High Museum of Art: Films

Review: Nora’s Will (Atlanta Jewish Film Festival) by hmablogmaster
Nora's Will

Nora's Will

If you missed Nora’s Will at the High’s 2009 Latin American Film Festival, here’s your chance to catch it. It screens at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, January 17 at 1 p.m. (introduced by Linda Dubler) and Friday, January 22 at 3:40 p.m. (introduced by Eleanor Ringel Cater).

Visit www.ajff.org for more information, and read on for Eleanor’s review of the film.

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Is there a genius in the house? by Linda Dubler

Some artists ––– oh, say, Leonardo Da Vinci —— are known for their discipline and concentration. Consider the number of sketches he made for a horse statue that was never completed. Others, however, have taken the tack that to be an artist or an intellectual, you must somehow be undisciplined, clueless, and/or completely self-absorbed. THOSE are the kind Hollywood likes. After you’ve been awed by Leonardo at the High’s Hand of the Genius exhibition at our 12-hour artfest Go All Night, why not visit with some of his lesser brethren?

Eleanor Ringel Cater’s picks:

Barton Fink

Barton Fink

Barton Fink (1991)

Leave it to the brothers Coen to come up with something as hilariously berserk and mind-teasingly perverse as this surreal black comedy about (of all things) writer’s block. A High-minded New York playwright, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is lured to 1941 Hollywood to give “that Barton Fink feeling” to a Wallace Beery wrestling movie. On one level, the film is about Fink’s Day-of-the-Locust encounters with moguls, producers and washed-up self-loathing Southern writers who’ve sold out to the flicks. But then there’s also the Earle, the hotel where Barton is holed up to write his masterpiece. A hotel worthy of The Shining, it’s also home to genial traveling salesman, John Goodman, who’s got stories to tell. LOTS of ‘em. The picture is a brainy goof, fleshed out by the brilliant performances, the rich production design and the Coen’s ever-clever camera. It’s as bleakly funny and tantalizingly obtuse as a Beckett on-act. I’ll give you the life of the mind…..

Naked Lunch (1991)

It will eat you alive if you’re not well-versed in the coded cool of Beat junkie icon, William S. Burroughs, or the insect-infected visions of director David Cronenberg (The Fly). And even if you are, this mercilessly exacting black comedy will leave its teeth marks on you.

Part biography, part literary adaptation, the film is less a literal rendering of the writer’s scandalous 1959 novel than a jazz-riff interpretation. Turning down the role of Robocop 3 (!), Peter Weller is the Burroughs surrogate who travels from 1953 New York to the Interzone — a kind of surreal Tangiers of the mind, populated by sweaty addicts, decadent ex-patriots and typewriters that mutate into giant talking bugs. However, those less than enthralled with Burroughs’ masturbatory self-infatuation may find this daring demanding picture something of a Pyrrhic victory. That is, more worthily done, perhaps, than worth doing.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Too much is never enough for fabled gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and director Terry Gilliam. You could almost say they are a match made in excess heaven (or hell). This is Hollywood’s second attempt to translate Thompson’s 1971 book about his drug-drenched trip to Vegas, the first being the rather abysmal Where the Buffalo Roam, starring a game Bill Murray.

Here, it’s the ever-unpredictable Johnny Depp who takes on the role of Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter-ego) and a chunked-up pre-Oscar Benicio Del Toro plays Dr. Gonzo, Duke’s lawyer/companion-in-chaos. The assignment — as if it matters — is a dirt-bike race. Their true quest is to ingest every kind of “uppers, downers, screamers, laughers” they can find. Plus several oceans of booze. However, like most drug experiences, the film has a downside, too. Barely making it out of Vegas alive the first time, they’re dragged back in (like Pacino in Godfather III) for another round of the same thing.

Still, Depp is astonishing, Joe Coker by way of John Belushi and pure pandemonium on the prowl. The movie isn’t exactly a success, but it’s the most glorious kind of failure: Imaginative, uncompromising and true to itself. A tip: if hearing Debbie Reynolds tell a Vegas crowd, “Let’s rock and roll!” doesn’t crack you up, you don’t want any part of this movie. Not even the good parts.

Linda Dubler’s picks:

A Bucket of Blood

A Bucket of Blood

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

With its lurid title and down at the heels production values, A Bucket of Blood is a sterling example of legendary B-movie producer/director Roger Corman’s talent for entertaining, inspired schlock. The film’s central character, Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), is a bus boy at a beatnik coffee house who is so inept he makes Maynard G. Krebs look like Jackson Pollock.

