Behind the Burly Q, Breath Made Visible, Mother and Child 

Also, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, Babies, Multiple Sarcasms, The Lightkeepers and more

Thursday, May 6 2010

BABIES Did I say "Awww" at Babies? I did. Did I giggle at the adorable things babies do in Babies? Oh my, yes. Did I ovulate like a dozen times during Babies? You better believe it. Is Babies a good movie? Of course not. But that's missing the point — like asking if a porn video is a good movie. Babies gets the job done. A canny exercise in feature-length YouTube, Babies follows four international infants from birth to toddling. Cutting from rural Mongolia to Tokyo and from the Namibian desert to San Francisco, director Thomas Balmes shows us little Bayar, Mari, Ponijao and Hattie as they nurse, sleep, poop, eat, crawl and play. Baby Bayar is a particular star, a sort of Mongolian Ben Stiller who endures countless indignities at the hands of his mischievous older brother, a yurt-invading rooster and a thirsty goat. (The audience also really loved it when he peed all over himself.) Other than the passage of time, there's not much of an organizing principle to Babies, and it offers little in the way of context. It's pretty much just straight-up babies, all the way through. This makes it easy to determine who will like Babies. If you're expecting a baby, you'll like Babies. If you once had a baby who is now grown, you'll like Babies. If you have a baby right now, you would like Babies, although, obviously, you'll never be able to leave the house to see it. (Dan Kois) (Citywide)

GO  BEHIND THE BURLY Q Although now swathed in nostalgic longing/hipster appropriation, the art of burlesque was once a vibrant, multitiered cultural enterprise — escapist family entertainment for the working class, an erotic getaway for men of all classes, and a carefully constructed art form. Leslie Zemeckis' slightly ramshackle but utterly entertaining Behind the Burly Q is a painstakingly researched love letter to the women and men who once made up the community of burlesque performers. If the documentary could be a little more tightly edited, its treasure trove of vintage photographs and performance footage is enough to make historians and fans of classic erotica swoon. The film's visual component is complemented by insightful talking heads (retired performers, as well as feminist scholars), who map a fascinating evolution of the form while filling in the backstories of the performers. It's the latter — ranging from horrifying stories of poverty, violence and abuse to professional and artistic triumphs — that really pull the viewer in. While icons such as Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm and Dixie Evans (the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque) are given ample screen time, Gypsy Rose Lee, the biggest crossover success, is not only given a relatively brief mention but is also bitchily (and very entertainingly) ripped to shreds by folks who knew her. (Ernest Hardy) (Sunset 5)

GO  BREATH MADE VISIBLE Postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin, who celebrates her 90th birthday in July, is a force of nature. Not the kind who steamrolls everything in her path but one who has a gently, relentlessly persistent drive, like a wave. Breath Made Visible, Ruedi Gerber's portrait of the artist as an ageless fount, transports us to the woods of Marin County, where the pioneering dancer and choreographer has lived and taught the principles of improvisation and collaboration for decades. The documentary's physical center is the enormous wooden deck that the late landscape architect Lawrence Halprin built for his wife, pitched among the redwoods in their vast yard. It serves as studio, performance space, healing hub, refuge and mecca for those drawn to Anna's seerlike spirit and grace. It's no small feat to make a legend life-sized and accessible without dispelling her greatness and mystique, yet Gerber pulls off a delicate tightrope act with relaxed ease. (Michael Fox) (Music Hall)

CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY Passionate Republican, fervent Orthodox Jew, ruthless wheeler-dealer, charismatic self-promoter, dreamer and doer, superlobbyist Jack Abramoff at his height fashioned himself into a human ATM, lining the pockets of politicians on every side of the congressional aisle. Sooner or later, everybody from Tom DeLay to Patrick Kennedy was at least marginally in his debt. His meteoric rise and fall may seem on the surface to be yesterday's news, but as recounted here by filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), the man's uniquely dramatic career still has much to reveal about how power malfunctions in America. Indeed, Abramoff's story is so much larger-than-life that Casino Jack is but one of two excellent films about the man coming out this year. The other — starring Kevin Spacey and due in the fall — is a witty, psychological interpretive dance that persuasively imagines the climate inside Abramoff's head. Gibney's take is by contrast a thorough, diligent history that must work around the man (Abramoff is still in prison, unavailable for interview). Getting everybody around his subject to open up, Gibney is then able to map, as per his movie's subtitle The United States of Money, which made (and makes) such corruption possible. Abramoff fleeced Indian tribes of millions, while affecting to represent their gambling interests; he entangled himself with shady, murderous characters while launching his own fleet of gaming boats — hence the nickname, "Casino Jack." More chillingly, as Gibney's patient, relentless X-ray of a movie magnifies in detail, Abramoff leads DeLay and others on junkets that hallow the sweatshop archipelago that are the Marianas Islands as "a triumph of free enterprise." Gibney makes the case that the United States sponsors and protects traffic in slave labor, which continues to this day. The blindfold that allows us to tolerate this horror (if only tacitly, in our ignorance) is the very mad-money ethic for which Abramoff was the ecstatic ambassador — and convenient fall guy. Casino Jack and The United States of Money is indispensible viewing. (F.X. Feeney) (Landmark, Playhouse, Sunset 5, Town Center)

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