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’


’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


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

New in Theaters: ‘Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?”

It depends what you mean by 'happy'

It depends what you mean by ‘happy’

istheman_poster-296x478What’s the best way to make a documentary about a philosopher? Sit down and talk to him. Better yet, if you’re Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) chatting with Noam Chomsky about life, the universe, and everything, animate the whole thing.

Is the Tall Man Happy? is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:

[Michel] Gondry’s lovably sincere and chatty Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? starts by telling how he came across [Noam] Chomsky after seeing films on him, like the epic 1992 dissertation on his media critique, Manufacturing Consent. At first, it seems like Gondry is going to overplay the worshipful naïf card in his narration, interrupting himself, acting nervous, and highlighting being out of his depth: “As you can see, I felt a bit stupid here.” But Gondry’s natural charisma takes hold of the conversation. Instead of trying to boil down Chomsky’s dense linguistic and political viewpoints, Gondry and he simply talk philosophy…

You can watch the superb trailer here:

Now Playing: ‘Caucus’

'Caucus': This man also wanted to be president

‘Caucus’: This man also wanted to be president

caucus_poster_bachmann_v011Once upon a time, in the land of Iowa, there were people who thought that Rick Perry might become president of these United States. It was a strange time, the 2012 GOP Iowa caucus, and something that you really wish that Hunter S. Thompson had still been alive to see and write about.

In the meantime, there’s Caucus, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about all the sun-baked, deep-fried, conservative weirdness. It’s playing now in limited release. My full review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:

The 2011 Iowa State Fair captured in AJ Schnack’s Caucus has a frozen-in-amber quality. Just a little of those butter sculptures, livestock demos, and toddling families baking in the bright prairie sun go a long way. What stands out are those interlopers stalking the fairgrounds, grinning and gripping any who come within range, cameras and recorders buzzing like flies. There’s something highly alien about mixing these politicians’ bright and buffed ambitions with the laidback surroundings. It makes for some surreal flashes in the film, like the hippie protesters drumming in the distance, or when an announcer booms out an introduction for “the next President of the United States…Michele Bachmann!”…

The trailer is here:


New in Theaters: ‘After Tiller’

Dr. Susan Robinson in 'After Tiller'.

Dr. Susan Robinson in ‘After Tiller’.

after_tiller posterAfter several recent documentaries about abortion that have hewed to a closely nonpartisan viewpoint (12th & Delaware, in particular), After Tiller stakes out a definite position. In staunchly defending the heroism of the four doctors who still provide late-term abortions after the 2009 assassination of George Tiller, the filmmakers have created a powerful but still thoughtful investigation of a tough subject.

After Tiller is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket; here’s part:

When Dr. George Tiller was assassinated at his Wichita church by a pro-life fanatic in 2009, he became the eighth abortion clinic worker in America to be killed. At the time he was one of the country’s only doctors who performed third-trimester abortions. Tiller continued his work despite fulminations from extremist groups like Operation Rescue and pundits like Bill O’Reilly (who referred to him as “Tiller the Baby Killer”) and the threats that followed all that overheated rhetoric like a storm. He said at one point, “Everything has a risk to it.” That risk shrouds all the stories told in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s hopeful, quietly optimistic documentary After Tiller; there’s a reason that none of the patients in the film have their faces shown…

You can watch the trailer here:

Screening Room: Gore Vidal to African Death Metal

'Hank and Asha'

‘Hank and Asha’

Gore-Vidal_posterThe 2013 Rhode Island International Film Festival ran from August 6–13, with films playing mostly in Providence. It was a somewhat sparsely attended but extraordinarily well-curated event; nothing that a little more publicity couldn’t help.

My overview of some of the films that played ran in PopMatters, here’s some highlights:

Keep your eyes peeled for them to come to a fest or high-number cable channel near you soon.


Now Playing: ‘Israel: A Home Movie’

israel a home movie - 3

israelhomemovie-posterSometimes, it’s best to just let the people tell the history. That’s the idea behind the fascinating new documentary Israel: A Home Movie. It throws together home movie footage shot by Israelis from the 1930s up through the mid-’70s, layers in narration (everything from nostalgic to carping) and lets the flood of imagery tell the story of a young nation.

Israel: A Home Movie is playing now in limited release, should pop up in a few theaters around the country eventually. My full review is at Film Journal International:

The footage begins in black-and-white, in a land that looks positively medieval despite the 20th century already being a third over with. Over these images of strangers in the streets or family members eagerly waving in kitchens or yards, the filmmakers layer audio clips from the people who shot the footage, and their relatives. As a result, the film can move with the ebbing tides of family disagreements over what they’re actually looking at. The doc proceeds as the viewing of any home movie does, with relatives jumping in to point out a person or some fact (one man joking that his father was “the worst cameraman in the world,” a woman pointing out a young boy who was later “murdered by the Arabs”), haggling over what means what…

You can see a short clip here:

New in Theaters: ‘Stories We Tell’


Sarah Polley films the film in ‘Stories We Tell’

storieswetell-posterWith her films Away From You and Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley has proven to be a ridiculously sharp and gimlet-eyed young filmmaker—who’s also an accomplished actress, should she ever want to return to it.

In her newest, Stories We Tell, Polley digs into the not-so-hidden secrets of her family history using a variety of methods: self-aware techniques, contradictory stories, re-created “home movie” footage, and plenty of dry humor. It’s a wonderful piece of work all things told, honest and playful and curiously wise.

Stories We Tell opens on Friday. My review is at Film Racket, here’s part of it:

To understand how memory is fluid, just ask two relatives to recall the same incident. More often than not, their recollections will have major discrepancies. Next, throw in more family members from different generations, and layer onto that a mealy mix of secrets; pretty soon a simple story turns into a Russian novel. That’s what Sarah Polley comes up with in her engrossing documentary exploration of how the bricks of memory are untidily piled together to create messy and incomplete personal stories, and out of those stories comes a life. Or a version thereof…

You can check out the trailer here: