Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

2019-04-25T16:46:31+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? Director/Travis Wilkerson Watched on iTunes Rating 3.5/5   Travis Wilkerson’s first-person investigatory essay is his attempt to understand the racist roots of his family’s past. Although his great-grandfather killed an innocent black man in Alabama long before the director was born, there exists a single picture of the director as a baby sitting next to the old man, now with the cheerful countenance of a white supremacist who got away with murder. As Wilkerson speculates, he may have killed other black men as well. Such was the moral order of things in the American South of the 1940s. Wilkerson narrates the tale in a subdued monotone, as if delivering testimony at an inquest. The flat, dry intonation bespeaks a suppressed expression of outrage and of long-buried guilt. His self-reflexive journey is an expiation, a forced reckoning with culpability, that excavates the political divides among his older surviving family members, reminding us that the rhetorical civil war of the Trump era is merely the latest spore emanating from the deep rot that has infested our country since its beginnings. The challenges for Wilkerson in telling this story are demanding. Beyond that one picture of he and his grandfather, there is little evidence that links the ensuing generations. A few scraps of home movie film, some memories from surviving relatives, the remaining buildings in the forgotten town where the murder occurred; these are the meager visuals the director can access. He records folks who recall some of the details of the [...]

El Mar La Mar

2019-04-23T15:42:28+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

El Mar La Mar Directors/Joshua Bonnetta, J.P. Sniadecki Watched on You Tube Rating 2.5/5   A murky experiment in abstract impressionism, El Mar La Mar is determined to avoid engaging the viewer with any emotional or narrative hooks, distancing itself from accessibility with nearly every scene. While cinematically audacious–its old-school use of film grain provides textural interest and its wandering soundscape a welcome unpredictability–its overall design is aloof, even dull, despite the politically tense atmosphere of the subject matter. Shot in the Sonoran Desert by co-directors Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki, the film is a pastiche of gnarly nature shots, remnants of human detritus (discarded clothing, plastic water jugs) and even a few humans, unidentified and unexplained, who appear as totems of the ongoing migrant border issues. We hear the voices of those who live or work in this treacherous area, describing encounters with lost asylum seekers, dead bodies and, in one odd instance, a ravine-dwelling monster. These incidents are recounted at length, with few details left out, as the camera stares at a non-descript mountain ridge or patch of sand. As I watched, I experienced a sustained undercurrent of annoyance, at myself for rushing to judge the film, and at the filmmakers for hewing so relentlessly to their technique of detachment. In one locked-down shot, a naked woman–seen from behind–gradually submerges into a small pool of water tucked under some boulders. Eventually she disappears, and then we hear a smattering of voices echoing as if off the walls of an underground cavern. It’s mysterious and [...]

Harvest Season

2019-04-03T17:49:31+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Harvest Season Director/Bernardo Ruiz Watched at Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival Rating 2.5/5   This ITVS-funded, made-for-Independent Lens documentary should be commended for its timely and much-needed positive portrait of Latino entrepreneurs and laborers. While Trump froths and throws fits, the families presented in Bernardo Ruiz’s compassionate film are evidence of how deeply entwined Mexican-American culture is in the fabric of our country, as if those of us in the reality-based world need that kind of reminder. We go inside two family-run winemaking operations; we meet a man who operates a humane, clean, affordable ranch to house immigrant workers; and we travel back to Mexico with one of these workers to see how his earnings are spent, not only on American products he gives as gifts to his children, but on bringing a better standard of living home to his family. The movie is sincere, earnest, endearing, and harmlessly satisfying. And that’s the problem. With a title straight out of an autumn edition of Wine Spectator magazine, Harvest Season goes down like a drinkable but forgettable Cabernet. For long stretches of its soporific running time it feels like you’re watching an industry ad video. It’s pretty and it’s pretty dull. In fact, the glossy cinematography is both the film’s only real draw and its major drawback. Since there is very little in these stories that is gritty or unpredictable or emotionally raw, all we really have to sustain us are the gleaming sun-kissed visuals. And boy are they sun-kissed! This kind of coffee-table-book shooting is becoming a [...]

Ya Me Voy (I’m Leaving Now)

2019-04-03T16:40:06+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Ya Me Voy (I’m Leaving Now) Director/Lindsey Cordero, Armando Croda Watched at Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival Rating 4/5   Felipe has been working and saving money for the last 17 years, much of which he sends back to his family, a wife and four sons, in Mexico. He wants to finally make good on his promise to leave Brooklyn and return to them in time for the birthday of his youngest, who he’s never seen. But financial problems and a sneaking suspicion that his family may be more interested in his money and less in seeing him forces him to postpone his trip. So, he keeps working his odd jobs: collecting cans, mopping floors at the local bodega, hauling bags of cement for the construction crew. Even while working, Felipe wears an extravagant black sombrero, a mark of his sly sense of humor and his individuality. His family may be disinterested and frittering away his hard-earned cash, but Felipe retains an enthusiasm for his dreams. Directors Lindsey Cordero and Armando Croda keep their camera close to Felipe throughout the film. They’ve set their camera’s shutter on a faster speed, which enhances their close-ups with a jittery, homemade aesthetic, as if an unseen presence exists mere inches from his face. The intimacy is stark, even uncomfortable at times, suggesting an affinity with the Mexican master Carlos Reygadas, but there is no escaping the revealing authenticity of Felipe’s humanity. He works hard, doesn’t drink or do drugs, and lives in a tiny spare room where the stovetop doubles [...]

306 Hollywood

2019-04-03T19:55:51+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

306 Hollywood Director/Elan Bogarín, Jonathan Bogarín Watched on P.O.V. Rating 1.5/5   Insufferably twee and annoyingly impressed with itself, 306 Hollywood is an excruciating experience to sit through. I knew this when I walked out after watching the first ten minutes of it in a theater at Hot Docs in 2018, and my feelings were confirmed when I suffered through another hour of viewing on PBS’s P.O.V. series. So, I’ll make this brief. Directed by a brother and sister, and ostensibly about the eccentric but not extraordinary charms and vicissitudes of their late grandmother, the movie bills itself as an archeological excavation of her home, her obsessions, her possessions, her memory. I’m all for stories about unremarkable people made remarkable by patient, heartfelt, authentic storytelling. I think documentaries could use more of these kinds of stories and less, way less, of the issue-of-the-moment advocacy films and celebrity profiles that take up most of the air in the room of top tier film festivals. The problem here is that the Bogaríns spend most of their screen time constructing the cloying scaffold of their archeological dig and far too little time allowing us to get to know their beloved grandmother. It’s as if they’re afraid she’ll bore us, so they bore us instead with specious reenactments and unmotivated tangents, meticulously lacquered and polished into a magic realist stage show that is as tedious as it is unnecessary. Funders and film festivals and distributors and, apparently, PBS, love these kinds of expensive shiny-object movies. They can pat themselves on [...]

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