Growing up, my mom scolded me for eating food too fast. “Chew before you swallow, there’s no reason to rush,” and so on. She used to say that not giving myself the time to properly ingest a meal would make my body feel like it wasn’t, and that I’d only be hungry later on (she was right, of course).
I imagine she’d bring the same criticisms to “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles,” a new documentary that questionably insists on shuffling through a buffet of cross-stitched topics with such haste that we’re left starved for substance. Pick your metaphor—”Cakes of Versailles,” from director Laura Gabbert, doesn’t do its due diligence in carefully measuring out individual ingredients, and so the whole thing comes out underbaked after 75 minutes. It’s hard to make a documentary about food this unappetizing, no matter how delicious it all looks in passing.
We’re quickly approaching 10 years with “The Social Network,” David Fincher’s enduring dawn-of-the-digital-age story that continues to prove its prescience as Big Tech bigwigs make the trek from Silicon Valley to Washington D.C. for congressional hearings. You might be familiar with the widespread clamoring for a necessary sequel, an inevitability-turned-in-joke that some would like to think is necessary to confirm what Fincher and Aaron Sorkin were prophesizing about tech bros conspiring in fancy meeting rooms with the fate of information flow in their hands.
Even if we never get “The Social Network 2,” Netflix might have provided us with the closest thing to a spiritual successor. “The Social Dilemma,” a mighty uneasy new documentary now available on the streamer, has some funny, unexpected parallels to Fincher’s film, from the reflective nature of its title to the grim implications of unchecked ego to the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross-lite electrosoundtrack that simmers it all. But “The Social Dilemma” also has a playfulness and a causticity that go hand in hand. And it’s when the doc morphs from familiar don’t-check-your-phone-at-the-dinner-table lecture into an urgent appeal for understanding how our attention has become commercial product that “The Social Dilemma” begins to feel mighty important. The movie fully understands that “dilemma” may be too generous a descriptor for our times.
Cinema is described as many things in the challenging and compellingly conceived new documentary “Epicentro”: The machine of dreams, magic, tourism, witchcraft, war-winning, world-changing. In the latest work from Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper, the medium is both something to interrogate and something to marvel at (and sometimes the same subjects do both). But it isn’t until we start to consider the intentions of those behind the scenes as much as what those scenes depict that we begin to get closer to the foundational question “Epicentro” seeks to unpack as Sauper takes his camera through the streets, homes and beaches of 21st-century Cuba.
What he finds, through conversations of intimate candor and urgent appeal, is a nation that continues to be at odds with how history has shaped it. You could say that the film debates itself on the power and potential of the camera, but Sauper’s portrait feels as graceful as it is incisive. Synchronizing harmoniously with vivid flashes of Havana life, “Epicentro” (the Spanish title translates to what you expect) focuses on the intersection of identity, history and the moving image itself in observing how historic forces have brought the island nation to the point it finds itself at now, largely by remaining where it was at the moment of initial American intervention over 100 years ago. At the same time, Sauper’s central inquiry comes into view: Who affixes the lens through which history is viewed?
“Our masculinity shall not be infringed!” So proclaims a teenaged, blonde-haired boy to roaring applause in “Boys State,” and you’d be forgiven if the moment gives you whiplash, along with tinges of awe, amazement and uneasy skepticism. We can imagine another much more well-known blonde-haired politician a few decades his senior saying the same thing as he walks through the White House
For an annual conference of passionate junior politicos which can call prominent bureaucrats like Dick Cheney and Cory Booker alums, there’s little explicit talk of future aspirations in “Boys State,” a marvelous Sundance award-winning documentary that hits Apple TV+ Friday. The opening minutes see a Ronald Reagan action figure being proudly shown off, but Donald Trump’s name is mentioned two, maybe three times. “Washington” is heard even more scarcely.
That’s all by design in this enthralling and thoroughly engaging documentary, about a group of high school Texas boys who converge on Austin into create their own mock government. The film, shot in the summer of 2018 by co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, is a masterclass of implication, and bursts with relevant dot-connecting about the flaws in our modern democratic systems—even when the doc begins to suggest that they’re not flaws so much as tenets. The teenagers’ week-long crash course in gubernatorial process becomes our microscope into backdoor political maneuvering and front-stage bickering.
To tell others’ stories, we must first listen to others’ stories—that has been a maxim, the maxim, for as long as there have been stories to pass down. And it seems to have served both as very personal motivation and inquisitive destination for Shawn Kelly in his filmmaking debut, “My Father’s Brothers”—a simple Vietnam War documentary that tells a valiant story without fuss or frills, without marvelous revelation or impossible-to-recapture observation. Just an intent to listen.
We hear from Shawn Kelly directly, but first from his father, Jack Kelly Sr., who thrusts us into the uncertainty of being a soldier in Vietnam before reaching legal U.S. drinking age over stitched-together archival footage. Things are a bit disorienting at first; you may find yourself struggling to stay afloat amid the barrage of military jargon being thrown our way. Shawn interjects before long with a preamble of sorts, explaining that while he always knew his father was in Vietnam, he was never privy to the particulars. In fact, he thought his father’s military role extended to a desk job.
Not so—Jack Kelly Sr. didn’t have a pencil in his hands but a rifle. “My Father’s Brothers” is the result of Shawn learning the details of his dad’s Vietnam War experience – more specifically a harrowing and bloody ambush that killed many of his friends – as it was initially divulged over a family vacation, when the director finally decided to ask. “You took your parents for granted,” Shawn says, using his own perspective to give voice to a universal attribute of youth. “My Father’s Brothers” seems, more than anything, like one person’s attempts to fill that blind spot. But intimate motivation ends up being buried under recitation of history. A story is told here, but I’m not convinced that a story is explored.
The first words uttered in “Higher Love” come from an unseen radio or podcast host proclaiming that “Camden is, for the rest of the country, a shithole.” The statement zeroes us in on what cityscape we’re gracefully observing from the night sky and will explore over the next 80 minutes. But the truth is the dingy street corners, haggard lots of overgrown weeds and cramped apartments that this solid (if slightly aimless) documentary on the drug overdose epidemic invites us into could belong to any American city—specifically, the parts of them left behind to corrode away under ever-widening socioeconomic gaps and consequences of negligence.
Hasan Oswald’s first movie – part of the 2020 San Antonio Film Festival’s lineup – is a dependable and narrowly focused diorama of drug addiction in urban America. “Dependable” is an adjective that doesn’t have to do much heavy lifting here; the stories Oswald captures don’t garner groundbreaking insight so much as the dreadfully familiar cycles of surrender to the needle, vocalizations of self-defeat and false starts on self-improvement that we’ve seen played out in all manner of storytelling from “60 Minutes” special to awards-bait Hollywood production (Remember “Beautiful Boy”?). We, of course, can’t hold that against Oswald—if there’s one thing the filmmaker gets across with his occasionally devastating observations in “Higher Love” (yes, he makes good use of the title’s double entendre) it’s that the possibility we’ll become numb to headlines of lower-class families destroyed by the influence of drugs is exactly the reason we need to continue seeing these stories, getting to know these people, sympathize with their struggles.
The struggles we see in Oswald’s movie are largely endured by Daryl and Nani, two Black residents of Camden, New Jersey for whom the latter’s need to throw her heroine dependence has never been more urgent—she’s expecting a child. They’ve been dealing with the effects of drugs on their relationship for so long that when we meet Daryl while searching for Nani in Camden’s run-down neighborhoods early on, it’s obvious it’s not the first time (and perhaps not the tenth) they’ve been through this. Oswald cuts from Daryl’s here-we-go-again eyes scoping out every alley to Nani barely able to keep her eyes open while she gets high and vents about her partner’s constant surveillance; it’s an engrossing way to start the movie, one whose structure is otherwise formal from here on out.
