Extreme Viewing

You may think of film criticism as a rather sedate pursuit, involving a lot of sitting around in the dark and scratching one’s beard. But in truth, the trenches of cinemania are treacherous ground. Never mind the blogger infighting and hordes of rabid fanboys waiting for you after you post — I’m talking about the real dangers that lurk in the space between the screen and your eyes, where auteur loyalty means nothing, empty buzz can finish you off before the opening credits, and the blood of the gullible is spilled by the bucket. Or at least, their patience.

What am I on about? Last week’s two major disappointments, the Flaming Lips’ bizarrely sluggish Christmas on Mars and the Coen Brothers’ vile Burn After Reading, which left me quaking with anger. Both reviews are now up on About.com.

It took two confirmed classics — and multiple viewings — to restore my faith: Antonioni’s endlessly baffling and beautiful The Passenger and the magical The Thief of Baghdad, one of the first movies I remember seeing. Not a bad way to lick your wounds and shore up resolve for the New York Film Festival, which begins screening for critics on Monday.

Christmas on Mars. Wayne Coyne, 2008. * (Review)
Burn After Reading. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2008. * (Review)
The Passenger. Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1975. *****
The Thief of Baghdad. Michael Powell, 1940. *****

The Dark Knight vs. Revenge of the Sith

Like any critic who dared to show themselves less than impressed with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight juggernaut, I caught a lot of abuse for my dismissive review. Being called a mouth-breathing mountain dweller and a hat-wearing Brooklynite is fine by me, but when my nerd cred was insulted, I knew it was time for a fanboy throwdown: The Dark Knight vs. my favorite film of 2005, George Lucas’s much-maligned pop masterpiece Revenge of the Sith.

Click over to About.com to read why Star Wars beats Batman in every respect — and then I’ll promise to return to your regularly scheduled coverage of art house films, including the lovely In Search for a Midnight Kiss, Johnny To’s Mad Detective, and the much anticipated Fear(s) of the Dark.

The Dhamma Brothers

One afternoon last week, I found myself explaining the benefits of transcendental meditation — and its much cheaper, guru-free alternative Natural Stress Relief — to a junkie at an East Village pizza joint. (He asked.) You see, I was predisposed to love The Dhamma Brothers, a documentary about inmates of an Alabama high security prison who take up Vipassana meditation. Despite its fascinating subject, the film turned out to be a disappointment. Read my review on About.com to find out why.

I also saw Redbelt, David Mamet’s latest. It’s an entirely enjoyable fight movie starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as noble jiu-jitsu teacher that’s perched somewhat uncomfortably between Mamet’s usual snappiness and a few very tired genre conventions. In typical Mamet style, Redbelt is thick with cons, counter-cons, and strange coincidences, but this time, it’s nearly impossible to tell which is which. Opens on May 9.

Tonight, I’m excited to see Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely, and on TV, we’re enjoying the continuing adventures of Liz Lemon and Kara Thrace. In the mobile department, Peeping Tom and Paths of Glory have proven themselves eminently watchable on a packed subway — just don’t tell Messrs. Powell and Kubrick.

The Dhamma Brothers. Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein, 2007. **
Redbelt. David Mamet, 2008. ***
Peeping Tom. Michael Powell, 1960. ***
Paths of Glory. Stanley Kubrick, 1957. ****

The Redbelt trailer:

Wetlands Preserved

From 1989 to 2001, the Wetlands Preserve flourished just off of New York’s Houston Street. Founded by a Deadhead, the club attracted rising bands in the burgeoning “jam bands” scene, along with ska and hip-hop acts, while maintaining an activism center that held “eco-saloons” and launched inventive street theater protests. Dean Budnick’s Wetlands Preserved, produced by second and final owner Peter Shapiro, is a heartfelt tribute to a joyous anomaly in New York’s nightlife scene that eventually surrendered to Tribeca’s increasing gentrification in the days following September 11.

Continue reading my review of Wetlands Preserved, opening March 14, on About.com.

Wetlands Preserved: The Story of an Activist Nightclub. Dean Budnick, 2006. ***

And here’s a video to go along with it: Ann Marie Calhoun and her brother Joe cover Phish’s “Stash” [via Andy Gadiel]:

Heartbeat Detector

“Music is a virus,” company HR guy Simon is informed by his girlfriend early on in Nicolas Kotz’s Heartbeat Detector, based on the novel by Francois Emmanuel. In case we missed the point, one of Simon’s superiors later reminds him, “music doesn’t tolerate hierarchy.” Their warnings are entirely astute: music — in a number of incarnations from techno to fado to violin quartets — is the catalyst of Simon’s slow disintegration.

Continue reading my review of Heartbeat Detector, starring Mathieu Amalric, on About.com. Heartbeat Detector opens on March 14.

La Question humaine. Nicolas Klotz, 2007. ***