Now on DVD: 30 FOR 30 SEASON II/VOLUME I
ESPN’s popular sports documentary series wrapped up its latest season last month. This new boxed set collects half of their most recent offerings, fifteen films covering athletic history, personalities, and issues related to a range of sports. This post and a follow up tomorrow offer very brief thoughts on this collection. Continue reading
Coming to HBO tonight, Monday, December 9: SIX BY SONDHEIM
James Lapine’s profile of the acclaimed composer and lyricist makes its debut as the final film in the HBO Docs Fall series.
Frequent collaborator Lapine joins with critic Frank Rich as executive producer to trace Sondheim’s career and talent, foregoing the standard parade of talking heads gushing about his genius to instead construct a decades-spanning interview with the man himself, culled from archival appearances and newly shot material. Supplementing this footage, in which Sondheim both relates autobiographical details and, more fascinatingly, details his creative process, are the titular set pieces that are meant to be the film’s selling point – a half dozen of his songs, from his Broadway debut WEST SIDE STORY, to his biggest mainstream hit, “Send in the Clowns.” Three of these performances are from past stagings or excerpts from other work, like DA Pennebaker’s COMPANY, while the others are brand-new, serving as an excuse to recruit performers like Darren Criss, America Ferrara, and even Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker (as directed by Todd Haynes). While these re-stagings add some variety, singling out these six songs feels fairly arbitrary, given the breadth of Sondheim’s work, and the inclusion of celebrities somewhat unnecessary in the face of the copious amount of past footage on hand. That said, for a viewer like myself, with virtually zero interest in musicals, the project is laudably accessible, with Sondheim concisely and engagingly able to articulate the fundamentals of his approach to craft, making this worthwhile viewing for a broader audience than one might expect.
Coming to the Film Society of Lincoln Center today, Friday, December 6: MARVIN HAMLISCH: WHAT HE DID FOR LOVE
Dori Berinstein’s loving tribute to the multi-hyphenate musical genius made its debut at the BFI London Film Festival this Fall. It went on to screen at DOC NYC and the Hamptons, and now comes to Lincoln Center before its national broadcast debut at the end of the month on AMERICAN MASTERS.
I previously wrote about the film for the DOC NYC program guide, saying:
Before his untimely death last year, composer Marvin Hamlisch was a triple-threat in the worlds of music, film and theater. A Juilliard prodigy, he developed into a hit-maker, creating instant classics like THE WAY WE WERE and the score for A CHORUS LINE, winning every major award – Pulitzer, Tony, Grammy, Emmy and Oscar. His loved ones and collaborators, from Barbra Streisand and Carly Simon to Steven Soderbergh and a constellation of Broadway luminaries, offer an affectionate and entertaining tribute of the beloved showman’s life and work.
Coming to Pivot TV this Sunday, December 8: WE ARE LEGION: THE STORY OF THE HACKTAVISTS
Brian Knappenberger’s exploration of Internet collective Anonymous debuted at Slamdance last year. It went on to screen at SXSW, Hot Docs, Sheffield, Traverse City, Silverdocs, and Seattle, among others, and to enjoy a limited theatrical as well as VOD release. Knappenberger’s new film on information activist Aaron Swartz, THE INTERNET’S OWN BOY, will premiere in competition next month at Sundance.
I previously included the doc in my SXSW coverage here.
New to VOD this week: ARTIFACT
Bartholomew Cubbins (AKA Jared Leto)’s indictment of the modern recording industry made its debut at Toronto last year, where it won the audience award. It went on to screen at SXSW, DOC NYC, and Melbourne, among other fests. The doc is now available worldwide on iTunes.
Filmed over the course of two years, Leto’s engaging film chronicles his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars, as they record This Is War, the follow-up to their best-selling second album while fighting a staggering $30 million lawsuit waged against them by their record album, BMI. While fans of the band, and music doc lovers generally, will appreciate the behind-the-scenes of the three-man band as they craft songs under the guidance of legendary music producer Flood, the film is far more interesting in its laying out of the arguments against the antiquated business practices of the record industry. As Leto and his partners face the possibility of a career-ending court fight, former BMI executives, attorneys, and other musicians detail the outrageous economics of the music business, where even a multi-million bestseller can leave a band in serious financial debt to their label. The latter comes off as an ever more greedy and clueless corporate tool even as it faces extinction, more than willing to sacrifice its artists in pursuit of a vanishing profit. While Thirty Seconds to Mars manage to figure out a somewhat workable solution, Leto’s film serves as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of the modern music industry and a call for an alternate model.
