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.
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…
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…
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.
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”…
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…
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.
The 55th New York Film Festival started up last week and runs through October 15. It remains to be seen just how much of a bellwether it will be for showcasing the year’s most likely award contenders. But so far, it’s off to a strong start. Here’s some reviews of what’s been showing so far:
The Florida Project (pictured above; opens in theaters October 6) — Kids run rampant in a down-at-the-heel Florida motel in the shadow of Disneyworld in this Oscar-likely bittersweet comedy with Willem Dafoe from the director of Tangerine. Review here.
No Stone Unturned — Suspenseful true-crime documentary from the director of Going Clear and Zero Day about a long-unsolved politically motivated multiple murder in Northern Ireland. Review here.
The Rape of Recy Taylor — This bluesy, ghostly documentary uses a harrowing decades-old crime for a powerful look at racial and sexual exploitation in the Old South. Review here.
Two of the award-winning narrative films at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival didn’t quite fit the fest’s usual mold. Neither Zero Motivation (which won for best narrative feature) or Gueros (best cinematography) were the usual small, tightly-focused chamber-piece dramas. Both had large ambitions that might have outstripped their abilities, but were thrilling nonetheless.
Zero Motivation is a deft Israeli comedy set in a military post’s administrative office that’s most easily described as a mash-up of M*A*S*H* and Office Space, with a little surrealism thrown into the mix:
Sullen whiner Daffi is so resistant to doing anything of value that she’s been designated “Paper Shredding NCO;” a position at which she fails miserably. All she cares about is transferring to cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, which holds an exalted a position in her mind. The kibbutz-raised Zohar doesn’t understand Daffi’s desire, and finds her own distractions, channeling her energy into desperately trying to lose her virginity. They kill more time with an epic staple-gunfight and general slackness. In other words, these are barely soldiers you would trust to carry live ammunition, much less defend a nation’s borders…
The Mexican film Gueros is a sprawling, black-and-white, French New Wave-inspired ramble through Mexico City:
Even with its striking compositions and embrace of visual disorder, Güeros gets hung up on its own cleverness. The longer it ambles on, the more it takes on the feel of a string of short films mashed together. A midpoint breaching of the fourth wall (we see a clapper, and one actor talks out of character regarding his opinions on the screenplay so far) doesn’t serve much purpose. Neither does Sombra’s declamation on the state of Mexican film: “They grab a bunch of beggars and shoot in black and white and think they’re making art movies.” Enough moments like that, and the film begins to take on an unfortunate tone of self-satisfaction. There’s beauty here, though, that portends greater things in Ruizpalacios’s future…
Hopefully these wins will lead to both films getting at least a limited American release and enlivening what’s been a fairly limited slate of foreign films that made it to these shores so far this year.