Poor, talentless Walter longs for the limelight, so when his landlady’s cat dies accidentally, he covers the stiff feline in plaster, a la George Segal, and presents the critter as a work of art. The hipsters are wowed, and soon the would-be-genius is trolling for additional bodies to receive the Paisley treatment. The lively script was written by Charles Griffith, screenwriter for The Little Shop of Horrors. Corman mentored Scorsese, Coppola, and Jonathan Demme among others, so even if you’re not a B-movie fan, consider taking a look.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

The grass is always greener – even for those who’ve successfully made it to the other side. Such is the case for Sullivan, a sought-after Hollywood director known for hits like Ants in Your Pants of 1939. Yearning for the gravity and respect that genius endows, this would be Steinbeck declares he’s finished with fluff and ready to undertake his masterpiece, a gritty, relevant opus called Oh Brother Where Art Thou? But before he can write about the common man, it would help to meet a few.

Sullivan and his fetching, hold-the-hooey secretary (Veronica Lake, famous for her peek-a-boo wave) take to the road in a luxuriously appointed Airstream in search of America. Preston Sturges, a treasure of American cinema and the writer/director behind The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve, mixes comedy with melodrama in this delicious satire of self-importance and fame.

The Lady Eve (1941) , Ball of Fire (1941) , and Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The movies are full of evil geniuses (Dr. Frankenstein and his many peers), troubled geniuses (viz. any standard issue artist bio pic, from Lust for Life to Basquiat), even idiotic geniuses (e.g. Austin Powers), but my favorite variety are the clueless intellectuals, beloved by the makes of classic screwball comedies. Invariably men, these champions of book learnin’ are short on smarts and easy marks for women who either thing or two about the world, or are so ditzy they defy comprehension.

In The Lady Eve, Henry Fonda is a herpetologist (a snake specialist to be precise) who makes an appetizing victim for slithery card-sharp Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck shows up again in Ball of Fire as Sugarpuss O’Shea, a nightclub singer who knows her way around a colloquialism, who ends up hiding out in a house full of lexographers, among them sexy language specialist Prof. Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper). And in what’s probably my favorite American comedy, Katherine Hepburn is as untamed as the titular leopard Baby, driving poor paleontologist Cary Grant around the bend and into her waiting arms. After a lousy day or a lousy week, any one of these gems will help to chase away the blues.

The Song of Sparrows by hmablogmaster
November 5, 2009, 12:15 pm
Filed under: Film Series: High, Guest Blogger, Review

The Song of Sparrows will open this year’s Iranian Film Today series on Friday, November 6 at 8 p.m. in the Rich Theater. Learn more about this series at High.org/Films. Review by Eleanor Ringel Cater.

The Song of Sparrows

My friend Forrest Rogers used to have a name for certain kinds of movies. He called them, “Pigs and Mud” movies.

You know, the ones with subtitles, that, even when they earn raves, sound about as appetizing as a bowl of cooked carrots (It’s GOOD for you, the reviewer seems to be pleading).

So, when I read that The Song of  Sparrows concerned the plight of an Iranian ostrich wrangler… well, you can just imagine. Ah, Pigs and Mud AND Ostriches!

But sometimes the carrots are sugar-coated. At least, that’s the case here. The Song of Sparrows isn’t just good for you; it’s just plain good in its own low-key, meandering way. I’d planned to turn it off after 15 minutes and found myself watching to the very end.

Hard-working Karim (Reza Naji) loses his job at the ostrich ranch after losing one of his birds (the ensuing Follow That Bird chase is as hilarious as it is poetic). His daughter has just lost her hearing aid, so it’s off to the big city to find a new job.

Karim finds one, inadvertently, when a busy businessman jumps on the back of his motorbike and barks out an address. And, voila (or however they say it in Iran), Karim has a new job as taxi of sorts. Contrasting Karim’s adventures in Tehran with his often tumultuous family life, Oscar-nominated Iranian director Majid Majidi creates an involving human story that sometimes comes off like a silent comedy.

No, it’s not a heavy-hitting cross-over foreign-language hit like last year’s Oscar-winner, Slumdog Millionaire, but the two movies have more in common that you might think.

Eleanor Ringel Cater

Review: Ballroom (Latin American Film Festival) by Linda Dubler
Ballroom will be screened on Friday, October 30 as part of the Latin American Film Festival.

All the world’s a ballroom in Ballroom, Lais Bodansky’s prize-winning film about a down-at-the-heels dance hall in Sao Paulo whose clientele is a little frayed around the edges, as well. That’s because they’re mostly AARP-ready regulars who gather weekly to see and be seen. In some cases, it’s implied, it’s the only way a few of them have to affirm that, yes, they are still alive.



