Now Playing: ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”

Young Cobain (HBO Films)

Young Cobain (HBO Films)

Even though it was produced in association with Kurt Cobain’s family, the new documentary about his tragically short life has a bracing honesty that makes it required viewing.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is playing now in limited release and also on HBO. My review is at Film Racket:

Brett Morgen’s deft and fascinating documentary about America’s last true rock star is shot through with inevitability. But that never detracts from the raw emotional power of a film made up mostly of Kurt Cobain’s nakedly confessional journals and recordings. The film’s story can’t help but carry a mythic quality. That doesn’t mean that Morgen, working with the authorization of Cobain’s family, created a worshipful monument to genius. It’s true that to appreciate Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, it certainly helps to at least approve of a Nirvana song here and there. But this isn’t a fan’s valentine. At times it feels closer to hate mail from the artist himself…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘The Salt of the Earth’

One of Sebastio Salgado's iconic photographs in 'The Salt of the Earth' (Sony Pictures Classics)

One of Sebastio Salgado’s iconic photographs in ‘The Salt of the Earth’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

Given a brief Academy Awards run late last year, Wim Wenders’ magisterial documentary about photographer Sebastio Salgado is finally getting a proper theatrical release this week.

My review is at Film Journal International:

“A photographer,” Wim Wenders intones at the start of his elegantly respectful documentary on Sebastião Salgado, “is literally somebody painting with light.” This definition sounds grand, to be sure. But the act of creation that Wenders captures here doesn’t quite seem to resemble painting. Salgado’s work is in some ways the definition of high-concept photography. His rich, lusciously layered, black-and-white shots of teeming gold mine workers, refugees streaming across a desert, or a line of penguins flinging themselves off a glacier are so elegantly composed as to almost defy reality…

Here’s the trailer:

On the Media: ‘The Jinx’ and Confessions

thejinx-posterCuriously enough, there is actually a precedent for the news that broke over the weekend with a blockbuster HBO documentary playing an outsized role in an ongoing media sensation of a criminal case.

Decades before Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx played a (as yet not fully clear) role in the arrest of the perennial murder suspect and troubled millionaire Robert Durst, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s true-crime classic Paradise Lost (about the West Memphis Three) bumped up against the realities of an ongoing criminal investigation. While filming the proceedings, Berlinger was given a bloody knife that was similar to the murder weapon:

Berlinger told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on Monday that he immediately went to HBO, and together they decided to turn the knife over to investigators, even though it put their film at risk.

He said he would like to think that he would reach the same conclusion today, but noted the increased pressure to make films as entertaining as possible.

It’s not entirely clear what responsibilities the filmmakers of The Jinx had when confronted with potential evidence of Durst’s culpability some time ago. But the fact that Durst wasn’t arrested until just the day before the miniseries’ last episode on Sunday is being seen by some as a media-manipulated event.

I reviewed the first couple episodes of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst for PopMatters here.

 

New in Theaters: ‘Merchants of Doubt’

This is what lies look like: 'Merchants of Doubt' (Sony Pictures Classics)

This is what lies look like: ‘Merchants of Doubt’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

How do you get people to believe in a lie. Well, when it’s something like climate change, it helps to have a well-paid mini-industry of fakers and dissemblers to help spread the mistruths. Whatever the subject, there’s plenty of so-called “experts” who will tell people what they want to hear.

That’s the subject of Robert Kenner’s new documentary Merchants of Doubt, which opens tomorrow in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

This is an ugly film, though it has an upbeat spirit. Director Robert Kenner starts off with magician Jamy Ian Swiss giving a deft performance in close-up magic. “My expertise is in deception,” Swiss says with no small amount of pride. Kenner features Swiss so prominently, and laces the film with visual nods to card tricks, because as Swiss states about magicians, “We are honest liars.” The professional charlatans Kenner profiles later would be hard put to make such a claim. The tragedy of the film is that depressingly few people get the difference…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Ballet 422′

Ballet 422-1

Justin Peck directs his dancers in ‘Ballet 422′ (Magnolia Pictures)

In the new documentary Ballet 422, one of New York City Ballet’s dancers is given the opportunity to choreograph the company’s 422nd original ballet. Only he also has to dance a different program the night that his ballet premieres, and he’s got just two months to pull it all together.

Ballet 422 is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

There is no such thing as a permanent piece of art. Paper yellows, paint cracks, celluloid burns, memories fade. But compared to those ephemeral forms, dance is even more transitory. The choreography can be recorded, but not the swing of limb and flair of line that exists for a moment on stage and then only for those who happen to witness it. Jody Lee Lipes’ sinuous documentary about a dancer at the New York City Ballet who’s given two months to choreograph an original ballet would seem to be an attempt to capture that fleeting sensation on film. But instead, it highlights the vast gulf between the great expanses of time given to creating an artwork and the finger-snap speed with which it can be delivered, and possibly forgotten …

Here’s the trailer:

On TV: ‘The Jinx’

'The Jinx': Kathleen and Robert Durst (HBO Films)

‘The Jinx': Kathleen and Robert Durst (HBO Films)

Tonight, HBO is premiering the first episode in its six-part true-crime documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. It’s a stranger-than-fiction tale from director Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) who first tried to tackle the curious case of Durst with 2010’s fictional film All Good Things, where Ryan Gosling played Durst, heir to a massive Manhattan real-estate fortune, who was accused of killing his first wife Kathleen, who disappeared in 1982.

thejinx-posterMy review of the first two episodes is at PopMatters:

There’s no straight line through Robert Durst’s story. Instead, there is a curlicue leading from a privileged Manhattan childhood to Dynasty-style power struggles, a lengthy stretch of cross-dressing, and potential connections to three murders. The baffling particulars of Durst’s case and his resolute odd-man-out nature come with the added coating of unreality provided by a life of extreme wealth. It’s a captivating story, and a difficult one to tackle without succumbing to its and his Sphinxian spell. Fittingly, the first two episodes of Andrew Jarecki’s six-part documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, don’t reveal whether or not it will succumb…

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: