6 items from 2016
The Great FortuneNot many festivals grant you the privilege of being personally welcomed by its director with a bottle of home-brewed liquor, not very many set that as their standard of hospitality: Beldocs, the Belgrade International Documentary Film Festival, is one of them. The composite beauty and disinterested generosity of the city and its people are the ideal environment for a festival genuinely close to its etymological roots, that of festivity, of an uplifting moment of reciprocal discovery and exchange. Big enough to explore, small enough to elaborate, Beldocs is what a festival is meant to be: a place where films are not only consumed but also convivially dissected. The size and schedule of the festival, but most crucially its comradery dimension, allow for the kind of space cinema needs in order to be cultivated, not only watched. The constitutive elements of the seventh art in Beldocs coexist organically side by side, »
Spliced together from interviews, establishing shots, and dramatic reenactments, its subjects’ homegrown aphorisms set against the forceful tinkling of the score, “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” might’ve been made by Errol Morris himself.
Inspired by “The Thin Blue Line,” the fourth episode of IFC’s inventive, erudite “Documentary Now!” — from the frenzied imaginations of director Rhys Thomas and “Saturday Night Live” alumni Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers — mimics the filmmaker’s work so precisely that it comes to resemble an X-ray, showing the bone structure of his distinctive style while (gently) poking fun at it. In this sense, to describe “Documentary Now!” as a parody is to undersell: It’s a wildly funny act of criticism, deconstructing the mechanics of nonfiction in an age defined by the slippage between “reality” and the real.
Starring Armisen and Hader in an ever-changing series of roles—in a pungent send-up of Vice Media, they even play three indistinguishable pairs of plaid-clad, ne’er-do-well correspondents on the trail of a Mexican drug kingpin — “Documentary Now!” is designed with an in-depth knowledge of the form, down to the title sequence. A clever nod to public television, replete with evolving logo, synthesized theme music, and Helen Mirren’s refined introductions, the homage to the likes of “Pov,” “Frontline,” and “Independent Lens” is telling. Though tough, at times, on the familiar tropes of Morris and the Maysles, the creators’ treatment of documentaries is affectionate; their approach is closer to Christopher Guest’s warm, playful comedies, from “Waiting for Guffman” to “For Your Consideration,” than to the sharp satire of “Drop Dead Gorgeous” or “Tanner ’88.”
This is born, it seems, of their interest in the power of nonfiction narratives, and in the process by which such stories take shape. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, “Documentary Now!” is lavish in its praise — Hader’s version of Little Edie Beale, in the series’ tribute to “Grey Gardens,” replicates several memorable moments in the film almost exactly — but it’s when the series turns toward exaggeration and hyperbole that its understanding of the form’s fakery is on fullest display. Against the “direct cinema” aesthetic of the Maysles, “Documentary Now!” depicts the siblings, here known as the Feins, eliciting performances from their subjects, searching the shadows of “Sandy Passage” for the most compelling variant of the truth. (It comes back to bite them, in a way that acknowledges the elements of Gothic horror in “Grey Gardens” by blowing the original to bits.)
Understanding documentaries as a set of narrative techniques, and not simply as a reflection of “the facts,” “Documentary Now!” is at its most astute in the first season’s “Kunuk Uncovered.” Based on 1988’s “Nanook Revisited,” itself an investigation of the stagecraft in Robert Flaherty’s 1922 silent, “Nanook of the North,” “Kunuk” renders explicit the series’ animating principle: “Was the first documentary a documentary at all,” the narrator intones, “or was it something else?” As William H. Sebastian (John Slattery) attempts to mold his subject, Pipilok (Armisen), into the “Eskimo” of his ethnocentric assumptions, mounting dog sledding and spear fishing scenes, he loses control of the project to its central figure. “Kunuk” becomes an artful farce, part Hollywood excess and part careful craft.
Pipilok first demands compensation, securing the managerial services of a local pimp, and then displaces Sebastian altogether, transforming into a tortured auteur. (At one point, he curses out the cast in his native tongue, a true diva of the directing chair.) His aesthetic innovations — recording sound, building sets, developing “point of view” and new forms of movement — are those, roughly speaking, of realism, and “Kunuk” is, in essence, a reminder that the style that doesn’t seem like a style is no less fabricated for convincing us otherwise. In “Documentary Now!” nonfiction is always “something else”: A performance, a manipulation, a construction, adjacent to “the real” but not a mirror image of it.
In fashioning a new short film for each installment—with the exception of the two-part “Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee” — the series is an outlier in the Emmys’ nascent Variety Sketch category. Last year’s inaugural field featured five nominees on the traditional “sketch” model, including “Saturday Night Live” and winner “Inside Amy Schumer,” and all, including the final season of the excellent “Key & Peele,” are among this year’s twenty eligible series (up from 17). But given the TV Academy’s tendency to settle into firm patterns, to the point that one might call them ruts, it would behoove voters to honor the heterodox, learned, distinctly non-topical comedy of “Documentary Now!” while the contours of the category are still in flux.
If there’s one aspect of the series we know Academy members can appreciate, it’s the brilliant impression: Schumer and Ryan McFaul were nominated last year for directing the dead solid perfect satire “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” as if inhabited by the spirit of Sidney Lumet, a feat “Documentary Now!” manages many times over, and in myriad registers. Its sketches succeed, in the end, because they’re not sketchy at all, but rather fully realized, remarkably savvy reconsiderations of their subject, which is the creative, sometimes-deceptive act of documentary filmmaking itself.
“The Eye Doesn’t Lie” recalls not only “The Thin Blue Line,” then, but also, by dint of its title, the filmmaker’s examination of visible evidence in “Standard Operating Procedure.” “The pictures spoke a thousand words,” as Army Special Agent Brent Pack says in the latter of photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, launching into the kind of Morris-esque paradox that IFC’s series so beautifully distills. “But unless you know what day and time they were taken, you wouldn’t know what story they were telling.” The eye does lie, of course, and the brilliant “Documentary Now!” is always catching it red-handed.
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- Matt Brennan
Employing an outsider to disarm subjects deep in Bubba Texas, Booger Red turns to writer/director/actor/provocateur Onur Tukel as its conduit into this world, asking the absurd questions at the heart of a scandal that involves swingers, foster parents and a “sex kindergarten.” Inspired by Michael Hall’s 2009 Texas Monthly article, director Berndt Mader (Five Time Champion) constructs his own documentary/narrative hybrid with Tukel as a reporter named Onur Tukel (although not as himself) in his most restrained role yet.
Playing an Austin-based investigate reporter, he’s dispatched to the small town of Mineola, Texas where the neighborhood swinger’s club is conveniently located across from the town’s newspaper. It’s here where the mysterious Booger Red apparently brought kids he trained in his “sex kindergarten” to perform — an allegation made by a profiteering set of foster parents.
Rather curiously, Mader has insisted many real players »
- John Fink
Every year, The Hollywood Reporter pulls back the veil by allowing a few Academy members to anonymously reveal their Oscar ballots and the reasons for those votes. Every year, it's illuminating and maddening. This year is no exception. The Oscars will be handed out this Sunday, February 28 on ABC, and voting is now closed. It seems like Leonardo DiCaprio is a lock to win Best Actor for "The Revenant" but at least one Academy member openly voted against him.
This particular Oscar voter shared his ballot with THR, revealing films he didn't even see (including "Mad Max: Fury Road") and admitting that he hated "The Revenant" so much he voted for "Mad Max" in one category "solely because I want to stop The Revenant." He had some valid (and funny) points to make in his distaste for "The Revenant," arguing that Leo's Oscar campaign is based around how hard »
- Gina Carbone
The major retrospective of the 2016 International Film Festival Rotterdam is dedicated to the Barcelona school of filmmaking in the 1960s and 1970s, with Catalonian master Pere Portabella’s body of work—and his new film—serving as a figurehead. Nearly completely unknown in the United States—where critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has been a beacon of support and revelation—insomuch as Portabella is known in the film community it is for his film Vampir-Cuadecuc, which hijacks the production of Christopher Lee and Jesús Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) for its own ends and exhilaratingly exposes this documentarian’s acute analysis of and play with the subject of his films. (I will note here that Mubi has shown a great deal of Portabella’s work in the past, including this 1970 horror film.) This is hardly a lone accomplishment; in 1961 he helped produce Luis Buñuel's masterpiece Viridiana, and the director has been a strident voice in documentary, »
- Daniel Kasman
A gender barrier upheld for hundreds of years falls before the prowess of a 13-year-old girl in the U.S.-produced documentary “The Eagle Huntress.” Otto Bell’s first feature traces its heroine’s quest to become Mongolia’s first female practitioner of the titular skill, in which a wild eagle is trained to hunt game in tandem with its human keeper. A pervasive girl-power message underlined by the “You can do anything” refrain of Sia’s closing pop theme song, this entertaining slice of real-life inspirational adventure should appeal to family audiences not grossed out by brief animal butchery and a fox’s climactic fate. Nonfiction-cinema purists may be less enthralled with content that often feels somewhat staged, and highly manipulated in the editing room.
Cheerful, seemingly fearless Aisholpan Nurgaiv has been fascinated by her father and grandfather’s practice of this traditional hunting method from an early age. »
- Dennis Harvey
6 items from 2016
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