What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?

2020-06-14T22:14:45+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? Director/ Roberto Minervini Watched on Amazon Rating 3.5/5   Roberto Minervini, an Italian filmmaker fascinated by an America that most of us never see in other documentaries, brings a cinema verité intimacy to What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? An immersive, even casual snapshot of black lives in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi, the film is concerned with existence, and with how black people discuss and navigate the chances of their survival in a preternaturally racist country like the United States. We are introduced, in media res, to two brothers, 14 and 9 years old, who are spending their summer days in a kind of Huck Finn idyll, playing hide-n-seek, taking walks, watching trains roll by. At home, their mother makes them constantly aware that the white world is coming for them. You can see the fear in her; a fear that white audiences will have trouble fathoming. In the Mississippi sections, we gather with a small but committed chapter of the New Black Panthers, who protest a local man's shooting and conduct a citizen’s investigation of a recent murder, the horrific (and so far, unsolved) decapitation of a Jackson black man. The group engages in forceful, eloquent discussions about enacting change in their community, but when they protest outside the local courthouse, few people pay attention and the cops, annoyed when the group simply doesn’t go away, resort to pepper spray, handcuffs and arrests. We also meet the ostensible star of the film, [...]

Midnight Family

2020-05-19T00:06:18+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Midnight Family Director/ Luke Lorentzen Watched on Amazon Rating 3/5    “Terrifying and exhilarating.” –The New York Times “Fast-paced mayhem.” –Indiewire “Profound and thrilling.” –RogerEbert.com “Eye-opening.” –Rolling Stone This is not a knock against director Luke Lorentzen, but if the film I saw is the same film the quotes above are referencing, then I’m not sure who to blame: The more than one hundred film festivals who made Midnight Family a must-have selection for their line-ups? The reviewers who were so relieved to see a documentary without the usual pro forma menu of talking heads and relentless music cues that they rushed to out-superlative each other? The awards committees who loaded the young director down with so many accolades that there weren’t any left over for other filmmakers? Midnight Family is solid work, to be sure, but it is neither terrifying, fast-paced, profound, or thrilling. And the only eye-opening thing about it is explained in the film’s synopsis: “In Mexico City, the government operates fewer than 45 emergency ambulances for a population of 9 million. This has spawned an underground industry of for-profit ambulances often run by people with little or no training or certification. An exception in this ethically fraught, cutthroat industry, the Ochoa family struggles to keep their financial needs from jeopardizing the people in their care. When a crackdown by corrupt police pushes the family into greater hardship, they face increasing moral dilemmas even as they continue providing essential emergency medical services.” That’s a compelling set-up for any documentary, and Lorentzen–energetic and talented– [...]


2020-05-02T22:12:29+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Caniba Directors/ Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel Watched on Criterion Channel Rating 2/5  This text below appears on the Criterion website accompanying the streaming version of Caniba: In 1981, as a thirty-two-year-old student at the Sorbonne in Paris, Issei Sagawa was arrested when spotted emptying two bloody suitcases containing the remains of his Dutch classmate, Renée Hartevelt, whom days earlier he had killed and begun eating. Declared legally insane, Sagawa now lives as a free man in Japan, earning a living off his crime by writing novels, drawing manga, reenacting the murder for documentaries and sexploitation films, and even working as a food critic. Apparently, the information above originally appeared in on-screen text introducing this film to festival audiences. Perhaps directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel felt this gave away too much information, or it somehow tainted the rigorous artistic sheen they were striving for, or maybe they just wanted to fuck with their viewers. With or without this knowledge, the experience of watching this uniquely repellent work remains the same. It is nasty, grueling, unpleasant in the extreme, and also, inexplicably hypnotic. But with some information filled-in regarding the backstory of the film’s “star,” Issei Sagawa and his caretaker brother, Jun Sagawa, you’ll at least have a clearer picture as to how Sagawa, the titular cannibal, managed to go free after committing the murder and partial eating of Hartevelt, referred to only as “Renee” in the film. I watched the film not having read the Criterion text, but I was able to piece enough of the [...]

