Believe it or not
No … believe it or not, I added a lot of new material over the weekend, though mostly for list queens. I updated my screening log to the current day from early August last year (it’s a lot of tedious work, but it’s easier than it looks if you keep all your theater tickets as I do), put up my new Top 10 for the year, updated my old top 10s to reflect old movies recently seen, posted my last two Skandies ballots … in other words, I’ve updated all the ancillary pages, which are actually more intimidating than a blog itself.
Also … contrary to appearances here, I actually have been writing a LOT of film criticism lately … just on my Twitter feed. I seem to violate the rules of Twitter by having no compunction against writing several Tweets in a row to make a detailed point, and they have to be read in consecutive order (because sentences don’t break conveniently at the 140th character). So my Twitter feed is now a part of the site, available to the right. (WARNING: A lot of my Tweets are dry jokes or sarcasm-bait aimed at the people I follow, and I also Tweet a lot about sports.)
But as an example of what I’ve been doing recently on Twitter, I spent a weekend at DC’s SilverDocs festival, and what follows are based on the Insta-reviews of the films I saw there, spread over several Tweets each. There are a couple of differences here from what’s on my Twitter feed … I didn’t include the “am now standing in last-minute-ticket line for Film X” or “I saw Person Y” Tweets. I also corrected some mistakes and avoided the abbreviations designed to produce a reasonable break near 140 characters.
Also, in several places I elaborate here on points I left implicit or vague there, and everywhere I add a few words about the movie’s premise. (Only once do I actually make a brand-spanking new point.) All adds are noted in italics. Obviously, the event is past, but these are films that could be breakout hits (by doc standards) in the next year or so. The #1 movie on my 2009 Top 10 list to-date, e.g., is a film I saw at SilverDocs 2008. Here is what I saw, after the jump:
DANCING WITH THE DEVIL (Jon Blair, Britain, 2009) — 7 — The kind of leftist-made issue doc that I inevitably think less of after the Q-and-A. The director won unprecedented access to some of Rio de Janeiro’s drug gangs, speaking on-camera and without masks in a slum it controls. (After the screening, Blair criticized the crackdown by Mexico and the US on the drug-gang wars along the border, “Brazil tried the military solution, it doesn’t work. Drugs are a social problem, not a military one.”) Still probably the only film you’ll see this year in which the moral center is an Assembly of God preacher who speaks in tongues. Pastor Johnny is a rebuke to First World Christians whose crosses are so light; he embodies both spiritual seriousness and the social Gospel and in the most difficult of circumstances, the hardest of cases and without becoming a tool of anybody but God. (The director disagreed again, calling the minister, who prays with the drug gangs, lives in the neighborhood and considers one of the bosses a personal project, “a deeply morally ambiguous person.) The footage with the cops and access to the Rio favela drug gangs is shocking and amazing (though not quite at BUS 174 level in terms of grippingness or “ferret out the backstory”)
RENE (Helena Trestikova, Czech Rep., 2008) — 3 — And I should care about such a selfish, amoral, self-rationalizing, fuckup because … ??? Director follows a single criminal over the close to 20 years since the end of Communism, during which Rene does little but go in and out of jail, occasionally to go straight in this way or that, but never succeeding for long. Really the wrong film to see right after DEVIL, about favela criminals with 10 times the “excuse” and 1/10 the whining. Also not impressed with RENE’s premise as a film narrative … the 20-year timeframe prevents any situation from developing much drama — it’s all a rushed “and then…” litany. My tolerance was at an end when *the filmmaker herself* juxtaposed a song called “Ode to Joy” with Rene trudging around, back in jail … cheap.
GREY GARDENS (Maysles Bros., 1976, USA) — 8 — If I told you a film was the bastard child of THE GOLDEN GIRLS and AUTUMN SONATA, would you believe it was any good? Pure subject matter grade, as these two women (Edith Bouvier Beale and namesake daughter — the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy, living in isolated squalor in a crumbling mansion — think a pair of Miss Havishams, from “Great Expectations”) put on a passive-aggressive vaudeville show of their own lives for the benefit of the Maysles’ camera. Still, enormously entertaining in a “I can’t believe I’m watching this” way. Kind of a freak show that redeems itself, though, partly because I liked how the Maysles brothers sometimes let the camera show (hard not to, with mirrors in some of these rooms) and kept in moments where the two women address them, showing the self-consciousness in the whole setup and how, by the end, the self-consciousness has completely disappeared.
Award Ceremony: US feature winner at SilverDocs is OCTOBER COUNTRY (looks awful); Foreign feature winner is MUGABE & WHITE AFRICAN (I’m in line for now). My colleague Sonny Bunch thinks MUGABE a wise jury choice and said to get in the line for it rather than OLD PARTNER (other film I was mulling). The other awards are short film: 12 NOTES DOWN; music: RISEUP; social-issues: GOOD FORTUNE; writing: OFF AND RUNNING; cinematic vision: OLD PARTNER
MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN (Lucy Bailey, 2009, Britain) — 8 — Follows a family of white farmers in Zimbabwe resisting expropriation of their land by dictator Robert Mugabe, partly by standing up to government-backed gang-invasions, but mostly by filing a case in a regional Southern African court, accusing Zimbabwe of racial discrimination. Sometimes looks like ass without extenuating circumstances (you gotta do what you gotta do to get footage in Zimbabwe, but there’s no reason for the Namibian airport to look like it was shot on a Securiticam). Plus this sort of legal crusade for justice story will never sit too well intellectually with Victor the Hard-Eyed Realist. Those caveats aside, otherwise brilliant. It’s a very simple formula — find a great story, put the right people at center of it, let them tell it, and get the footage yourself to show it. Even more than DEVIL, you find yourself in disbelief that this footage exists — a confrontation with a government minister’s son, who comes to take over the farm, calling it his and starting a live on-camera argument over history, whether whites have any place in Zimbabwe and everybody’s bona fides is as tense as unstaged realism gets (Skandie plug should this film find the distribution it deserves). Also, film doesn’t shrink from farmers religiosity, regularly showing them praying, reading the Bible and seeing God’s Providence.
BLOOD TRAIL (Richard Parry, 2009, USA) — 3 — Just one enormous tonal misstep from beginning to end, following war photographer Robert King on-and-off over a decade from his start in Sarajevo to his professional peak in Chechnya to his current semi-retirement. The present-day Elmer Fudd scenes, where there’s jokes about fumblingly pitching a tent on a hunting trip, do not belong in a serious movie that uses real-life death images and death footage, or with any serious consideration of a clinical case — the protagonist says he suffers from some form of PTSD. Nor do the “he’s such a greenhorn” comic scenes in Sarajevo belong with some disturbing imagery. Film also can’t make up its mind about whether shooting gore is good or bad, cathartic or traumatic, seeming to say both according to the whim of the moment or the ideology. If it’s so awful what he was exposed to in Chechnya … why are we supposed to care and how can he bitch about not being allowed to do the same in Iraq? (As if I didn’t know.)
NO IMPACT MAN (Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, 2009, USA) — 4 — Following for a year a man trying to leave no “carbon footprint” can’t not be funny, but this was material for a great satire, not hagiographic (self-)pleasuring. Though I shouldn’t have expected otherwise, I suppose, from a documentary in which its nominal husband-and-wife subjects are credited as co-producers. It makes the whole thing feel like a self-promotional infomercial with the occasional joke that’s really meant as self-deprecation. Mike Judge, please remake this as a fiction movie. Tom Wolfe, please write this as a novel or essay. You men have the necessary contempt. Now for some packaged fast food (it was close to 11pm and I hadn’t eaten all day) — with meat (how DID the family dog survive?). By the end, it’s even having and eating its own organic cake on political vs. personal dichotomy, saying the most-personal thing a Greenie can do is join a group.
WINNEBAGO MAN (Ben Steinbauer, USA, 2009) — 9 — Does everything right, e.g. the director is on-camera and at center as needed without taking movie over and making it about himself even when the film’s existence and the subject-author relationship literally threatens to unravel in front of our eyes (reminded me of ROGER & ME in that respect, plus the general comic tone). For example, the film constantly reinvents itself without being herky-jerky/arbitrary — it begins as the history of a famous video, involving the anonymous pitchman for Winnebago melting down between takes in increasingly vulgar and creative ways, then moves on to viral videos as a general phenomenon and the unwanted fame they generate and finally a detective story to find Winnebago Man Jack Rebney (where is he now?/ does he know he’s famous? etc.), which is a failure, a success, a failure, then changes the terms of success/failure, up to a last scene that I was groaning at (“they’re narrating out the whole subtext?!?!”) only to set up a perfect last line. If it matters, I had no knowledge of the Winnebago Man video until a couple of days ago (and very little going into this film). Really wished I hadn’t stayed for Q-and-A (see DEVIL). It took all my discipline not to dock grade points for how Rebney revealed himself the worst sort of political autodidact — the loudmouth general-theorist with no regard for details who wins applause for the general theory expressed in ways that sound learned but evaporate upon the first “but wait …?” while Steinbauer insisted Rebney is not nutty. (For example, did you know Reaganomics was Rumsfeld and Cheney’s fault? Through what means, exactly?)