Screening Room: ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth’

Chad Freidrichs’ 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth challenged some long-unchallenged myths of the debate over public housing, not to mention the systemic racism embedded in some of the more infamous complexes, such as St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe (seen here being demolished in 1972). It is still an incredibly relevant piece of work.

My article on The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is at Eyes Wide Open:

As Freidrichs shows, the lessons supposedly learned from this ignominious episode weren’t entirely wrong but they certainly weren’t all correct, either. As usual, it was the poor and powerless who received the blame, while the powers that be escaping censure and pointing fingers back at those whom they were to have been helping…

You can stream the movie for free this month at Vimeo:

Screening Room: Docs to Watch Out For

Last week’s online edition of the AFI DOCS film festival featured premieres of several documentaries that will be worth keeping your eyes peeled for later in the year when they hit broader release. I reviewed two of them for The Playlist.

  • 9to5: The Story of a Movement (pictured above): “Even in our supposedly more enlightened times, when people hear the word ‘labor,’ they are likely to conjure up a predictable set of mental images: Burly white guys in hard hats…”
  • White Noise: “A queasily riveting documentary that puts the audience far closer than comfort to some of the worst people in the world…”

Screening Room: ‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’

To celebrate Juneteenth, and also to act as a kind of counter-programming for tomorrow’s Trump rally, Dawn Porter’s new documentary about civil rights legend John Lewis (who will be also the subject of a new biography by Jon Meacham coming out this fall) is having a free screening in Tulsa today.

John Lewis: Good Trouble opens elsewhere on July 3. My review is at The Playlist:

Like any successful politician, John Lewis has a supply of anecdotes and applause lines to pull out whenever he is needed. One of the go-to bits we hear in the movie involves a memory from his childhood on a farm where, as a deeply religious and studious boy, he would preach to the family chickens. They would nod along, he says, but could never quite get to “Amen.” He more frequently pulls out a line that serves as his call to action. Arrested dozens of times over his career, Lewis cites the need for people to get into what he calls “Necessary trouble. Good trouble” in order to enact change…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The 2020 edition of the always worthwhile Human Rights Watch Film Festival is going virtual this year, like everything else. It’s a shorter than normal list of documentaries, but still contains some sharp and unforgettable work.

The movies range from Coded Bias (pictured above), which studies the ways white male coders can embed prejudice in seemingly impartial algorithms, to Welcome to Chechnya, a harrowing nonfiction thriller about the activists fighting to get LGBTQ people out of Chechnya before they are tortured and killed, to Radio Silence, a taut story about a Mexico City journalist being hounded by a government that cares more about investigating her than actual criminals.

My coverage of the festival is at PopMatters:

In a time when specialty movie events have been ever more narrowly targeted (festivals devoted to food, puppetry, and so on down the rabbit hole of monomania), the HRWFF went large. It served as a global snapshot of how humanity was faring in the fight to uphold basic standards of freedom and decency for its people. The unsurprising answer tends to be a variant on: Not well…

Screening Room: ‘The Painter and the Thief’

A shapeshifter of a documentary, The Painter and the Thief follows the surprising aftermath of a gallery break-in. After losing two of her paintings in the theft, the artist connects with one of the men who stole them and begins painting him.

The Painter and the Thief opens Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

“The Painter and the Thief” is best not watched by more than one person at the time. After all, it is opening during the pandemic as a ‘Virtual Cinema’ release. This means that if it is watched by multiple individuals, they will most likely be in close and extended confinement. That confinement could become uncomfortable very fast after seeing the movie, which will elicit responses ranging from “That’s incredible” to “What was she thinking?” Director Benjamin Ree (‘Magnus’) has trained his camera on a colorfully chimeric story that will shift in meaning depending on the viewer…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Spaceship Earth’

Spaceship Earth Doc

The new documentary Spaceship Earth opens digitally (like everything else has to now) tomorrow. My review is at The Playlist:

Matching jumpsuits. Soaring white geodesic Fuller domes. Desert setting. Beaming smiles from people who appear not unfamiliar with things like EST seminars and primal scream therapy. Grainy film footage. The sense of embarking on a mission that is technically Earth-bound but holds within it the potential for cosmic transcendence. In other words, the story that lies at the core of Matt Wolf’s documentary “Spaceship Earth” bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dharma Initiative in “Lost”…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Capital in the 21st Century’

Six years ago, a 700–ish-page economics tome by a French academic with a Marxian bent became a surprise bestseller. Now, Capital in the 21st Century is a documentary.

