Category Archives: Recommendations

On DVD: MURDER OF A PRESIDENT

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.

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On TV: THE PERFECT CRIME

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.

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Special Screening: ABDUCTION: THE MEGUMI YOKOTA STORY

abduction4Coming to NYC’s Stranger Than Fiction series tomorrow, Tuesday, February 9: ABDUCTION: THE MEGUMI YOKOTA STORY

Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim’s investigation into tale of international kidnapping debuted at Slamdance in 2006, where it won the audience award for best documentary. Other fest screenings included Atlanta, Cleveland, IFF Boston, Sydney, Austin, Hot Docs, Denver, Bangkok, Planete Doc, DocAviv, Thessaloniki Doc, SF Asian American, and IDFA.

In 1977, Megumi, a 13-year-old Japanese schoolgirl vanished without a trace. Her grieving parents sought an explanation, suspecting foul play, but wouldn’t receive confirmation of their suspicions for two decades, when an intrepid investigative journalist uncovers proof that Megumi was part of a series of kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents. Sheridan and Kim profile the Yokotas, as well as family members of other abductees, as they search for the truth and try to hold the secretive North Korean government accountable. Along the way, Megumi’s parents face some heartbreaking revelations, only to discover additional layers of subterfuge that leave everything they learn in doubt in this engaging, ever-shifting story of ordinary people caught up in unanticipated international intrigue.

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On DVD: WELCOME TO LEITH

welcome to leithComing to DVD tomorrow, Tuesday, February 9: WELCOME TO LEITH

Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K Walker’s immersive look at a town under siege made its bow at Sundance last year. The doc went on to screen at Nantucket, SXSW, Dallas, RiverRun, Sarasota, Montclair, Sydney, AFI Docs, New Zealand, Melbourne, and Sidewalk, among others.

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

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On TV: HOMEGROWN: THE COUNTER-TERRORISM DILEMMA

homegrownComing to HBO tonight, Monday, February 8: HOMEGROWN: THE COUNTER-TERRORISM DILEMMA

Greg Barker’s exploration of the perceived threat of domestic terrorism makes its debut on the venerable premium cable network.

Once again working with author Peter Bergen after their previous collaboration, MANHUNT, Barker bases this provocative current project on Bergen’s upcoming book UNITED STATES OF JIHAD. Through interviews with both counter-terrorism experts and the family members of convicted terrorists or would-be terrorists, the film investigates the realities and myths of homegrown Islamic extremism in the wake of September 11 and the wars that have followed in the past decade and a half. Muslim Americans speak candidly about the prejudice and fear they regularly face, compounded when one of their own relatives faces terrorism charges, at times based on what the family views as only thought crimes rather than physical acts. While experts defend these prosecutions, seeing clear links between the conspiracy charges leveled against so-called radicalized jihadists and the commission of violent, deadly acts, they curiously also note that despite its ability to engender public hysteria, the actual threat of domestic terrorism is grossly overstated. As a result, the meeting, late in the film, between family members ruing the fate of their convicted relative and a high-level counter-terrorism official, takes on a strange, almost contradictory sense – if the threat is more perceived than real, has the federal government shown extraordinary, unwarranted zeal in prosecuting these cases of nascent- or proto-terrorist inklings, or is a policy of being better safe than sorry, despite the impact on basic American freedoms and values, still somehow justified?

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On TV: JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY

jimComing to HBO tomorrow, Saturday, February 6: JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY

Brian Oakes’ personal look back at the life and death of James Foley just made its debut at Sundance last month. The doc now makes its broadcast premiere.

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

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On TV: MOTLEY’S LAW

MOTLEYSLAW-KEYComing to Al Jazeera America this Sunday, February 7: MOTLEY’S LAW

Nicole N Horanyi’s portrait of a lawyer practicing in a foreign land made its debut at Chicago last year. It went on to screen at DOC NYC, where it won the Viewfinders competition, as well as CPH:DOX, IDFA, and Göteborg.

I previously wrote about the film for DOC NYC’s program, saying:
More than five years into her practice as a defense lawyer in Kabul – the first and only Western lawyer, not to mention the only woman, licensed to work in the Afghan courts – no-nonsense attorney Kimberley Motley finds herself at a crossroads. Though originally motivated to provide for her children’s futures, her experiences have ignited a personal drive to fight against corruption and abuse. With the withdrawal of international troops looming, can Motley brave personal threats and an unstable country to continue her work?

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