Friday, July 11, 2008

Outcasts and Exiles

Reviewed this week at Two big-studio, well-publicized movies you may have heard about. One of them is surprisingly good.

Was I surprised to read a review this morning of a picture, Death Defying Acts, that had flown completely under my radar. I'm pretty up on these things, and a new Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Oscar and Lucinda), with Guy Pearce as Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is hardly on the fringes, like one of those "mumblecore" offerings that cost $10 to make. This saleable film is getting as marginal a release as possible. Even Houdini couldn't find it. Now, it looks slight and may not be any good, but you'd think it would attract a smidgen more interest.

The best picture of the week is also obscure, and has been for 47 years. Thom Andersen's fine documentary L.A. Plays Itself got me interested in seeing The Exiles (pictured), an "anti-theatrical" portrait of Native American life relocated to the anonymity of the big city that had pretty much become an outcast itself over the decades. Andersen, Charles Burnett (whose outstanding Killer of Sheep had also languished), and Milestone Films have nicked Kent Mackenzie's classic-in-waiting from the archives and are giving it a proper release, at Manhattan's IFC Center. (DVD will bring it to a wider audience.) See it if you can. The extraordinary black-and-white cinematography (by co-producer John A. Morrill) captures a subculture at its vanishing point, as the lower-class Bunker Hill neighborhood (a film noir staple, distinguished by its funicular railway) was leveled a few years later, forcing another diaspora of its residents. Bunker Hill was recreated for the 2006 film Ask the Dust, but here is the real deal, circa from when a gallon of gas cost 27 cents. Perhaps the DVD will answer what happened to the people whose struggles the film observes.

Roman Polanski gets a fairer hearing in the documentary Wanted and Desired, which is getting theatrical dates after an HBO run last month. While not absolving him of the statutory rape that led to his flight from the California, it argues, convincingly, that the star-struck judge had it in for the filmmaker, a view supported by both the defense and the prosecution. The director, Marina Zenovich, leans a little too heavily on film clips to pop-psychoanalyze Polanski (or what she had access to; Macbeth, which is not shown, seems the best evidence of a psyche under duress) but she has done her homework on the case, and lets the victim in the case speak eloquently for herself.

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