Reviews of the Cinematheque's weekend films

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The Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque is showing several great films this weekend. Here are our reviews of just a few of them.

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Araya (Venezuela, 1959) This Venezuelan documentary, unreleased in the U.S. for 50 years, plays like a meditation on the history of an ancient land populated by poor salt miners and fishermen. There are many gorgeous black-and-white images here: Director Margot Benacerraf shoots in close-up and from the ground up. Occasionally she peers at the workers from above, viewing them as an army of ants, methodically and ritualistically delivering their bounty to the mountains of “white gold.” There are also some soothing sounds, as miners silently push their boats out to the gently waving sea. But the over-poetic narration (“Salt and sweat, sweat and salt, until the end of time”) is often intrusive; Araya says plenty without the nonstop voiceover (does the narrator really need to tell us a dozen times that everything the villagers eat comes from the sea?). You’ll learn a few things — conquistadors paid their soldiers in salt! — even if we never quite figure out where the salt comes from before the miners pull it from the sea and where it goes after they pile it up on the shore. Mostly, though, you’ll be awestruck by the elegant, tranquil images of a land and people that haven’t changed much since time began. At 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31. *** (Michael Gallucci)

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The Box (U.S., 2009) In The Box, a married couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are given a box with a large red button by a mysterious disfigured man (Frank Langella). Langella tells the couple that if they press the button, they will be given a million dollars. At the same time, someone “they don’t know” will die as a result. Set in 1976, The Box takes great pains to accurately reflect the era and its films, right down to its excellent retro orchestral score. The film is based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button,” which was a simple and elegant dark fantasy tale whose twist ending packed a wicked punch of social commentary. It’s a great story, but there’s not really enough there for a feature film. So for better or worse, writer-director Richard Kelly has expanded on and changed the source material considerably. Kelly’s adaptation is too long and piles on so much weirdness that it threatens to overwhelm the story at times. His ending also lacks the bite of Matheson’s original. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating and uncompromising film that will no doubt attract the same sort of cult following as Kelly’s Donnie Darko. At 8:50 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30 and at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31. *** (Robert Ignizio)

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The New World (U.S., 2007) Filmmaker Terence Malick's lyrical, trance-like historical reverie about the 1607 founding of the Jamestown colony is a tactile portrayal of tragic native-vs.-western first-contact, as well as a fresh take on the Pocahontas legend, with the full scoop on her on-off romantic relationship with John Smith (Colin Farrell), practically symbolic of the fertile North American landmass and its/her deflowering by European profiteers. Drawbacks are a ponderous pace (you feel every minute of the two-and-a-half hours) and Malick's politically-correct flower-child mindset of the “naturals” (Indians) as healthful, Edenic, unspoiled unselfish, non-denominationally spiritual, while Anglos are shifty, diseased, Bible-demented and encased in clunky conquistador armor. Characters seem more iconic than real, and they mutter their sparse, haiku-like dialogue frequently into the ground (and what's up with Farrell not even buttoning up his shirt when he's in the frozen North? Dude must've been auditioning for Twilight). Still, you get a sense of wonder at pre-Colonial America, back when white males were not the top of the food chain and had only the most tenuous foothold on the untamed soil. At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28 and at 9:25 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29. *** (Charles Cassady Jr.)

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