2020-12-23T17:13:14+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Time Director/ Garrett Bradley Watched on Amazon Rating 3.5/5   Fragments of home video shot over the past twenty years are interspersed throughout this fractured chronicle of a woman named Fox Rich and her relentless campaign to secure the early release of her husband, Rob, from prison. Both he and his wife were convicted of armed robbery when desperation over the loss of their clothing business led them to attempt an ill-fated and illegal self-rescue. She did a few years before her release; he was sentenced to sixty years without the possibility of parole. The film spends surprisingly little time on the details of the crime, and also doesn’t seem to be an all-out manifesto on the criminal justice system. Yes, Fox and her husband are Black, but they aren’t denying they were guilty. Instead, the movie seems to be making the point that once in prison, the efforts made by loved ones to plead, appeal, cajole, and interrogate the bureaucracy of incarceration can be a lonely and frustrating crusade. All Fox wants is for her husband to come home and be a father to the children he was unable to watch grow-up. The children, especially twin boys, are the background characters in this black-and-white film, directed by Garrett Bradley with an eye toward poetic mosaics and screen-engulfing close-ups. The young men show up in the home videos their mother began making when Rob went to jail, and they appear in the contemporary footage as now handsome, studious teens on the cusp of adulthood. Despite their [...]

Marshawn Lynch: A History

2022-01-19T17:18:31+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Marshawn Lynch: A History Director/ David Shields Watched on Kanopy Rating 4.5/5   I initially had no interest in watching a film about the life of the Seattle Seahawks running back. And I still don’t. But as it turned out, this film is about a very specific part of the life of Marshawn Lynch, his life of words and silence, and in that singular focus it ends up being a film about the very recent history of Black Lives Matter, the endemic prevalence of media racism, and the ways in which Black athletes are expected to fit the stereotypes and the behavioral modes assigned to them by a sports industrial complex that believes they own them. The film, by the author, essayist and editor David Shields, is not so much directed as compiled. Shields constructed the entire film from video snippets gleaned from the Internet, including movies, TV series, talk shows, highlight packages, and early local broadcasts of Lynch as a promising young football star in Oakland. It’s an act of biographical bricolage, fast-paced and dynamic, in which we watch an outgoing, thoughtful, fun-loving, self-confident young man continually admonished by an establishment that expected him to play by their rules. Which of course he did, on the field. But it is off the field, living his celebrity-built lifestyle, with his penchant for glitz and girls and fashion and freewheeling commentary, where the rules couldn’t touch him. Yet, he became such a target for criticism and insults by White and Black sportswriters and talk show hosts that [...]

24 Frames

2020-10-19T23:23:19+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

24 Frames Director/ Abbas Kairostami Watched on Criterion Rating 3/5   Abbas Kairostami didn’t know that 24 Frames would be his last film. After making it, he died of an unexpected and sudden illness. His death lends 24 Frames a spectral significance. The quietly haunting and luminous black-and-white and color images offer a restful vantage point from which to contemplate the themes, ideas, images and sounds which made up his canon of work. Admittedly, I was never a devotee. His naturalism seemed rudimentary, and his repetitions often veered to dullness. Yet, his images and stories were tightly controlled, and from the surface simplicity of his plots–which were more like situations, or reactions to encounters–one could easily get drawn into the growing and confounding complexities. Matters of class and envy collided with intellectualism, and he playfully but rigorously combined metaphysical questions with meta-narrative devices. He refused to be hurried, and if you stuck with his films, their ambiguous endings often left you with tantalizing questions. In this way, 24 Frames functions as a coda. Twenty-three still photos the director shot, and one famous painting, Hunters in the Snow, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, occupy the running time. Each frame is on screen for 4-5 minutes. Kairostami wanted to explore what may have happened before or after he snapped his pictures, so he employed CGI to animate the frames, inserting birds and animals, snow and rain, natural sounds and music. It’s unclear why he included the Bruegel, but the other pictures function the way the director’s films sometimes [...]

