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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El Mar La Mar Directors/Joshua Bonnetta, J.P. Sniadecki Watched on You Tube Rating 2.5/5 A murky experiment in abstract impressionism, El Mar La Mar is determined to avoid engaging the viewer with any emotional or narrative hooks, distancing itself from accessibility with nearly every scene. While cinematically audacious–its old-school use of film grain provides textural interest and its wandering soundscape a welcome unpredictability–its overall design is aloof, even dull, despite the politically tense atmosphere of the subject matter. Shot in the Sonoran Desert by co-directors Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki, the film is a pastiche of gnarly nature shots, [...]
Harvest Season Director/Bernardo Ruiz Watched at Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival Rating 2.5/5 This ITVS-funded, made-for-Independent Lens documentary should be commended for its timely and much-needed positive portrait of Latino entrepreneurs and laborers. While Trump froths and throws fits, the families presented in Bernardo Ruiz’s compassionate film are evidence of how deeply entwined Mexican-American culture is in the fabric of our country, as if those of us in the reality-based world need that kind of reminder. We go inside two family-run winemaking operations; we meet a man who operates a humane, clean, affordable ranch to house immigrant workers; and we [...]
Ya Me Voy (I’m Leaving Now) Director/Lindsey Cordero, Armando Croda Watched at Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival Rating 4/5 Felipe has been working and saving money for the last 17 years, much of which he sends back to his family, a wife and four sons, in Mexico. He wants to finally make good on his promise to leave Brooklyn and return to them in time for the birthday of his youngest, who he’s never seen. But financial problems and a sneaking suspicion that his family may be more interested in his money and less in seeing him forces him to [...]
306 Hollywood Director/Elan Bogarín, Jonathan Bogarín Watched on P.O.V. Rating 1.5/5 Insufferably twee and annoyingly impressed with itself, 306 Hollywood is an excruciating experience to sit through. I knew this when I walked out after watching the first ten minutes of it in a theater at Hot Docs in 2018, and my feelings were confirmed when I suffered through another hour of viewing on PBS’s P.O.V. series. So, I’ll make this brief. Directed by a brother and sister, and ostensibly about the eccentric but not extraordinary charms and vicissitudes of their late grandmother, the movie bills itself as an [...]
Hale County This Morning, This Evening Director/RaMell Ross Watched on Independent Lens Rating 4/5 Hale County This Morning, This Evening is composed of the fleeting, random moments that most other documentaries employ either as brief cutaways during the primary action, or as connective B-roll between narrative plot points. Out of 1300 hours of footage, RaMell Ross, the writer, director, cinematographer and editor, chose relatively few images to complete his 78-minute film, but they reveal a quality of black life that usually exists only on the margins in most other films about the black experience in America, films about prejudice, [...]
‘Til Madness Do Us Part Director/Wang Bing Watched on MUBI Rating 4.5/5 Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing’s singular gaze in 'Til Madness Do Us Part is fueled not only by his humanism by also by a style that could be called relentless patience. His camera locks on to one man and refuses to let go for 15, 20, 25 minutes; and then, as if satisfied or exhausted, finds another man to follow for yet another extended streak, then another, and another. The fact that all of these men are mentally ill and confined to a single claustrophobic floor of a [...]
Hal Director/Amy Scott Watched on Amazon Prime Rating 3/5 Amy Scott’s Hal suffers from the same pro forma banalities as most other celebrity or “troubled artist” documentaries. It is both overly produced and under imagined. Nothing within the film’s style, structure or point-of-view attempts to emulate or pay aesthetic respect to the actual artist it profiles, in this case Hal Ashby, the supremely talented director of The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home, and Bound For Glory, among other films. Hal charges out of the gate with a rapidly edited montage of clips, talking heads, reenactments, and the introduction of actor [...]
Of Fathers and Sons Director: Talal Derki. Watched on: Kanopy. Rating: 2/5. After spending 99 minutes with the radical jihadists and their young male offspring in Talal Derki’s Of Fathers and Sons, it may be time to admit that the last few years of documentaries set in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq have finally reached the point of diminishing returns. How many more films do we need populated by Islamic fundamentalists endlessly muttering “God is great”; how many more films consisting of jittery handheld behind-the-lines footage; how much more time do we need to spend wandering around the foreign policy wreckage [...]
Shirkers Director: Sandi Tan. Watched on: Netflix. Rating: 2/5. A winner of the directing award in the World Cinema Documentary category at Sundance, and ranked high on Metacritic with a score of 89, Shirkers is a film viewers are clearly meant to love. Filmmaker Sandi Tan tells her story of growing up in Singapore while immersed in the New Hollywood indie movement of the early 1990s, an obsession that inspired her and a group of teenage friends to make a first feature, also called “Shirkers,” which garnered a good degree of publicity while they were making it. But after they [...]
Crime + Punishment Director: Stephen Maing. Watched on: Hulu. Rating: 3.5/5. You can tell that director Stephen Maing has studied his Serpico, The Conversation, and Prince of the City, those great fictional films from the ‘70s and early ‘80s that seethe with atmospheres of graft, corruption, menace, and surveillance; the sinister forces conspiring against lone heroes, the whistleblower, the watcher, the listener. I’ll remember Maing’s extremely well-made Crime + Punishment more for this authentic conjuring of those superior films than I will for the story he tells. Not so much because the story isn’t worth telling, but because he [...]