Screening Room: ‘The Power of the Dog’

The newest film from Jane Campion is a somewhat tortured and brooding but still surprising drama set on the high plains where Benedict Cumberbatch makes a surprisingly believable rancher.

The Power of the Dog is playing on the festival circuit right now in what looks like a pretty certain play for the Oscars before being released on Netflix in December. My review is at Slant:

Nobody is where they should be in The Power of the Dog, and everybody seems to be searching for something, somebody, or somewhere else. Set in 1925 Montana, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 book tracks the obsessions, miseries, and passions of a group of people who inhabit a cavernous house in the middle of a vast ranchland and make each other miserable until blood is finally shed. The film looks at times like a stiff-jawed period piece, but it ripples underneath with a prickly modern sensibility…

The trailer is here:

Screening Room: ‘Encounter’

The new thriller Encounter is perhaps not the most original genre movie you are going to see this or any year. But as seems to keep happening, it is more than worth your time for the lead performance from the ever-underestimated Riz Ahmed.

Encounter is slated for release on Amazon in early December. My review from the Toronto International Film Festival ran at Slant:

As alien invasions go, the one that opens Michael Pearce’s Encounter is fairly low-key. Bright meteor-like flashes cut across the night sky. Close-up shots of squirming insects and human bloodstreams infected with clouds of swarming parasites suggest a quietly multiplying bug menace. But what Pearce doesn’t show is made up for in the fervid imagination of his raggedy, impassioned protagonist, Malik (Riz Ahmed), who’s frantically planning to go off the grid to get away from whatever the meteors have delivered to Earth…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Becoming Cousteau’

The new Liz Garbus documentary about Jacques Cousteau just played at the Telluride Film Festival and will likely get at least a brief theatrical run later in the year before showing on National Geographic.

My review is at The Playlist:

A pleasantly beautiful, if sometimes flatly rendered film, “Becoming Cousteau” serves as a solid introduction to now somewhat-forgotten man who not so long ago was one of the world’s most beloved figures. Garbus starts in the 1930s, when Cousteau was a dashing French naval officer who discovered his love of deep-water diving while recovering from the car accident that sidelined his hopes of becoming a pilot. A man of sudden passions, Cousteau was so smitten by the sea that he confided to his journal (the text voiced by Vincent Cassel) that his life would be dedicated to “underwater exploration.” His young wife, Simone Melchior, was herself smitten not just with the open water (her family lineage was lousy with admirals) but also with this passionate, bright-eyed, hawk-nosed lean slip of a man who “smelled like the sea”…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘All the Streets are Silent’

Jeremy Elkin’s new documentary, All the Streets are Silent: The Convergence of Hip Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997) is playing now in limited release.

My review is at PopMatters:

At the risk of stoking the embers of East and West Coast rivalry, it seems self-evident that when it came to incubating subcultures in the late 20th century, New York has it over Los Angeles every single time. When artists wanted to chill out under the palm trees, maybe take a few meetings, they winged out to the Southland. But no matter how grungy Venice Beach might have been in the 1980s or spookily desolate LA’s downtown looked, the half-abandoned pre-war grid of downtown Manhattan was where culture was born…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Enemies of the State’

Enemies of the State opens in limited release this Friday. My review is at Slant:

Sonia Kennebeck’s murky, labyrinthine documentary would seem to be another entry in the tradition of heroic whistleblower narratives popularized by filmmakers like Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) in the early 2010s. Its story is centered around Matt DeHart, a former Indiana Air National Guard drone team member and professed Anonymous- and WikiLeaks-affiliated hacktivist who claims to have been interrogated and tortured by the F.B.I. because of classified government documents in his possession…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘A Choice of Weapons’

In John Maggio’s documentary A Choice of Weapons, the photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks dazzles not only as a groundbreaking artist but as a continuing inspiration to younger photojournalists.

