Former Chicagoan Joe Angio’s long-in-the-making sophomore documentary, “Revenge of the Mekons” is a lean, cheery ninety-five-minute portrait of almost four decades in the lives and careers since the 1977 formation of the vital, genially haunted punk-to-rock band that Lester Bangs called “the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ’n’ roll.” Angio’s conversations with frontman Jon Langford and frontwoman Sally Timms, among other members of the group, are lucid about their ongoing rise to nearly the middle. (As Timms retorts from stage to a heckler mentioning “sell-outs,” “Sold out is a term that never comes into our lives.”) “ROTM” is humble, raggedy and proud, just like the endlessly productive, self-reinventing band itself. Read the rest of this entry »
Running each Tuesday through spring, Doc Films presents “Frederick Wiseman: An Institution,” ten features from the documentary elder’s expansive library. (The remaining titles are 1969’s “Law & Order”; from 1975, “Welfare”; 1977’s 174-minute “Canal Zone”; “The Store” (1983); “Blind” (1986); “Aspen” (1991); “Ballet” (1995); “Public Housing” (1997) and 2001’s “Domestic Violence.”) Behind the effort are local film critic and Odd Obsession alum Ben Sachs, thirty-two, and his wife, Kat, twenty-six. “Like Robert Bresson or Andy Warhol, Wiseman challenges viewers to look and listen harder. His films are famously devoid of identifying titles, on-camera interviews, and nondiegetic music. In giving up these staples of documentary cinema, Wiseman achieves a profound sense of immediacy,” the Sachs write. It’s their fourth curatorial enterprise since mid-2014. Ben answered a few questions about the intentions of the series, shown entirely on 16mm.
So these particular films are from Wiseman’s substantial back catalogue?
For a while now, I’ve considered Wiseman to be America’s greatest living filmmaker. In our essay for the Doc Films website, Kat and I compare him to Warhol and Bresson; and like them, Wiseman has the power to transform hard and fast reality into something wholly cinematic. His movies, for us, represent cinema in its purest state. One benefit of watching multiple Wiseman films in close succession is that you start to look beyond the subject of each one and become more aware of his methods—how he builds individual scenes and overall structures, how he transforms real people into characters.
In “The Salt of the Earth,” Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado capture a bittersweet, elegant slice of life of four decades in the career of the great Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado and his epic studies of nature and man’s cruelty. Wenders has said that the collaboration between himself and Salgado’s son almost resulted in two disparate films, but the final mingling of approaches works neatly, especially with the imagery seen on the big screen. Wenders hasn’t had the good fortune to make fiction features in years as richly rewarding as “Kings of the Road,” “The American Friend,” “Paris, Texas,” “Wings Of Desire” and “The State of Things,” but both his personal fine arts photography and his recent documentary work, such as “Pina,” are masterful. The Oscar-nominated “The Salt of the Earth” is no exception. “A photographer is someone literally drawing with light,” Wenders muses before we meet Salgado, in fact, before we see the first of the generous selection of his work, “writing and rewriting the world with light and shadows.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
The news, oh the news from Hollywood. What providence does the future hold for the eager moviegoer? What fate lies ahead?
A few of the facts: Worldwide box-office is up one measly percent, but only because China’s audiences spent a whopping thirty-four percent more on tickets. “Star Wars VIII” gets a release date in 2017 and Rian Johnson (“Looper”) is confirmed as writer-director. A “Star Wars” standalone movie will be called “Star Wars: Rogue One.” The female-cast “Ghostbusters” will be joined by another sequel to the thirty-one-year-old movie, likely starring Chris Pratt and Channing Tatum, following the original misogynist cries on the internet with questions of why anyone’s childhood needs to be spoiled twice. Disney says they’ll rerelease the original “Star Wars” trilogy without the additions, deletions and graffiti George Lucas added across the years when he still owned Lucasfilm. And look! “Frozen 2”! Announced the day before the short “Frozen Fever” debuts before “Cinderella”! Let it go!