“If I wasn’t getting high, I’d probably be living it up right now,” the pregnant Nani confesses in tired croaks to the camera, to herself or to both. That serves well enough as the thesis of this sleekly shot and intimately rendered documentary, one that’s more interested in personal and interpersonal reckonings on self-control than in doing any exploring of the institutional causes of a drug crisis that killed 702,000 Americans between 1999 and 2017.
The film oscillates between spending individual time with Daryl and Nani as well as observing them interact with each other over the course of their journey. Promises of change are exchanged and thoughts wondered out loud about whether or not they’re taken seriously. We at times find ourselves thinking the same thing about the images that Oswald captures, and whether or not they cross a line into exploitation. Nani makes for a tormented subject – the kind of central figure these documentaries require – and more than once there’s nothing to do but watch her proclaim one intent while acting out another.
Daryl is by no means a saint either; his vice – at first alluded to before we see it for ourselves – is the bottle. And when we watch him work through the last drops of alcohol in one scene, just as disengaged and prone to slurring his words as Nani is when she gets high, “Higher Love” cuts to a familiar message with candor and clarity: Substance abuse is just a drop that leads to ripples of harm for the ones we care about the most.
Though “Higher Love” leaves empty some psychological crevices for deeper probing, it’s able to convey how users’ loved ones grapple with their roles in recovery—and the fallout of if they choose to leave when the burden’s become too much to bear. If the movie’s first half is about confrontation, it’s more interesting second half is about recognition, and finally action. Yet the parts of “Higher Love” that most immediately demand our attention are when Oswald captures the firestorms of curses and accusations and suppressed turmoil that erupt between boyfriend and girlfriend, father and son, brother and sister. The implosions are subtle.
And sometimes, regrettably, they’re not. One no-holds-barred moment is suppressed of its raw discomfort when, as Nani inserts a needle into her vein, “Higher Love” awkwardly overlays background audio of her child’s screams despite him being nowhere nearby. It’s a strange decision, as if Oswald was uncertain we’d understand the stakes. Elsewhere, the director employs a pair of kaleidoscopic montages that flash through images of law enforcement, funeral services, community sights and passionate spoken word, briefly pulling the lens much further back than Oswald has signaled he intends to. The sojourns are exhilarating, but last perhaps less than two minutes of screen time—so the emotion that lingers is confusion at how out of place they are in this version of a real-life drug addiction story. The sequences certainly indicate a bolder form of the genre than Oswald otherwise molds “Higher Love” into.
In one of the doc’s most transfixing moments, one of Nani’s so-called “get-high buddies” unleashes a monologue about togetherness, her words bordering on the philosophical. Documentaries naturally force us to consider the extent to which words and decision are informed by the presence of the camera that may turn a private space into a stage; here, that debate feels moot. As she outwardly laments the idea of getting high without Nani by her side, I was overtaken by an evergreen sentiment that rings clear despite the movie’s eventual untidy ending: Everyone is worthy of redemption. But they need to realize that for themselves.
In the current age of instantaneous headlines that become outdated by the time you refresh your Twitter timeline, there’s something to be said for how the #MeToo movement has prolonged its relevance beyond the 24-hours news cycle, let alone kept its feet firmly in the national consciousness over two years after the first stories broke. But even as it has achieved some measure of justice – most notably the imprisonment of Harvey Weinstein – we may fool ourselves into thinking that any individual #MeToo story that is shared has the same contextual parameters as the one before it, and the one that will come after it, and the one that will come after that one.
It’s the binary belief that #MeToo is as simple as he said, she said that “On the Record,” a resounding and vital new documentary from longtime filmmaking partners Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, seeks to dispel—namely by focusing on Black women in the entertainment industry who have been through enough, read enough and know enough about each others’ experiences under the predatory gaze of male superiors to know that their words don’t mean nearly the same thing as they would coming from a white woman. And that’s if they decide to speak at all. Continue reading →
Far from the traditional headline-driven, floating-head-filled, watch-your-step kind of documentary that was his last film, 2016’s “Magnus,” the new effort from Benjamin Ree is simultaneously messier and more remarkable—an act of improvisation that finds the Norwegian director rarely thinking three steps ahead about what to extrapolate from the tantalizing odyssey he’s entrenched himself. Luckily for him, and us, the central bond teased in the title of “The Painter and the Thief” – as well as the intonations of redemption, art and redemption through art that come of it – is a reservoir just deep enough to quench Ree’s real-time search for purpose, like an artist unsure on how to complete his drawing before stumbling into the keystone stroke of his pencil.