A Choice of Weapons played at the Tribeca Festival and is coming to HBO later this year. My review is at Slant:

Born in 1912 and raised on a Kansas farm, Parks lived by his wits and talents (which included playing piano in a Minneapolis brothel) before finding photography. A stint at the Farm Security Administration in 1942 resulted almost accidentally in a stark, Dorothea Lange-esque series about black cleaning woman Ella Watson. One of the portraits, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., which showed her standing dourly in front of an American flag inside the FSA, was considered so politically incendiary that it almost got Parks fired…

Screening Room: ‘The Lost Leonardo’

Andrea Koefoed’s new documentary The Lost Leonardo, which just screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a fascinating look at the mania surrounding a (possibly) rediscovered painting by da Vinci.

My review is at Slant:

While the intersection of hype, art, and money is fertile territory and Koefoed makes the most of it, he misses the opportunity to look more deeply at the somewhat mediocre painting itself and whether it deserved the fairly laughable billing as the “male Mona Lisa.” Aside from a couple very justifiable questions about whether Modestini went too far in her five-year restoration—possibly making it more a Modestini than da Vinci—aesthetic matters are mostly put to the side, with Koefoed more engaged with the business surrounding the art…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: DOC NYC 2020

Starting tomorrow and running for a week, this year’s all-virtual edition of the annual non-fiction film festival DOC NYC is showing over a hundred documentaries, including the ones very likely to be nominated for Oscars. There are movies about crooked cops, Timothy Leary (above), the FBI’s war on the civil rights movement, amoral but charismatic PR flacks, and the scariest movie of 1983. All in all, quite good stuff.

My coverage is up at PopMatters:

So, like most film festivals, DOC NYC 2020 is now all-virtual. (And, no, the virtual experience is not the same as being in a buzzing crowd waiting with bated breath to catch the next Frederick Wiseman, rather than just cueing it up on your laptop. Participating in this annual event person is the documentary equivalent of seeing a movie in Cinemascope rather than on VHS.)

Unlike some other fests, though, the DOC NYC bookers do not appear to have trimmed their sails. They are showing 107 feature documentaries, plus dozens of shorts and events, over eight jam-packed days. Since virtual delivery has made the idea of opening and closing night movies somewhat pointless, it’s now more of a buffet, with viewers free to decide what they think are the most noteworthy entries…

Screening Room: Toronto International Film Festival

Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures)

Pandemic or no, awards season must go on. So it was that this year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival launched another clutch of buzzy movies, only this time via streaming and some outdoor screenings (much like how the New York Film Festival is incorporating drive-ins to their pandemic screening efforts). Even though nobody is really going to movie theaters right now, if we were, there would be some really impressive flicks to check out, come December. Here’s a few that I was able to see.

Nomadland — Frances McDormand stars in Chloe Zhao’s story about a woman drifting through a rootless America of van-dwellers and odd-jobbers. Already getting hyped for best director/picture/actress. Review at Slant.

The Way I See It — Feel-good documentary about former White House photographer Pete Souza and his attempts to satirize Donald Trump’s presidency simply by posting old pics of Barack Obama to remind people what a true president acts like. Review at Slant.

MLK/FBI — Gripping and potentially controversial documentary about the FBI’s campaign against Martin Luther King, Jr. which actually delves into some of the more disturbing accusations. Lot of interest in this, deservedly so, though may not hit theaters until January 2021. Review at Slant.

76 Days — Heart-wrenching documentary that covers the 76-day COVID lockdown in Wuhan through up-close coverage inside a hospital being pushed to the edge. May get overlooked but worth finding. Review at The Playlist.

One Night in Miami — Regina King’s imperfect but still highly impressive story of four men (Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke) hanging out and hashing over the politics and crises of the day in 1964 could be a late favorite in the awards race.

City Hall — The latest Frederick Wiseman is another lengthy (4 1/2 hours) documentary about an American institution. This time he showcases the ins and outs of Boston’s municipal government, tracking all the bickering, horse-trading, complaining, and down-right idealism that goes into the urban mix. Demands your attention but rewards it.

Poster of the Day: New York Film Festival

Courtesy of the inimitable John Waters, here is the poster for the upcoming New York Film Festival:

The fest starts on September 17. Here’s the full schedule.

Of course, with virtual screenings and some drive-in shows, it is not precisely a “festival.” But hey, better than adding another series to your Hulu queue that you will never, ever watch.

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: 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: ‘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: ‘On Broadway’

onbroadway1

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…