Screening Room: ‘Retrograde’

The year’s second, and likely more memorable, documentary about the slow-then-fast collapse of the Kabul government in 2021 is Matthew Heineman’s Retrograde. It has played some festivals and should hit theaters and National Geographic before the end of the year.

I reviewed for PopMatters:

Retrograde opens with an eerie pan across distant mountains while American presidents make disembodied pronouncements over 20 years: from George W. Bush’s declaration of the invasion to Donald Trump’s threat that “our commitment is not unlimited” and Joe Biden’s insistence that he would “not repeat the mistakes” of the past. From there, Heineman tracks the end stages of Operation Enduring Freedom (a name ever destined for blackly comedic usage), zeroing in on a dusty outpost in Helmand province…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Escape from Kabul’

The new documentary Escape from Kabul premieres this Wednesday on HBO.

My review is at The Playlist:

Jamie Roberts’ terse, painfully precise documentary “Escape from Kabul” zooms right in on one episode—the massive last-minute airlift of Afghans and remaining American personnel from Kabul in August 2021—and never looks away, even when you might wish that it did. It’s a close-quarters kind of war film that moves in tight and leaves little room to breathe. This seems an appropriate stylistic decision for a movie that is mainly about tens of thousands of people trying to escape a country as it is being reclaimed by medieval fanatics whose promises of equitable treatment were not widely believed…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Story of Film: A New Generation’

A follow-up to his 15-part series on the history of cinema, Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film: A New Generation covers how the movies look in the 21st century (Mad Max: Fury Road to Pedro Costa essay documentaries).

It opens this Friday and is a glorious good time. My review is at Slant:

It’s hard to think of another art form, except maybe the theater, that spends as much time and effort celebrating itself as film. From the That’s Entertainment! anthology to the AFI’s “100” listicle TV specials to the creepy “We Make Movies Better” ad campaign for AMC Theaters featuring Nicole Kidman, the filmmaking industry has long seemed to suffer from an insecurity requiring constant demands from the audience to please, please like it. Fortunately, Mark Cousins’s confidently sprawling new documentary, The Story of Film: A New Generation, feels no need to bang viewers over the head with the insistence that cinema is special, damnit…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘A Compassionate Spy’

A Compassionate Spy is the latest documentary from Steve James (Hoop Dreams). This time, he tells the story of Ted Hall, the most consequential spy at Los Alamos most of us have never heard of. It’s making the festival rounds now and should be released later in the year.

My review is at Slant:

A gentle piece of work that’s about as far away from cloak-and-dagger skullduggery as could be imagined, A Compassionate Spy is in part the story of an idealistic teenager who risked the electric chair in order to keep American hegemony at bay. But even though Ted isn’t a household name, that story was largely told already by interviews Ted gave before his death in 1999 and a 1997 book, Bombshell, whose authors are interviewed here in order to fill in more background detail. Given that, James focuses more intently on Ted’s character and family…

Screening Room: ‘Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC’

The monthly Sound Unseen film series is showing a cool new documentary this week at Trylon Cinema. Danny Garcia’s Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC throws down the gauntlet by arguing that punk really got its start at Max’s Kansas City and not CBGB. For a certain kind of fan, these are fighting words.

My review is at PopMatters:

Garcia’s film is predicated on the belief that Max’s Kansas City was every bit as important to the evolution of art and music as Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon or the Algonquin Round Table. While the argument gets stretched a bit thin from time to time, Nightclubbing has a preponderance of evidence on its side. Among the bands nurtured with lengthy stays at Max’s were the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers, the Stooges, and Alice Cooper. It is hard to imagine a more fertile vortex of glam, garage, avant-garde and proto-punk happening in just the right city at just the right time and place…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Who Killed Vincent Chin?’

The documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?, even though it was Oscar-nominated, is close to impossible to find right now. Fortunately, you can see it next Monday on most PBS stations.

My review is at PopMatters:

Recently restored and added to the National Film Registry, Who Killed Vincent Chin? was originally aired on PBS in 1989 and is being re-broadcast on 20 June to mark the 40th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin. Rarely shown, it is a crucial example of an earlier style of American documentary filmmaking, shorn of leading narration and compiled like a found-footage document whose atmospheric montages say more about the anxieties of the time than any talking head could. An eerie dispatch from the past, its violent riptides feel both distant (being a time when American industrial hegemony still felt like a birthright) and near to home (managing a crisis by scapegoating minorities)…

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: ‘American Pain’

Darren Foster’s new documentary, American Pain, tells the story of a couple of silver-spoon bros from Florida who decided to become drug kingpins. Only, the legal kind who operated in a strip mall.

My review of American Pain, which just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, ran at The Playlist:

If there hadn’t been a body count, Chris and Jeff George’s escapades might have made for a divinely trashy TLC reality show. The brothers had gargantuan appetites, a habit of breaking the law without consequences, a flair for exaggeration, and a knack for spending money as fast as it came in on all the things that would keep a certain kind of viewer coming back: strip club visits, firearms, McMansions, and jacked-up trucks. But as Darren Foster’s American Pain shows in both electrifying and sickening terms, what the Georges did to get all that bling was less larger-than-life roguishness and more cartel boss…

Screening Room: ‘The Janes’

The new documentary The Janes, which has been playing festivals and will start on HBO this Wednesday, is about the underground cadre of activists who helped women have safe abortions in pre-Roe v. Wade Chicago.

My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

A transmission from a foreign-feeling past that could yet also auger what is to come, The Janes is a disarmingly cool and matter-of-fact yet utterly crucial documentary about some of the most daring, radical, and largely unsung heroes ever put onscreen. Many books, movies, and articles have been produced about late 1960s and ’70s breed of grand-standing activists: the Weathermen’s amateur bomb-makers, Yippie pranksters, the Black Panthers’ parading fist-pumpers, and various would-be guerrilla cells staging bank robberies and kidnappings in a haphazard war on the Establishment. But while those theatrics dominated the headlines, the women activists of the Chicago-based Jane Collective pursued a quieter yet likely more impactful campaign for change…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘My Imaginary Country’

My review of Patricio Guzmán’s newest documentary, My Imaginary Country (which screened at the Cannes Film Festival), ran at Slant:

Since the 1973 coup d’état that overthrew Chile’s elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, the legacy of that event has obsessed Patricio Guzmán. From the three-part The Battle of Chile to The Cordillera of Dreams, Guzmán has examined the tragic events of Augusto Pinochet’s coup and the repression that followed it with a jeweler’s eye. His latest documentary, My Imaginary Country, is also haunted by Allende and Pinochet, but this time the filmmaker is covering a completely different rupture in Chile’s fraught history…

Screening Room: ‘Hold Your Fire’

Prior to 1973, there was not a lot of nuance in how the police handled hostage situations. At some point they would lose patience and storm in. As Attica and other tragedies showed, hostages frequently did not survive. The new documentary Hold Your Fire describes a little-remembered siege in Brooklyn from 1973 where the art of hostage negotiation might have been invented.

Hold Your Fire opens in limited release this Friday. My review is at Slant:

With little preamble, Hold Your Fire drops us into the heat of the robbery, then flicks through the resulting drama. Talking-head interviews with Schlossberg, police officers, and some of the robbers and their hostages are interspersed with archival images and video footage captured by news outlets. The footage—of the rattling volleys of gunfire, the rumbling arrival of a police armored personnel carrier, and crowds pressing against barricades and cheering for the robbers—lends a wartime aesthetic of sorts to an urban crime narrative. Through it all, Jonathan Sanford’s squealing jazz-inflected score underlines the chaos of the situation…

Here is the trailer:

TV Room: ‘The Invisible Pilot’

The new HBO documentary miniseries The Invisible Pilot starts on Monday.

