the effects are well integrated into the story. Derived from a William Joyce book, it’s striking not for its originality but for its energy in juggling familiar elements. There are time-travel paradoxes from Robert A. Heinlein and Back to the Future, frogs that reference GoodFellas by way of Chuck Jones’s One Froggy Evening, a bowler hat from Magritte, and an eccentric family and topiary garden that recall Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951), and the cheerfully totalitarian city of the future, known as Todayland, seems like Disneyland boilerplate. But maybe one of the seven credited screenwriters dreamed up the subtitled dinosaurs. Stephen J. Anderson directed. G, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Operation Homecoming: Writing The Wartime Experience

Spun off from a worthy project by the National Endowment for the Arts, this documentary by Richard E. Robbins uses voice-overs by Beau Bridges, Robert Duvall, Aaron Eckhart, and other actors to present the writings of soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as their family members. It’s an honorable stab at a misguided undertaking: the texts and the readings are often strong, but the visual accompaniment, no matter how sensitive and inventive, almost always competes with, and therefore distracts from, the image-making power of the writing. (The sole exception is a rapid montage of faces toward the end.) Much more successful are the talking-head interviews with Paul Fussell, Tim O’Brien, James Salter, Tobias Wolff, and others, whose eloquence we can experience without mediation. 81 min. (JR)… Read more »

Standing Silent Nation

Suree Towfighnia’s well-made video documents the ongoing struggle of a Native American family to grow industrial hemp on its reservation in South Dakota. The plant’s THC content amounts to less than 1 percent, but that doesn’t stop the DEA from destroying the White Plume family’s only major cash crop every time it’s ready to be harvested. Given the Justice Department’s spotty enforcement of antitrust laws, its crusade against hemp, which in this case entails breaking at least one treaty, seems like persecution of an already beleaguered people. 53 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hell And High Water

From the Chicago Reader (March 29, 2007). — J.R.

hell-and-high-water

In this propagandistic but well-paced cold-war adventure (1954), a mercenary submarine captain (Richard Widmark) helps foil a Red Chinese plot to drop an atomic bomb on Korea from a U.S. plane. Fox hired director Samuel Fuller to shoot this in a few days, partly to prove that CinemaScope could work in tight spaces and on a limited budget, and he did a pretty good job with it. He even got to rewrite the script, defiantly giving Widmark a variant of the salty, unpatriotic line that J. Edgar Hoover had already tried and failed to get Fuller to delete from Pickup on South Street: “Are you waving the flag at me?” With Cameron Mitchell, David Wayne, Fuller regular Gene Evans, and Bella Darvi, the mistress of studio chief Darryl Zanuck. 103 min. (JR)

hellandhighwater

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Do The Right Thing

With the possible exception of his cable miniseries When the Levees Broke, this 1989 feature is still Spike Lee’s best work, chronicling a very hot day on a single block of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, when a series of minor encounters and incidents lead to an explosion of racial violence at an Italian-owned pizzeria. Sharp and knowing, though not always strictly realistic, it manages to give all the characters their due. Bill Lee’s wall-to-wall score eventually loses some of its effectiveness, and a few elements (such as the patriarchal roles played by the local drunk and a disc jockey) seem more fanciful than believable. But overall this is a powerful and persuasive look at an ethnic community and what makes it tickfunky, entertaining, packed with insight, and political in the best, most responsible sense. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Exterminating Angels

In 2005, French writer-director Jean-Claude Brisseau was convicted of sexual harassment for pressuring actresses to masturbate in his presence during auditions for his feature Secret Things. Now he’s made a sexually explicit film fictionalizing the whole episode, which is unbelievably pretentious and a bit of a hoot but rarely boring. Critics I admire have assured me that many of Brisseau’s earlier films are less silly, more interesting, and even commendable. Hearing him try to defend himself at a recent festival, backed up by the actresses from this 2006 feature, was even more fun than this screwy movie. In French with subtitles. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Secret Life Of Words

Sensitive yet somewhat opportunistic, this 2005 Spanish feature by writer-director Isabel Coixet transfers to a Europudding context the sort of disabled characters so popular with Oscar voters. A withdrawn, traumatized, and hearing-impaired factory worker (Sarah Polley) volunteers to take care of a foulmouthed, burned, and temporarily blinded oil rigger (Tim Robbins, Mr. Oscar Grubber himself). Neither disability is handled convincingly, but despite all the emotional showboating, the story is affecting whenever it strays from its most obvious points. Julie Christie contributes an impressive cameo toward the end. 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Unrequited Love

This 2006 feature is my favorite to date by English writer-director Christopher Petit (Radio On). Subtitled both On Stalking and Being Stalked and A Story of Obsessive Passion, it’s about a young woman (Rebecca Marshall) stalking a London academic (Gregory Dart, author of the source novel) who is himself obsessed with a woman in Leipzig. Both paranoid and lyrical, the movie visualizes its strange tale mainly through ersatz surveillance footage, and the music is appropriately Hitchcockian. To complicate matters, the first-person voice-over is shared by Marshall and Petit himself (his portion is full of film references). Formally this is a dazzler. 77 min. (JR)… Read more »

Regular Lovers

Philippe Garrel’s bittersweet 178-minute epic about the May 1968 demonstrations in Paris and their aftermath is one of his finest narrative films. Shot in ravishing black and white by the great William Lubtchansky, it distills the brooding melancholy of Garrel’s meditative and romantic oeuvre, which has always been tied to the legacy of silent cinema (as the solo piano score here reflects). This 2005 feature focuses on a young Parisian poet played by Garrel’s son Louis (who played a similar if cockier role in Bertolucci’s less authentic The Dreamers) and his relationship with a sculptress (Clotilde Hesme). It’s ultimately limited by its political defeatism, which Garrel characteristically treats as a voluptuous embrace tied to the hero’s opium addiction. But it’s very good in showing his pampered life, which comes to the fore comically when he goes on trial for evading the draft. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

The Great Communist Bank Robbery

In 1959 six Romanian Jewsfive communist officials who’d been drummed out of the party and the wife of oneheld up the national bank in Bucharest for reasons that remain unclear (the stolen cash was traceable inside Romania and worthless outside). After hundreds of arrests and thousands of interrogations, they were caught and, in order to avoid death sentences, agreed to reenact their heist for a propaganda film called Reconstruction; except for the wife, all of them were executed anyway after a show trial. Filmmaker Alexandru Solomon deftly explains what he can in this 2004 documentary, using interviews and excerpts from the mendacious Reconstruction, but the surviving wife apparently eluded his grasp. In English and subtitled Romanian. 70 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Great Garrick

Conceivably the most neglected of James Whale’s better works, this hilarious period farce (1937, 91 min.) imagines a hoax perpetrated by the Comedie-Francaise to teach the conceited English actor David Garrick (Brian Aherne) “a lesson in acting.” The only problem is, Garrick is in on the gag, which leads to a variety of comic complications at a country inn. This boisterous movie helps to justify critic Tom Milne’s claims that Whale was a kind of premodernist Jean-Luc Godard. Rarely have the art and pleasure of acting, demonstrated here in countless varieties of ham, been expressed with as much self-reflexive energy, and Whale’s enjoyable cast (including Olivia de Havilland, Edward Everett Horton, Melville Cooper, Lionel Atwill, Lana Turner, Marie Wilson, Albert Dekker, Fritz Leiber, and the wonderfully manic Luis Alberni) takes full advantage of the opportunity. 16mm. Also on the program: Skip the Maloo! (1931), a Charley Chase short directed by James Parrott. a Sat 3/24, 8 PM, LaSalle Bank Cinema. … Read more »