Docs in Review2019-04-23T16:08:22+00:00

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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Marshawn Lynch: A History

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 [...]

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24 Frames

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 [...]

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Dick Johnson is Dead

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 [...]

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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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Suspension

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. [...]

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The Fight

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 [...]

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What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?

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 [...]

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Midnight Family

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 [...]

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Caniba

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 [...]

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Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

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 [...]

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