My review ran at The Playlist:

Some jobs do not prepare you for much of anything else. Work as a barista and you will know how to make a great latte, perhaps with that cute little leaf in the foam, but that is it. Other jobs provide more marketable skills. The buzzy new three-episode HBO documentary series “The Invisible Pilot,” for example, reveals that being a crop duster was excellent training for anybody looking to set up shop as a drug smuggler. The skill sets are roughly the same—flying heavy loads, often in bad weather, low to the ground, and landing on rough ground—only, when the cargo is illegal drugs, the pay is quite a bit better…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Dean Martin: King of Cool’

If there is a celebrity who defines just how different postwar American culture was from today, it might be Dean Martin. Frequently misremembered as a mere lounge singer who acted in a few movies, Martin defined a certain kind of nightclub cool back when that didn’t mean bottle service.

Tom Donohue’s Dean Martin: King of Cool premiered last week at DOC NYC and is showing now on Turner Classic Movies. My review is at The Playlist:

Donohue’s film is an amiable piece of work about a largely unknowable cipher that traces the biographical outlines of Martin’s life, career, and style in broadly vibrant strokes. It gets closer to the target the deeper it digs underneath that smooth and unflappable entertainer’s carapace. Reaching for the characteristic that defined Martin’s coolness, some interviewees reference the Italian word infischiarsene, which can roughly translate to “not giving a damn”…

Screening Room: ‘The First Wave’

A new documentary from the director of the great Cartel Land depicts the first four months of the pandemic and what it did to one hospital in Queen.

The First Wave is playing as the closing night film for this year’s DOC NYC film festival. My review is at Slant:

Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave is a turbulent and grueling documentary about a time of panic and pathos, and it comes to us about a year and a half after the events that it depicts. To cover the first onslaught of Covid-19 in New York City from March to June 2020, Heineman embedded his crew at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. The footage they captured reveals not just the haggling over personal protective equipment or availability of beds that dominated national news coverage, but the close-up immediacy of nurses and doctors fighting to save patients from a disease that they didn’t fully understand…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time’

Back in the early 1980s, documentary filmmaker Robert B. Weide decided to make a documentary about his literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut. He shot some footage, the two men hit it off, and soon they were good friends. But the closer Weide (who went on to create Curb Your Enthusiasm) got to Vonnegut, the harder it became to finish his movie.

Decades later, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is finally finished, and opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

More a student of comedy than practitioner, Weide has a nerdy on-camera persona that balances well with what he shows of Vonnegut. A cherubic, tipsy-on-his-own-jokes presence, the author is represented here in interviews that Weide shot with him starting in the early 1980s, as well as in clips from talk shows and public speaking engagements. Weide and [his co-director Don] Argott could have easily settled for a film about Vonnegut’s comedic instincts, his ease with irreverent one-liners being one of the reasons that his books are so beloved by a certain kind of puckish adolescent. But they make a worthy effort to pull back the veil on the man and show how a gloomy dissatisfaction brooded underneath his quippy surface personality…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Velvet Underground’

Somewhere in the great cultural ferment of 1960s New York, a band came together that changed the face of rock and roll. Nobody really noticed but other musicians. But to paraphrase the old saying, every one of those musicians who loved the Velvet Underground went off and formed their own band.

My review of Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, playing now on Apple TV+, ran at PopMatters:

To recreate the crashing symphony of experimentation that birthed the Velvet Underground, Haynes turns his documentary into something that looks like it could have been projected on a bedsheet tacked to the wall of a rat-trap art gallery below New York City’s 14th Street. It’s an immersive bricolage of frame-within-frame visuals and overlapping dialogue and audio clips occasionally studded with reminders that you are watching a documentary about a rock ‘n’ roll band when something like “Venus in Furs” comes blasting out of the speakers with a banshee howl…

Here’s the trailer: