Midnight Traveler

2019-12-11T16:20:57+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Midnight Traveler Director/ Hassan Fazili Watched on Amazon Rating 2/5   Hassan Fazili’s first-person home movie comes with the usual patchwork of funders’ logos displayed in the credits, signaling that the film has been blessed and packaged and delivered with the documentary industry’s collective stamp of approval; its importance and relevance and quality-controlled bona fides are meant to shield it from critical challenge. It comes to a viewer as a received work, not as an act of artistic expression; to discuss it as art is a pointless exercise. It is not meant to be criticized or debated. It is simply a commodity to be traded within the finite array of prestigious film festivals and assigned to fill the desirable slots of the second tier festivals. It had its run through these rarified venues before being purchased and then distributed to a handful of streaming sites. In sum, Midnight Traveler is like any of the other handpicked pre-loaded and pre-lauded documentaries that make the rounds of the non-fiction film universe: Small stories adrenalized for maximum dramatic punch; thin and recognizable narratives dressed up in faux-profundity through tricks of editing and sound design; characters shorn of complexity for easy digestibility. And all bearing the imprimatur of an industry that drains the blood out of messy, real-life stories and distrusts unfiltered points-of-view, that cloaks any hint of personalized cinematic verve in formulas conceived in expensive post-production suites. None of this is the fault of Hassan Fazili, or his family–which includes a wife and two young daughters–or the journey that [...]


2019-11-15T21:03:17+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Island Director/ Steven Eastwood Watched on MUBI Rating 4/5   Director Steven Eastwood spent one year filming in and near a hospice on the Isle of Wight, chronicling the deaths of four people facing terminal illnesses. The movie begins with a point-of-view shot from the bow of the fog-bound ferry bringing us to the island. Immediately I thought of Charon, the ferryman of Hades, carrying the souls of the recently deceased across the river Styx, dividing the living from dead. It’s in no way meant to be ghoulish, but the symbolism seems in keeping with the film’s unblinking invitation to watch, sit with, contemplate, and assess death’s implacable approach. People cross the water to die, but in reality they are already dead. The trip is a mere formality. Island avoids all the tropes of disease porn documentary. The four main subjects of the film–an elderly woman, two middle-to-late age men, and a younger man with a small daughter–aren’t joyously living life to the fullest despite their impending deaths. Mary Chessell, Alan Hardy, Roy Howard, and Jamie Gunnell don’t dispense tear-dripped epithets or profoundly knowing nuggets of wisdom. They don’t sit for lengthy on-camera interviews about fears, regrets, or remorse. Rather, Eastwood’s camera records the mundane details of day-to-day normalcy; the eating and sleeping and visiting that goes on during what essentially is a long act of waiting. Waiting for death, the inevitable. An argument could be made that Eastwood’s camera functions as death’s presence. We don’t learn the names of the disease or illness killing these people. [...]

The Rest I Make Up

2019-11-18T00:06:53+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The Rest I Make Up  Director/ Michelle Memran Watched on Kanopy Rating 2.5/5   I was disappointed to discover that the Wikipedia entry about Maria Irene Fornes contained far more detail about her art, life, and career than The Rest I Make Up, Michelle Memran’s affectionate but limited love letter to the avant-garde playwright. Known by theater insiders for her freewheeling spontaneity and intense belief in how physical expression leads to creative release, Fornes lived the type of artistic life that few of us are able to manage any longer. She was beloved by famous playwrights and discerning critics, and she influenced younger actors and writers. The absence of recognizable titles during her Obie-award winning, prolific career only adds to her bona fides as an outsider living the life she wanted. It also didn’t hurt that she was Susan Sontag’s lover of many years. According to Wikipedia, “Sontag voiced frustration about a novel she wanted to write, (so) Fornes insisted that they give up their evening plans, go back to the apartment they shared, sit down at the kitchen table, and just set to work. When they got home, as if to prove how simple it was, Fornes sat down to write, as well. With no experience and no idea how to start, she opened up a cookbook at random and started a short story using the first word of each sentence on the page. 'I might never have thought of writing if I hadn't pretended I was going to show Susan how easy it was.'" [...]

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins

2019-11-08T00:36:09+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins Director/ Janice Engel Watched in Theater Rating 2.5/5   After seeing this documentary with my wife and daughter in the arthouse Roxy Cinemas in Missoula, Montana, my daughter remarked that it should have been titled Molly Ivins on C-Span. Without the copious interview footage from the cable channel this movie wouldn’t exist. Or, more to the point, it could exist, but only by relying solely on the standard features of the hagiographic biopic craze: endless, repetitive testimonials from friends and family; fraudulent mini-reenactments of filler B-roll; faked voice-over; animated news clippings; and generalized archival footage of epochal events substituting for the personal home movies that no one bothers to film or save anymore. Such is the condition of this trendy, tiresome sub-genre of documentary. Hal, Marley, Montage of Heck, Gonzo, Life Itself, and any number of the docs coming out weekly about musicians, chefs, architects and fashion designers, all deliver up unimaginative treatments of lives celebrated precisely because they were lived with a fierce commitment to imagination and unconventionality. I always find myself wondering how the subjects of these films would react to these banal depictions of their own lives. With lacerating wit? Withering criticism? Unbounded crankiness? Ivins would no doubt have employed each of these verbal weapons to excoriate this film; its glib soundbites, its sanitization of intimate details, its perfunctory backslapping, its egregious sprinkling of phony moments (a black-and-white snippet of a man, meant to be her father, mixing a drink; a stock-footage like scene [...]

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