My review is at PopMatters:

Justin Pemberton’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century takes the fundamental arguments of Piketty’s book and presents them in an engaging, visually brisk manner that has the gleaming appeal but somewhat narrow one-sidedness of a TED Talk. The author himself lays out his thesis: Modern capitalism has created a concentration of capital that is ultimately unsustainable. He references the “misery” of communist rule to show that despite his being well-versed in Marxist analysis, he is no doctrinaire Red demanding state control of industry. Rather, he is more interested in laying out a modern history of capital to show how pre-modern economic models, replete with tiny cliques of aristocrats distant from the teeming masses, are reestablishing themselves in our time…

Capital in the 21st Century is available through virtual cinemas starting May 1.

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Still a Big World Out There

I reviewed two great new documentaries for Eyes Wide Open:

Good documentaries tell you a story; the great ones open your eyes. But even the most mediocre nonfiction movies serve a purpose: They provide a snapshot in time for what people in a particular place were doing, thinking, and planning. Or, to use another metaphor, they open a window into lives different than our own…

Screening Room: ‘Slay the Dragon’

The new documentary Slay the Dragon is a timely reminder of the importance of decennial elections because years like this one are when census results can be leveraged by gerrymandering politicians to redraw districts in anti-democratic ways.

My review of Slay the Dragon, which opens On Demand today, ran at PopMatters:

Directors Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman are pursuing two goals with Slay the Dragon. One is a portrait of modern resistance to gerrymandering. The other and perhaps more pertinent is to provide a short modern history of gerrymandering itself. They do this in large part by going to one of the best sources: David Daley’s pungently hard-nosed 2016 expose: Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count. Daley is one of the many experts corralled by the directors to lay out this history…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’

My review of the Ross brothers’ awesome new quasi-documentary (docufiction?) Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which just screened at the Sundance Film Festival, ran at The Playlist:

An improvised Eugene O’Neill ensemble barfly riff wrapped in the construct of a seemingly fly-on-the-wall documentary about the last day at an off-Strip Las Vegas bar, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” pushes the envelope of nonfiction filmmaking in an exciting, immersive, and transporting way…

Screening Room: Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

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‘St. Louis Superman’

The 2020 edition of the Oscar-Nominated shorts program is hitting theaters next week.

My review of the five-part documentary program, nearly all of which are fantastic if sometimes hard to watch, was published at PopMatters:

When assessing a short-film anthology, sometimes a theme presents itself and other times you have to go looking for one. The movies in The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary come from places far and wide, presenting an array of tones and personalities. But the thread that seems to link all of them together is worry that the future will not be an improvement on the problematic present…

Screening Room: ‘Cunningham’

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‘Cunningham’ (Magnolia Pictures)

The new documentary Cunningham does double duty, first telling how pioneering modern-dance choreographer Merce Cunningham built his thrilling body of work in the 1940s and ’50s, and second recreating those dances in colorful 3D.

Cunningham is playing in limited release. My review is at Slant:

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, [director Alla] Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation…

Screening Room: ‘The Kingmaker’

The new documentary about Imelda Marcos (who, yes, is still wielding political clout in the Philippines, makes for fascinatingly unsettling drama in unsettling times.

My review of The Kingmaker, which is in limited release now and will be on Showtime at some point, is at The Playlist:

It is possible, after watching Lauren Greenfield’s fascinating, necessary documentary “The Kingmaker” to believe that Imelda Marcos has so little self-awareness she does not have any idea of the extent of her absurdity. In the opening scenes, we see the onetime Evita Peron of the Philippines riding through Manila in a small bus, bouffant hairdo like a helmet. She doles out cash to people on the street with the wan boredom of a queen while reminiscing about how “in my time” the city had no beggars. Given the thickness of her rose-colored glasses, it does not seem necessary for the filmmaker or viewers to fact check that incredible claim…

Screening Room: ‘On Broadway’

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In Oren Jacoby’s new documentary On Broadway, a host of theater stars and other artists explain just what makes the Great White Way so wonderful. It’s a treat.

On Broadway is making the rounds at film festivals now. My review is at PopMatters:

On Broadway is generally at its best when delivering nuggets of theatrical lore, particularly those involving surprise discoveries. Some are fairly well known, such as how Lin-Manuel Miranda premiered his first number from Hamilton at a White House event before it was even a play. It’s a story worth retelling if only for the curious immediacy of the footage and the laughter that greets Miranda when he informs the audience that he has been working on a rap about … Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton…

Scene of the Day: ‘Instrument’ (1999)

From Jem Cohen’s must-see 1999 documentary on the band Fugazi (you can see the whole movie here), this clip lays audio for their instrumental “Guilford Falls” over a hypnotic, electrifying montage of concert clips from their all-out performance at an anti-apartheid benefit concert: