On DVD: FROM THE ASHES

Coming to DVD today, Tuesday, August 22:
FROM THE ASHES

Director:
Michael Bonfiglio

Premiere:
Tribeca 2017

Select Festivals:
Washington DC Environmental

About:
An exploration of the coal industry’s past, present, and likely future.

Putting the lie to the rhetoric that the Obama administration somehow waged a “war on coal” to cripple the mining industry, this conventional but effective film instead convincingly demonstrates the realities behind the continuing decline of coal use and the shuttering of mines, locating both primarily in the explosion of cheap natural gas, rather than regulatory attempts. Bonfiglio traces the history of America’s usage of coal, the industry’s major role in contributing to serious environmental and health concerns, and the global social and economic changes that have resulted in its being phased out. Miners and their families, facing a lack of development of other industries thanks to the lobbying power of the mining industry, are caught between unrealistic promises of the current administration to revitalize a moribund industry, and losing what little they have, unless they are able to transition, as some are shown here, to a growing renewable energies industry.

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On TV: THE FARTHEST

Coming to PBS tomorrow, Wednesday, August 23:
THE FARTHEST

Director:
Emer Reynolds

Premiere:
Dublin 2017

Select Festivals:
Tribeca, Edinburgh, Seattle, AFI Docs, Sydney, New Zealand, Telluride Mountainfilm

About:
A comprehensive history of the Voyager mission, from inception to execution to the present day.

I previously wrote about the doc here.

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On TV: DIANA: HER STORY

Coming to PBS tomorrow, Tuesday, August 22:
DIANA: HER STORY

Director:
Kevin Sim

Premiere:
PBS (August 2017)

About:
Twenty years after her death, Princess Diana reveals her intimate thoughts on the Monarchy.

Sim’s project is one of several being released this month commemorating the beloved British figure on the anniversary of her tragic death in 1997. Drawing extensively from video footage filmed by the Princess of Wales’ speech coach, Peter Settelen, the doc offers Diana reflecting on her initially fairy tale romance with Prince Charles, one that captured the attention of the world, and how it came to a sad end. Recorded while separated from Charles as she sought to hone her public speaking abilities and to counter what she and others perceived as an effort by the Royal Family to phase her out, this footage shows a thoughtful princess confiding her feelings of loneliness and frustration as the initial whirlwind of Charles’ courtship gave way to a quickly dawning awareness of the open secret of his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. Sim may assume, probably rightly, that his intended audience is already well-versed in the details of Diana and Charles lives, leaving viewers less familiar with Royal history occasionally a bit in the dark. Regardless, rather than aiming for a comprehensive recounting, the engaging portrait instead deliberately presents only Diana’s perspective, bolstered by the memories of close friends and associates.

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On TV: TRIBAL JUSTICE

Coming to PBS’s POV this coming Monday, August 21:
TRIBAL JUSTICE

Director:
Anne Makepeace

Premiere:
Santa Barbara 2017

Select Festivals:
Brooklyn, Berkshire, Big Sky Doc, Full Frame, Woods Hole

About:
A portrait of two Native American tribal court judges in California.

Makepeace’s film explores the tribal court system of the two largest tribes in California, the Yurok in the north and the Quechan in the South, through the caseloads of Abby (Yurok) and Claudette (Quechan). Because the tribes are sovereign nations, they are able to work with the California state courts in many cases to take over jurisdiction of certain matters related to their tribespeople. In contrast to conventional Western conceptions of the judicial system as a place for punishment, the tribal court system instead practices restorative justice, with the aim to reform offenders or issues within the community so that they can escape from cyclical patterns of recidivism and crime. While Abby largely deals with community matters – addiction, substance abuse, child welfare – Claudette’s story is more complicated in that also herself becomes part of the court system as the guardian of her wayward nephew, Isaac, a 17-year-old just steps away from becoming another statistic in state prison. Makepeace takes a no-frills but effective approach, and benefits from two appealing protagonists, in exploring the possibilities – and limits – of restorative vs punitive justice.

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Special Screening: THE WORK

Coming to NYC’s Rooftop Films tomorrow, Friday, August 18:
THE WORK

Directors:
Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous

Premiere:
SXSW 2017

Select Festivals:
Seattle, Sheffield, BAMcinemaFest, Sarajevo, Melbourne

About:
Folsom State Prison hosts an intensive men’s group therapy workshop.

McLeary and Aldous focuses on one of the two times a year when Folson’s program – nicknamed “the work” by the participating inmates – allows non-convicts to enter the prison to participate in a four-day intensive workshop alongside the prisoners. Three of these civilians are followed as they take part, guided by inmates who are seasoned program participants. One man recognizes that a couple of bad decisions could have led him to Folsom like has happened to so many of his friends, another recognizes he has never fully pursued his aspirations, and the third, who comes off as an arrogant jerk, is primarily attracted to participate in order to experience a sense of danger. Over the course of the often friction-filled workshop, each civilian – and several inmates – are coaxed to open up about formative experiences, many connected to issues with their fathers, and the emotional baggage they carry, while protected here in a safe space, with no surveillance or guards present. While they find the intense experience cathartic, it feels forced or performative at times, and the film’s verité approach doesn’t provide an opportunity to flesh out its subjects sufficiently to give the viewer a sense of how impactful this group therapy writ large really ultimately may be.

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On VOD: MONKEY BUSINESS: THE ADVENTURES OF CURIOUS GEORGE’S CREATORS

New to VOD this week:
MONKEY BUSINESS: THE ADVENTURES OF CURIOUS GEORGE’S CREATORS

Director:
Ema Ryan Yamazaki

Premiere:
Los Angeles 2017

Select Festivals:
Nantucket

About:
The secret origin of Curious George.

I previously wrote about the doc here.

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In Theatres: SIDEMEN: LONG ROAD TO GLORY

Coming to theatres this Friday, August 18:
SIDEMEN: LONG ROAD TO GLORY

Director:
Scott D Rosenbaum

Premiere:
SXSW 2016

Select Festivals:
Nashville, Gold Coast, Woods Hole, Calgary

About:
A tribute to unheralded blues musicians who supported stars Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Rosenbaum’s reverent portrait is one in the growing subgenre of music docs that aims to finally give due to talented but previously unrecognized background or supporting performers. In this case, the focus is on African-American bluesmen Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Hubert Sumlin, who contributed piano, drums, and guitar, respectively for luminaries like Waters and Wolf. While falling on rough times after these band leaders died, the sidemen experienced a resurgence of interest in their later years as their music was rediscovered by younger audiences interested in the roots of rock and roll, and finally received some of the industry accolades that had long eluded them, including Grammy Awards for Perkins and Smith in 2011. Drawn from interviews conducted before the deaths of all three in that year, the film offers an unfortunately conventional biographical portrait, livened up somewhat with music and performance footage, as it charts their careers and the influence they had on musicians who followed them.

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