Category Archives: Film


newburgh stingComing to HBO tonight, Monday, July 21: THE NEWBURGH STING

Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s exposé of FBI entrapment had its world premiere at Tribeca this Spring. Its fest circuit also includes AFI Docs and the upcoming Traverse City and Woods Hole fests.

May 2009 saw the very public arrest on charges of a terrorist conspiracy of four Black Muslim men from my hometown of Newburgh NY, an economically-depressed city on the Hudson River, 60 miles north of NYC. Though touted in the media by officials as a “textbook example of how a major investigation should be conducted,” directors Davis and Heilbroner instead present a damning indictment of the methods used by the FBI through their own secretly-recorded footage, and argue, like the Newburgh Four’s unsuccessful defense counsel, that this was a clear case of entrapment. Where the government presented a cautionary (and media-friendly) tale of a homegrown terrorist cell who were set to bomb a synagogue and destroy military planes, and a corresponding celebration of the intrepid work of law enforcement officials to foil their dastardly plot, the hidden camera of the FBI’s shady informant, Pakistani Shahed Hussain, tells a much different story – one of high-pressure tactics involving outrageous sums of money, possible double-dealing, and general ineptitude that would have made carrying out any plan unlikely. While there’s no denying that greed, poor decision-making, and, for one accomplice, cognitive difficulties, conspired to draw four men into what they recognized would be an illegal act, the filmmakers convincingly argue that were it not for the government’s willful seduction of easy, vulnerable targets and the FBI’s orchestration and implementation of every facet of the plot, there would never have been a cell to begin with. The result is a frightening account of the far-reaching consequences of the war on terror and of the questionable means employed by those with incentive to keep America in a state of heightened alert, even if it has to be artificially manufactured.

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Propaganda-POSTER-BLUEComing to DVD tomorrow, Tuesday, July 22: PROPAGANDA

Slavko Martinov’s anti-Western, anti-Capitalist satirical screed debuted at IDFA in 2012, under the pretense that it was an underground North Korean production smuggled out of the country. It went on to screen at Traverse City, Biografilm, CPH:DOX, and Raindance, among others.

I previously wrote about the film out of IDFA here.

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DANCEFORME_egorWEBComing to PBS’s POV next Monday, July 21: DANCE FOR ME

Katrine Philp’s portrait of teenage ballroom dancers made its debut at CPH:DOX in 2012. Since then it has screened at IDFA, Documentary Edge, Full Frame, Raindance, and AmDocs, among others.

Seeking opportunities in the professional dance world of Denmark, fifteen-year-old Egor leaves his native Russia to train and compete with the talented Mie, while also living with the fourteen-year-old and her mother. Despite a shaky start, the pair’s discipline and ambition start to yield results, and they soon find a championship title within their reach. Philp brings a keen eye to this observational coming-of-age profile, perfectly balancing interpersonal drama with dance, and taking a sensitive approach with Egor in particular. While there have been several dance-focused projects in recent years, including excellent fellow Danish doc BALLROOM DANCER, the subjects’ youth here – and Egor’s cultural dislocation – introduces a fresh and palpable vulnerability, perhaps best exemplified in moments caught between child and mother, communicating via Skype, but also in their still inchoate drive for perfection and resultant failures.

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lost for lifeComing to VOD tomorrow, Friday, July 18: LOST FOR LIFE

Joshua Rofé’s look at juvenile offenders serving life sentences made its debut at AFI Docs last year. It went on to screen at Nantucket, Annapolis, and Middleburg. SnagFilms now releases the film on iTunes.

I previously wrote about the film out of AFI Docs for Indiewire, saying:
Joshua Rofé’s compelling world premiere also deals with young subjects – the difference is that they are facing life imprisonment for horrific crimes, without hope for parole. Rofé presents multiple perspectives, speaking to perpetrators – some now barely adults, others already behind bars for over a decade – as well as their families, and survivors of victims of juvenile offenders. The complexity of the issue often leads viewers to shift their own stance, scene-by-scene, on the vital question presented at the doc’s heart: Is there any hope for rehabilitation and redemption through our penal system if these young men are never afforded even the possibility of future release, or are their crimes so heinous as to merit no second chances, no matter the circumstances?

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Special Screening: MATEO

mateoComing to NYC’s Rooftop Films tomorrow, Friday, July 18: MATEO

Aaron I Naar’s portrait of an unlikely mariachi singer had its world premiere earlier this year at SXSW. It went on to screen at Hot Docs and Martha’s Vineyard, and will be part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sound+Vision series next month.

