Daily Archives: March 30, 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


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