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 [...]

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

2019-02-19T23:21:56+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Hale County This Morning, This Evening Director/RaMell Ross Watched on Independent Lens Rating  4/5   Hale County This Morning, This Evening is composed of the fleeting, random moments that most other documentaries employ either as brief cutaways during the primary action, or as connective B-roll between narrative plot points. Out of 1300 hours of footage, RaMell Ross, the writer, director, cinematographer and editor, chose relatively few images to complete his 78-minute film, but they reveal a quality of black life that usually exists only on the margins in most other films about the black experience in America, films about prejudice, poverty, injustice, crime, incarceration, and racism. Ross has made a film in which those issues are on the periphery. His interest, as a photographer, teacher, coach and mentor to the young men and women in this movie, is to refocus the quotidian details of their lives to the center of the frame. He was an outsider, in a sense, when he first moved to this Alabama county, a role which suggests he embedded himself into the landscape of everyday life and compiled a scrapbook made up of the rhythms of this self-contained world. He finds two or three characters he stays close to, but he does so almost shyly, obliquely, as if he is afraid to conventionalize his documentary. He is most interested in texture. Drops of sweat hitting the basketball court cuts to raindrops on pavement. Popcorn popping at a concession stand cuts to bugs flitting in the magic hour light. Cheerleaders’ bodies sway in [...]

‘Till Madness Do Us Part

2019-01-31T21:48:37+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

‘Til Madness Do Us Part Director/Wang Bing Watched on MUBI Rating  4.5/5   Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing’s singular gaze in 'Til Madness Do Us Part is fueled not only by his humanism by also by a style that could be called relentless patience. His camera locks on to one man and refuses to let go for 15, 20, 25 minutes; and then, as if satisfied or exhausted, finds another man to follow for yet another extended streak, then another, and another. The fact that all of these men are mentally ill and confined to a single claustrophobic floor of a grim institution in Yunnan, China only intensifies Wang’s commitment to his punishing approach. His presence behind the camera, while never revealed except for the very occasional stare into the lens from his subjects, becomes just as fascinating as the monotonous rantings and repetitive behaviors of the inmates. The effect is both radical and hard to pin down: you are watching his act of watching, waiting to feel either repelled by the onscreen actions, or guilty for complicity in the documentary cliché of exploitation. The fact that repugnance, complicity or guilt never actually arrives, and that Wang does not suggest for a single frame that he is abusing his access, compels you to keep watching, even if it takes you a few days to get through the film (at almost four hours long, I needed two viewing sessions; his latest, Dead Souls, clocks in at 495 minutes). Wang was apparently denied access to film at a mental [...]


2019-01-30T18:00:30+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Hal Director/Amy Scott Watched on Amazon Prime Rating  3/5 Amy Scott’s Hal suffers from the same pro forma banalities as most other celebrity or “troubled artist” documentaries. It is both overly produced and under imagined. Nothing within the film’s style, structure or point-of-view attempts to emulate or pay aesthetic respect to the actual artist it profiles, in this case Hal Ashby, the supremely talented director of The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home, and Bound For Glory, among other films. Hal charges out of the gate with a rapidly edited montage of clips, talking heads, reenactments, and the introduction of actor Ben Foster’s voice as the “voice of Hal” in a few regrettably cheesy scenes of hands clacking away at a typewriter (he was a writer, see?). I was ready to turn it off after 10 minutes. I simply couldn’t stand to suffer through another slapdash cash-and-carry of a filmmaker’s reputation like I’d witnessed in Tony Zierra’s hideous Filmworker, a movie that, through no fault of either the protagonist Leon Vitali or the work of the late Stanley Kubrick, made it seem as if they were both participating in a circa-1999 desktop documentary. Unlike Filmworker, which I shuttered after a half-hour, I decided to stick this one out. Thankfully, director Scott had access to actual voice recordings of Ashby which, when paired with Foster’s intense readings of angry letters and passionate notes that Ashby sent to studio hacks and adoring friends, respectively, the portrait that emerges is of a man who may have been the last social [...]

Of Fathers and Sons

2018-12-22T16:26:48+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Of Fathers and Sons Director:  Talal Derki. Watched on:  Kanopy. Rating:  2/5.  After spending 99 minutes with the radical jihadists and their young male offspring in Talal Derki’s Of Fathers and Sons, it may be time to admit that the last few years of documentaries set in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq have finally reached the point of diminishing returns. How many more films do we need populated by Islamic fundamentalists endlessly muttering “God is great”; how many more films consisting of jittery handheld behind-the-lines footage; how much more time do we need to spend wandering around the foreign policy wreckage of the Middle East? Are there no other subjects worthy of a film festival’s precious allocation of scheduled screening times? Personally, I’d decided that after Sebastian Junger’s and Nick Quested’s comprehensive and engrossing Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, there was really no point in watching another film about either the conflict or the havoc-wreaking terrorists. But Derki’s film promised something a little different, an insider’s look into the indoctrination of terrorists-in-training, specifically the sons of veteran jihadists living a stark existence in a Northern Syria redoubt. Derki fled the area, his former homeland, when Al Qaeda moved in. He convinced Abu Osama, a run-of-the-mill zealot with two sons, to let himself and a cameraman come back to document how jihadism is instilled in the young. Derki tells us in an introductory voice-over that he pretended to be sympathetic to their cause in order to avoid being killed, but after [...]


