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: ‘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: ‘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: ‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’

In 1973, director Peter Medak (The Ruling Class) and Peter Sellers set off to Cyprus to shoot the rollicking pirate comedy Ghost in the Noonday Sun. Everything fell apart and the movie only limped onto home video over a decade later to widespread derision.

Decades later, Medak returns to the scene of the crime to describe what happened. The Ghost of Peter Sellers is opening next week for online screening.

My review is at PopMatters:

The Ghost of Peter Sellers is a highly personal and somewhat airless account from Medak about an event that happened over 40 years ago whose painful memory he still seems unable to process. Walking through London and the shooting locations in Cyprus with a rotating cast of friends and former colleagues, Medak acts the part of self-investigator. He’s like a self-flagellating version of John Cusack’s Rob Gordon in High Fidelity

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: ‘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: ‘Cunningham’

Cunningham
‘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’

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…