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: ‘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: ‘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: ‘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:

Screening Room: ‘Ascension’

Everybody’s hustling in Ascension, an eerie and hard-to-look-away-from documentary about the new China and its headlong rush into a particularly rapacious form of capitalism.

My review is at Slant:

The majority of Ascension is taken up with fly-on-the-wall footage of people at work. Often they’re assembling vast quantities of disposable material, including plastic water bottles and jeans, just a couple steps removed from the landfill. Many of the scenes have a mesmeric quality, helped along by Dan Deacon’s quietly vibrating score. Some, too, suggest that Kingdon could have taken refuge in easy symbolism, a la Godfrey Reggio’s The Qatsi Trilogy, as in the shots of Chinese workers producing Keep America Great patches and creepy sex dolls…

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: ‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’

In Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, documentarian Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) tracks the alt-chef’s rise to fame and his struggle over what to do once he reached the top of the mountain.

Roadrunner opens next week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

The current theatrical landscape in which celebrity culture mixes with foodie nerdism and extreme travel narratives is impossible to imagine without a boundary-crossing hyphenate enthusiast like Bourdain. What is de rigueur now—chefs with tattoos and potty mouths going to faraway lands or little-known domestic dives to eat off-the-beaten path foods—was more or less invented in 2000. That was the year Bourdain blew up the still-staid manner of writing about cuisine with his bestselling behind-the-scenes part-memoir part-manifesto Kitchen Confidential

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: ‘Final Account’

Shot in 2008 in an attempt to capture the voices of the last living Germans who grew up under the Nazis, Final Account is in part a documentary about what happens you find out that, yes, normal-looking senior citizens who took part in a shattering atrocity are perfectly willing to avoid any culpability. It’s harrowing but worth every minute.

My review of Final Account is at Slant:

Holland begins Final Account by intercutting his interviews with color footage of giddy children at play and studying anti-Semitic books. While it can be squirm-inducing to watch ex-Nazis wax rhapsodically about the fun times they had at eugenics-indoctrination classes, it’s also clear that many believe they were at first just going along with it as a way of getting out of the house. In scenes like this, Final Account is particularly effective at showing how the all-encompassing nature of Nazism in 1930s Germany created a propaganda-covered pipeline that funneled these children from fun outings right into the killing machine…

Here’s the trailer: