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:

Screening Room: ‘A Glitch in the Matrix’

The new documentary by Rodney Ascher (Room 237) takes a simple idea and runs with it: What if The Matrix was real and we were all living in a computer simulation?

My review of the Sundance premiere of A Glitch in the Matrix ran at The Playlist:

Viewers looking for a hair-splitting Talmudic dissection of “The Matrix” akin to Ascher’s weird and weirdly great “Room 237”—which studied the … interesting individuals who found symbolic importance in every nuance of Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining”—will be disappointed. Keanu Reeves’ 1999 karate-hacker flick remains, of course, as timeless as ever, and certainly receives a close examination here. But Ascher is looking more at the broader phenomenon of people who have literally taken the movie’s proposition that reality is nothing more than a computer simulation. However, they are not unified around thinking that evil A.I. overlords have enslaved humanity…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Night Stalker’

My review of the new Netflix true-crime series Night Stalker ran at Slant:

Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, a four-part series about Richard Ramirez, the sadistic serial rapist and murderer who terrorized the citizens of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the mid-1980s, is dramatically satisfying but structurally rote. Director Tiller Russell glosses the story over with more cinematic panache than you might see on 48 Hours, all straight from the Southland-noir template, including eerie tracking shots of a full moon behind dark palm trees and Michael Mann-ish overhead views of nighttime highways. But despite a story filled with big-hearted good guys, a depraved villain, and an edge-of-your-seat finale, the series feels overly pat and formulaic…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Mayor’

In David Osit’s new documentary Mayor, the titular official in the Palestinian city of Ramallah must find a way to navigate the challenges of running a city under occupation.

Mayor is playing now in virtual cinemas. My review is at The Playlist:

As a purposeful push-back against the cliches of Israel-Palestinian conflict coverage, “Mayor” succeeds to a degree. Osit intentionally loads the film with serene montages of city life that have nothing to do with the occupation, war, or terrorism. Instead, we see Parisian-style cafes, streets strung with holiday lights, a strobe-lit nightclub, a music-synchronized water fountain that looks like a mini-Bellagio, a knockoff coffee shop called Stars and Bucks, a meeting about municipal branding, and what appears to be a generally prosperous and quiet middle-class city…

Here’s the trailer:

Screning Room: ‘Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan’

Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan catches the Pogues’ frontman late in life, looking back over decades of carousing and poetizing from the stage. It opens next week.

My review is at Slant:

MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Zappa’

The new documentary from Alex Winter (Showbiz Kids) uses a deep dive into Frank Zappa’s voluminous to present a richly three-dimensional portrait of an artist who is lionized or dismissed in almost equal amounts.

Zappa opens virtually this Friday. My review is at Slant:

As a rock star who most people have heard of but couldn’t identify one of his songs, Frank Zappa had a somewhat perverse relationship to fame. The Zappa who comes through in Alex Winter’s appreciative but sometimes cutting documentary that bears the iconoclast’s name held the music industry in almost as much contempt as he did many of his fans. More than once during its 126-minute runtime, Zappa suggests that for the musician concerts weren’t opportunities to commune with like-minded souls, but, rather, extended rehearsal sessions that just happened to include people who weren’t in his band.

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Wojnarowicz’

In Chris Kim’s new documentary on David Wojnarowicz, he paints a vivid portrait of the artist in the tumult of the 1970s-80s New York art scene, where he was almost less making art than fighting for survival. My review of Wojnarowicz is at The Playlist:

Like many artists who built the scaffolding of the underground New York art world in the 1970s, Wojnarowicz was enamored of outlaw writers like Genet, Rimbaud, and Burroughs. (One of his earliest series involved self-portraits at various places in New York wearing a mask made from a portrait of Rimbaud.) When he started producing his own work—photography, painting, and writing—it drew on those writers’ outsider sensibility, mixing anger and dislocation with unapologetically aggressive sexuality. It was hardly surprising that Wojnarowicz would later become the target of homophobic conservative crusaders; Rimbaud never had to defend receiving NEA funding…

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…

TV Room: ‘City So Real’

The latest documentary project from the great Steve James (Hoop Dreams) is a five-part miniseries that tracks the tumult of a Chicago mayoral campaign.

City So Real is streaming now on Hulu. My review is at The Playlist:

It’s a noble, heartfelt, and eye-opening look at the American city, matching the scope of Frederick Wiseman’s recent scoping of a similarly fractious Boston in “City Hall,” but giving it more of a warmly human pulse…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Belushi’

For a few years in the 1970s, John Belushi was one of if not the biggest name in American comedy. Then he blew it all up.

The new Showtime documentary Belushi tells the story in dramatic, well-rounded fashion. My review is at The Playlist:

“Belushi” can be seen as something of a riposte to Bob Woodward’s 1984 biography “Wired.” The book is seen by people in Belushi’s circle as a cold, scathing, and exploitative take on their friend’s drug-related death in 1982 that ignores his talent and warmth. Cutler’s version is definitely sympathetic and somewhat of a family affair; resembling at times nothing so much as an Irish wake…

Screening Room: ‘Kingdom of Silence’

In Rick Rowley’s documentary Kingdom of Silence, a bevy of diplomats, security experts, and fellow writers come forward to tell the story of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered by the Saud royal family after his critical columns in the Washington Post.

My review of Kingdom of Silence, which starts on Showtime tonight, ran at The Playlist:

While Khashoggi’s presence brings an unusually impactful human touch—particularly the aching style of his writing, read in soulful beats during a few more mournful segments that seem to carry in them all the tragedy and thwarted promise of the modern Middle East—where “Kingdom of Silence” is most effective is using his story as a personal mirror to the geopolitical dramas that crash all through this movie…

Here’s the trailer: