Screening Room: ‘Epicentro’

In Hubert Sauper’s new documentary Epicentro, he explores the in-between world of Cuba, where utopian dreams meet cinematic propaganda amidst rotting infrastructure and tourist fantasia. It makes for a fascinating mix, even if the result is more essay than movie.

My review is at Slant:

Epicentro explores some of the filmmaker’s favorite topics, particularly colonialism, apocalypse, and the law of unintended consequences. But while some of his previous films, most notably Darwin’s Nightmare, showed a developing world careering toward catastrophe, this one illustrates something closer to a feedback loop. Although the Cuba he shows here is actively embracing a tourist economy that seems antithetical to the ideals of the 26th of July Movement, that pivot appears to signal less a capitalist future than a return to the island nation’s colonized past…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Coup 53’

The crackerjack documentary Coup 53 opens this week, with a revealing new angle on the infamous Anglo-American overthrow of Iran’s democratic government in 1953.

My review is at Slant:

When something is an open secret, does confirmation matter? Coup 53, director Taghi Amirani’s crackling, if somewhat hyperbolic, documentary about the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh during a 1953 coup d’état, argues loudly in the affirmative. Amirani spends too much of the film recounting his dogged years-long pursuit of this or that document in trying to affirm British involvement in what was usually described as a C.I.A.-led operation. But once he finds the goods, the filmmaker engineers a highly dramatic coup of his own that snaps everything into focus: a long-buried interview in which MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire details with petulant pride how His Majesty’s Government demolished a functioning democracy that wouldn’t play ball…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Apocalypse ’45’

In the new documentary Apocalypse ’45, director Erik Nelson mixes gloriously restored color footage from the Pacific Theater during World War II to illustrate the memories of veterans who witnessed some of that harrowing conflict. It makes for a beautiful and shivery experience.

My review is at PopMatters:

Nelson is paying homage to a vanishing generation of soldiers and includes their yearning for a time when it seemed the US could still unify around a cause. Still, this is not a burnished Veterans Day nostalgia reel. “Golden Gate in ’48, bread line in ’49” is how one Marine remembers their attitudes about how long it would take for the war to end and what would become of them immediately afterward. “Greatest generation,” humphs another when asked about the label, “Goddamn propaganda”…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Con’

In the five-part miniseries The Con, the filmmakers lay out a convincing case that the causes behind the Great Recession were far simpler, easily avoidable, further reaching, and more likely to repeat themselves than most stories of the crisis have previously said.

The Con is available for streaming now.

My review is at The Playlist:

The series provides a grand unified theory of the cause of the Great Recession that begins and ends with government—deregulating banks in the 1980s and ‘90s, refusing to imprison or even charge the heads of investment banks once the market imploded even after seemingly clear illegality, and bailing the institutions out to do it all over again—and fueled all along by a gusher of greed and criminality that makes it seem like there is not a single honest mortgage broker in the entire United States…

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…