Now, that sounds tragic and, granted, a sense of imminent mortality underlies this gently bittersweet movie. But there is humor, too, and the sort of plainly human observations we don’t usually see in standard Hollywood fare. Age spots and wrinkled necks aren’t really the point here. They’re a given. I admit it; you’ve seen this before: the ballroom as a microcosm of life. We see the survivors, who take life as it comes (I couldn’t help but note that a LOT of the women asked to dance are blonde).
But Bodansky demonstrates it’s not always easy to swirl your way into changing your life. Among the many mini-dramas we observe:
• an aging lothario who ignores his elegant regular date when a fresh-faced young newcomer (there to help her boyfriend with the music) arrives on the scene.
• a desperate woman who ages visibly each time she’s passed up by a potential partner (she’s as lovely as anyone, so her situation is much more complicated than an easy Ugly Duckling scenario).
• the mysterious minx — is she tragic or powerful — who prowls  the club like a predatory animal, waiting to pounce (or be pounced).
• the poor gentleman dubbed El Skunko, who dances all the time, every time… alone.


The structure is hardly new; we’ve seen it in dozens of pictures, ranging from Saturday Night Fever to Strictly Ballroom. But Ballroom has a quiet confidence, a killer soundtrack and a cast of actors so natural (and talented) you almost forget it’s not a documentary. Add some terrific laughs and a tender heart and to me, that’s entertainment.

Review: Nora’s Will by Linda Dubler

This film will show Saturday, October 24 at 8 p.m. as part of the High Museum’s Latin American Film Festival.

We barely meet the Nora of Nora’s Will, but her presence permeates this bittersweet yet unexpectedly amusing Mexican movie.

As the title suggests, Nora spends most of the picture as a corpse. However, the “will” referred to isn’t a legal document; it’s the force of Nora’s posthumous inner control freak. This, after all, is a woman who plans ahead: she even leaves a pot of hot coffee for whoever discovers her.

Her suicide isn’t exactly unexpected. According to her longtime ex-husband, Jose (Fernando Lujan), who still lives across the street from her though they divorced 20 years ago, she’s tried to off herself 14 times before. So, losing Nora, though sad, isn’t really the point.

What to do with her body is.

You see, her timing is really bad. Passover is about to begin and due to various rites and rituals of Orthodox Jewish law, she can’t be buried for several days. In the meantime, there’s ice for her corpse and an irascible older rabbi who insists everything be done by the book.  As in, THE BOOK.

Further, Nora has determined her Passover Seder will go on exactly as she planned. The table is set and the refrigerator is packed with food, each item accompanied by a post-it instructing what is to be done and how.

Much of the film’s considerable humor comes from self-proclaimed atheist and all-around curmudgeon Jose’s determination not to follow orders, be they from Nora, their adult son, the finger-waving rabbi, or even Nora’s devoted housekeeper.  At one point, Jose brings in a pizza slathered in bacon as an adamantly non-Kosher snack.

As more people arrive and differing agendas collide, the film takes on an increasingly farcical tone. Yet first time director Mariana Chenillo never loses sight of the essential humanity of the situation which, at its core, is the on-going friction between those who believe and those who don’t. “All religions are the same,” Jose insists. “All manipulation and money.”

Winner of the best film direction award at the 31st Moscow International Film Festival, Nora’s Will ultimately (and unexpectedly) recalls the under-appreciated “Pieces of April,” a Thanksgiving-themed film starring a pre-TomKat Katie Holmes. In both, people of all backgrounds come together to share a special meal and a spiritual connection.

And even dear unhappy Nora finally gets to rest in peace.

Eleanor Ringel Cater

Re-Post: Oblivion Review by hmablogmaster
September 16, 2009, 11:23 am
Filed under: Film Series: High, Review | Tags: , , ,

In preparation for the 24th Annual Latin American Film Festival, let’s take a look back at a recent review of Oblivion by Linda Dubler. This film is the second in the festival and will be shown at 8 p.m. on Saturday, September 26.

Child acrobat in Oblivion

Child acrobat in Oblivion

Heddy Honigmann’s films are so direct and so deftly understated that their artistry is almost invisible. Devoid of attention grabbing compositions and passionate rhetoric, her sublime, humanistic documentaries are modest but perfectly balanced, quiet but penetrating and immensely moving.