Coming to NYC’s Maysles Cinema as part of a Marc Levin Masterclass series this Saturday, December 7: GANG WAR: BANGIN’ IN LITTLE ROCK and BACK IN THE HOOD: GANG WAR II
Marc Levin’s 1994 exploration of unexpected gang violence in Arkansas and its 2004 follow-up both screened on HBO.
Levin’s first look at Little Rock shocked viewers, demonstrating how gangs like the Bloods, Crips, and Folk had spread from their original bases of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago to the center of the country, attracting a multi-racial membership of disaffected youth. As pointed out more than once in the first doc, the year before it aired Little Rock saw its per capita murder rate surpass those larger cities. Levin follows the city’s coroner, Steve Nawojczyk, as he tries to curb the violence by confronting gangbangers with photos of the many youths he’s had to tend to in his job, and, simply, by listening to them – even as he risks his own life, as when he’s caught by happenstance here in the middle of a drive-by shooting. A ceasefire negotiation between rival gangs offers a hopeful end to the original doc, but, a decade later, with violence once again on the rise, Levin returns. The sequel focuses on Leifel Jackson, the former head of the Crips featured in the previous film, as he adjusts to life back in Little Rock after serving time. Determined to stay out of prison to care for his family, he volunteers for school programs with former rivals to speak frankly about gang life and to persuade kids to stay out of it. Others that Levin checks back in on haven’t fared as well, or see no legitimate recourse to the drug trade in a troubled economy, and have remained in the life. While Jackson serves as a compelling guide, it’s disappointing that the follow-up failed to profile members of the other gangs featured in the first film, whose non-stereotypical racial and gender make-up proved especially intriguing.
Coming to NYC’s Maysles Cinema as part of a Marc Levin Masterclass series this Saturday, December 7: MR UNTOUCHABLE
Marc Levin’s portrait of the most notorious drug kingpin of NYC had its world premiere at CineVegas in 2007. The film went on to screen at Urbanworld, Docville, and other fests before being released theatrically and on VOD by Magnolia Pictures.
The legendary Leroy “Nicky” Barnes ruled Harlem for the first half of the 1970s, rising from a common drug dealer to the leader of a criminal empire dubbed the Council, trading largely in heroin and cocaine, brokered through close ties with the Mafia. As ironically suggested by his nickname, borrowed for the film’s title, his hubris ultimately led to his fall from power. When evidence was finally collected against Barnes, he turned on his former associates, securing his freedom through the FBI’s Witness Protection Program, and, as revealed in Levin’s film, seems to have made out like a bandit. Interviewed in silhouette, the remorseless Barnes-in-hiding flashes conspicuous symbols of success – a natty suit, expensive jewelry, and even champagne – trying too hard to project the kind of power he hasn’t wielded in decades. Levin’s overly slick but engaging portrait recaptures 1970s Harlem, managing to dance a fine line between nostalgic criminal glamorization and begrudging satisfaction in Barnes’ comeuppance.
Coming to NYC’s Lincoln Plaza Cinema this Friday, December 6: TIM’S VERMEER
Teller’s look at one man’s quest to uncover the Dutch master’s secrets made its debut at Telluride. It went on to screen at Toronto and the New York Film Festival. The doc will open in LA next week, and then goes nationwide at the end of January. It was just announced as one of the fifteen films shortlisted for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
I included the doc in my Toronto coverage here.
Coming to NYC’s Anthology Film Archives as part of the To Look Awry series this Thursday, December 5 and Sunday, December 8: PABLO’S WINTER
Chico Pereira’s portrait of a septuagenarian curmudgeon had its debut at DOK Leipzig last year. It went on to screen at IDFA, MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, Glasgow, ZagrebDox, Full Frame, Documenta, Munich Dok.Fest, DocsBarcelona, Dokufest, Camden, and DMZ Docs, among others.
I previously wrote about the doc upon its theatrical release here.
The Best Documentary Feature Oscar shortlist was just announced, narrowing the nearly 150 qualifiers to just fifteen contenders. Congratulations go to all the filmmakers for making it on to this list, especially the eleven Sundance alums and the nine DOC NYC Short List alums!
It’s now a waiting game until the five final nominees are revealed on Thursday, January 16. In the meantime, here is the official shortlist, with links to my previous coverage for each of the films:
THE ACT OF KILLING
THE ARMSTRONG LIE
THE CRASH REEL
CUTIE AND THE BOXER
FIRST COUSIN ONCE REMOVED
GOD LOVES UGANDA
LIFE ACCORDING TO SAM
PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER
STORIES WE TELL
20 FEET FROM STARDOM
WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE?