Montage of Heck

2018-08-08T23:48:41+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Brett Morgen, Watched in:  Theater, Rating:  2.5/5.     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. Executive produced by Cobain’s daughter, Frances, and featuring, in addition to Love, approved interviews with his mother, father, stepmother, sister, early girlfriend, and band member and good friend Krist Novoselic, the movie proceeds with a sense of clarity and a notable absence of speculation. The director, Brett Morgen, seems to have been granted undiluted permission to comb Cobain’s intimate journals, and then to animate them, bringing them vividly to life with explosions of color and movement, and an eye-catching technique in which Cobain’s handwriting materializes on-screen. It’s startling and distracting in equal measure. [...]


2019-04-10T15:50:25+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Aaron Schock, Watched on:  Netflix, Rating:  4.5/5.     The little seen film Circo is a picaresque tale of a traveling Mexican circus made by a first-time feature filmmaker. I happened to read about the movie in a magazine before I realized it had been been kicking around Netflix for almost a year. Beautifully shot, simply told, and wonderfully immersive, this is the rare documentary that has no activist agenda, topical issue or political ax to grind. Director Aaron Schock made 8 trips to Mexico over a period of 21 months to document the itinerant lifestyle of the Ponce family circus, a traveling family of performers featuring several kids, their parents and grandparents, and an aunt or uncle or two, working the backroads of a colorful but changing Mexico. The crowds may be small but the professional attention to detail and the passion for performing never waver for the family, which includes pre-teen trapeze artists, pubescent clowns, and a lion-taming father. This is no freak show however, it’s a business, and there is tension between the parents. Mom wants to retire from the road, settle down, and give her kids a stable home and a decent education. Dad is torn between love for his family and his love of the show, an inherited tradition stretching back seven generations. Circo has a lovely rhythm, criscrossing not only the exotic landscape of rural Mexico but also the emotional terrain of a family pulling together, working unimaginably difficult hours, dealing with recalcitrant animals and malfunctioning vehicles, continually practicing their craft, and [...]

Encounters at the End of the World

2018-08-08T22:15:36+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Werner Herzog, Watched in:  Theater, Rating:  2.5/5.   Encounters at the End of the World is middle of the road Werner Herzog. It’s a for-hire job that allows him to rant about us lesser humans who don’t live in extreme temperatures and risk death every day, who have regular jobs, families, kids, mortgages, etc. That’s usually okay with me.  I go to Herzog for his oblique portraits of absurd risk-takers, people who dwell in the last remaining hut on the nexus of civilization, obsession, and madness. My problem with Encounters at the End of the World is that Herzog’s gaze settles too easily on the people that just happen to be living in Antartica when he visited, rather than people he discovered or searched for by pushing himself to extremes. The microcell biologists, the drivers and divers, the computer programmers, the mechanics—they are getting paid to live and work at the end of the world, and Herzog, who is on assignment for Discovery Channel Films, sometimes gives away to the pressure to please his employers. There are few of the quirks I come to expect from Herzog’s vision. His narration, while retaining his special brand of dry, flat irony, offers only a tidbit or two of revelation. He dips in and out of stories, and makes an occasional observation that may not hold up under deeper scrutiny. For example, towards the end of the film he interviews a penguin expert about insanity among the birds, and then focuses on one of the penguins as it gets lost [...]

Waiting For Superman

2018-08-10T00:38:17+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Davis Guggenheim, Watched in:  Theater Rating:  4/5.     Director Davis Guggenheim admits at the beginning of his sad and haunting film, Waiting For Superman, that he drives his own daughters to a private school every morning, passing by three public schools that are nearer to his home. His guilt over a decision he once promised himself he would not make has driven him to make this movie, a vivid and intimate examination of the crisis confronting education in America. Guggenheim tells the stories of 5 young students in California, New York and Washington D.C., all with eager minds but meager prospects for a quality education in their hometowns. Luckily, they are blessed with caring parents and grandparents, some of who are making up for their own lack of education by focusing with heartbreaking tenacity on the future of their children. They all believe that education, graduating from high school and going to college, is the key to a better life in America. They are right, but America—its politicians and its teachers’ unions—litter the path to academic success with bureaucratic obstacles. In the case of the families featured in Waiting For Superman, their only hope lies in a lottery, a literal roulette, to determine their acceptance into the few schools that qualify as institutions of learning rather than holding pens for future at-risk youth. Woven throughout this increasingly suspenseful story are the damning statistics and research that paint a pathetic picture of the last 40 years in American education. It seems that every president, from LBJ to [...]

