When Gillo Pontecorvo passed away in 2006 at age 86, many of the obituaries duly observed that because of his relatively meager oeuvre — he made only a handful of features during a career that spanned decades — the Italian-born auteur had earned the nickname of “lazy director.” (A confession: When I heard about his death — I thought the guy had died decades earlier.)
But, really, he needed only one masterwork to ensure his immortality: The Battle of Algiers (1966), his stunning documentary-style drama about the violent uprising of Algerians against French colonial forces in the 1950s, which will be presented this weekend (Friday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m.) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
But, really, he needed only one masterwork to ensure his immortality: The Battle of Algiers (1966), his stunning documentary-style drama about the violent uprising of Algerians against French colonial forces in the 1950s.
Nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Screenplay, and often cited as a major influence by directors as diverse as Spike Lee, Mira Nair and Steven Soderbergh, Battle for Algiers demonstrated its undiminished ability to enthrall just three years before Pontecorvo’s demise, when Pentagon officials screened the film for employees and associates as an object lesson in dealing with insurgents and terrorist cells.
No, I’m not making that up.
As the New York Times reported at the time: "The Pentagon's showing drew... [an] audience of about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film - the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq. Or more specifically, the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans.
“As the flier inviting guests to the Pentagon screening declared: ‘How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.’”
Before you ask: No, there's never been any indication that either George W. Bush or Barack Obama ever requested a special White House screening of The Battle of Algiers. But, then again, maybe both presidents were advised to peruse the perceptive primer on Pontecorvo's incendiary epic written by Slate.com's Charles Paul Freund.
Hell on wheels
Waiting for Lightning (at the Sundance Cinemas) was produced in association with DC Shoes, a company co-founded by the brother of the film’s subject, so it shouldn’t be surprising that this celebratory documentary plays more like an authorized biography than an objective overview.
If you ever been the least bit curious about professional skateboarder Danny Way, you might find director Jacob Rosenberg’s slickly produced flick to be enlightening as well as entertaining.
Still, if you ever been the least bit curious about professional skateboarder Danny Way — a risk-taking, record-setting, full-fledged phenom —you might find director Jacob Rosenberg’s slickly produced flick to be enlightening as well as entertaining.
The move proceeds along two parallel tracks, alternating between extended stretches of life-storytelling, complete with archival footage and talking-heads interviews, and a mildly suspenseful build-up to Danny’s 2005 attempt, at age 31, to jump over the Great Wall of China on his skateboard (with the help of some really, really big ramps). Rosenberg traces Danny’s rise from broken-home survivor to international celebrity, drawing upon testimonials from family and friends (including fellow skateboarding icon Tony Hawk).
As I noted last spring when it premiered at SXSW: Waiting for Lightning may be something short of an in-depth psychological probe, but it does provocatively suggest that Danny’s lifelong obsession with pushing himself to the limit, and beyond, may stem from an urge to transcend childhood traumas and personal demons.
On the other hand, the documentary also indicates that, hey, he may just enjoy doing things that are totally gnarly, dude.
Other movies, other screens
Even after years of listening to Dr. John H. Lienhard’s Engines of Our Ingenuity segments on KUHF-FM, I had no idea the good professor was a movie buff. As it turns out, however, he’s quite the discerning cineaste – so 14 Pews has invited him to present one of his all-time favorite films at 7 p.m. Sunday: The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa’s powerful 1956 drama about Japanese troops dealing with defeat at the end of World War II.
Even after years of listening to Dr. John H. Lienhard’s Engines of Our Ingenuity segments on KUHF-FM, I had no idea the good professor was a movie buff.
In addition to the aforementioned Waiting for Lightning, Sundance Cinemas has two other new attractions on tap: Chasing Ice, Jeff Orlowski’s acclaimed documentary about photographer James Balog’s efforts to document the ravages of global warming; and Holy Motors, Léos Carax’s flamboyantly eccentric fantasy about a mysterious man who repeatedly reinvents himself to experience close encounters of the wildest kind during a long day’s drive through Paris.
As our Nancy Wozny has reported, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will host a mini-retrospective of idiosyncratic films by the distinctively different Quay Brothers this weekend.
And of course, if it’s Friday, there has got to be at least one new Bollywood import somewhere, right?
This week, it’s Khiladi 786 (at the AMC Studio 30), a fast and furious action-comedy (with songs) featuring Indian superstar Akshay Kumar as a con man who poses – very successfully – as a hardboiled cop.