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:

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.

New in Theaters: ‘Happy Valley’

Painting over Jerry Sandusky at the Penn State mural in 'Happy Valley' (Music Box Films)

Painting over Jerry Sandusky at the Penn State mural in ‘Happy Valley’ (Music Box Films)

The newest documentary from Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) is another troubling story about an insular culture reacting with fury to a scandal that threatens their self-created mythology.

I reviewed Happy Valley as part of the DOC NYC festival. It’s opening this week in limited release; my review of Happy Valley (as well as the D.C. punk documentary Salad Days, which also screened at DOC NYC) is at PopMatters:

If Amir Bar-Lev’s superb Happy Valley is any indication, the arguments in the Penn State community over the Jerry Sandusky scandal will not be ending anytime soon. As with most scandals that flare into the national consciousness amid intersecting nodal points of volatility (regional identity, sexual crimes, sports), what actually happened ultimately has little to do with how it plays out with public opinion. Just so, the film sidelines some of the who-what-when to examine the lingering dust clouds of disappointment, rage, and conspiratorial invective…

Here’s the trailer: