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: ‘Best of Enemies’

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal think of new insults for each other. (Magnolia)

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal think of new insults for each other. (Magnolia)

In 1968, the third-place network ABC wasn’t sure how to make a splash with its presidential convention coverage. Since they didn’t have much money, they went for a gimmick. Over the course of ten nights, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley would debate the issues of the conventions. Or just throw insults at each other.

Best of Enemies is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

Best of Enemies is a fascinating film about brilliant people behaving stupidly. It would be reassuring in a way to think that in the distant past, there was a time when American intellectuals could duke it out on the public stage before a mass audience held rapt by the sight and sound of ideas being wrestled into coherent form. We know such things don’t happen anymore. How many Americans can even name two intellectuals to have such a debate?…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Amy’

Amy1

One face of ‘Amy’ (A24)

Amy-posterIt’s too early to start really talking Oscars, but if we were, then Asif Kapadia’s moving and unromantic Amy would be a strong contender.

Amy opens in theaters tomorrow; seek it out. You can read my review at Film Racket:

Before becoming a punch line for tabloid-huffing, talkshow-loving misery vampires, Amy Winehouse wasn’t just a star talent, she was a constellation unto herself. Bursting into the moribund pop music scene of the early 2000s with verve and danger, she came on like some savvier Billie Holiday in a field of Auto-Tune tarts. There’s a heavy dose of that briefly blazing performer in Asif Kapadia’s potent, powerful documentary Amy

Here’s the trailer:

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: