Category Archives: Film

In Theatres & On VOD: BILLIE

Photo credit: Michael Ochs/Greenwich Entertainment

Coming to select theatres and to VOD today, Friday, December 4:
BILLIE

Director:
James Erskine

World Premiere:
Telluride 2019

Select Festivals:
Palm Springs, Tempo Doc, Boulder, Deauville, Glasgow

About:
A portrait of Billie Holiday through the perspective of her would-be biographer.

In 1971, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl began research for a biography of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who had died at the age of 44 in 1959. Kuehl spent the next seven years interviewing Holiday’s family, friends, bandmates, and partners, attempting to give due to Lady Day, whose reputation had been sullied by drug charges. The journalist didn’t shy away from the more risqué elements of Holiday’s background, including prostitution, drug use, and various sexual escapades, as well as the harsh reality she experienced as a Black woman in a time of open discrimination and racism. In 1978, before the biography was completed, however, Kuehl died in what was ruled as a suicide. Her family suspected foul play, but, in their grief, did not push for further investigation. While her research was used in subsequent Holliday biographies, James Erskine’s documentary is the first film that draws from it. Curiously, Erskine chooses to weave in Kuehl’s story in parallel with Holiday’s, though, thankfully, the singer still takes precedence. This approach is not wholly successful, with the Kuehl behind-the-scenes elements feeling like a distraction, and no theory sufficiently developed as to why she might have been killed, though learning a bit about the journalist helps to contextualize some of the more heated or revealing exchanges she captured on audio tape. A sequence in the film notes that Kuehl pointedly acknowledged her privilege and status as a white woman telling the story of a Black woman – which could make Kuehl somewhat of a surrogate for Erskine, a white filmmaker telling Holiday’s story – and more might have been done to parse out how this impacted her research, access, and approach to her biography. Still, despite its dual focus, the film provides viewers with intimate perspectives on Holiday that capture her complexity.

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On TV: KEITH HARING: STREET ART BOY

Coming to PBS’s American Masters tonight, Friday, December 4:
KEITH HARING: STREET ART BOY

Director:
Ben Anthony

World Premiere:
Sheffield 2020

Select Festivals:
NewFest, Side by Side

About:
A portrait of the influential pop artist, who came to fame through his distinctive subway art in 1980s NYC.

Keith Haring outgrew his small Pennsylvania hometown to travel to NYC for art school in the 1970s. Seeking an outlet for his art, and wishing to make it accessible to as wide an audience as possible, he began to make chalk drawings on unused advertising spaces in the subway, creating a singular vocabulary of images of babies and dogs which would become iconic. Embraced by the downtown art scene, Haring emerged as a popular figure, gaining an international audience, and finding creative ways to promote his work, including opening his Pop Shop. At the same time, he was an activist, using art to create awareness of gay rights issues and the AIDS epidemic that would claim his life at the age of 31. While filmmaker Ben Anthony is somewhat limited by his project’s truncated run time, his use of Haring’s own recordings is particularly effective and affecting.

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On VOD: CROCK OF GOLD: A FEW ROUNDS WITH SHANE MACGOWAN

Coming to VOD tomorrow, Friday, December 4:
CROCK OF GOLD: A FEW ROUNDS WITH SHANE MACGOWAN

Director:
Julien Temple

World Premiere:
San Sebastian 2020

Select Festivals:
DOC NYC, Zurich, Cologne

About:
A profile of the lead singer and songwriter of The Pogues.

The film screened as part of DOC NYC, for which our program notes read:
As the lead singer and songwriter of The Pogues, Shane MacGowan fused punk rock with Irish folk music to create timeless songs such as “Streams of Whiskey” and “Fairytale of New York,” while championing an unabashedly Irish identity. Filmmaker Julien Temple, who began his career making films with the Sex Pistols, is a perfect match to let MacGowan tell his own story, in revealing conversations with the likes of Gerry Adams and Johnny Depp. For any MacGowan fan, this is an essential portrait for understanding his complexity.

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In Virtual Release: 76 DAYS

Coming to virtual cinemas tomorrow, Friday, December 4:
76 DAYS

Director:
Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous

World Premiere:
Toronto 2020

Select Festivals:
DOC NYC, AFI Fest, Camden, CAAMFest, Zurich, Hot Springs Doc, Los Angeles Asian Pacific, Denver, San Diego Asian, Stockholm

About:
A portrait of the Christian mayor of Ramallah, Palestine.

The film screened as part of DOC NYC, for which our program notes read:
Filmed in Wuhan, China by an independent crew, this urgent profile covers the length of the city’s lockdown for COVID-19. The film’s suspenseful pacing and otherworldly imagery make it feel like a science-fiction thriller. The heroes are the front-line hospital workers who still manage to find humanity and humor even while fully encased behind PPE. Debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film was widely praised as “utterly compelling” (The Atlantic), “invaluable” (Rolling Stone), and “one of the best” at TIFF (The New York Times).   

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In Theatres & On VOD: DEAR SANTA

Coming to select theatres and to VOD tomorrow, Friday, December 4:
DEAR SANTA

Director:
Dana Nachman

World Premiere:
Heartland 2020

Select Festivals:
DOC NYC

About:
Volunteers for the USPS’s Operation Santa answer letters to Santa.

The film screened as part of DOC NYC, for which our program notes read:
Each year, hundreds of thousands of children’s letters to Santa arrive at post offices around the country. The USPS attempts to make their Christmas wishes come true through a massive community organizing project known as Operation Santa. Through this initiative, volunteers are mobilized to adopt letters and bring holiday cheer (and gifts) to children nationwide, as revealed in this charming film.

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On VOD: BORDER SOUTH

Coming to VOD via OVID.tv today, Wednesday, December 2:
BORDER SOUTH

Director:
Raul O Paz Pastrana

World Premiere:
Sheffield 2019

Select Festivals:
AFI Docs, Margaret Mead, New Orleans, Guadalajara, Indie Memphis, Indie Grits, San Diego Latino

About:
An exploration of the dangerous path taken by migrants between Latin America and the US.

As has been chronicled in numerous documentaries, the policies enacted by the US government to deter migrants from seeking to cross the southern border have not stopped desperate people from risking – and often losing – their lives. Raul O Paz Pastrana’s film looks at some of these individuals, a group of Nicaraguans taking a trail from southern Mexico to the US, and the makeshift community they’ve formed along the way. At the doc’s center, however, is Gustavo, a Nicaraguan who was shot by Mexican police, providing him with high profile media attention and grounds to seek asylum. To underscore the dangers of crossing, a second and not quite as compelling thread follows an American anthropologist, Jason, who recovers traces of migrants for the Undocumented Migration Project – from backpacks and clothes to human remains. As a whole, Pastrana’s film is a quiet but thoughtful reminder of the ordinary people impacted by xenophobic fearmongering.

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In Theatres/Virtual Release: THE CHANGIN’ TIMES OF IKE WHITE

Coming to select theatres and to virtual cinemas this Friday, December 4:
THE CHANGIN’ TIMES OF IKE WHITE

Director:
Daniel Vernon

World Premiere:
Camden 2019

Select Festivals:
DOC NYC, Glasgow, Valladolid

About:
The unexpected story of a long-vanished jailhouse musician.

The film screened as part of DOC NYC, for which our program notes read:
Ike White was a musical prodigy serving life in prison since age 19. His luck changed when he had the opportunity to record in prison the album Changin’ Times (1976) with WAR producer Jerry Goldstein. Decades later, filmmaker Daniel Vernon tracks down White out of prison, living in obscurity, and the story takes dramatic twists.

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On VOD: STALKING CHERNOBYL

New to VOD this week:
STALKING CHERNOBYL

Director:
Iara Lee

World Premiere:
online (April 2020)

About:
A look at Chernobyl today, focused on legal and illegal visitations to the exclusion zone.

I previously wrote about the doc here.

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On TV/VOD: BABY GOD

Coming to HBO and HBO Max tomorrow, Wednesday, December 2:
BABY GOD

Director:
Hannah Olson

World Premiere:
SXSW 2020 (unscreened)

Select Festivals:
DOC NYC, Nantucket, Double Exposure

About:
A fertility specialist is hailed a miracle worker until the advent of commercial DNA testing reveals his unexpected secret.

The film screened as part of DOC NYC, for which our program notes read:
For decades, Las Vegas fertility specialist Dr Quincy Fortier was celebrated for helping thousands of couples have babies. His secret? Impregnating women with his own sperm, unbeknownst to them. Using a consumer DNA test, a woman discovers that Dr Fortier is her biological father, setting in motion a quest to find her many half-siblings. Filmmaker Hannah Olson chronicles their struggle to understand the truth about themselves and the unusual man who fathered them all.

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In Virtual Release: MAYOR

Coming to virtual cinemas tomorrow, Wednesday, December 2:
MAYOR

Director:
David Osit

World Premiere:
True/False 2020

Select Festivals:
DOC NYC, Nantucket, CPH:DOX, IDFA, Hot Docs, Full Frame, Camden, Maryland, DokuFest

About:
A portrait of the Christian mayor of Ramallah, Palestine.

I previously wrote about the film for DOC NYC’s program, saying:
David Osit’s compelling film offers a portrait of Musa Hadid, the affable mayor of Ramallah, the historically Christian city that serves as the administrative center of Palestine. Hadid has day-to-day concerns to handle, from increasing tourism to planning the annual Christmas celebrations, but the darker realities of life under occupation are never too far away. Balancing absurd humor with unforgettable moments of gravity, Osit’s profile reveals a side of Palestine rarely seen in Western media.

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