Screening Room: DOC NYC 2017

The eighth edition of the DOC NYC film festival starts tomorrow. Among the 250-odd movies screening over about a week and a half are movies about Dutch nationalists, the Russian athletic doping conspiracy, high school dance teams, a cult leader named Father Divine, and CIA experiments with LSD (the last is Errol Morris’ killer four-hour epic Wormwood, image at bottom).

Tomorrow’s opening night movie is The Final Year, a behind-the-scenes look at the last year in office of President Obama’s foreign policy team (that’s them, above) which plays out with unexpected drama against the darkening shroud of Trump’s rocketing rise to the presidency. It’s getting released either later this year or in January and will show up eventually on HBO.

My preview of the goodies on show at DOC NYC is at Film Journal‘s Screener blog:

Today there seems to be a film festival for almost every taste and locality. In addition to the grand dames of the festival circuit like Toronto, Venice, Cannes and Telluride, with their red-carpet premieres and B-list stars getting A-list attention, there are more tightly focused cinematic gatherings, from Los Angeles’ Screamfest to the Ottawa International Animation Festival (both just what they sound like). So it can be refreshing to find a festival that simply wants to show as many amazing movies as possible…

More to follow next week.

Notes: Not All Alternate Histories are Equal

Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why, in quite simple terms, any comparisons between The Man in the High Castle and the upcoming HBO series Confederate don’t hold water:

It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany. The Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.

In one conflict, the defeated acknowledged their loss and paid a price. In the other, the defeated quickly got back to their old tricks. 

In other words, imagining a world where the white Southern racist establishment won may not be far different enough from reality to warrant the term “alternate history.” 

TV Room: ‘The Night Of’

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Riz Ahmed in ‘The Night Of’ (HBO)

night_of-posterA long-in-development, eight-episode miniseries, The Night Of has the heft and snap of that rare crime novel which seems to have been written by somebody who has actually talked to a few cops and crooks in their time. That’s because it’s written by Richard Price, whose gritty, funny novels from The Wanderers to The Whites provide a kind of alternate history of New York.

What’s it about? In short, a good kid from Queens (Riz Ahmed) goes out when he shouldn’t, hangs out with a girl who fairly screams bad news, and ends up in a police station. For murder. John Turturro plays his low-end lawyer with a heart of gold; in a role that James Gandolfini originated not long before his death.

The Night Of is on HBO Sunday nights; check it out. My review is at PopMatters:

The world of cops, judges, and lawyers is one that sorts the people who come within its grasp. That’s at least the case in crime fiction like HBO’s darkly sparkling new noir miniseries The Night Of. It’s generally a binary thing, without much shading…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Vinyl’ Misses a Step With Punk

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The newest Martin Scorsese/Terence Winter series Vinyl is in many ways like their last one, Boardwalk Empire: A pulpy concoction of jagged historical anecdotes thrown into the HBO antihero blender. This time, instead of bootleggers and crooked politicians conniving during Prohibition in a glitzed-up Atlantic City, it’s an origin story for punk (and potentially hip-hop) set in a rotting 1973 New York.

vinyl-posterVinyl is running Sunday nights on HBO. My review of the two-hour Scorsese-directed premiere is at PopMatters:

It’s easy to see what’s grabbing the attention of cocaine-dusted record exec Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) at the concert that bookends the two-hour premiere episode of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s HBO series Vinyl. First, he’s watching the New York Dolls, slashing and burning their way through “Personality Crisis” at the downtown firetrap Mercer Arts Center before a crowd of rangy and be-glittered kids with the look of fervent religious converts. Second, although his company, American Century, seems to have once had a few hits, it’s now a creatively irrelevant laughingstock (nickname: “American Cemetery”) that he’s trying to unload to a cabal of clueless Germans before they realize just how cooked the books really are. His life is unraveling, and his juices are dry (more on that in a minute). The guy needs a fix. Rock and roll is there to save him, for the first time in far too long..

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Entourage’ on the Big Screen

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Four years after HBO’s dude wish-fulfillment series Entourage ground to a generally unloved conclusion, the far-from-inevitable film follow-up comes to a theater near you.

My review is at Film Racket:

If the question of what would happen to the big-dreaming boys from Queens occupied you for one minute after Entourage finished its eighth season in 2011, then Entourage the movie might be your kind of superfluous entertainment. If not, then stay far, far away. After all, this is not a film so much as it is a shrugging “Sure, why the hell not?” afterthought of a media brand extension…

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”

Young Cobain (HBO Films)
Young Cobain (HBO Films)

Even though it was produced in association with Kurt Cobain’s family, the new documentary about his tragically short life has a bracing honesty that makes it required viewing.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is playing now in limited release and also on HBO. My review is at Film Racket:

Brett Morgen’s deft and fascinating documentary about America’s last true rock star is shot through with inevitability. But that never detracts from the raw emotional power of a film made up mostly of Kurt Cobain’s nakedly confessional journals and recordings. The film’s story can’t help but carry a mythic quality. That doesn’t mean that Morgen, working with the authorization of Cobain’s family, created a worshipful monument to genius. It’s true that to appreciate Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, it certainly helps to at least approve of a Nirvana song here and there. But this isn’t a fan’s valentine. At times it feels closer to hate mail from the artist himself…

Here’s the trailer:

On the Media: ‘The Jinx’ and Confessions

thejinx-posterCuriously enough, there is actually a precedent for the news that broke over the weekend with a blockbuster HBO documentary playing an outsized role in an ongoing media sensation of a criminal case.

Decades before Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx played a (as yet not fully clear) role in the arrest of the perennial murder suspect and troubled millionaire Robert Durst, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s true-crime classic Paradise Lost (about the West Memphis Three) bumped up against the realities of an ongoing criminal investigation. While filming the proceedings, Berlinger was given a bloody knife that was similar to the murder weapon:

Berlinger told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on Monday that he immediately went to HBO, and together they decided to turn the knife over to investigators, even though it put their film at risk.

He said he would like to think that he would reach the same conclusion today, but noted the increased pressure to make films as entertaining as possible.

It’s not entirely clear what responsibilities the filmmakers of The Jinx had when confronted with potential evidence of Durst’s culpability some time ago. But the fact that Durst wasn’t arrested until just the day before the miniseries’ last episode on Sunday is being seen by some as a media-manipulated event.

I reviewed the first couple episodes of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst for PopMatters here.