Matthew Stoneman proves that appearances can be deceiving. Not only does the nerdy, ginger-haired man look far younger than his fifty years, but when he starts to sing, he becomes almost another person, one known by the titular Hispanicized sobriquet. The intriguing story of how Stoneman went from aspiring to be the next Elton John to claiming the title of America’s first white mariachi – it involves robbery and prison time – is only the backdrop of Naar’s complex profile. Following him over four years, the director focuses on Mateo’s make it or break it moment – completing an album in his adopted home of Havana while he contends with self-destructive tendencies, including a distracting predilection for Cuban prostitutes and poor business instincts. Emerging at once as both the film’s hero and anti-hero, Stoneman engenders audience support and head-shaking frustration in equal measures, taking this beyond standard music doc conventions to a much more intriguing look at the wide chasm that lies between talent and fame.

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brony taleNew to VOD this week: A BRONY TALE

Brent Hodge’s look at MY LITTLE PONY’s adult fandom had its world premiere this Spring at Tribeca. Its fest circuit has included DOXA, Seattle, Calgary Underground, and New Zealand’s Documentary Edge, among others.

Like the other, very similar documentary profile on this subculture, Laurent Malaquais’ BRONIES: THE EXTREMELY UNEXPECTED ADULT FANS OF MY LITTLE PONY, Hodge weaves together portraits of various fans, possible explanations for the phenomenon, and a climax at a Brony convention, while using a performer from the show as a tour guide of sorts through the fandom. His choice of featured subject is his personal friend, Ashleigh Ball, who voices two roles on the latest version of the franchise, and whose invitation to attend BronyCon ostensibly serves as the impetus for the filmmaker’s project. She’s an appealing enough point of identification for a general audience – while part of the show, she’s not herself a brony – though she seriously overplays her wariness, unconvincingly hemming and hawing about whether she should accept a free trip to NYC, while scenes about her non-Pony-related music career are nothing more than gratuitous plugs. While Hodge explores the unorthodox nature of the fanbase through some of his interview subjects – chiefly a pair of psychologists who have been studying the phenomena – he seems more interested in simply celebrating its positivity, which is fine enough. Where the film overreaches, however, is through those psychologists, who proffer the theory that bronies are a response to 9/11 the way that hippies were the product of Vietnam. While there’s something to be said for the fandom’s earnest, non-cynical embrace of the show’s very basic concepts of cooperation and friendship, it’s going many steps too far to suggest such an import for a small fringe subculture without any practical agenda beyond entertainment and community.

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alive insideComing to theatres this Friday, July 18: ALIVE INSIDE: A STORY OF MUSIC & MEMORY

Michael Rossato-Bennett’s look at the restorative power of music debuted at Sundance this year, where it picked up an audience award. Its fest circuit has included Nantucket, Seattle, Big Sky, RiverRun, deadCenter, Nashville, Ptown, and Cleveland, among several others.

My pre-Sundance profile of the doc may be found here.

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teenageComing to VOD today, Tuesday, July 15: TEENAGE

Matt Wolf’s exploration of the birth of the teenager premiered at Tribeca last year. Screenings followed at Hot Docs, AFI Docs, Melbourne, Traverse City, Sidewalk, BFI London, DMZ Docs, Hot Springs, CPH:DOX, Denver, Portland, and Big Sky, among others. It now comes to various VOD platforms.

I previously wrote about the doc out of Tribeca here.

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SoundingTheAlarm_HeroComing to VOD today, Tuesday, July 15: SOUNDING THE ALARM

John Block’s exploration of the impact of autism has been screening at special events at hospitals, universities, and media centers in Boston, Miami, and New York since the beginning of the year. It most recently screened as part of last month’s Nantucket Film Festival, and now comes to Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime.

I previously wrote about the film in the Nantucket program, saying:
Since the 1990s, the number of reported cases of autism has increased dramatically, with the most recent Centers for Disease Control estimates suggesting a prevalence rate of one in 68 children. A decade ago, when Bob and Suzanne Wright’s grandson Christian was diagnosed, the couple made it their mission to discover the causes, treatments, and cure for the disorder, and they founded the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. Filmmaker John Block’s moving documentary tells the Wrights’ story, as well as the stories of other families affected by their children’s autism diagnoses, detailing their day-to-day struggles and triumphs as they seek better lives for their loved ones.

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northernlightComing to DVD tomorrow, Tuesday, July 15: NORTHERN LIGHT

Nick Bentgen’s portrait of community and snowmobiling had its world premiere at True/False last year. Other fests included Visions du Réel, Hot Docs, BAMcinemaFest, New Orleans, Viennale, and Sebastopol Doc.

I covered the doc out of True/False here.

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