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: ‘Breaking’

My review of the movie Breaking originally ran earlier in the year after its Sundance premiere when it was still titled 892. It’s getting a limited release now and is worth seeking out, particularly for featuring one of the final performances from the late great Michael K. Williams.

You can read the review at Slant:

Abi Damaris Corbin’s terse and powerful Breaking falls snugly into the genre of film centered around hostage negotiations, but it extends past familiarity with the aim of satisfying more than our thirst for thrills. Based closely on a real incident from 2017, the film tells the story of Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega), a Marine veteran suffering from PTSD who walked into a Wells Fargo bank in an Atlanta suburb and said he would detonate a bomb unless his demand was met. That demand would seem almost comically small in a fictional version of this story: $892 in disability payments that the Department of Veterans Affairs withheld from Easley, which he needed in order to pay off student debt. This is a man looking not to get rich or take revenge, but to get a little shred of his dignity back…

Here’s the trailer:

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:

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: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

In the romantic comedy, Cha Cha Real Smooth, a charismatic-ish slacker (played by writer/director Cooper Raiff) falls for an older woman (Dakota Johnson) while sort of trying to get his post-graduate life together.

Cha Cha Real Smooth has been playing some festivals and will be available on Apple TV this Friday. My review from the Tribeca Film Festival ran at PopMatters and dealt with, in part, the movie’s “bullying need to be liked.”

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: Sundance Film Festival, 2022 Edition

Once again, the Sundance Film Festival (still showing movies virtually) is spreading cheer in an otherwise gloomy month by giving us a glimpse of what is coming our way in the coming year, cinematically. I covered a few of the movies at this year’s festival for Slant here:

  • When You Finish Saving the World (pictured): Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut is a satire with Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard as monumentally clueless narcissists.
  • We Need to Talk About Cosby: W. Kamau Bell’s four-part docuseries digs into the comedic genius and criminal villainy of Bill Cosby and the toxic tangling of the two.
  • Sharp Stick: The latest comedy from Lena Dunham is about a young woman determined to lose her virginity by starting an affair with her older, married employer.
  • Call Jane: Phyllis Nagy’s drama stars Elizabeth Banks as a late-Sixties Chicago housewife who inadvertently becomes part of an underground abortion operation run by activist Sigourney Weaver.
  • 892: A true-life hostage drama starring John Boyega as an Iraq War veteran who threatens to set off a bomb in a bank if his demands against the VA are not met.

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: ‘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…