2019-09-15T00:44:16+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Aquarela Director/ Viktor Kossakovsky Watched in Theaters Rating 2.5/5   With Aquarela, director Viktor Kossakovsky may have invented a brand-new documentary genre: climate chaos porn. With its diamond hard icebergs, its velvety black bodies of water, and its spasms of ocean spraying the camera lens, the cumulative torrential effect of all that liquid is positively orgiastic. But while the imagery is busy pleasuring itself in a kind of seductive sadomasochistic bath, it forgets to ground the viewer with any kind of context. Gradually, yes, you become aware that the director means to preview what it will look and feel like once all the planet’s ice melts and the seas boil and the cataclysmic hurricanes drown our cities, but getting to that apocalyptic climax is a curiously desultory narrative experience. In fact, there is no narrative at all, nothing but a series of puzzling encounters with ice, oceans, and floods. This is a film meant to be read about before seen. If you’re so inclined, here’s the link that explains where the film is shot and what is the driving vision behind it (specifically, that the main character is an elemental force of nature, water, in all of its dangerous beauty). Humans are no match for water’s destructive power, Kossakovsky wants to tell us. But then why do so many of his lengthy scenes tend toward monotony rather than terror? The film begins on frozen Lake Baikal (but you won’t know this from watching the film) where there seems to be an epidemic of cars and their [...]

American Factory

2019-09-02T01:00:26+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

American Factory Directors/ Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar Watched on Netflix Rating 4/5   American Factory is both a straightforward chronicle of the fall, rise, and near fall again of a Dayton, Ohio manufacturing company, and a subtly scathing indictment of the future of working class labor in the U.S. It’s hard to watch this film and not want to scream, wail, or simply weep at the decomposed remains of the American Dream. An astonishing level of access is what makes the documentary a fascinating, consistently engrossing film. Several scenes will have you silently asking, “How did the filmmakers manage to get that?” These moments, scattered throughout, are a testament to the tenacity and patience of the directors, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, and they reveal the cultural gulf that lies at the heart of the film. Reichert and Bognar were there in 2009 when a General Motors plant shuttered its doors in the wake of the 2008 recession, putting thousands out of work. A few years later a Chinese billionaire saw an opportunity and re-fashioned the location into a factory making windshields, hiring several of the previous employees who, now desperate for jobs, were willing to work for a third of their previous pay. The factory, called Fuyao, is at first a source of renewed hope and optimism for the workers and a charming experiment in cross-cultural relationship building. But things began to sour fairly quickly. The Chinese owners at first work in tandem with their American counterparts, but they have a difficult time adjusting to [...]

Angels Are Made of Light

2019-08-12T21:15:35+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Angels Are Made of Light Director/ James Longley Watched in theaters Rating 2.5/5   Three school-age brothers are the main characters in James Longley’s Angels Are Made of Light, but you wouldn’t know they are brothers from watching the film. You also wouldn’t know that one of the teachers in the school they attend is their mother. Even though one of the kids calls the teacher “Mother” it comes across as a way of referring to all female teachers, or at least that’s the impression I got. I also got the impression that one of the kids works at a tin salvage shop owned by his father (at least I think that’s his father, perennially bent over a hammer) but I didn’t realize that he is the father to all three boys. I only learned this information from other film reviews I’ve read, which were presumably written by critics after seeing the film in festivals, where they no doubt had access to publicity background material or gained the information from statements by the director. The nine people in the theater where I saw the film were, like me, pretty much in the dark. But, here’s the odd thing: The fact that we were watching members of a family turned out to be completely irrelevant. We never see them together as a family. We don’t see the boys in any sort of brotherly group or engaging in a familiar conversation. We don’t see them with their mother and father in a familial setting. One can only infer [...]