2018-11-05T23:35:05+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Shirkers Director:  Sandi Tan. Watched on:  Netflix. Rating:  2/5.  A winner of the directing award in the World Cinema Documentary category at Sundance, and ranked high on Metacritic with a score of 89, Shirkers is a film viewers are clearly meant to love. Filmmaker Sandi Tan tells her story of growing up in Singapore while immersed in the New Hollywood indie movement of the early 1990s, an obsession that inspired her and a group of teenage friends to make a first feature, also called “Shirkers,” which garnered a good degree of publicity while they were making it. But after they wrapped, the footage ended up being whisked away by an older man, Georges Cardona, who was their advisor and director of photography on the film. Cardona told Tan he was taking the film to New York to transcribe and edit, but then he and the spools of hard-earned film vanished. Twenty-five years later Cardona’s wife discovered the footage and contacted Tan, who decided to repurpose the still-pristine reels into this, her debut film. Shirkers is more a story about DIY filmmaking and blocked creative passion than it is a mystery about Cardona and his ambiguous, Svengali-like influence over Tan. The making of the film within this film, and the tensions between Tan, her co-filmmakers, and Cardona, take up most of the first hour of the movie, as well as most of the air in the room. Blame it on Tan’s inexperience, or blame it on a documentary industry convinced that audiences don’t have the patience for [...]

Crime + Punishment

2018-12-24T17:42:31+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Crime + Punishment Director:  Stephen Maing. Watched on:  Hulu. Rating:  3.5/5.    You can tell that director Stephen Maing has studied his Serpico, The Conversation, and Prince of the City, those great fictional films from the ‘70s and early ‘80s that seethe with atmospheres of graft, corruption, menace, and surveillance; the sinister forces conspiring against lone heroes, the whistleblower, the watcher, the listener. I’ll remember Maing’s extremely well-made Crime + Punishment more for this authentic conjuring of those superior films than I will for the story he tells. Not so much because the story isn’t worth telling, but because he keeps telling it over and over. The movie’s main flaw is repetition, and maybe a bit too much self-indulgence in the area of transitional pauses, those moments that most documentaries fail to register, when characters (and viewers) need to catch their breath or reflect on the story's developments. There are also the unnecessary drone flyovers of New York precincts. These shots announce the film’s big budget, but little else. Maing clearly loves these interstitial segues. But they often suggest more of an indulgence on his part than a necessary element in the narrative flow. He also enjoys filming drivers in their cars, framing close-ups of their hands and rearview mirrors and darting eyes, while they talk in voice-over or aloud to the ride-along cameraman. And he relies a lot on hidden microphone audio, which gives the film a sense of low-grade danger. But as audacious and revealing much of it is, it's also excessive, a little [...]


2018-10-26T23:35:45+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Motherland Director:  Ramona S. Diaz. Watched on:  Amazon Prime. Rating:  3.5/5.    Motherland is a straightforward cinema verité excursion into the world’s busiest maternity hospital. It will remind viewers of Frederick Wiseman’s hands-off approach, but it is so much more absorbing and audience friendly than the legendary director’s lengthy and–dare I say it–often monotonous observational panoramic takes on institutions and communities. Motherland portrays a community as well, but it is an exclusive one, comprised mostly of young mothers, nurses, doctors and the occasional visiting fathers. The hospital is in Manila. Its vast stable of beds are lined up warehouse-style. Announcements are made over loudspeakers. Fans cool the new moms. Family planning counselors attempt to encourage them to receive IUD implants. The moms are young, mostly in their twenties, with several hungry children already at home. A 24-year old has five kids; a 26-year old has six; a slightly older mom is breastfeeding her seventh. A few of the women emerge as characters, as do a couple of the stern doctors who patrol the floor, admonishing women to keep track of their babies, eat their meals, and settle in for a long haul. Because of chronic poverty and the malnutrition that goes along with it, many of the babies are born premature. Mom and infant are not expected to leave until the baby’s health is cleared. In its own matter-of-fact, tough love way, the hospital is a place of compassion and rest in an extremely chaotic city. The dads don’t appear until halfway through the film. But [...]