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DOC NYC 2021 Roundup

DOC NYC 2021
Online streaming and in-person screenings in New York City
Through November 28, 2021
The annual documentary series DOC NYC returns to actual movie theaters after being relegated to online only last year. Of course, the online selection remains, so those who can’t get to the in-person screenings in Manhattan can access the films from anywhere through November 28. As always, there are scores of features and shorts to choose from; here are the baker’s-dozen features I saw.
Three outsized celebrities are the subjects of a trio of entertaining if not explosively illuminating portraits. The grand dame of TV cooking shows—not to mention her groundbreaking French cookbook—Julia Child broke through so many glass ceilings and other barriers throughout her decades-long career (she died two days before her 92nd birthday in 2004) that it’s surprising that Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s Julia is able to pack so much information into its 95 minutes. 
Dean Martin: King of Cool

Similarly, Tom Donahue’s Dean Martin: King of Cool tells the crooner/actor/notorious lush’s rags to riches story, with a pit stop at his long partnership with Jerry Lewis—the clip from Lewis’ 1976 Labor Day telethon when they reunited after an acrimonious split is a highlight—and glimpses at his varied showbiz friendships and fraught personal life. It’s telling, however, that only one of his eight children discusses dad on camera.
The Real Charlie Chaplin

Then there’s The Real Charlie Chaplin, a two-hour journey through the extraordinary life of who remains cinema’s most iconic genius several decades after his death at age 88 on Christmas Day, 1977. Although Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s film provides the facts in chronological order and contains few new insights—it does mention Chaplin’s predilection for very young women, if only in passing—it does have a surfeit of classic scenes from Chaplin’s indelible oeuvre, especially Chaplin’s still moving speech at the end of The Great Dictator.
Alien on Stage

For a glimpse of a truly bizarre theater adaptation of a movie, check out Alien on Stage, which is exactly what its title promises: an adaptation of Ridley Scott’s monster-in-outer-space shocker, which thrilled moviegoers in 1979, created as an annual fundraiser for local bus drivers in Dorset in southwest England. Directors Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey are unabashed fans of the intrepid cast and crew, who after a bumpy start manage to amass a cult following with their low-budget, tongue-in-cheek but surprisingly faithful stage version, even bringing it to London’s West End, where it plays to happy sold-out audiences. 
A Tree of Life

Two imposing events in recent American religious and racial history are recounted in a pair of impressive films. The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting is the focus of Trish Adlesic’s A Tree of Life—Tree of Life was the name of the synagogue—which has emotionally wrenching testimony by survivors scarred by what they lived through, especially because friends or family members were murdered right next to them by a white supremacist in Donald Trump’s America.

In Attica, director Stanley Nelson and his co-director Traci A. Curry pointedly explore the infamous uprising at the western New York prison in 1971, in which mostly black and brown prisoners took guards hostage and held them for several days, until the state troopers called in by Governor Rockefeller retaliated at the cost of many lives (post-mortems showed that several dead hostages were shot indiscriminately by the “rescue team”). The slanted nature of news coverage at the time—this was during Nixon’s “law and order” period—is taken to task in this account of how racist attitudes are to blame as much as the horrible conditions of Attica itself.
The Automat

The story of one of the most peculiar restaurant chains in America is recounted in The Automat, Lisa Hurwitz’s breezy doc that follows the history of a place (known to anyone over a certain age, especially in New York) where one could buy fresh meals, dessert, and coffee for mere nickels, whether factory workers, salesmen, performers or businessmen. Interviews with fans of the format—like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner (all RIP!) and the irrepressible Mel Brooks, who even wrote a catchy end-title song—former employees and the owners’ family members make for an engaging portrait of a small but valuable slice of Americana.
Grandpa Was an Emperor

The eventful history of the family of Haile Selassie, leader of Ethiopia for more than four decades, is at the heart of Grandpa Was an Emperor, Constance Marks’ intimate profile of Yeshi Kassa, whose painful memories of her great-grandfather Hailie and other relatives are marked by the 1974 military coup that overthrew the emperor, followed by his death the next year. Although she was apart from the events that occurred because she was sent to boarding school in England at the time, Yeshi returns to Ethiopia and discovers that young people don’t know anything about their country’s recent history; at this late date, she struggles to come to terms with such a fraught personal history. 

Another agonized family chronicle, Torn was made by Max Cole, whose father Alex—an avid and celebrated mountain climber—was killed in an avalanche when Max was only 10. This affecting, powerful film is not only an homage to Alex but also a sign of hope that time can at least heal some wounds: Max’s mother Jenni has been happily married for 20 years to Alex’s good friend Conrad, and Jenni and Alex’s three grown sons (adopted by Conrad) have made peace with their fated family legacy. Torn’s climax, showing Alex’s frozen remains found on the mountainside 17 years after his death, is as heartrending a sequence as anything I’ve seen onscreen.
End of the Line
The COVID-19 pandemic informs two films that dive into the long-term problems of two fabled institutions. First, there’s End of the Line, Emmett Adler’s insightful investigation into how the New York City subway system—its infrastructure neglected for decades—is literally crumbling, thanks to rundown and out-of-date equipment. When a multi-billion-dollar capital program for fixing the rotting infrastructure (along with the subway’s 24-hour service and the city itself) is upended by COVID, Adler shows how easily something millions of New Yorkers count on can grind to a halt.

In the same way, Inhospitable peeks into the big business of American health care, in which profits have it all over patients—even in so-called nonprofit facilities. Director Sandra Alvarez zeroes in on western Pennsylvania, where the battle is joined between the healthcare behemoth Highmark and UPMC hospitals, with the former threatening to not accept UPMC patients once its takeover goes through. Of course, the pandemic then arrives and further erodes our teetering healthcare system, creating more difficulties for those who need the most affordable care.
The Business of Birth Control
Since the 1960s, the pill has given many women agency over their own bodies, but director Abby Epstein displays how, in The Business of Birth Control, that same miracle drug has become the go-to for doctors to prescribe for reasons other than avoiding pregnancy, and how such a one-size-fits-all regimen has been the source of depression, suicidal thoughts, and even undiagnosed fatal ailments. With necessary candor, women and family members of victims discuss attempts to bring such clear and present dangers out into the open.
We Are Russia
Finally, the eye-opening We Are Russia is director Alexandra Dalsbaek’s brilliant exposé of the farce that is Russian politics under the thumb of strongman Putin—apparently with the blessing of many ordinary citizens. But Dalsbaek introduces young activists who have rallied behind opposition candidate Alexei Navalny—now serving time in a Russian prison for ostensibly being the anti-Putin—and bravely hold protests for their candidate, knowing they will be harassed, or even worse, by unamused authorities. With rigor and empathy, Dalsbaek displays the frightening world of authoritarianism—but also, through these heroes’ actions, some light at the end of the tunnel.

DOC NYC 2020 Roundup

 The Day After

DOC NYC 2020
Online streaming through November 19, 2020

Due to the ongoing pandemic, this year’s edition of DOC NYC—which comprises dozens of new documentaries—is streaming online, so in a way, it’s a blessing in disguise: the festival can reach a larger audience than ever before.

As always, the selection comprises a rich array of films exploring such topics as contemporary politics and the Nazis’ legacy, Mars simulation and the fashion industry, and helicopter parents and crooked cops. Then there’s Television Event, which explores the making of the seminal 1983 made-for-TV movie, The Day After, which dramatized the aftermath of a nuclear bomb destroying an American city. Through interviews with local townspeople who worked on (and acted in) the film, the film’s director Nicholas Mayer—who was fired and had the film taken out of his hands—ABC network executives and others, this is as informative as the best DVD featurettes, with director Jeff Daniels providing the necessary Cold War context, which includes the revelation that the movie was even shown in the Soviet Union—once.

Red HeavenTwo political documentaries explore part of what’s causing the seemingly unbridgeable divide in the U.S. right now. Yael Bridge’s The Big Scary “S” Word breezily but effectively dissects how the term “socialism” became such a bogeyman in America as it details the many socialist programs, like social security and Medicare, that work for so many Americans. In The Place That Makes Us, director Karla Murthy visits Youngstown, Ohio, to record the devastating effects of bad policies that have turned once-thriving communities into boarded-up ghost towns as well as enterprising local residents who are the catalysts of an economic turnaround.

A 2015-6 Mars simulation experiment is documented in Lauren DeFilippo and Katherine Gorringe’s Red Heaven, which takes footage from the video cameras of the six “astronauts” while spending a year in a remote location in Hawaii to discover the effects of isolation on their psyches and bodies. Although endlessly fascinating, the film is almost unavoidably choppy since it has to condense so much footage into 90 minutes. But it is also, in the final analysis, quite touching in its depiction of how relationships can start or fracture while in such an isolated state.

Germany’s recent troubled past rears its head in two sobering films. Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga’s Songs of Repression focuses on Colonia Dignidad, a religious cult of Germans living in Chile since the 1960s, and the horrifying sexual and physical abuse of children and adults (and assisting General Pinochet’s regime in wholescale genocide) that has been part and parcel of their time there from day one. In Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s especially relevant The Meaning of Hitler, historians, writers, Nazi hunters and others illuminatingly discuss how such a hateful and murderous ideology still survives 75 years after Hitler’s death.

Calendar GirlThe remarkable Ruth Finley, who published the yearly calendars for the New York fashion industry’s events for several decades, is lovingly profiled in Christian D. Bruun’s entertaining Calendar Girl. This delightful and colorful woman (who died at age 98 in 2018) is, in a very real sense, a walking talking history of fashion in Manhattan, and it’s great to see her immortalized on film.

Helicopter parenting, the subject of Margaret Munzer Loeb and Eden Wurmfeld’s impactful Chasing Childhood, is dissected in a way that makes one wonder how anyone ever thought it was a good idea. Along with showing how kids are being deprived of their childhood, the movie raises other red flags, like how giving youngsters so many extracurricular activities not only overloads their schedules but also bankrupts their parents, and how parents’ fears—and laws that punish those parents who allow their children some sort of independence—prevent kids from taking on personal responsibilities.

Blue CodeWhen Sidney Lumet made his 1981 epic, Prince of the City, it made crooked cop turned informant Bob Leuci into a hero of sorts. Magnus Skatvold and Greg Mallozzi’s Blue Code of Silence explores the background of Leuci’s career in the NYPD and how his actions not only shone a light on widespread corruption in the department but also made life difficult for many of his fellow cops—including one who killed himself. If Lumet’s film erred on the side of Leuci, this documentary gives equal voice to Leuci’s backers and his many detractors, making for a considered, warts-and-all portrait of a conflicted man who was equally disgraceful and heroic.

In Los Hermanos (The Brothers), directors Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider tell the poignant story of Ilmar and Aldo López-Gavilán, musically talented brothers who grew up in Cuba but were separated after Ilmar was sent to the USSR. He eventually settled in the States while Aldo stayed in Cuba and both brothers forged their own, very different music careers. The Brothers records their reunion, performing and recording together as well as their personal reckoning with the decades-long U.S. embargo, which was pulled back by Obama before being reinstated by trump. But the joy in their music making is what makes the strongest impression, whether playing with superstar violinist Joshua Bell and Aldo’s own conducting wife or just Ilmar and Aldo alone which, appropriately, is how the film ends.


"Spellbound" & the Legacy of French Cinema at Lincoln Center


This year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series, presented by Film at Lincoln Center from March 5th through the 15th, seems once again of especially limited interest, with few works being shown by directors of truly international stature.
Of special note, however, will be Happy Birthday [Fête de famille], with a cast led by Catherine Deneuve and screening on the 12th and 15th, the new film by the unsung Cedric Kahn, who memorably directed the extraordinary L’Ennui from 1998, adapted from Alberto Moravia’s amazing novel and starring the remarkable Charles Berling. Cinephiles will be excited too by a free talk, presented by HBO on March 8th at 3pm at the Amphitheater of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, with Serge Toubiana, former editor of Cahiers du Cinèma, on the subject of his new book, L’amie américaine, Helen Scott, who is most remembered for serving as a translator for François Truffaut in his celebrated and historic interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. The scheduled panel discussion moderated by Annette Insdorf commands attention also for featuring critic and author Molly Haskell and the unusually fine director and screenwriter, Robert Benton, in an uncommon public appearance.
Not to be missed either is the North American premiere of Spellbound [Les envoûtés], the latest effort by Pascal Bonitzer, whose achievements include that of an actor, film critic, film theorist, screenwriter, and sometime director. He has been one of the most significant scenarists of recent decades, writing scripts for, among others, Raúl Ruiz, André Téchiné, Barbet Schroeder, Jacques Rivette, Chantal Akerman, Otar Ioseliani, and Xavier Beauvois. Fortunately, his estimable body of work as a director has been included in Rendez-vous with French Cinema numerous times, giving New Yorkers a welcome opportunity to appreciate a set of films that have not received commercial distribution in the United States.
Spellbound, adapted from the Henry James short story, “The Way It Came,” but set in contemporary France, might be described as the eccentric story of a romance between a mousy magazine writer, beautifully portrayed by Sara Giraudeau, and a reclusive painter, the latter convincingly played by the handsome and under-appreciated Nicolas Duvauchelle, who has been in films by Claire Denis, Erick Zonca, Benoît Jacquot, Alain Corneau, Téchiné, Alain Resnais, and Emmanuel Finkiel, among others. One striking aspect of the narrative is that it is a recent contribution to the fantastic genre famously and brilliantly expounded by the late Tzvetan Todorov, the important structuralist critic and theorist.
Characteristically engaging and unexpectedly moving, this is formally less interesting than the director’s other features, employing a less expressive, more functional style. Bonitzer’s use of non-diegetic classical music is powerful, however, including the Jean Sibelius tone-poem, The Swan of Tuonela, and the Sarabande by Georg Friedrich Händel that is unforgettably a part of the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful Barry Lyndon from 1975. The filmmaker is ably assisted, too, by an excellent cast including Josiane Balasko and the gorgeous Anabel Lopez.
Spellbound screens at the Walter Reade Theater on March 8th at 4pm and on the 13th at 9:15pm.

“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” Proves That She’s Very Much More Than Just That

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Director: Joachim Rønning
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Michelle Pfeiffer

Given that “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is a sequel and inspired by Disney's classic animated film, this Maleficent doesn’t appear as much of an evil sorceress as the title suggests, and with Angelina Jolie playing the lady mage, she looks pretty good even when showing a hint of fang and an occasional scowl. This recently released, digitally enhanced feature is less about being bad and more about being conflicted. She loves her adopted daughter Aurora but distrusts humanity in general and the King and Queen of the neighboring kingdom of Ulstead even more.

While Elle Fanning provides the dose of innocence needed for Aurora to connect, she also looks a little too much like a tween to be consistently convincing that she’s ready for marriage and children. Nonetheless, her relationship with Prince Phillip (with Harris Dickinson replacing Brenton Thwaites from the first film) endears while some of his other actions seem less than sensible.

But the best part of this sequel is Michelle Pfeiffer's skill at being the nasty, deceptive Queen Ingrith. Pfeiffer does evil well and turns the tables on everyone with just the right amount of self-justifying nastiness to make her expected comeuppance satisfying. 

Embracing by a complex mythology and backstory — something of a departure from “Sleeping Beauty,” the original classic Disney cartoon  that inspired this live-action series — this Maleficent is far more like a living being — emotional and conflicted. Jolie adds depth and even a dose of camp; Fanning’s innocence and light.

As a sequel to the 2014’s “Maleficent,” this film comes out of Disney’s universe, so it can only go so far. But it offers some rich alternate world building and greater detail to the characters who were first set into motion in the first film. With a solid cast consisting of Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville returning to their previous roles; and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ed Skrein and Pfeiffer join the cast as new characters, the film comes alive. 

Though it received mixed reviews, with some criticism leveled at a "muddled plot and overly artificial visuals,” the performances made the film far more convincing than expected. And between the detailed costumes and production design, the films’s a wonder to view and one to provide some great costumes ideas for Halloween.

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