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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The Rest I Make Up Director/ Michelle Memran Watched on Kanopy Rating 2.5/5 I was disappointed to discover that the Wikipedia entry about Maria Irene Fornes contained far more detail about her art, life, and career than The Rest I Make Up, Michelle Memran’s affectionate but limited love letter to the avant-garde playwright. Known by theater insiders for her freewheeling spontaneity and intense belief in how physical expression leads to creative release, Fornes lived the type of artistic life that few of us are able to manage any longer. She was beloved by famous playwrights and discerning critics, and [...]
Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins Director/ Janice Engel Watched in Theater Rating 2.5/5 After seeing this documentary with my wife and daughter in the arthouse Roxy Cinemas in Missoula, Montana, my daughter remarked that it should have been titled Molly Ivins on C-Span. Without the copious interview footage from the cable channel this movie wouldn’t exist. Or, more to the point, it could exist, but only by relying solely on the standard features of the hagiographic biopic craze: endless, repetitive testimonials from friends and family; fraudulent mini-reenactments of filler B-roll; faked voice-over; animated news clippings; [...]
Monrovia, Indiana Director/ Frederick Wiseman Watched on Kanopy Rating 1/5 Monrovia, Indiana is either the most boring film Frederick Wiseman has ever made or it is the most subversive. This chronicle of the day-to-day life of a small midwestern town (population about one thousand, according to a 2010 census) is so devoid of visual interest, color, or even the most modest of dramatic material, I wondered if the director may have asked himself at some point why he was even bothering to continue to film. Or did he discern something in the enervating footage that commented on the divisiveness [...]
Aquarela Director/ Viktor Kossakovsky Watched in Theaters Rating 2.5/5 With Aquarela, director Viktor Kossakovsky may have invented a brand-new documentary genre: climate chaos porn. With its diamond hard icebergs, its velvety black bodies of water, and its spasms of ocean spraying the camera lens, the cumulative torrential effect of all that liquid is positively orgiastic. But while the imagery is busy pleasuring itself in a kind of seductive sadomasochistic bath, it forgets to ground the viewer with any kind of context. Gradually, yes, you become aware that the director means to preview what it will look and feel like [...]
American Factory Directors/ Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar Watched on Netflix Rating 4/5 American Factory is both a straightforward chronicle of the fall, rise, and near fall again of a Dayton, Ohio manufacturing company, and a subtly scathing indictment of the future of working class labor in the U.S. It’s hard to watch this film and not want to scream, wail, or simply weep at the decomposed remains of the American Dream. An astonishing level of access is what makes the documentary a fascinating, consistently engrossing film. Several scenes will have you silently asking, “How did the filmmakers manage to [...]
Angels Are Made of Light Director/ James Longley Watched in theaters Rating 2.5/5 Three school-age brothers are the main characters in James Longley’s Angels Are Made of Light, but you wouldn’t know they are brothers from watching the film. You also wouldn’t know that one of the teachers in the school they attend is their mother. Even though one of the kids calls the teacher “Mother” it comes across as a way of referring to all female teachers, or at least that’s the impression I got. I also got the impression that one of the kids works at a [...]
The Distant Barking of Dogs Director/ Simon Lereng Wilmont Watched on P.O.V. Rating 2.5/5 This tender, quiet film about two young boys’ day-to-day experiences in a rural slice of Ukraine during wartime, is both beautiful and aimless. The Dutch director and cameraman Simon Lereng Wilmont apparently spent 3 years filming the boys, cousins Oleg and Yarick, and their grandmother as they wait out Vladimir Putin’s military assault on their independent country. Wilmont’s eye is sensitive, his distance intimate. His direction is unhurried and respectful. He’s obviously gained the trust of his subjects; the boys nor their grandmother ever seem [...]
Streetwise Director/ Martin Bell Watched at Beacon Cinema (Seattle) Rating 5/5 Streetwise, a discreet classic of American documentary cinema, is a relentless portrait of clashing sensations: vulnerability and bravado, tenderness and confrontation, immaturity and mortality. It presents us with teenagers, some of them very young teenagers, playacting the roles of grownups in a drama of their own design. Yes, they are street kids, victims of abuse, neglect, alcoholism and the many other fucked up things unworthy parents do to their young, but they embrace their circumstances with theatrical gusto. They talk like world-weary drifters, ex-cons who’ve seen it all, [...]
Roll Red Roll Director/ Nancy Schwartzman Watched on P.O.V. Rating 3/5 Schwartzman’s film examines the rape of a high school girl by two of her classmates, football players from the local Steubenville, Ohio team. It’s a story that gained national headlines after the tweets and texts surrounding the incident–two young men raping their inebriated, passed-out victim, egged on by friends–revealed the rape culture that was prevalent among players and supervisors. There is an enterprising crime blogger who broke the story, the backlash against her, interrogation video of the boys involved, and a surprise intervention by the anarchic hacker group [...]
The Edge of Democracy Director/ Petra Costa Watched on Amazon Rating 3.5/5 The title of this film is misleading. Brazil isn’t so much on the edge of democracy as the edge of totalitarianism, or better yet, wandering in the abyss of democracy’s wreckage. With the vulgar nativist and racist Jair Bolsonaro (remind you of anyone?) having slipped into the presidency during a judicial coup, even though he was spectacularly less popular than the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), the country is in the throes of an astonishing decline from its progressive heights of the 2000s, which saw [...]