When the Levees Broke

2018-08-10T00:30:23+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Spike Lee, Watched on:  HBO, Rating:  5/5.     In his four-hour long post-Hurricane Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee and his team of filmmakers throw a wide net over all the neighborhoods of New Orleans, interviewing residents who fled Katrina, musicians who returned, politicians who passed the buck, journalists who wrote impassioned indictments of failed policy. At first, the movie feels overloaded with talking heads, too many faces, too many names, too many stories. But soon a pattern emerges. What Lee is doing with this film is telling the story of a diaspora, a great forced emigration of lost and wandering souls who left the only home they knew, and are now in danger of being forgotten. In story after story, anecdote after anecdote, with varying measures of rage, incomprehension, sorrow and survival, the people of New Orleans tell their story to the only audience that will listen: people just like them, homeowners with families, working men and women, children and grandmothers. As Lee makes clear in this movie, it will certainly not be the politicians who pay them any mind. This film is at its best when it is angry, when it is searing and honest about the failures of the Bush Administration, FEMA, Mayor Ray Nagin, and when it points a finger at the racism allowed for too long to fester in the seams dividing the Crescent City. Lee has created a vast and damning chronicle of one of the worst natural disasters–and one of the most inept federal responses–to befall our [...]

Jesus Camp

2018-08-08T22:54:47+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Directors:  Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Watched on:  DVD, Rating:  3/5.     In Jesus Camp, filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were granted unprecedented access to a group of kids who practice a form of evangelical religion so deeply fundamental that it would be admirable if it weren’t so frightening. The pre-teens in this Oscar nominated doc are Pentecostal Charismatics—they live, breathe, cry, sing, and speak in tongues for Jesus. Their leader at the Kids on Fire summer camp, located in the ironically named Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, is a passionate general in an army they believe is led by George Bush, and their camp is a recruitment center for foot soldiers for Jesus Christ. That’s the impression left by this film, which is a surprisingly even-handed, non-judgmental look at a sub-culture of Americans who believe Harry Potter is a warlock, global warming doesn’t exist, and abortion is the devil’s work. Becky Fisher, the camp director, is a fervent crusader, and she makes no apologies for what she herself calls the indoctrination of her young campers into a fundamentalist movement equal in fervor and commitment to their Islamic radical counterparts in Palestine, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The kids in this film are all fresh-faced, middle class, and mostly white; and they are surprisingly articulate and open with the filmmakers, who were allowed to roam the grounds and be part of the revival meetings, sometimes with two or three cameras rolling simultaneously. As the directors themselves say in their voice-over commentary, some of these kids are “unnervingly mature”, and there [...]

Particle Fever

2018-08-09T00:04:55+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Mark Levinson, Watched in: Theater, Rating:  1.5/5.     Judging by the packed house at an opening night screening of the new documentary Particle Fever, the movie seems to have a sizable niche audience. Telling the story of the Large Hadron Collider, an immense and expensive science experiment going on in a vast underground bunker in Switzerland, the movie is certain to thrill physicists, scientists, astronomers, philosophy majors, math geeks, nerds, braniacs and other lovable eggheads who see vast mysteries and thrilling possibilities in dense, convoluted equations. If you’re like me, however, whose last encounter with arithmetic was 10th grade geometry, the movie is likely to induce restlessness, as if you’re back in that high school class impatient for the bell to ring. Particle Fever tags along with several physicists working on the LHC, part of a vast international squadron of scientists teaming up to discover the origin of the universe. Their plan is to simulate the Big Bang within the Collider, crashing together atoms over and over again in order to break them apart and find evidence of the Higgs Boson. The Higgs is–if I followed this correctly–a sub-atomic particle that could potentially explain why we exist. Apparently this was a big deal last year when news broke of the discovery of the Higgs Boson, but what wasn’t such a big deal was that no one seems quite sure what to do with this knowledge. It’s a problem the documentary struggles with as well. After an engrossing, fast-paced and gently entertaining first thirty minutes during which [...]

