Give a little kid a pair of toy cars and they’ll probably contrive some way to smash them together. The big kid physicists of the illuminating Particle Fever are doing the same thing, only replace the cars with protons. In his documentary, director Mark Levinson chronicles the debates and preparation leading up to the first experiments using the Large Hadron Collider. The subjects he captures might communicate on blackboards in indecipherable mathematical languages, but they retain the raw sense of wonder they must’ve had as kids, smashing their toys into each other.
Modern media coverage guarantees that atrocities like mass shooting will now be covered for weeks, filling the public with dread and fear and morbid curiosity. The most recent (ugh) instance in Las Vegas shows no signs of abating two weeks later at the time of this review. In Keith Maitland’s meticulous reconstructing of the 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooting, the opposite was true. Despite the deaths of 16 people and the wounding of three times that number, there isn’t much sense given to a national rending of garments. The Austin campus was open for class the following day. Any national examination is concentrated in the detailed memories and lasting trauma of the survivors, the heroes, and the bystanders. Maitland’s Tower uses rotoscoping animation to capture the deadly drama, allowing the viewer to relive an incident widely credited with being the fulcrum on which the depressingly routine cycle of US mass shootings rests.
The title of Sam Blair and Joe Martin's documentary Keep Quiet comes from an interview they conduct with a survivor of the Auschwitz death machine. She returned to her Hungarian home after the war, and found that the titular maxim was the best thing for her and her remaining family in a country that Adolph Eichmann said, at his trial, contained the most exuberant collaborators in rounding up Jews. She so closely stuck to her rules that her grandson, Csanad Szegedi, would help found a successful anti-Semitic fascist party in Hungary. Szegedi would live well into adulthood before he would take notice of the serial number tattoo on his grandmother's forearm. Keep Quiet is a bracing film with a foot in the present and a foot in the past, a reminder that the latter always informs the former. It's also a fascinatingly relevant picture of right-wing extremism, of the coded language and skillful, noxious messaging that continues to tap into the body politic's worst impulses.
Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation house, has enough hits and great films to stand side by side with any other studio. Founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli has reliably cranked out masterpieces for thirty years, including My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Spirited Away. Masters work there, transporting viewers to magical realms and enrapturing them with pure emotional storytelling. In The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Mami Sunada visits the grounds of Studio Ghibli to record the creation of Miyazaki's and Takahata's latest films. Sunada takes a Wiseman-esque fly on the wall approach, plopping her camera down, melting into the furniture, and recording the normal workings of Ghibli at an abnormal time. Luckily for her, Miyazaki is in a reflective mode, opining on his career and the state of Japan while he races to finish what may be his final film.
An activist documentary that avoids an alarmist view, Pandora's Promise doesn't end with calls to action, imploring the viewer to give to a non-profit or call their representatives. Instead, Robert Stone's film in praise of nuclear power has an 'everything's fine' tone, a welcome alternative to oft-bleak agitprop filmmaking. This academic film doesn't have villains caught in split-second journalistic photos leaving their corporate headquarters. Pandora's Promise offers the hope of its titular demigod, positing a world where radiation and greenhouse gases don't have to be let out into the atmosphere and everyone can get what they want in an environmentally-sound fashion. Stone does lean too far into near-shilling for the Exelon's of the world, as the picture he paints is too rosy to be wholly complete and accurate, but his film is a corrective to the oft-hysterical brand of environment docs.
Raoul Peck's incendiary documentary I Am Not Your Negro is 93 minutes of righteous invective mixed with shameful imagery. Based on novelist and gadfly James Baldwin's unfinished work on the murders of Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Peck intersperses Baldwin's written words (spoken by Samuel L. Jackson) with archival footage of Baldwin himself on chat shows in the 60's and 70's, speaking at length about the eternally-dismissed racial animus that has been with America since before its founding. Released in the period between the end of the country's first black president (which Baldwin might call a meaningless token) and the beginning of a president who said he would need to look into the KKK's views before he rejected their endorsement, it's difficult to imagine Peck's film coming at a more apt time. There are wannabe Nazi's marching in the streets, and in I Am Not Your Negro, Peck and Baldwin remind the viewer that is not a new phenomenon.
A baffling politician gets a baffling documentary in Weiner, as camera crews follow the serial sexter through his campaign for mayor of New York City. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg get an extraordinary level of access to Anthony Weiner and his plainly uncomfortable wife Huma Abedin, longtime aide to Hillary Clinton. The film tracks Weiner from his resignation from Congress, due to humiliating Twitter blunders, through an initially successful mayoral campaign, before more revelations sink his career for a second time. Kriegman and Steinberg must have initially thought they had an inspiring second-chance story of a disgraced politician coming all the way back, silencing his puerile critics with reams of optimistic policy proposals and irrepressible charisma. Instead, they got a tragedy, in which a man lets down his loyal staffers, his potential constituents, and his family for a little titillation.
I grew up in a small Indiana town, a community of 1500 or so people. There were basketball goals in every driveway, the church bells could be heard from all over, and on weekends or in the summer, my cousins and I would play hide and seek on our bikes across a square mile of the town. Buttressed by a thriving Toyota plant in one direction and a city in the other, my hometown has largely avoided the rot that has infected so many other small Indiana communities, maintaining a steady population and occupied storefronts. Medora, as depicted in a touching and nostalgic documentary by Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart, has not been as lucky. Isolated in central Indiana, the town remains focused on its losing high school basketball team, seemingly the one thing holding the town together. On the surface, Cohn and Rothbart make a standard sports doc, but it takes on a deeper significance when viewed against the state of the town itself, another struggling entity in need of a win.
Watchers of the Sky makes the case for the necessity of powerful international organizations while also demonstrating how difficult it is to corral so many national interests into a single directive. Edet Belzberg's documentary about the various genocides of the 20th and 21st century and the legal structures that had to be build around these atrocities by dedicated public servants is blood-boiling reportage that condemns nations for clinging to as much of their sovereignty as they can while ethnic or religious minorities are blotted out. The diplomatic and bureaucratic labyrinths that the various principles have to go through seem tailor-made to strangle idealism at its earliest manifestation, but somehow, the principals of the film persist in their mission.
A staple of movies set in Brooklyn's Bedord Stuyvesant neighborhood is playing chess in the park, and in Brooklyn Castle, the action goes inside I.S. 318, a public school where geeks are the athletes. Katie Dellamaggiore's documentary about a dominant team of aspiring grandmasters makes a tedious game thrilling and absorbing. It also depicts the downstream effects that the actions of a wealthier NYC borough have on this one, where the financial crisis puts a truly great program at risk due to budget constraints. Dellamaggiore locates an absolute good and then invests the viewer in not just the team's success, but also the daily frustration of wondering whether a beloved part of one's life is even going to exist in a month or a week.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.