Docs in Review
Reviews of documentaries from my perspective as a filmmaker working outside the industry echo chamber.
1/poor 2/nothing remarkable 3/worth noting 4/memorable 5/excellent
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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 [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
Anthropocene-The Human Epoch Directors/ Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky Watched on Amazon Rating 2.5/5 The third film in a trilogy that began with Manufactured Landscapes in 2007 and continued seven years later with Watermark in 2014, Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is perhaps their most potent political work of the three. But it is also their most unsatisfying. They take a scattered approach to their stated subject matter, which is the ways in which human beings have so altered the natural world that we are now the primary determining factor in [...]
Honeyland Directors/ Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov Watched on Hulu Rating 3/5 What begins as an observational portrait of a Macedonian beekeeper evolves into a parable with a universal message: when greed upsets the balance of nature, the very survival of a species is threatened. There is nothing new in that. We’ve read enough stories and seen enough environmentally-themed documentaries to understand what happens when ecological warriors come up against the brute transactional force of capitalism. Capitalism usually wins. But what takes you by surprise in this film is that the protagonist, a woman named Hatidze Muratova, is no warrior. [...]
For Sama Directors/ Waad al-Khateab, Edward Watts Watched on Amazon Rating 4.5/5 There is a moment in For Sama which caused me to gasp out loud. This is rare for me. I watch most documentaries alone in my home studio, and usually my reactions are silent scoffs or impatient shakes of the head or a mental “give me a break” when I feel the gears of manipulation working too hard. But in the moment I’m referring to, doctors have just performed an emergency Caesarean on a young woman injured in a bomb blast. The mother is unconscious, the baby [...]
Black Mother Director/ Khalik Allah Watched on Criterion Channel Rating 4/5 Director Khalik Allah is working at the edge of documentary, not quite avant-garde but experimental enough to be ignored by the commercial film festivals and embraced by streaming platforms such as MUBI and the Criterion Channel. I doubt many will search out or stumble upon his films (his first feature was Field Niggas), and also doubt many will be able to endure his demanding, staccato approach to editing and sound. Owing to his background as a still photographer, he doesn’t shoot scenes or sequences, he doesn’t follow characters [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
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, [...]