Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney has the misfortune of arriving in theaters years after Asif Kapadia’s Amy. Both documentaries track the rise and fall of generational musical talents, the former about Whitney Houston and the latter about Amy Winehouse. Their lives were elevated by what made them unique entertainers and artists and brought low by drug use, manipulative fathers, and bad relationships. Kapadia avoided nonfiction biopic clutter and sameness by piecing together much of his film from paparazzi footage of Winehouse, a formal statement that matched the path that his subject’s life was taking. Macdonald doesn’t use that kind of formal invention, and instead relies on the power of his talking heads and of Houston’s own dominating charisma. Whitney proves to be a capable documentary thanks to those aforementioned strengths, as well as some aggressive editing from Sam Rice-Edwards. Houston is revealed to be the kind of multi-faceted personality that no one could make a bad documentary about.
The documentary An Honest Liar posits that its subject, James Randi, has failed. Not at being a legendary escape artist and magician who is favorably compared to Houdini by peers, but at translating the performative philosophy of his craft into the public square. He describes magicians as being the most honest people in the world, because they are telling the truth even when they’re trying to trick their audience. Their feats are elaborate hoaxes and misdirections, and they never claim otherwise. Conversely, the most dishonest people are those that use the exact same tools as the magician and present themselves as being actually magical. Despite his elaborate public humiliations of these charlatans, they keep popping back up with a new scheme or excuse, impervious to the public’s weak critical thinking skills. Directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s far-ranging film chronicles that Sisyphean fight, plus Randi’s professional and personal life as it goes through too-good-to-be-true twists and turns befitting a man who’s always kept people guessing.
Morgan Neville isn’t breaking new cinematic ground with Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary about the life of children’s television host Fred Rogers. He’s not even as formally inventive as he is with his Oscar winner, 20 Feet From Stardom, in which he used memorable camera tricks to show how one backup singer can now do the work of several. This film is as straightforward and uncomplicated as its host, and it loses little power by being so. Sometimes, the choice of a documentarian’s subject is enough to make a film a dead ringer, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor has made that choice.
At the opening of the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at the LA County Museum of Art, 13 years after his 1999 death, the director’s personal assistant and guardian of his legacy, Leon Vitali, was not invited. Vitali is a living refutation of auteur theory, and there is no greater auteur than Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps having Vitali in attendance would’ve pulled focus from Kubrick. In Tony Zierra’s documentary about Vitali, it is the assistant who pulls focus from the auteur. Zierra’s Filmworker finds in Vitali the most dedicated below-the-line workhorse and makes a film dedicated to all those like him, men and women who ensure a film is completed in exchange for a blip in the end credits and the knowledge that even if no knows who they are, they too built that. This is a documentary that reframes how a person thinks about movies, and will cause this reviewer to think twice when he gives all the credit to the director.
Some of the most important, and underseen, photos in American history are the shots of lynchings. Smiling white men and women and sometimes their children pose next to the burnt and dismembered corpses of black men. In addition to the gore and snuffed-out life present in these pictures, they are most horrific from the fact that the dead men or women in the picture could be swapped out with some giant county fair pumpkin or a winning Little League team, and the smiles would be the same. There’s civic pride on those faces, prompting the viewer to wonder what the conversation was like on the trip back home. Did attendees gather at the soda fountain after and reminisce the next day? The banality of these pictures is a reminder that evil doesn’t have a tail and cloven hooves, but a family and an occupation and a house with framed pictures. The documentary A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did is about the now-elderly children in those frames reckoning, or not, with a different set of crimes committed by their parents, men who orchestrated monstrosities and then came home to their families. The existence of atrocity next to domesticity continues to hold great interest for this viewer, a universal human dichotomy that remains fascinating and chilling across all timelines and continents.
Within the bloody and ongoing Mexican drug war, there are hundreds of angles for journalists and documentarians to find human drama and misery. Director Shaul Schwarz finds an ouroboros of violence in Narco Cultura, a shocking and powerful film that refuses to blink from the active war zone across the US’s southern border. Overlooking the city of El Paso, where a handful of murders are committed each year in one of America’s safest cities, lies Ciudad Juarez, a metropolis with overflowing morgues in the aftermath of cartel violence and government crackdowns. Feeding and reinforcing this violence are narcocorridos, the equivalent of folk singers who mythologize cartel figures through albums that can be purchased at the local Walmart. Schwarz splits his time between narcocorrido group Buknas de Culiacan and morgue workers in Juarez, often juxtaposing the band’s braggadocio with a smash cut to horrific violence and gore on the Juarez streets. It’s a blunt tactic, but a cruelly effective one. American consumers of news have been so shielded to real-world violence despite nearing the third decade of forever war that to see the results face down in the dirt is cold slap of harsh reality.
The stakes for the heroic activists in David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague are life and death. Composed of archival footage from the 80’s and 90’s, France withholds who’s going to be alive when the film ends. Some of the more prominent leaders of Act Up, bright and vivacious in the past, don’t see their quest through to the end. The story of the LGBT men and women and their allies who spent years advocating for their community in the hunt for a treatment for HIV and AIDS is one of passion and protest and theatricality, but it’s primarily a story of people becoming capital-C Citizens, of motivated individuals, their brains and their hearts working as one, marshalling all the knowledge available on a subject and bludgeoning the unwieldy apparatuses of government and big business into tragically-belated action. This is a civics success story, but one built on the 8.2 million bodies who died before a reliable and safe treatment for AIDS could be put into practice. How to Survive a Plague contains the best and the worst of America, a bravura journalistic masterpiece that retains its anger 22 years from when its historical timeline ends.
The details of Buck Brannaman’s lifestyle are such that if he were a fictional character, no one would believe them. His childhood and his chosen profession are so inextricably linked that they would seem to spring out of the pen of a hack writer pounding away at Starbucks, taking a triumphant sip after tying up a character’s entire motivation. Cindy Meehl’s intimate documentary about Brannaman, the inspiration for Robert Redford’s titular character in The Horse Whisperer, works as well as it does because of its basic, elemental intuitiveness. Brannaman had a brutal childhood under the tyrannical rule of his abusive father. He gets taken in by a kind foster family and apprentices under a mentor who teaches him everything he knows about horsemanship. Brannaman’s specific history allows him to have a unique empathy for horses, having experienced the cruelty of physical punishment to get a creature to do what the holder of the whip wants it to do, and thus he can instantly diagnose and correct horse behavioral problems as if he were Doctor Doolittle. In Buck, Meehl frames this handy cause and effect circle as self-evident, and Brannaman embraces it as he tours the Western US, helping, in his words, ‘people with horse problems and horses with people problems.’
Brett Morgen splices together dozens of hours of previously-unseen footage of Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in 2017’s best documentary. Jane is devoted to ten years of Goodall’s early career, through her recruitment by famed paleontologist Louis Leakey and the successes and failures of her personal and professional life. Intercut with present-day Goodall putting wry cappers on events, the doc works as nature footage and excels as a first-hand account of misogyny within a family unit and in the whole of a society.
There’s documentaries that have grand scopes like 13th or No End in Sight and then there’s I Am Another You, a film about one man living on the margins. Made by Nanfu Wang, who injects herself into the proceedings and narrates over much of the film, the film follows a homeless young man named Dylan. For 80 minutes, Wang peels back Dylan’s layers, fooling both herself and the viewer about who this guy really is.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.