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

2020-05-02T22:17:11+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice Directors/ Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman Watched on Amazon Rating 0/5  Does it matter that I endured only 17 minutes of this film before switching it off, yet here I am still writing a review? Frankly, I don’t care, because it must be stated somewhere, loud and clear, that Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, directed haplessly by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is an atrocity.  Stuffed to the rafters with the hoariest clichés of the trendy documentary bio-pic genre, the movie rushes forward from one superficial soundbite to the next, stuffing sequences with generic archival stills and meaningless old footage, tied together with a ghastly middle-school caliber narration from Ronstadt herself. Granted, the singer suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, and she may have not wanted to appear on camera, but the choice to have her deliver her own story with an affectless monotone, set to a bland array of grab-and-go imagery, proves to be a disastrous directorial decision and an insult to Ronstadt’s legacy. What’s so damning and dumb and obvious about this picture is that Epstein and Friedman couldn’t care less about Ronstadt’s life story, her music, her influence, or even the craft of her songwriting. It’s as though they have plugged in a readymade formula that could be applied to any musician–Alice Cooper, Jackson Brown, Emmylou Harris, you name it–and then dropped it on unsuspecting fans like a K-Tel rip-off. God help us if they ever get ahold of the recently departed John Prine. By applying [...]

Anthropocene-The Human Epoch

2020-02-01T23:01:09+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Anthropocene-The Human Epoch Directors/ Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky Watched on Amazon Rating 2.5/5 The third film in a trilogy that began with Manufactured Landscapes in 2007 and continued seven years later with Watermark in 2014, Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is perhaps their most potent political work of the three. But it is also their most unsatisfying. They take a scattered approach to their stated subject matter, which is the ways in which human beings have so altered the natural world that we are now the primary determining factor in its continued existence. Skipping around from lithium pools in Chile’s Atacama Desert to a vulture-infested landfill in Kenya to the world’s most polluted city in Russia to phosphate mines in Florida, the filmmakers never stay in one place long enough to probe any of them in depth. They conduct a few brief, unrevealing interviews, intersperse some facts and figures from their narrator, the actor Alicia Vikander, and cause you to ponder–for a moment–the weird new world of technofossils, which are basically plastics that have been around so long they’ve become part of our geological history. The film adopts what is becoming a common style in the new subgenre of ecological essay cinema. Looking very much like Brett Story’s The Hottest August, Viktor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread and Charles Ferguson’s Time to Choose, in which despairing imagery sets an apocalyptic tone, Anthropocene would like the pictures to do all of the talking. But since [...]


2020-01-27T17:28:47+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Honeyland Directors/ Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov Watched on Hulu Rating 3/5   What begins as an observational portrait of a Macedonian beekeeper evolves into a parable with a universal message: when greed upsets the balance of nature, the very survival of a species is threatened. There is nothing new in that. We’ve read enough stories and seen enough environmentally-themed documentaries to understand what happens when ecological warriors come up against the brute transactional force of capitalism. Capitalism usually wins. But what takes you by surprise in this film is that the protagonist, a woman named Hatidze Muratova, is no warrior. She makes a subsistence living tending a few hives in the countryside, which produce just enough high-quality honey for her to live off of. She takes care of her blind and deaf mother and listens to news of the world on a tiny transistor radio. They live in the crumbling remains of a stone house in an abandoned village. They have lots of cats. Hatidze, it seems, just wants to be left alone. Then a nomadic family of ersatz farmers invades the valley where she lives, bringing in a herd of cattle and sheep and pitching their tents and trailers nearby. Suddenly, Hatidze’s peaceful existence is shattered and her very livelihood threatened. The family, a squabbling couple and their seven children, are urged by a local buyer to start raising bees themselves. Hatidze, wary at first, offers tips on how to ensure the bees keep producing enough honey for all of them: sell half the honey [...]

