New in Theaters: ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ Probes Activist’s Suicide

Aaron Swartz: 'The Internet's Own Boy' (Filmbuff)

Aaron Swartz: ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ (Filmbuff)

Netzien Aaron Swartz’s suicide was a rallying cry for many in the tightly-wired community of online activists. The story of this 26-year-old’s short, dramatic, impassioned life makes up the new activist documentary The Internet’s Own Boy.

The Internet’s Own Boy is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Maybe it’s something about Boston. For the second time this summer we’re seeing a documentary hinging on bad behavior in the city’s federal law-enforcement community. Although Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger paints a damning portrait of prosecutor indiscretion, Brian Knappenberger’s melodramatic, idealistic The Internet’s Own Boyis more troubling. That could be because in Berlinger’s case, it’s hard to get worked up about the mishandling of a case against the screamingly guilty and murderous Bulger, whereas with Knappenberger the victim is a widely beloved 26-year-old Internet activist who hung himself, arguably after being zealously hounded by the government. That the film doesn’t quite prove, or try to prove, that (as one unseen voice has it) “[Swartz] was killed by the government,” it makes for disturbing viewing nonetheless…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Whitey’ Gives its Subject Too Much Credit

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‘Whitey’ Bulger in his younger years (Magnolia Pictures)

whitey-posterJoe Berlinger has worked on some amazing true-crime documentaries over the years, not least the ground-breaking Paradise Lost trilogy. With Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, though, he (inadvertently or not) buoys the facetious mythology of Southie crime boss ‘Whitey’ Bulger as some noble gangster.

Whitey opens today in limited release and will probably show up on cable later in the year. My review is at Film Racket:

Fortuitously hitting theaters well before Scott Cooper’s fictional (and likely mythological) take on Bulger’s life, Whitey doesn’t try to be the feature-length nonfiction take on the South Boston crime lord. Instead, true-crime documentarian Berlinger zeros in on the sort of thing he normally does best: the trial itself…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Citizen Koch’

Madison, Wisconsin, ground zero for the Koch brothers' political campaigns. (Variance Films)

Madison, Wisconsin, ground zero for the Koch brothers’ political campaigns. (Variance Films)

citizenkoch-posterYou would think that a hit-job documentary about the Koch brothers—billionaire conservative villains par excellence—would have been something of a slam-dunk. But Citizen Koch, for all the surrounding it for having been supposedly yanked from PBS (which receives a lot of money from David Koch), is a disappointingly toothless thing.

Citizen Koch is playing now in limited release; not on PBS. My review is at Film Journal International:

Citizen Koch has passion aplenty, but it begins as a well-starched and solidly structured argument about the dismantling of campaign-finance reform. It’s smartly and entertainingly told in the by-now standard format of attack documentaries: stringing together television news footage for a pulse-pounding narrative and cutting away to talking-head interviews for context. Instead of jumping all over the Kochs from the start, the filmmakers lay out out how the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for increased corporate donations to political advocacy groups. Former Wisconsin senator and campaign finance reformer Russ Feingold calls the decision a “huge power grab” by corporations, who were now freer to support or attack politicians of their choosing…

You can check out the trailer here:

Tribeca Film Festival, Part III: ‘Match’ and ‘1971’

Two common Tribeca tropes in this pair of reviews: an interesting but underwhelming drama with name performers doing their level best and a solid historical documentary that’s practically required viewing. My most recent dispatch from the Tribeca Film Festival is here.

The drama is Stephen Belber’s Match, a three-performer melodrama about a high-strung, Wildean dance instructor (Patrick Stewart) who gets an unwelcome blast from his wild past:

Match is a tight, comically uncomfortable little box of a story about selfishness and pasts that refuse to die. It features enough salty turns of phrase and violently clashing expectations to generate a reasonably entertaining evening in its company. But essential it isn’t…

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‘1971’: Picking the FBI’s locks

Highly essential is 1971, a pitch-perfect historical thriller about antiwar activists whose burglary told the country what hippies had thought all along: the Feds are spying on us:

Johanna Hamilton’s sharp film looks back on the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, a meticulously organized protest cell who brainstormed possibly the single most significant act of illegal political protest in US history. Perhaps most remarkably, they were never caught. The film describes not just how these eight Philadelphia-area activists came to break into an FBI office and helped expose the heretofore unknown COINTELPRO, but also why they risked everything to do it…

Both films should probably get some kind of release later in the year.

Tribeca Film Festival, Part II: ‘All About Ann’ and ‘Art and Craft’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

In the last weekend of the Tribeca Film Festival, a strong slate of documentaries showed that covered things southern, eccentric art forgers and brassy politicos. My second dispatch runs today at PopMatters, here.

First is All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State. Befitting its once-in-a-lifetime subject, this clearly worshipful documentary is big-hearted and loud-mouthed, but gets by on the strength of sheer personality. It’s also screening tonight on HBO:

Ann Richards seems a perfect subject for a documentary. The beloved Texan progressive wore her hair in a signature bouffant and power-lunch suits, and was well known for her remarkable comic timing. Her knack for bringing crowds to their feet recalled a long-ago era, especially when she embarked on stemwinders skewering the traditions that kept women and minorities in their place (and her state in the 19th century), while also pointing the way forward. As her old buddy Bill Clinton—who is about the only Democrat of recent years to have come close to her facility with humor and language—notes in All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, you can get a lot more people to listen to what you have to say if you’re funny…

Next up we’ve got Art and Craft, a taut story about a spindly little criminal who may not actually have broken any laws, just infuriated museum staffers across the south who have been taken in by his forgeries:

Already the subject of numerous news stories and magazine profiles, Mark Landis is a square peg in a round hole figure, the sort that raises questions about the “art world” every so often. Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker’s film shows an appreciation for Landis’ oddities, not just personal but also professional. Landis is an art forger and a schizophrenic, but he doesn’t forge for money. He just likes to create fake pieces of art and give them away to museums and other institutions under false pretenses. As he puts it, “I went on philanthropic binges.”

Art and Craft was already picked up by Oscilloscope for a release later this year; keep your eyes peeled.

Screening Room, Tribeca Film Fest Edition: ‘An Honest Liar’ and ‘In Order of Disappearance’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

Getting to the Tribeca Film Festival only in its final weekend, but better late to the festival than never. My coverage will be running in pairs at PopMatters over the next few days, usually a documentary along with a narrative film that has little to no relation to the other. Hopefully the randomness of the pairings will help replicate the festival experience, only without the long lines and well-meaning volunteers.

The initial dispatch runs today, here.

First up is An Honest Liar, all about the magician and professional debunker James “The Amazing” Randi, still as spritely and snarky as ever, like a miniature Gandalf for the forces of logic:

Disturbed to the point of distraction by the sight of mystics and faith healers fleecing the vulnerable, even if they weren’t technically harming anyone, Randi became committed to telling the truth. According to Randi, it’s okay for magicians to entertain their audiences, as long as they’re honest that this is what they’re doing. As he puts it, it’s fine “to fool people as long as you’re doing it to teach them a lesson.” This crusade that he calls “my battle” makes for a great tale, particularly when Randi literally follows the patently fake mystic Uri Geller from one TV show to the next…

Stellan Skarsgard in 'In Order of Disappearance (image courtesy of TrustNordisk)

Stellan Skarsgard in ‘In Order of Disappearance’ (image courtesy of TrustNordisk)

Then there’s In Order of Disappearance, a black comedy from Norway with Stellan Skarsgard as an obsessed dad getting revenge on the gangsters who killed his son. Very Coen brothers by way of a third-rate Martin McDonagh impersonation:

Beyond this hard-boiled revenge tale, In Order of Disappearance introduces some distractions, beginning with “The Count” (Pal Sverre Hagen), the prissy gangster who is Nils’ ultimate target. A vegan who hides his cocaine trade behind a line of cupcake bakeries and lathers his home with punchline-bad modern art, the Count is all bluster and rage as his minions are picked off one after the other. This gets old fast…

Nevertheless, due to the audience-friendly mix of ultraviolence and low humor, it’s likely to get a full release later in the year.