The Internet’s Own Boy

2018-08-08T22:51:51+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Brian Knappenberger, Watched in: Theater, Rating:  4/5.   The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz documents the sad tale of the information activist and brilliant computer programmer who committed suicide in early 2013. The movie presents damning evidence of death by intimidation, perpetrated by the United States government against one of its own citizens, orchestrated by a paranoid national security apparatus and an overzealous Federal prosecutor. The Internet’s Own Boy will leave you angry, suspicious, even shocked; it is both a searing work of protest and rage, and a deeply moving portrait of a gifted, likeable young man driven to despair by the very country he loved and sought to help. Swartz was, by all accounts, a computer programming prodigy and technical genius. He helped develop the Internet protocol RSS, co-founded Instagram and the information hub Reddit. He worked as a researcher at Harvard and established the web-based Creative Commons. He could have made billions of dollars if he’d sunk his talents into Silicon Valley. Instead, he used his skills in areas of social justice and information access. Believing that knowledge is the ultimate power, and that all knowledge should be free and available to the public, especially if the public has already paid for it, Swartz aggressively and subversively mined vaults of data and information from privately owned websites with the goal of making it accessible to everyone. He considered himself an activist, and even dreamed one day of using his skills in politics. He wanted to eventually work in the White [...]

Inside Job

2018-08-08T22:49:26+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Charles Ferguson, Watched on:  DVD, Rating:  5/5.     It is very provincial of me to say this, but Seattle may be one of the few cities in the country where audiences still applaud at the end of a film they enjoyed, and it is probably the only city where an audience will applaud at the end of a documentary. But Inside Job is that kind of film. The movie is a clear, detailed and thorough examination of the head-in-the-sand politics and back room criminal activity that created the financial mess of 2008.  The film was produced, written and directed by Charles Ferguson, the same filmmaker who investigated the folly that was the run up to the Iraq debacle.  That film’s title alone, No End In Sight, was not only prescient but could also serve as the title for this film as well. In both cases, there seems to be no way out of either the Iraq war or the so-called Great Recession, which has clamped itself on the American public like a set of manacles that may never be removed. Of course, we’re talking about the Great Recession that affects 98% of Americans; not the richest 2% who continue to make bundles of money in executive bonuses and use it to bribe politicians into passing ineffective financial reform and lobbying for tax cuts for themselves and their richest friends. Inside Job will not only enrage you, it will depress you. That may not sound like a great time at the movies, but if you want [...]

Page One: Inside the New York Times

2018-08-09T00:02:22+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Andrew Rossi, Watched in:  Theater, Rating:  3/5.     Page One: Inside The New York Times peeks its head in the doorway of the venerable newspaper’s building, peers around a few corners, and shuffles its feet in a couple of offices. It is not a gritty, in-the-trenches, behind-the-scenes expose on the day-to-day running of the most famous newspaper in the world, a subject more suited to a reality TV series than a 90-minute independent documentary. Given that, the movie’s title, or titles, are misleading. Page One: Inside the New York Times is not about the battle of various managing editors to get their department’s hot story on the front page of the paper and it’s more interested in what is happening outside the Times rather than inside. The movie’s main subject is the struggle of traditional journalism to stay vital in a world of blogs, on-line news and palm-sized screens. Within this limited scope, Page One manages to inform and entertain by avoiding, ironically, the use of slick, software-centric tools now available to all would-be, desktop filmmakers. There are no sequences stuffed with animated After Effects or fluttering graphics; no professionally lighted studio interviews or soaring crane or dolly shots. The director, Andrew Rossi, who shot much of the movie himself, is no slave to cinematic sophistication. He keeps the lens close to his subjects, pins a mic on their lapel, and turns up the gain on his handheld HD camcorder instead of setting up lights. It might be an old-fashioned approach, but as any reporter would [...]

Go to Top