Damning, distressing, infuriating. Not the sequels to the news of sequels, not limited to the Marvel “Universe,” but in the universe around us. And not the economic fact that newspapers and legacy media continue to shrink as the interest in nonfiction filmmaking grows and grows. Damning, distressing and infuriating is another fine documentary opening this week, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s blunt, forceful advocacy doc, “The Hunting Ground,” a sort of sequel in itself, which takes aim at another dreadful contemporary social ill after the investigation of the plague of rape in the military and its willful, systemic whitewash in the military in “The Invisible War”: the rash of sexual violence and the cover-ups that follow on college campuses today. Read the rest of this entry »
Long-dormant comedy director Barry Sonnenfeld announced a few days ago that he’s finally found a project up there with “Get Shorty” and “Men in Black”: “Project Alpha,” a story of a two-year hoax maintained by magician and champion debunker/investigator James Randi, aka “The Amazing Randi.” Conveniently, Sonnenfeld also attached himself as executive producer to Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein’s often-exhilarating documentary, “An Honest Liar,” a densely researched, captivating look back at the passions of the now-eighty-six-year-old trickster. Read the rest of this entry »
Ethan Hawke’s “Seymour: An Introduction” is a documentary that comes from a pure place: he met someone he immediately admired and wanted others to meet him, too. Seymour Bernstein is a now-eighty-six-year-old pianist and music teacher who had offered Hawke pointers on how to tamp down stage fright. But after that first encounter, Hawke discovered an inveterate New Yorker who gave up a career to devote his life to others, to passing along his passion to music, and his simple kindness, to students for decades. Read the rest of this entry »
Small, personality-driven documentaries sometimes make me think the scale can only get smaller: say, making a film for your sister to explain your brother to himself. Food and foodie documentaries are a thing now, and “Deli Man” is a steam table’s worth of diversion. Third-generation delicatessen owner Ziggy Gruber, owner of Houston’s Kenny & Ziggy’s, is the subject of Erik Greenberg Anjou’s lively, likable “Deli Man.” Corned beef sandwiches and corniness abound; the food is heavy but the japes are light. Read the rest of this entry »
Robert Kenner’s “Merchants Of Doubt” would be a fine comedy if it weren’t a documentary about the dark American art of selling self-delusion, largely in the service of climate change denial. The figures the Oscar-nominated director of “Food, Inc.” gets onto the screen are gleeful in their corruption-for-profit rhetoric, and it’s an itchy ride. Even spin gets spun. Based on a book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, “Merchants” dissects how the tobacco industry mastered the game of spreading doubt in public discourse. If two experts disagree, who do you trust? Bingo: spread doubt. Read the rest of this entry »
Life as performance, personality as melodrama, persona as hope. This is the superlative movie I’d hoped a filmmaker (director, editor, producer, shooter, critic, academic) as intelligent and driven as Robert Greene would make someday, but so soon? “Actress” is an intimate collaboration with his neighbor, Brandy Burre, an actress who had been in “The Wire” and who now juggles relationships, children, wayward emotions and unstemmed ambition. Brandy Burre plays “herself,” but it would take pages, a few thousand words, or maybe another film in reply, to indicate the richness of what’s on screen. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
The most teemingly competitive category in the Oscar race may well be documentaries rather than features. While 323 movies were eligible for the 87th Academy Awards, the documentary contest started with 134, reduced to fifteen, and finally, five.
For the final quintet, the disappointment over the exclusion of Steve James’ “Life Itself,” about the life of Roger Ebert, wasn’t limited to Chicago, although the surprise of the inclusion of Charlie Siskel and John Maloof’s “Finding Vivian Maier” offers some salve to local pride. (The other 2015 nominees are Laura Poitras’ portrait of whistleblower Edward Snowden, “CitizenFour,” Rory Kennedy’s you-are-there archival-footage driven “Last Days in Vietnam,” Orlando von Einsiedel’s “Virunga,” a Netflix-streaming exploration of the struggle to save the last of the planet’s mountain gorillas in the Congo, and Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s “The Salt of the Earth,” following the life and recent projects of the great photographer Sebastião Salgado.)
But the shortlist of fifteen also omitted Gabe Polsky’s “Red Army,” a taut, sprightly eighty-five-minute history of the Red Army hockey team, from the days of the USSR to modern Russia, a gripping portrait of one man’s fall from national hero to political enemy, while reflecting the upheavals of his country as well. Read the rest of this entry »