93328137-BB king -ON-STAGE-cropComing to PBS’s American Masters tomorrow, Friday, February 12: BB KING: THE LIFE OF RILEY

Jon Brewer’s profile of the late blues legend debuted in a longer version in London in 2012. This earlier version screened at various fests, including New Orleans, NXNE, and Sedona, and has since been cut down for its television broadcast debut and revised to acknowledge KIng’s passing last year.

Born Riley B King on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, the son of sharecroppers, Brewer’s famed subject rose to the heights of the blues to become synonymous with the American music genre. Working in collaboration with King and his estate, the filmmaker constructs an appreciative biography of the musician through interviews with the man himself and glowing testimonials from family members, fellow musicians and famous fans, including Bonnie Raitt, Bono, Ringo Starr, John Mayer, and Morgan Freeman, who also narrates. Archival footage of performances both classic and more recent supplements the proceedings, amply demonstrating the consummate skills of the King of the Blues, and his well-earned place within cultural history.

Leave a comment

Filed under Documentary, Film, Recommendations, Releases

Berlin 2016: Documentary Overview

66_Berlinale_Plakat_1The 66th edition of the Berlinale opens tonight, Thursday, February 11 and runs through Sunday, February 21. A massive undertaking, the world-class festival, Germany’s largest, annually screens approximately 400 new and retrospective films across a wide range of programming strands. Among the new features on offer this year are just about seventy documentaries and hybrids, a sampling of which are noted below. Additionally, the festival is once again presenting Meet the Docs, a networking platform that is part of its corresponding European Film Market. The latter includes fifteen documentaries not in the official Berlinale fest program co-presented under the Docs Spotlight series by festivals IDFA, CPH:DOX, and DOK Leipzig; Meet the Festivals sessions; and a series of nonfiction-focused panels and conversations. Beyond this, the festival also presents Doc Station as part of the Berlinale Talents program, featuring ten projects in development. While my schedule continues to make attending the festival inconvenient, my attention would be drawn to the following programmed documentary features, were I to be heading to Berlin this weekend: Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, Overviews, Recommendations


secundariaNew to DVD this week: SECUNDARIA

Mary Jane Doherty’s portrait of students at Cuba’s National Ballet School made its bow at IFF Boston in 2013. Other screenings have included the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Dance on Camera, Cartagena, Milwaukee, Havana, Newburyport Doc, and San Francisco Dance film fest.

Over nearly two dozen trips in the course of three years, Doherty traces the development of three young dancers, who began the prestigious school’s program in 2007: outgoing Gabriela, who comes from a relatively privileged background; shy Maryara, who, in contrast, is raised by a poor single mother; and Moisés, even poorer, and of African descent, making his road the hardest – though his story surprisingly doesn’t pop. Instead, after offering a quiet but unremarkable view of the school, its teachers, and the likeable enough but subdued subjects for a chunk of its initial running time, circumstances end up ultimately turning the film’s focus on Maryara, who takes the opportunity of being outside of Cuba while on an international tour to unexpectedly defect to America. This incident offers Doherty a surprising climax to an otherwise fine but unremarkable portrait, allowing the film to subtly explore some of the underlying tensions of life, culture, and politics in the island’s communist setting.

Leave a comment

Filed under Documentary, Film, Releases


machine gun preacherNew to DVD this week: MACHINE GUN PREACHER

Kevin Evans and Zac Simpson’s look at an unlikely humanitarian made its debut at the Gasparilla International Film Festival in 2014.

Already the subject of a poorly-reviewed Hollywood action film by the same name, Evans and Simpson’s documentary profiles Sam Childers, a biker and former drug dealer who, after finding God, has dedicated his life to helping the orphans of South Sudan. A controversial figure, he has raised funds to build a compound to house, educate, and feed the charges he rescues, while protecting them with armed guards. Though produced for the NGO Angels of East Africa, the film admirably tries to avoid descending into outright hagiography, detailing the strain Childers’ self-appointed mission has placed on his family relationships and their finances. At the same time, the film’s general praise of his missionary work overwhelms any extended consideration of the serious contradictions its subject poses as a self-professed man of God gleefully toting guns, and is altogether too scattershot in its approach to create a cohesive portrait.

Leave a comment

Filed under Documentary, Film, Releases

SXSW 2016: Additional Features Announced

sxsw film 2016Supplementing their main features announcement last week, SXSW has just revealed the remainder of their film programming here, bringing the doc count to 57 of a reported 139 features. Following is the list of newly announced nonfiction features per section:

Festival Favorites:
newtownSelections culled from other notable festivals.

Kirsten Johnson
Exposing her role behind the camera, Johnson reaches into the vast trove of footage she has shot over decades around the world. What emerges is a visually bold memoir and a revelatory interrogation of the power of the camera.