For Sama

2020-01-26T21:55:34+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

For Sama Directors/ Waad al-Khateab, Edward Watts Watched on Amazon Rating 4.5/5   There is a moment in For Sama which caused me to gasp out loud. This is rare for me. I watch most documentaries alone in my home studio, and usually my reactions are silent scoffs or impatient shakes of the head or a mental “give me a break” when I feel the gears of manipulation working too hard. But in the moment I’m referring to, doctors have just performed an emergency Caesarean on a young woman injured in a bomb blast. The mother is unconscious, the baby is not breathing. Doctors and nurses hold the child upside down and furiously pound and shake it, while the sounds of distant bombs and gunfire ricochet outside the hospital walls. I won’t give away what happens next, but it is perhaps the most remarkable scene in a movie full of remarkable scenes and remarkable people. For Sama is set entirely within the besieged city of Aleppo, ground zero for the battle between Syrian president Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s regime forces and the resistance fighters, who continue to wage what looks like a lost cause, with few resources and little assistance from other countries. There have been many documentaries about both Syria and Afghanistan in the last several years, too many in my opinion. The majority of these films look and feel the same, relying exclusively on shaky handheld iPhone or low-grade video camera footage, usually shot by the main protagonist, and artificially pumped-up for maximum shock and [...]

Black Mother

2020-01-30T20:22:38+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Black Mother Director/ Khalik Allah Watched on Criterion Channel Rating 4/5   Director Khalik Allah is working at the edge of documentary, not quite avant-garde but experimental enough to be ignored by the commercial film festivals and embraced by streaming platforms such as MUBI and the Criterion Channel. I doubt many will search out or stumble upon his films (his first feature was Field Niggas), and also doubt many will be able to endure his demanding, staccato approach to editing and sound. Owing to his background as a still photographer, he doesn’t shoot scenes or sequences, he doesn’t follow characters in action, he steers far clear of traditional talking heads, he doesn’t pretend to care about observational tropes such as natural sound or belabored long takes. His movies are a cacophony of images and audio, mostly straight-on portraits of black faces, some who look directly in the lens, others who are happy to allow Allah’s camera to swirl around them, intimately probing their skin, scars, jewelry, and hair. He films prostitutes, gangstas, cops, kids, and–in this film–family members, creating a dense, textural scrapbook that is alive with a kind of visceral grit of experience. Black Mother is a memoir in montage. Allah filmed exclusively in his Jamaican homeland (while Field Niggas was shot in Harlem), attempting to say something about the enduring power of the women who raised him, but also to honor the vast, vibrant tapestry of the culture. Music, ganja, politics, and the reclaiming of identity all flavor this heady brew, cued to a [...]

The Hottest August

2020-01-18T20:25:47+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The Hottest August Director/ Brett Story Watched at Tacoma Film Festival Rating 2.5/5  Canadian director Brett Story’s approach to documentary is refreshingly offbeat.  Formally challenging but not impenetrable, socially relevant in spite of her disinterest in the usual ticked-box approach to agenda filmmaking, and not beholden to the imperatives of strong central characters or third act resolutions. In her 2016 film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes and in her latest, The Hottest August, she takes a becalmed survey approach to her subject matter: the stranglehold of the prison-industrial complex on the lives of current and former prisoners in the earlier film, and the subtle politics of climate change in her latest. She moves from place to place without a map–a factory, a park, a sidewalk, a town–and interviews a few people on site, maybe just observes the action for a few minutes, and usually lets the ambient sound and natural light and weather fill in the atmosphere. What you take away from her films depends on your degree of attentiveness to the quiet cues she embeds in the scenes. As I wrote in an earlier review of Prison, “the succession of these scenes, sparse in abject information but saturated with a pall of unease, builds to an overpowering sense of futility.” But the elements in that film that worked in its favor–a firm grip on the thematic through-line, a steady pace that kept one’s outrage on a slow boil, and its several scenes of both beauty and appalling injustice–are almost entirely missing from The Hottest August. [...]

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 [...]

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