Docs in Review/Archive2021-07-15T23:33:13+00:00

Docs in Review/Archive

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

Fire of Love

Fire of Love Director/ Sara Dosa Watched on Hulu Rating 4/5   A tantalizing trove of archival footage anchors this ruminative love story of two French volcanologists, Katia and Maurice Krafft, who risked their lives to study and film the way volcanoes evolve from placid dormancy to fiery eruptions. They died in 1991 while recording a Japanese volcano–no spoiler there, since this information is available on the film’s home page–but in their twenty-year partnership and love affair they became that most unique of couples: two people who found each other through the thing they loved the most, and who shared [...]

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All The Beauty and the Bloodshed

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed Director/ Laura Poitras Watched on Amazon Rating 3/5   Two compelling story lines compete for the attention of both the audience and the director in Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. One narrative is a straightforward biography of photographer Nan Goldin’s career. The other narrative is a less straightforward, but still rather basic, depiction of the protests Goldin and fellow activists organized to force art institutions to stop taking philanthropic donations from the notorious Oxycontin-pushing Sackler family and to force the removal of the Sackler name from the rooms and galleries within [...]

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Taming the Garden

Taming the Garden Director/ Salomé Jashi Watched on MUBI Rating 2.5/5   What does a filmmaker owe their audience? Do they owe them the answers to the basic questions, the who-what-why-where-how? No, of course not. They don’t really “owe” their audience anything, but if a filmmaker makes a film they want seen, rather than a film that is a pure expression of personal art that does not seek viewers (but one that viewers may stumble upon in an art gallery), there needs to be some attempt at providing the basics of engagement, if for no other reason than to prevent [...]

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The Shape of Things to Come

The Shape of Things to Come Director/ Lisa Malloy, J.P. Sniadecki Watched on MUBI Rating 4/5   Whenever I ask my adult son the question “How are things going?” he likes to answer with a joke: “I’m livin’, that’s enough for me.” The lone character at the center of The Shape of Things to Come would answer the question the same way, and he’d mean it. Directed by Lisa Malloy and J.P. Sniadecki (El Mar La Mar) the film shares the same title as the H.G. Wells book published in 1933, which Wells wrote as a kind of “future history” [...]

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Everything For All Reasons

Everything For All Reasons Director/Scott Ballew Watched on Amazon Rating 4/5   I'm not going to make the case that there is anything stylistically unique about this documentary profile of grizzled singer-songwriter Terry Allen. It follows the beats of the pro forma music documentary: a sprinkling of talking heads lauding the main character, scenes of him working in his home studio, old photos of the “early days,” several windswept shots of the West Texas landscape where he was born, and seemingly staged-for-the-camera concert footage. But what makes this documentary a refreshing change from the usual music doc banalities is that [...]

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All Light, Everywhere

All Light, Everywhere Director/ Theo Anthony Watched on Hulu Rating 3/5   Ambitious, full of ideas, visually mellow, and pungently up-to-the-minute, All Light, Everywhere could be so much better than it is. The movie takes us on a scattershot tour of the surveillance industry, spending time with a high-tech company manufacturing body cameras (that literally roll by on a conveyor belt, industry-on-parade style), a training seminar in the use of the cams for police officers, a crime-fighting spy-drone salesman, a community meeting considering the use of said crime-fighting spyware, a volunteer testing program for something I couldn’t figure out, a [...]

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Notturno Director/ Gianfranco Rosi Watched on Amazon Rating 3/5 Epicentro Director/ Hubert Sauper Watched on Amazon Rating 3/5   Two observational documentaries. One, Notturno, is so rigorously composed it sort of passes by like a series of naturally lit still photos. The other, Epicentro, is so undisciplined it careens across the screen like a drunken ex-pat. Both films are notable for their access, for their intrepid commitment to immersion, for their romantic allegiance to the image of the globe-trotting cameraperson blending travelogue and inquisition into cinematic essay. But these days this type of filmmaker–whose patron saints could be Werner Herzog, [...]

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The First Wave

The First Wave Director/ Matthew Heineman Watched on Hulu Rating 2.5/5   This film is like comfort food for the pandemic-obsessed. There is a quiet serenity to its emergency room scenes, its close-ups on the faces of coronavirus patients, its brief cutaway montages of New York streets and masked inhabitants. The movie stakes out no new territory in the de rigueur of sanctioned doc filmmaking. There is the ensemble storytelling involving four revolving portraits of a nurse, a doctor, two patients and their families; the polished and unremarkable professionalism in image and sound; the upswell of ominous low-volume drone music, [...]

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Doc Filmmaking During a Pandemic: Go Small, Go Lean

Nina Davenport filming Hello Photo (1994)   The Pandemic Future: Time for a Radical Return to Documentary's First Golden Age I recently wrote a book with a title that is now comically ironic. Get Close: Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking, published in February 2019 by Oxford University Press, was intended as a refreshing cri de cœur for beginning and veteran filmmakers to commit to a stripped down, low-budget, one or two-person team approach to documentary filmmaking. I emphasized personal creative expression, encouraging filmmakers to become the author of their own work from start-to-finish: directing, shooting, recording sound, writing, and editing. This, I [...]

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Collective Director/ Alexander Nanau Watched on Amazon Rating 3.5/5   If you happen to watch the trailer of Collective before watching the film, you’ll think you’re in store for a breathless political thriller with nothing but the fate of democracy at stake, an edge-of-your-seat experience replete with double-crosses, deep throats, and diabolical villains, set to a pounding score and edited with machine gun pacing. Um, hardly. Collective does indeed feature dark secrets, whistle blowers, villains, corrupt bureaucrats and fearless journalists, but the style of the actual film, if you decide to watch it, is much more sedate and quiet and [...]

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