Coming to theatres today, Friday, November 27: IRAQI ODYSSEY
Samir’s chronicle of the Iraqi diaspora through his middle-class family’s example made its debut at Toronto last year. It went on to screen at Abu Dhabi, Berlin, Zurich, Cairo, and New Zealand, among others. It is Switzerland’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards.
Over the course of nearly three hours, the director shares the story of his extended family, who have left their native Iraq to take up residence all over the world. While Samir’s personal, and sometimes plodding, narration, namechecks dozens of family members, he largely focuses on five to tell the story of an upper middle class clan, said to be directly descended from Muhammad, who have found their lives upended by wars, regime changes, and politics. It’s an overly ambitious project, functioning not only as a personal family tale, but as a primer on modern Iraqi history, aided greatly by a selection of articulate, camera-friendly subjects, though the unfortunate use of English-language dubbing is distracting. Beyond its running time, the project’s greatest drawback is its frankly dull visual approach, positioning interviewees against black backgrounds with occasional, cheap-looking graphics popping up – presented in 3D at festivals, though it seems the theatrical release may be bypassing that gimmick. Still, the film somehow remains surprisingly engaging despite this, offering an insightful, nuanced look at modern Middle Eastern history.
Coming to theatres today, Friday, November 27: STINK!
Jon Whelan’s investigation into chemical industry secrecy debuted at a special event in NYC last Spring. Fest screenings have included Atlanta Docufest, Barcelona’s Human Rights, San Francisco Doc, Rhode Island, and United Nations Association.
As awkwardly shown onscreen at the outset, Whelan is motivated to make his film after he orders clothing for his young daughters and is confronted with a strange smell from the packaging. He gets nowhere when he calls the manufacturer for information about what chemicals are involved, and is instead told that’s proprietary information. He soon learns that a regulatory loophole allows manufacturers to use hundreds of thousands of chemicals in the production of countless consumer items’ catch-all ingredient, “fragrance,” many carcinogenic or otherwise potentially harmful to humans – and the companies are under no obligation to disclose their contents or even prove their safety. The neophyte filmmaker sets out to learn why, engaging in low-rent Michael Moore shenanigans to demand answers from industry insiders, politicians, and others who benefit financially from the corporate secrecy while endangering consumer health. To put a further excessively personal spin on the proceedings, Whelan wonders whether his late wife’s struggle with breast cancer was due to such lack of public health concern. While the film’s general subject matter is disturbing and certainly merits public awareness, Whelan’s filmmaking is just not up to snuff. His clunky personal crusade approach is overly derivative and amateurish, particularly in his insistence on unnecessarily including himself via narration and on-camera – and cheapens the project’s overall impact.
Coming to DVD today, Friday, November 27: JACO
Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak’s portrait of an influential bass guitarist had its world premiere at SXSW this Spring. It also screened at Leeds, Vienna, Munich, Athens, and the London and Montreal Jazz fests, among others.
To his fans, including Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, who serves here as producer, Jaco Pastorius was the world’s best bass player. His death at the age of 35 in 1987 cut his career short before he achieved the widespread fame that many presumed he would. Marchand and Kijak aim to rectify that in this appreciative, though somewhat overlong, biography of the self-taught son of a musician. They recruit other admirers, from Sting and Flea to Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell, who included Pastorius on her 1976 album, Hejira, to explain his virtuosity with the electric bass guitar, and his use of harmonics to produce a distinctive, creative new sound. As is too often the case with young artists, he ran afoul of the excesses of drug use, while also struggling with mental illness, ultimately leading to a violent end. While likely to be best appreciated by Pastorius’ existing fanbase, the doc successfully conveys a clear enough sense of his appeal to win over some new converts.
Coming to Netflix this Sunday, November 29: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS
Mark Hartley’s tribute to the legendary low-budget production house debuted at Melbourne last year. It went on to screen at Toronto, London, Haifa, Sitges, Mar del Plata, Rotterdam, San Francisco, Glasgow, Dublin, New Horizons, and Fantastic Fest, among others.
I previously wrote about the film here.
Coming to theatres tomorrow, Friday, November 27: JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE
Amy Berg’s portrait of Janis Joplin made its bow at Venice earlier this year. The film has gone on to screen at Toronto, DOC NYC, Deauville, Rio, London, Warsaw, and Poland’s American Film Festival, among others.
The third of Berg’s three documentaries within the span of a year, the Oscar-nominated director’s latest presents a deeply human look at a woman who, since her death at the age of 27, has become a music legend. Avoiding overblown pronouncements of the musician’s impact, something the film’s core audience – and even the casual viewer – already knows, the film instead carefully grounds its narrative in Joplin’s warm, self-effacing personality. Employing present-day musician Cat Power to voice Joplin’s personal writings, primarily letters to her significantly more conservative Texan parents, Berg is able to convey an immediate sense of the young woman’s oscillation between vulnerability and forthrightness, and her blossoming as she embraced music, and as the American counterculture in turn embraced her. While the audience knows that Joplin’s tragic end is inevitable, the film smartly downplays any sense of impending doom to instead revel in the moment, aided immeasurably by lively archival performances that demonstrate exactly why the performer remains beloved 45 years after her death.
Coming to theatres tomorrow, Friday, November 27: BOLSHOI BABYLON
Director Nick Read and co-director Mark Franchetti’s behind-the-scenes look at Russia’s legendary ballet had its world premiere this Fall at Toronto. Other fest berths have included DOC NYC, Hamptons, CPH:DOX, and IDFA.
An exploration of both the cut-throat world of dance and of Russia in a microcosm, Read and Franchetti’s remarkably candid profile focuses on the turmoil that followed the notorious acid attack on Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, in 2013. While the crime itself is not the focus – the perpetrators, including Bolshoi star Pavel Dmitrichenko, are convicted and sentenced to prison – it stands in for the corruption and ambition that plagues the larger Russian society. While Filin returns to his post, scarred and blinded in one eye, factions gather strength against him. Even those who seem uninterested in taking sides face their own struggles to maintain their own standing, fearing aging, injury, or the whims of management may cut their careers short. Expertly crafted, the film presents a dark reflection of the effortless facade the Bolshoi’s expert performers project from the stage.
Coming to Netflix this Saturday, November 28: BEST OF ENEMIES
Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s look back at the infamous Buckley/Vidal debates debuted at Sundance this year. Other fest berths have included DOC NYC, Nantucket, BAMcinemaFest, AFI Docs, Outfest, San Francisco, SXSW, Hot Docs, Full Frame, Srasota, Miami, and IFF Boston, among others. The film was released on several VOD platforms earlier this month, and now comes to Netflix.
I profiled the doc before Sundance here.