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 [...]


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 [...]

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

2019-11-24T21:57:57+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 [...]