The Distant Barking of Dogs

2019-08-10T20:34:14+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The Distant Barking of Dogs Director/ Simon Lereng Wilmont Watched on P.O.V. Rating 2.5/5   This tender, quiet film about two young boys’ day-to-day experiences in a rural slice of Ukraine during wartime, is both beautiful and aimless. The Dutch director and cameraman Simon Lereng Wilmont apparently spent 3 years filming the boys, cousins Oleg and Yarick, and their grandmother as they wait out Vladimir Putin’s military assault on their independent country. Wilmont’s eye is sensitive, his distance intimate. His direction is unhurried and respectful. He’s obviously gained the trust of his subjects; the boys nor their grandmother ever seem to be performing for the camera. But at 52 minutes, edited down from the film’s festival-length of 90 minutes, the movie still somehow manages to feel repetitive and unsubstantial. Perhaps the longer cut would help us feel the passage of time more acutely. Maybe there are a couple of dramatic moments that might have upended the rhythm of the picture, its anticipated beats.  As it is, the distant explosions of bombs rather than the distant barking of dogs function as off-screen markers of disquiet and danger, but it is a rather thin sonic hook to hang the film’s momentum on. More effective is the grandmother, a loving and protective presence who suffers from debilitating anxiety, yet still manages to be the one constant in the kids’ lives. I wondered if her voice-over, which is brief, poetic, and expository, was necessary for the film. It was obviously scripted, which left me wondering if these were really her [...]


2019-08-05T18:54:37+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Streetwise Director/ Martin Bell Watched at Beacon Cinema (Seattle) Rating 5/5   Streetwise, a discreet classic of American documentary cinema, is a relentless portrait of clashing sensations: vulnerability and bravado, tenderness and confrontation, immaturity and mortality. It presents us with teenagers, some of them very young teenagers, playacting the roles of grownups in a drama of their own design. Yes, they are street kids, victims of abuse, neglect, alcoholism and the many other fucked up things unworthy parents do to their young, but they embrace their circumstances with theatrical gusto. They talk like world-weary drifters, ex-cons who’ve seen it all, smart-assed and streetwise; Oliver Twist ragamuffins as written by Charles Bukowski. But they aren’t written. And they’re not pretending. The dangers they face are real. And all are maybe a few months on from their first period or just a year out of junior high school. Some still go home (if you can call it that) now and then for a hot meal or some spare cash. They make for great characters because they practice all day long: For the meeting with the probation officer, the hassle with the cop, the panhandle with the tourist, or the filmmaker with the camera. When director Martin Bell and his wife, the magnificent photographer Mary Ellen Mark, returned to Seattle in 1983 to film the same homeless runaways she shot for an earlier Life magazine series, they were able to jump right into the action. Staking out street corners, railroad yards, ferry piers, alleys and abandoned buildings, they captured [...]

Roll Red Roll

2019-07-11T16:52:37+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Roll Red Roll Director/ Nancy Schwartzman Watched on P.O.V. Rating 3/5   Schwartzman’s film examines the rape of a high school girl by two of her classmates, football players from the local Steubenville, Ohio team. It’s a story that gained national headlines after the tweets and texts surrounding the incident–two young men raping their inebriated, passed-out victim, egged on by friends–revealed the rape culture that was prevalent among players and supervisors. There is an enterprising crime blogger who broke the story, the backlash against her, interrogation video of the boys involved, and a surprise intervention by the anarchic hacker group Anonymous, who–to their credit–put the story on the national stage. It’s a searing and disgusting story, and Schwartzman tells it well, with a clear, economical structure that positions her film as both a social justice call-to-action and as a true crime exposé. Yet Roll Red Roll, despite its judicious choices and journalistic integrity, also includes many of the stock elements common in these types of films. There are the banal establishing shots of Steubenville’s streets and neighborhoods, used as background wallpaper for the players’ texts that appear on screen, or as placeholders for the interviews and the VO audio of a local talk jock. There are unnecessary quick cut-ins of the talking heads of the interviews despite the fact that while they’re talking, we already see them on screen driving, walking, working on their laptop, etc. There is the prerequisite portrait of a community gung-ho for the masculine rituals of football. There is the machine-tooled editing [...]