Clay Tweel
At the age of 34, Steve Gleason was handed a death sentence. When doctors diagnosed him with ALS, they gave the former NFL defensive back and New Orleans hero two to five years to live. So that is what Steve chose to do – live.

NEWTOWN (pictured)
Kim A Snyder
Documenting the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting of schoolchildren in American history. A cast of characters within Newtown and beyond interconnect to weave an intimate story of trauma, grief and community resilience.

Ido Haar
The true story of the incredible Princess Shaw and the enigmatic composer Kutiman, who discovers her from the other side of the world.

Louis Black and Karen Bernstein
A feature-length documentary on the filmmaker Richard Linklater and an unusual look at a fiercely independent film style that emerged from Austin, Texas in the 1990s.

Dawn Porter
Following the clinic workers, women, and lawyers on the front lines of the battle as they fight to keep abortion safe and legal across the US for millions of poor and uninsured women caught in a political quagmire.

Special Events:
darkonUnique one-offs.

Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel
10th Anniversary screening of the cult-hit documentary about American LARPers. The film covers an epic war raging through the fantasy realm of Darkon, investigating our complex relationship with fantasy and reality.

Additions to Already Announced Sections

24 Beats Per Second:
Robert Klein
A hilarious and heartfelt look at the career and influence of comedy legend Robert Klein.

Scott Rosenbaum
An intimate look at the lives and legacies of piano player Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and guitarist Hubert Sumlin, all Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf sidemen.

Christopher LaMarca
Haunting and deeply human, Boone tells the story of three young goat farmers as they transition with the seasons and come to terms with the physical and emotional grit required to live in deep relationship with the land. This experiential film is a visceral meditation on the sacrifice and struggle of a lifestyle born of self reliance, a sensual homage to the heart and soul of a farmer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, Overviews, Recommendations


murder of a presidentComing to DVD today, Tuesday, February 9: MURDER OF A PRESIDENT

Rob Rapley’s consideration of the legacy of the 20th President of the United States made its world premiere on the PBS strand American Experience at the beginning of this month.

Rapley’s look at James A Garfield stems from Candice Millard’s book DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC: A TALE OF MADNESS, MEDICINE AND THE MURDER OF A PRESIDENT, which lays out the fuller breadth of concerns addressed than is suggested by the film’s more truncated title. While the program does focus much of its running time on the assassination attempt that precipitated Garfield’s lingering, untimely demise just four months after he took office, Rapley does an admirable job establishing the Ohio congressman’s credentials, charisma, and unusual rise to power against a sadly familiar backdrop of economic disparity and cronyism. In addition to making the case for Garfield as a proto-Kennedy or Obama, the film also sketches out several other key players, including his principled wife Lucretia, political enemy NY Senator Roscoe Conkling, unbalanced assassin and position seeker Charles Guiteau, and the president’s malpracticing personal physician, Dr Doctor Willard Bliss, who, it’s argued here, likely bears a fair amount of the blame for Garfield’s passing. Like several other tales made for American Experience, this one employs numerous re-enactments, and while they are professionally mounted, they ultimately add very little to the otherwise compelling proceedings except a hokey, old-fashioned feeling that’s distinctly out of step with modern nonfiction programming.

Leave a comment

Filed under Documentary, Film, Recommendations, Releases


american-experience-the-perfect-crimeComing to PBS’s American Experience tonight, Tuesday, February 9: THE PERFECT CRIME

Cathleen O’Connell’s re-examination of a notorious murder case makes its debut on the long-running public television series.

The crime in question was that committed by the infamous duo of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, affluent Chicago teenagers who callously killed young Bobby Franks in 1924 just for the thrill of it. Espousing a belief in Nietzschean theories of the Übermensch, positing that they were superior to ordinary people and therefore not bound by laws or morality, they goaded each other into planning a murder which they were certain they could get away with. As summarized in O’Connell’s film, while they disposed of Franks with methodical efficiency, things didn’t go as planned in the aftermath thanks to a pair of lost eyeglasses, and they were soon ratting each other out. Beyond the shock of well-to-do youth committing such a senseless act, the public was riveted by their utter lack of remorse, and newspapers milked the controversy for all it was worth. When prosecutors sought the death penalty, legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow stepped in in support of Leopold and Loeb – not to try to prove their innocence, as they had already confessed, but instead, noting the high profile nature of the case, to mount a very public argument against the practice of capital punishment. The film successfully demonstrates the brilliance of Darrow and the fascination that still lingers over the case, which inspired several novels and films, including ROPE, COMPULSION, and SWOON.

Leave a comment

Filed under Documentary, Film, Recommendations, Releases