Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor's "Obscene" is as vital, incisive and entertaining as its subject, Barney Rosset, who in his 80s is as witty and impassioned as ever in his defense of the freedom of expression. The founder of Grove Press and the Evergreen Review, those bugaboos of the censorious in the '60s and '70s, once said, "I feel personally there hasn't been a word written or uttered that shouldn't be published." Rosset has spent his life -- and lost a fortune -- in living up to that belief.
Rosset has published thousands of books, including those of five Nobel Prize winners, but he became notorious for publishing "Lady Chatterley's Lover," "Naked Lunch" and "Tropic of Cancer," all of which involved costly but ultimately successful court battles against charges of obscenity. He then distributed the sexually explicit 1967 Swedish film "I Am Curious -- Yellow," which made a fortune, but this time he lost his battle at the U.S. Supreme Court level. Working against him was that Justice William O. Douglas had to recuse himself, for he had contributed an article to an issue of the Evergreen Review, an act that so shocked President Ford that he called for the impeachment of Douglas. A series of calamitous events concluded with Rosset eventually selling Grove under the false impression that he would still be in charge. Yet Rosset is a survivor, admired and bemused by friends and the famous and distinguished writers he has published.
-- Kevin Thomas
"Obscene." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. At the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.
Atwater: Clever and ruthless
Based on your political bent, "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story," a head-on analysis of the scrappy, blues-playing young Southerner who helped remake the Republican Party, will evoke blood-spitting rage or resounding awe. Either way, it's a hugely entertaining, efficiently crafted documentary about a ruthless, if undeniably clever, American political force.
Mixing rich news and archival footage along with candid interviews with Atwater's colleagues, friends and foes (including Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins, conservative columnist Robert Novak, ex-Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and, most memorably, "Bush 41" opponent Michael S. Dukakis), director-cinematographer-editor Stefan Forbes rivetingly, often chillingly, frames our country's not-so-distant political past while informing its polarized present.
The film expertly lays out the fearmongering, "perception is reality" tactics Atwater created to mastermind presidential victories for Ronald Reagan (serving as his "special assistant") and George H.W. Bush (as campaign manager) that would also set the groundwork for protege Karl Rove's later engineering of George W. Bush's White House wins.
By then, however, Atwater had long since died of a brain tumor that even he came to regard as karmic payback. His eleventh-hour mea culpa, seen here in unsettling near-death footage, might strike some as too little, too late. But like the rest of "Boogie Man," it makes for great political theater.
-- Gary Goldstein
"Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.
'Still Life' lives up to its title
The Chinese drama "Still Life" is as inert as its title may suggest. Though set against one of the world's most striking redevelopment projects, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam to control Yangtze River flooding, the personal tales at the film's core unfold at such a painfully slow pace that even the breathtaking views of majestic Central China can't overcome the lethargy.
The movie switches between two meandering stories related only by location and zeitgeist. The first follows Sanming (Han Sanming), a miner who travels to the ancient, now-submerged town of Fengjie to track down the ex-wife he hasn't seen in 16 years. As she can't immediately be found, Sanming joins a demolition crew involved in the area's massive transformation effort. In the second, shorter story, a nurse named Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) arrives in Fengjie looking for her estranged husband, with divorce in mind. While Sanming and Shen Hong are authentic characters, they're too remote to prompt any real emotional connection.
Writer-director Jia Zhang-Ke has important issues to examine here (more than a million Chinese will have been forced to relocate, amid cultural and political troubles, by the dam's 2009 completion), but they're eclipsed by his overly deliberate, if purposeful filmmaking style.
-- Gary Goldstein
"Still Life." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles. At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.
'House of Adam' is too vague