Dick Johnson is Dead

2020-10-22T18:42:19+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Dick Johnson is Dead Director/ Kirsten Johnson Watched on Netflix Rating 2/5   Johnson’s tonally jarring film contains moments of sweet, affecting intimacy between the filmmaker and her father, interrupted by bizarre and outlandish dream sequences that are, I think, meant to represent her dad’s visions of the afterlife. Or perhaps they are merely self-indulgent directorial flourishes. The film, a Netflix-funded extravagance, is another example of a curious new trend in some documentary circles. Filmmakers lucky enough to get excessive amounts of money budgeted for their productions try to imagine new ways to re-fashion the viewers’ subjective experience of the genre, to move documentary into a realm where make-believe and fiction can intertwine with real-life, creating hybrids intended to amplify or illuminate the non-fictional elements which, these filmmakers are quick to emphasize, are still the main reasons for making the film in the first place. I’m thinking here of Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenét, Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17, Jonathan and Elan Bogarín’s 306 Hollywood, and any number of the true crime documentaries streaming on all the top platforms. These films seem to be most concerned with enhanced visual opulence at the expense of narrative cohesion. As I’ve written before, I’m fervently supportive of new ways to invigorate documentary filmmaking, but when filmmakers rely on artificial constructs to boost the entertainment quotient of their films, rather than risk trying out inventive new approaches to point-of-view or character examination or ways to employ the tools of audio, narration or camera placement, I find the effects wearying and distracting. In [...]


2020-09-13T00:15:41+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Suspension Director/ Simón Uribe Watched on Vimeo Rating 2.5/5   Suspension is a road movie about an actual road, the notorious “Springboard of Death” in the Columbian Amazon. It’s a long and perpetually winding one-lane asphalt and dirt track connecting a midsize town to villages in the jungle mountains, and it is prone to landslides, accidents, and gridlock. Despite its size and length, delivery trucks, buses and passenger cars depend on it day in and day out. The road has been around since 1944, and it seems like the government has been talking about replacing it for just as long. A few years ago, crews began work on a sleek new modern highway, advertising it with a high-tech computer model that townspeople could watch as if contemplating a dream. It’s a dream that apparently will never be fulfilled. It’s difficult to understand what exactly tempted director Simón Uribe to make a documentary about this out-of-the-way engineering project. He spends some time with the folks who live in the area, all of whom lament that they’ll never see the road completed in their lifetime, and none of whom make much of an impression. There is a short sequence of a modern expanse being built across a gorge, which gives us an idea of the scope and difficulty of the project. But when a rainstorm sends the construction crew under cover, it also seems to signal the end of the road-building when the funding runs out. The half-finished bridge then becomes a sightseeing destination and a playground for [...]

The Fight

2020-09-07T14:29:53+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The Fight Directors/ Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli B. Despres Watched on Amazon Rating 4.5/5    The Fight is a greatest hits mix tape of President Donald Trump’s assault on the United States Constitution. It is also a stirring portrait of the American Civil Liberties Union which, despite their protests to the contrary, is probably the only organization standing between Trump and tyranny. The ACLU lawyers profiled in the film are tireless defenders of our civil rights, but they will be the first to say that they will not save us from dictatorship, that they are merely working the justice system to protect and defend our right to organize, protest, engage, and vote. Yet, at this perilous moment–September 2020–in Trump’s four-years’ long slaughter of democratic norms, The Fight assures us that the ACLU is in democracy’s corner. The Fight is a ceaselessly stirring, inspiring, gritty, and enraging account of five key cases during Trump’s reign of terror. Let’s capitalize them for maximum effect: The Muslim Ban, the Separation of Children at the Border, the Census Citizenship Question, the Military Transgender Ban, and the complicated case of Denying Abortion Rights to an Undocumented Immigrant. That’s quite a list, and a viewer may avoid the film thinking it is nothing more than a montage of tedious courtroom melodramas. It is anything but. A trio of directors, Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli B. Despres, a platoon of camerapeople, a squad of editors, and even an animator, deftly avoid wonky and arcane legal theories in favor of a humanizing and intimate focus on the [...]

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 [...]

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