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

2019-11-15T16:33:18+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 [...]

Monrovia, Indiana

2019-10-22T16:27:46+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Monrovia, Indiana Director/ Frederick Wiseman Watched on Kanopy Rating 1/5   Monrovia, Indiana is either the most boring film Frederick Wiseman has ever made or it is the most subversive. This chronicle of the day-to-day life of a small midwestern town (population about one thousand, according to a 2010 census) is so devoid of visual interest, color, or even the most modest of dramatic material, I wondered if the director may have asked himself at some point why he was even bothering to continue to film. Or did he discern something in the enervating footage that commented on the divisiveness of our country, a willingness of small-town people to embrace the ho-hum pattern of their daily rituals as a kind of stubborn stand against the coastal elites? It’s hard to tell. I once sat through a 90-minute workshop Wiseman conducted at a documentary film conference in which he showed a lengthy clip from his early film Welfare and then proceeded to describe–in head-scratching detail–the clip we all just watched, without any insight, reflection, or behind-the-scenes revelations. It was as if we were all blind and deaf and hadn’t just viewed the clip he then laboriously described. It was weird. And it confirmed for me my problem with Wiseman and the adoring critics who elaborately praise his unvarnished, marathon-length films of the past couple decades: there isn’t a scrap of subtext to his movies; no subtle allusions or metaphorical conclusions to be inferred. Wiseman might be the least captivating living legend working today. Professionally, he is the [...]


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 [...]