Docs in Review2018-08-22T22:48:38+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

The Human Flow

Director:  Ai Weiwei, Watched on:  iTunes, Rating:  4.5/5.     I was initially skeptical of The Human Flow, the Chinese artist Weiwei’s documentary about the global refugee crisis. The soaring drone footage I’d seen in a trailer looked too impressive, as if this was another superficial celebrity art piece capitalizing on human tragedy. At a running time of 2 hours and 25 minutes, it also sounded self-indulgent and unnecessary. How many more stories do we need about this epic tragedy, covered in countless articles and photo essays, before we become comfortably numb? After finishing this doc, I came to the conclusion [...]

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The Departure

Director:  Lana Wilson, Watched on:  Kanopy, Rating:  2.5/5.    In this portrait of an altruistic Japanese priest who counsels lost souls contemplating suicide, director Lana Wilson identifies her two key storylines early and then superficially drifts back and forth between them. The repetition is wearying, the insights thin. For such weighty subject matter, The Departure is a film curiously lacking in substance. Ittetsu Nemoto conducts rituals in which he asks participants to write down the things they treasure most and then asks them to start throwing these slips of paper away until they are left with only one; one final [...]

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Two Years At Sea

Director:  Ben Rivers, Watched on:  MUBI, Rating:  4/5.     The British film artist Ben Rivers worked with only one other crew member, a soundperson, to capture the real-life rhythms of a hermit “played” by the not entirely hermit-like Jake Williams in Rivers’ 2011 film, Two Years At Sea, which I finally was able to see in 2017 on MUBI, the streaming site every cinephile should bookmark.   Williams does indeed live in the cluttered wooden house in the forest that functions as the central location in the movie. He sometimes sleeps in a caravan (trailer) that, in the film, strangely [...]

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Recovery Boys

Director:   Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Watched at:  Hot Docs 2018, Rating:  3/5.     It’s impossible to fault this documentary for its sensitive approach to telling the stories of four young men struggling to escape the shackles of heroin addiction. Set in director Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s home state of West Virginia, the movie concentrates its focus on a rehabilitation house which provides shelter, food, therapy, and brotherhood. It’s an admirable mission to be sure, but one that often results in failure. If nothing else, this film resolutely shows us that addiction is a disease without a cure. The best someone could hope for [...]

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The Devil We Know

Director:  Stephanie Soechtig, Jeremy Seifert, Watched at:  Hot Docs 2018, Rating:  2.5/5.     The Devil We Know, a paint-by-numbers eco-doc, is set in West Virginia, where a group of residents in Parkersburg discovered that the chemical giant Dupont had been dumping the toxic chemicals used in Teflon and other products into the local water supply. Cancer and birth defects followed, as well as the usual tensions between profits and employment.  Dupont is the region’s largest employer, and it took most of the residents awhile to come around to the idea that the company putting food on their tables was also [...]

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The Prison in Twelve Landscapes

Director: Brett Story, Watched on: iTunes, Rating:  5/5.   For a film composed of luminous images and becalmed scenes of waiting, watching, and talking, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes will likely leave you outraged. It will be a quiet outrage, in keeping with the mesmerizing resignation and stillness of the people and places featured in the film, but the anger will be there nevertheless, on a constant low boil. Director Brett Story’s accomplishment here is in taking an unwieldy documentary trope–the survey film, in which situational vignettes and character-driven profiles follow one another without resolve or dramatic mini-climaxes–and turning it into a [...]

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Faces Places

Directors:  Agnès Varda, JR, Watched on:  Netflix, Rating:  2/5.     I loved Agnès Varda’s documentaries, The Beaches of Agnès and The Gleaners and I,for their unabashed reflexivity and casual wonder. She is an artist of the people, intertwining her off-hand interviews with melancholic asides on memory and the ever-shifting nature of relationships. Her best film, Vagabond, is a fictional narrative with documentary-like soundbites, set-up to look like the work of a reporter investigating the unsolved death of the titular young woman whose body is found in a ditch. The movie is uncompromising, even brutal, without the playfulness and wink she [...]

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Austerlitz

Director: Sergei Loznitsa, Watched on: Filmatique, Rating: 4.5.   On first glance, the irony of this film’s premise is almost too simple: hordes of selfie-sticked tourists descend on Germany’s concentration camps to check “Holocaust memorials” off their bucket list. But after the requisite huff of judgement directed towards the T-shirted visitors and a grunting suspicion that the filmmaker is settling in for one long smirk, things get interesting pretty quickly. Quickly might be the wrong adverb. Director Sergei Loznitsa’s film is composed of long, static takes, many running five minutes or more, in which we observe from a respectful distance the shuffling of [...]

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Frederick Wiseman

Films watched on: Kanopy, Ratings:  Titicut Follies  3/5, Boxing Gym 3/5, Ex-Libris 2.5/5, National Gallery  1.5/5,  At Berkeley 1/5.   Frederick Wiseman’s approach to his chosen subject matter, the internal workings of institutions, is as unwavering as his camera. His films are long (the last four have run more than 3 hours each; At Berkeley, which had me asking for a hall pass after 15 minutes, lasted 4 hours). He shoots with available light and the crew consists of his cameraman and himself,  holding the boom mic and recording sound. His films avoid talking head interviews, on-screen graphics, music, or anything more [...]

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Pina

Director:  Wim Wenders, Watched in:  On-Demand and in Theater, Rating:  5/5.     Pina is director Wim Wenders’ magnificently filmed memorial to the artistry and legacy of Pina Bausch, a German dance master whose work intoxicated the filmmaker more than twenty years ago but left him unsure how to replicate her three dimensional work within the two dimensional frames of film. Then 3-D came along and in 2009, days before he was set to begin filming, Pina Bausch died soon after receiving a cancer diagnosis. The movie was put on hold until Pina’s dancers convinced Wenders it was necessary to make the [...]

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