Honigmann is interested in big ideas like memory, justice, and art, but in her films they’re never abstractions. Her movies are stories about the people we pass by every day, people whose lives we never plumb because we don’t have the curiosity, the eye and the quiet fearlessness that allows Honigmann to find the poet and performer in the men, women and children who populate her work.
Oblivion, Honigmann’s latest, is her second film shot in Lima, Peru, where she was born the daughter of Holocaust survivors in 1951. Though she’s now based in the Netherlands and works internationally, Honigmann seems entirely at home on Lima’s teeming streets where acrobats perform at crosswalks and then beg for change amid the idling cars, musicians entertain, and vendors hawk everything from fancy dresses for Barbie dolls to tiny sewing kits. These choked avenues run through the film; lit up and alive, they are a public stage for the poor and the enterprising.

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Anti-Action movies by Linda Dubler

Anti-Action Movies: Not exactly Zen,  but definitely not G.I. Joe

School has already started in Atlanta, where we’re slogging through another endless August.  But Labor Day, marking the unofficial end of summer, is in sight (though  it’ll be hot here until Halloween). In the spirit of celebrating the close of Action Movie season, (no more robots going mano-a-mano; no more things blowing up real good, at least for a while)  Eleanor Ringel Cater and I have been thinking about some sublime Anti-Action Movies — films that rely upon mood, conversation, acute observation and emotional complexity rather than sound and fury.

We’ve spared you the avant-garde’s really anti-action movies like Warhol’s Sleep and Michael Snow’s Wavelength. What follows is guaranteed to keep you awake and get you in shape for the “serious”  Oscar-contender fare coming soon to a theatre near you.

What are your favorite Labor Day weekend movies? Action? or Anti-action?

Linda’s Ten Anti-Action Movies to Watch

Nobody Knows

You know that unsettling  feeling when things are just  too quiet? That’s the mood left by this delicate Japanese film about children who are forced to fend for themselves after their flighty mother takes a hike.  And it’s based on a true story.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

“Life affirming” can be such an icky term. But drop the treacley associations and it gets at the radiant sensuality  of this film about a man whose body has failed him, but whose mind is still very much alive. Painter turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel directed.

To Be and To Have

One of my all-time favorite documentaries, To Be and To Have unfolds in a one-room school in rural France, where a middle-aged teacher in his last year on the job attends to students ranging from pre-schoolers to thirteen-year-olds.  It’s exquisitely observed, tender, and funny. The rather obscure English title refers to the essential verbs, to be (etre) and to have (avoir) whose conjugations are key to learning the French language.

Bombon The Dog

Bombon The Dog

Bombon The Dog (aka El  Perro)

A gentle Argentine comedy about an out-of-work mechanic (played by the guy who used to park the director’s car) who receives a large, pedigreed dog as thanks for helping a stranded motorist. Bombon, the handsome canine, is prime material for the show ring, and soon Coco, the film’s middle-aged hero, is making the scene with his new best friend.

The Door in the Floor

A great film that fell into the void, this bleakly funny marital drama,  based on a vignette from a John Irving novel, features fabulous performances by Jeff Bridges as a philandering writer of children’s books and Kim Bassinger as  his  smart, ripely beautiful, and grieving wife. A coming of age story is incidental to the complex emotional tenor of the movie.

Also, Laila’s Birthday (DVD release in December), Baran, Encounters at the End of the World, 28 Up and Diabolique.

Eleanor’s Ten Anti-Action Movies to Watch

Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day

My Dinner with Andre

Writer-actor Wallace Shawn plays practical Mole to stage director Andre Gregory’s visionary Toad in this exquisite comedy of table manners that’s actually nothing more than a two-hour dinner chat about the Meaning of Life and other pertinent matters.

Raise the Red Lantern

Celebrated filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s ravishingly gorgeous study of gender politics in ’20s China. Manipulation, sexuality and power plays are the weapons of choice.

The Remains of the Day

Set mostly in the 1930s, this is a heartbreakingly deft and impeccably acted study of the road not taken–or rather, the life not lived. Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are the very models of tortured restraint as servants in one of the statelier mansions of England.

Babette’s Feast

Babettes Feast

Babette's Feast

A delectable celebration of the transforming power of art, rendered in mouth-wateringly gastronomic terms. A French woman finds refuge in Denmark after fleeing the 1871 upheavals in Paris and, as a thank you to her dour Danish rescuers, fixes a banquet worthy of the gods.

Plus, Marty (I don’t know, Marty.Whadda’ you wanna do tonight?), Away From Her, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Savages, Notorious and just about anything by Eric Rohmer.

Share your picks and send us your comments.