Screening Room: ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’

"Power to the people" (PBS)

“Power to the people” (PBS)

After a series of documentaries that dug into the 20th century African American experience with uncommon power, Stanley Nelson (Jonestown, Freedom Riders) turns his gaze to the story of the country’s last great radical movement, and how it was destroyed just before falling apart.

My review of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which opens this week in limited release and will likely come to PBS sometime soon, is at PopMatters:

At some point, revolutionaries have to decide what else they want to be. Too often, they can’t. That’s why so many successful insurrections end up emulating the very same oppressive regimes they overthrow: fighters are often miserably bad peacemakers. That’s why Che Guevara ran off to die stupidly in Bolivia rather than figure out sugar cane production back in Cuba…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Gueros’ – French New Wave in Mexico City

'Gueros' (Kino Lorber)

‘Gueros’ (Kino Lorber)

Style doesn’t go out of style. That’s why directors around the world are still aping the French New Wave, in good and bad ways.

Güeros is a grab-bag of the right and wrong ways to appropriate the Nouvelle Vague’s stream-of-conscious plotting and jazzy rhythms. It did the festival circuit last year and is now getting a limited release. My review from the Tribeca Film Festival is at PopMatters:

[Güeros] gets a lot of traction from its mainly directionless young protagonists. They wander through Mexico City through a couple formless days backgrounded by worries about the future and uncertainty about their place and purpose in the present. It’s a film riddled and with questions and switchbacks, circling in on itself time and again…

Here’s the trailer.

Now Playing: ‘Slow West’

Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee in 'Slow West' (A24)

Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee get acquainted in ‘Slow West’ (A24)

Slow West Final PosterA teenaged boy embarks on an epic journey to track down the woman he loves … and bad guys intervene.

Slow West is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Indie westerns have blazed and snuck across screens for the past few years in a variety of flavors, from the lo-fi musings of Meek’s Cutoff to the bloody-minded vengeance of The Salvation. But none has been quite as surreptitiously odd and original as John Maclean’s Slow West. There are times when it plays as such a straightforward oater you wouldn’t be surprised to see a craggy Robert Duvall come riding up, Winchester rifle perched casually but authoritatively on his hip. At other moments the story slants sideways to resemble a loonier frontier-mad dream piece like Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja. It never quite stays in reach…

Here’s the trailer:

New on DVD: ‘Life Itself’

The writer at rest: 'Life Itself' (Magnolia Pictures)

The writer at rest: ‘Life Itself’ (Magnolia Pictures)

One of the better documentaries that ever-so-briefly graced screens in 2014 was Life Itself. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and based in part on Roger Ebert’s memoir, the film is a fascinating and curiously life-affirming story about ambition, creativity, and getting on with things.

lifeitself-posterLife Itself is available on DVD today; my review is at Film Racket:

James takes Ebert’s 2011 memoir as his source document. From there we get Ebert’s memories of growing up as a precociously verbal only child in downstate Illinois. (“My mother supported me like I was the local sports team.”) He describes himself as not just a born writer but a born journalist. This was not a kid who wanted to just write for high-brow publications. He wanted to be read and heard by as many people as possible. Thus the career that arced from working-class daily paper to syndicated TV show and appearances on Carson and Letterman. When called upon he could pen a learned piece for Film Comment (as he did in response to a Richard Corliss piece that called him out as an egregious “thumbs up/thumbs down” simplifier and bottom-racer). But as much as he admired the Pauline Kaels and Andrew Sarrises of the world, that was never going to be him…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Mad as Hell’

Cenk Uygur getting ready for his closeup in 'Mad as Hell' (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Cenk Uygur getting ready for his closeup in ‘Mad as Hell’ (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Never heard of Cenk Uygur? Well, at one point, his two-fisted shouter of a program was the most watched news-ish program on the Internet. Then, a few years back, when MSNBC was looking for new faces, they tried him out. Things didn’t work out so well.

Mad as Hell, the documentary about Uygur’s unusual rise to media sort-of stardom, opens this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Cenk Uygur doesn’t have a typical biography for an online news sensation. Brought to America by his Turkish parents at the age of eight, Uygur started down a path that would make many immigrant parents delirious with pride: first getting his business degree from Wharton, and then a law degree from Georgetown, before moving into corporate practice. According to Uygur’s many friends interviewed in Andrew Napier’s chummy documentary Mad as Hell, in college he was “annoying” and a “loudmouth” who loved spouting off and starting fights with his in-your-face opinions. The Uygur who appears in the film, a forward-thrusting type with a casual approach to fact-checking and a bullying-football-coach approach to debate, fits that description to a tee. A love-or-hate kind of guy, in other words…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: The Oscar Nominated Short Films

Ireland's Oscar-nominated short film 'Boogaloo and Graham' (ShortsHD)

Ireland’s Oscar-nominated short film ‘Boogaloo and Graham’ (ShortsHD)

Every year at the Oscars, the same four or five feature films are mentioned over and over again. Then they come to the shorts category and everybody looks confused since there was never anywhere to see the things. That’s changed in recent years with the increasing popularity (in arthouses, at least) of the Oscar nominated short film programs.

Oscar shorts-posterAll three programs (Live-Action, Documentary, and Animation) open in limited release this Friday. My reviews of the first two ran this week in Film Journal International.

You can read the review of Live-Action here:

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences votes each year for their favorite live-action short films, it can often seem as if they’re aiming for a smorgasbord appeal: something serious, something off-the-wall, a couple of snippet comedies, and at least something in black-and-white. The 2015 program, now a reliably audience-pleasing fixture on the art-house circuit, chucks that template in favor of more thought-out offerings that for once downplay the quirk…

The Oscar-nominated short 'White Earth' (ShortsHD)

The Oscar-nominated documentary short ‘White Earth’ (ShortsHD)

And Documentary here:

There are some years when the nonfiction shorts nominated for the Academy Awards can be realistically seen as a menu of the world’s problems: short dispatches of despair and terror, war and its consequences, from far-flung countries and ignored communities. This year’s program has some of that quality to it as well; there is, after all, something about the form that seems to necessitate the choice of uncomfortable topics. But more than most years, this time the problems at hand are more personal than geopolitical…

You can see the trailer here.

Department of Herzog: The Minnesota Declaration

Werner Herzog (photo by Erinc Salor)

Werner Herzog (photo by Erinc Salor)

Back in 1999, the always forward-looking Walker Art Center in Minneapolis hosted a career retrospective for the Quixote-like filmmaker Werner Herzog. He was years past his early narrative successes like Aquirre, the Wrath of God and yet to hit the later bumper crop of documentaries that started with 2005’s Grizzly Man.

Still, Herzog came bristling with ideas, like the intellectual guerrilla he is. As part of the event, he issued his “Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema.” It’s a unique 12-point manifesto, particularly coming from the man who regularly admits to fictionalizing parts of his nonfiction films. In between the snark, however, you can see his fiercely individualistic stance on life, art, and purpose threaded through.

A few worthy callouts:

  • “Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.”
  • “Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.”
  • “Each year at springtime scores of people on snowmobiles crash through the melting ice on the lakes of Minnesota and drown. Pressure is mounting on the new governor to pass a protective law. He, the former wrestler and bodyguard, has the only sage answer to this: ‘You can’t legislate stupidity.'”

This may be the only time in history Werner Herzog and Jesse Ventura occupied the same theoretical space.