If “The Painter and the Thief” (acquired by Neon at this year’s Sundance Festival, and launching on digital platforms this weekend) abides by genre expectations in just one regard, it’s how the premise could never have been accepted with a straight face as a work of fiction. A pair of massive paintings have been stolen, two of the Czech artist’s most valuable, we learn.
And upon the arrest of one of the thieves involved (sans painting), the artist, Barbora Kysilkova, makes a request at once inexplicable and ready-made for a documentary: For the thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland, to swing by her place so she can draw him. Upon viewing the final work, Nordland – sporting a body full of tattoos and a quietly mysterious affect – loses his speech and breaks down, as if he’d never looked at himself in the mirror before. Nordland and Kysilkova embrace; a relationship with strange beginnings and stranger developments delivers affecting resolution. Continue reading →
In theory, “Spaceship Earth” – a new documentary from Neon that begins streaming on Hulu and other VOD platforms this weekend – is a perfectly appropriate watch for our ongoing period of social distancing and unexpected newfound self-sufficiency. The idea of watching eight people physically confined to the inner spaces (albeit willingly, and not for reasons stemming in a global pandemic) of Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert – while growing their own crops and finding new dimensions to their relationships with limited opportunity to venture very far away from each other – might draw alluring parallels to how we’re living today. We might even look to director, and seasoned documentarian, Matt Wolf’s latest film for insights, perspective or answers time capsule’d from 1991, when this real-life sci-fi venture begins. After all, while that group of eight may have been inside for a mind-boggling two years, at least they know for certain how much time is left on the clock.
It’s also tempting to think that hypothesis of how “Spaceship Earth” will unfold might have been the movie Wolf actually made, had it been pieced together with the ongoing coronavirus crisis in mind (as it continues to be on all of ours) and not well before we ever heard of the disease or anticipated its fallout. In reality, there’s few moments in the scattershot, fascinatingly unfocused “Spaceship Earth” that directly mirrors what we’re going through. The movie covers much more than the events of those two years, and in its unsteady hopscotching from person to person, moment to moment, idea to idea, “Spaceship Earth” often transcends its shabby construction about a brave coalition of eco-pioneers to become a meta inquiry into what it says about us that we may expect certain things to come out of staying locked inside one place for so long—whether out of current experience or basic assumptions about human nature. Continue reading →
Early in the slightly-better-than-serviceable new Netflix documentary “Crip Camp,” there’s a proclamation that Camp Jened – a humble outpost in a mountainous part of New York state that’s been shuttered since the late-‘70s – felt like a utopia. It’s easy to understand why a camp alum would recall the feeling decades later; grainy footage shot of the camp in operation shows joyful young residents with physical disabilities liberated, engaged and understood as people who can be trusted to look after themselves, and think for themselves too. There’s a social hierarchy even in the disabled community, we come to learn; the “normal-looking” polios resident at the top, while those with cystic fibrosis are closer to the bottom. One of them beams with a smile, and asks anyone watching to give him a call; he just likes to talk to people. All these eccentric introductions to each happy-go-lucky camper is enough to make you forgive the template time capsule soundtrack of Grateful Dead, Neil Young and the like—an early miracle in its own right.
Then again, these campers are shaped by the rebellious attitudes of the time. There’s frank conversation of teen infatuation and being annoyed at parents, but also wide acknowledgement – between members of a particular community who had never met before Camp Jened – that life would be a little better if the world they’d eventually return to treated them as equally as they were treated here. It’s a grain of longing that some of them end up fertilizing into action, and later: Change. Continue reading →