The Edge of Democracy

2019-07-08T01:40:28+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The Edge of Democracy Director/ Petra Costa Watched on Amazon Rating 3.5/5   The title of this film is misleading. Brazil isn’t so much on the edge of democracy as the edge of totalitarianism, or better yet, wandering in the abyss of democracy’s wreckage. With the vulgar nativist and racist Jair Bolsonaro (remind you of anyone?) having slipped into the presidency during a judicial coup, even though he was spectacularly less popular than the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), the country is in the throes of an astonishing decline from its progressive heights of the 2000s, which saw Lula win two terms and then handpick a successor, Dilma Rousseff, only for him to be incarcerated on questionable charges, and her to be impeached under flimsy pretenses. Petra Costa’s comprehensive documentary covers the last 20 years of Brazil’s politics with clarity and personal insight. She is the child of radicals who fought for years for Lula’s victory, only to see the nation’s new democracy ransacked by greed, corruption, lies, and extremist propaganda, aided by oil companies, oligarchs and religious fundamentalists. Yes, it is all too close to home for American audiences, which is why we need to see the film. If nothing else, it will help us understand how easy it is for depraved characters like Bolsonaro and Trump to exploit a nation’s weakness or distractions and then, with the help of bottomlessly corrupt politicians and an easily duped section of the public, flip the switch on democracy from light to dark. That is the [...]

No Data Plan

2019-05-24T23:02:40+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

No Data Plan Director/ Miko Revereza Watched on MUBI Rating 1.5/5   As much as I admire the young Miko Revereza’s insistence on his unadorned technique, his one-man band filmmaking strategy, his no-frills three day shoot and his brief five-week editing stint, his diaristic subtitles, his status as a longtime undocumented immigrant from the Philippines here almost by accident, and his affection for experimentation and fuck-rules filmmaking, this documentary, his first feature, is a colossal bore. Shot over a couple of cross-country Amtrak train trips, and filmed entirely on the train and platforms of the route (except for one odd shot that appears to be filmed from a plane), the movie rattles along with semi-shaky handheld out-the-window vistas and cutaways to light shuttering across seats and floors and luggage. The occasional subtitles seem to be made up of both his diary entries and translations of phone calls with his mom. There is little structure to these random insertions, and little meaning as well, unless you read the supplemental material that has accompanied screenings of this film at True/False and Art of the Real, two highbrow festivals that really, I think, should try a little harder to harvest bracing, exciting new work that doesn’t insist a viewer has to either embrace this borderline amateur material or leave the theater. We are meant to be challenged by Revereza’s blatant anti-aesthetic and, I guess, sympathetic to the idea that this is a young man exuberantly tilting and panning his camera towards whatever method grabs his attention, regardless of whether [...]

A River Below

2019-05-24T16:59:48+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

A River Below Director/Mark Grieco Watched on Kanopy Rating 3.5/5   This documentary distinguishes itself from the environmental sub-genre by enhancing its twisty complexity. Not only does the story keep offering up surprises, but it also avoids the trap so many enviro-docs fall into: a prologue that ticks off the boxes of progressive outrage, and then spends the rest of the film repeating these same points with an inspirational call-to-action rounding off the epilogue. Although A River Below suffers from some of the tics of too many docs these days, it is both trenchant and engrossing, the documentary equivalent of journalistic, literary non-fiction. Director Mark Grieco drops us into Brazil’s Amazon, literally into the river, to get a close-up look at the endangered pink dolphin, hunted by the indigenous locals who use the dolphin as bait to harvest the piracatinga, an abundant bottom-feeder that sustains their local economy. We are introduced first to a scientific biologist working to protect the dolphin, and then to a reality TV biologist (or so he says), who also takes up the dolphin cause. These early scenes follow the endangered species script, accentuating the creatures’ human-like qualities and elevating the two conservationists to the level of humane saviors. Then things get sticky. Secret video surfaces showing the dolphins being slaughtered. The Brazilian government, instead of finding another source of bait for the fishermen, bans both the killing of dolphins and the fishing of the piracatinga, devastating the livelihood of the locals. Environmental organizations claim victory. The biologist is relieved; the reality [...]

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 [...]