Blackhat: Michael Mann, action painter

Even at his worst Michael Mann can run circles around nearly every other director working today. His frenetic set pieces and gorgeously fluid camera movements; his spacious framing and brilliantly choreographed editing rhythms; his ability to wring tension from subtle shifts in point-of-view and to establish relationships through an exchange of glances; these are the trademarks of a long-running career resulting in two of the great films of the 1980s,Thief and Manhunter; two more in the ‘90s, Heat and The Insider; and then in 2001, Ali, whose stunning opening sequence continues to thrill. Since he began working in high-definition video with Collateral, his last three films–Miami Vice, Public Enemies and now Blackhat (finally out on DVD and VOD after a throwaway theatrical release in early January)–have attempted to synthesize an almost meta-obsession with the medium’s glassine textures into a pulse-pounding, good guy vs. bad guy format. The emotional range of these films has thinned, but the action scenes continue to pack a mercurial jolt.

The Great Invisible: Where's the rage?

The invisible in Margaret Brown’s documentary The Great Invisible (available on Netflix and online on PBS’s Independent Lens until May 21st) refers to both the damage done to the lives and landscape of the Gulf Coast following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (the largest in U.S. history), and the free pass awarded to BP in the years after the disaster. Sure, they paid billions of dollars in fines and fees to clean up the spill, but the amount will add up to a drop in their endless bucket of oil profits. The company continues to drill new offshore wells, hidden from view and unscathed by government regulations, while the devastation from the accident resulted in both a human and environmental post-traumatic stress that neither BP, the United States government, the media, nor the rest of us, care to think about. Out of sight, out of mind.

The Clouds of Sils Maria: Lost in a fog

The weirdly named new film from director Olivier Assayas, The Clouds of Sils Maria, refers to an actual phenomenon that occurs in this mountainous region of Switzerland. Known as the Maloja Snake, it’s a weather pattern in which a snake-like stream of clouds slithers in and out of the valley. The Maloja Snake is also the name of a play written for the film’s lead character, Maria (Juliette Binoche), an esteemed actress who in her youth starred as the protagonist in the play’s original production, now considering the possibility of starring in an update opposite a much younger actress. The Maloja Snake–both the play and the cloud formation–acts as a metaphor for Assayas’ rumination on aging and the passage of time. If that sounds like a rather tortuous metaphor, it is. And this film, regrettably, is also tortuous to sit through. Arid and over-intellectualized, The Clouds of Sils Maria irritates and bores in equal measure.

Kurt Cobain Montage of Heck: May he rest in peace

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is named for a mix tape the musician made in his misfit years, when he was spending days on end in his apartment scrapbooking a vision of himself. He would draw, scribble in journals, paste cutouts from magazines, play guitar, listen to his favorite bands, and write lists of the things he loved, hated, needed to do, or looked forward to doing. These were private manifestos of rage and dreams and wishful thinking, cobbled together when he had no idea he would eventually become a rock star and the early years of his short life would be repeatedly scavenged for clues to his genius and his pain. Montage of Heck dredges up little new information despite the access granted to Cobain’s private life and the interview with his widow, Courtney Love. But for fans of Nirvana, it stands–for better or worse–as the only “authorized” documentary they’re likely to ever get.

The Salt of the Earth: Salgado and the depths of human misery


The casualties of war, oppression, poverty and religious zealotry confront all of us in the photographs of Sebastião Salgado, whose remarkable career is the subject of the documentary The Salt of the Earth. Salgado has witnessed the horrific aftermaths of genocide, the terrible cruelty of famine, the awful exploitation of workers, and he has captured these distinctly human evils with a deep-focused, exquisite eye. His pictures are magnificent and monumental, and usually expensively printed in coffee table books or displayed in art museums. One can find compressed versions on the Internet, but to see them displayed on the big screen of a movie theater is a rare treat.

Welcome to New York: A hungry man


On its surface, Welcome to New York is a thinly disguised version of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case. But in reality, it’s just another Abel Ferrara film about appetite. The director's most notorious deconstruction of gluttony and addiction, the masterful Bad Lieutenant, invited the audience to witness the seamy undoing of a corrupt cop. Here he presents the Strauss-Kahn character, referred to throughout only by his fictional last name Devereaux, as another slave to his own uncontrolled cravings.

Backcountry: Time for chow


Backcountry expresses a novel way of getting rid of a partner who has become a drag in your relationship. Go on a backpacking trip together and hope he or she is eaten by a bear. That’s the only real surprise in this effective, but effectively predictable, backwoods thriller from director Adam MacDonald, which requires that an REI ad-ready pair named Jenn and Alex must make a lot of stupid mistakes in order to become potential bear chow. Claw past the clichés and you’ll find decent performances and several tense moments, but more often than not you’ll be rooting for the bear.