Now Playing: ‘The Unknown Known’

Don Rumsfeld faces the past (or not) in 'The Unknown Known'

Don Rumsfeld faces the past (or not) in ‘The Unknown Known’

Late last year, possibly in an attempt to garner an Oscar nomination, the Weinsteins’ Radius-TWC outfit gave Errol Morris’ newest documentary The Unknown Known a short pre-holiday run. Now, this riveting, feature-length interview with the Bush era’s greatest poetic dissembler, Donald Rumsfeld, is getting a proper release.

The Unknown Known is playing in limited release again starting this week. My review is at Short Ends & Leader:

In The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld shows time and again why he’s a perfect subject for another of Morris’s documentary investigations into American military adventurism and hubris. For one, he’s the sharpest verbalist of the three. For another, he’s willing to tangle with other points of view; though not necessarily concede an inch of ground. If the film can’t compare in the end to 2003’s The Fog of War, that’s because Rumsfeld doesn’t appear to have had the come-to-Jesus moment about Iraq that Robert McNamara had about his role in the disaster that was the Vietnam War. Given the placidly combative figure presented here, that moment will probably never come…

Here’s the trailer:

 

Now Playing: ‘Anita’

anita-poster1In 1991, the first of the decade’s great, somewhat shameful, televised scandal melodramas was broadcast: Anita Hill’s grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee over her allegations of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas. Then, as now, Hill is a dignified figure who chooses her words carefully and keeps emotion in check. Although the society at large has, surprisingly, moved on from this watershed moment, Hill finally gets her overdue consideration in a thoughtful, if not exactly thrilling documentary.

Anita is playing now in a few theaters and should be on DVD and VOD soon. My review is at Film Racket:

Anita is a functional film about an astounding person who faced the whirlwind and didn’t blink. It doesn’t do meaningful service to the larger story of persecution and discrimination and never scratches the surface of the poisonous vituperation that swirled around it. None of these things may have been necessary, though. Director Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) may have simply wanted to tell the story of one brave, famous, and yet surprisingly disregarded American hero. If so, she succeeds, but somewhat wanly…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ’12 O’Clock Boys’

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’12 O’Clock Boys': Today, We Ride

12-o-clock-boys-posterEvery so often in Baltimore, swarms of teenagers and twentysomethings will come swarming through an intersection, doing paralysis-defying tricks on their bikes or four-wheelers. They’re called “12 O’Clock Boys,” and they’re the subject of an interesting new documentary about hope (or the lack of it) and fantasy in the inner cities.

12 O’Clock Boys opens in limited release this week after playing the festival doc circuit. My review is at Film Journal International:

…Their name comes from a signature move where a rider pops a wheelie so high that the front wheel goes straight up like an hour hand on a clock pointing to twelve. It supplies phenomenal footage for local news shows, confuses many of the drivers and pedestrians they’re swarming past, thrills some bystanders, and infuriates others. “What are we doing about these little scumbags?” shouts a talk-radio caller. Over the three years that director Lofty Nathan follows his young protagonist, Pug, his enraptured camera witnesses one all-consuming emotion: Pug wants nothing more than to be a 12 O’Clock Boy. The film feeds off his enthusiasm…

Here’s the trailer:

Best Movies of 2013: First Take

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Since it’s a brand new year already featuring its own share of miserable, do-I-have-to-go-out-there? weather, what better time to sit back and figure out what exactly was the year that was? Film-wise, that is.

I contributed to a few of those lists at different websites this month. Over at PopMatters, you can see their gargantuan Top 35 films list here; they’ve also produced similar lists broken out into DVDs and foreign/indie films. I also contributed to their sections on the year’s worst films, and best female and male performances.

Sarah Polley's 'Stories We Tell'

Sarah Polley’s ‘Stories We Tell’

Also, the writers for Film Racket published their own individual Top 10 lists here. My list is something of a first draft that I’ll be going back over and redoing for the publication (hopefully later this month) of the new edition of Eyes Wide Open 2013: The Year’s 25 Greatest Movies (and 5 Worst). Here’s the short version:

  1. Stories We Tell
  2. 12 Years a Slave
  3. Gravity
  4. Before Midnight
  5. Fruitvale Station
  6. A Touch of Sin
  7. August: Osage County
  8. Gimme the Loot
  9. Room 237
  10. Captain Phillips