LA 92 (2017; Dir. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, November 17, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
The best documentary of the year so far, a harrowing, sweeping, intelligent, dynamic and elegantly constructed montage about the Los Angeles riots of 1992. LA 92 begins with footage from the racially charged Watts riots of 1965 and proceeds to build a strong cast of root causes for the inevitable sequel, with racial inequality, police brutality and economic insecurity receiving plum, above-the-title roles. An intensifying anger finally found its release after two high-profile cases of racially motivated violence against African-Americans – first the senseless murder of teenager Latasha Harlins by an Asian store clerk, then the horrific beating of Rodney King by four white policemen – resulted in revolting injustice. Much of this territory was covered in last year’s epic O.J.: Made in America, and we’ll presumably see many of those same iconic clips (e.g., the Rodney King beating, and the assault on Reginald Denny) in John Ridley’s just-released Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992. But Lindsay and Martin (Undefeated) have also assembled a fair amount of rare and never-seen footage, much of it culled from on-the-scene camcorders, and a lot of it utterly unbelievable (e.g., the blood-soaked nightmare at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, or the man coolly lighting palm trees on fire as he strolls down a lawless street).
Brimstone & Glory (2017; Dir.: Viktor Jakovleski)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, November 3, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
A color-saturated, visually stimulating, razor-thin documentary about the National Pyrotechnic Festival that takes place in the Mexican municipality of Tultepec, a national center for fireworks production. There are two main events during the festival – one involving skyscraping towers festooned with colorful explosives, and the other involving elaborately decorated bulls that detonate into blazes of fireworks while daredevils dance around in the colorful flames. Making his feature directing debut, Jakovleski provides little context, less story and almost no commentary, and rather than using the festival as a springboard to explore issues of worker safety, environmental desecration and out-of-control machismo, he mostly turns the 67-minute Brimstone & Glory into a candy-colored formal exercise. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Jakovleski and his collaborators (including the editor and composers behind Beasts of the Southern Wild) deliver one jaw-dropping sequence after another – I doubt I’ll ever forget some of the potent images in this film, especially the enormous bulls erupting into rainbow-colored infernos while sparkling projectiles whiz through crowds of cavorting lunatics.
78/52 (2017; Dir.: Alexandre O. Phillippe)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, October 27, at the Alamo Drafthouse at New Mission; now playing on VOD services.
Superficial cinephilia from The People vs. George Lucas director Phillippe, a wide-ranging non-examination of the infamous shower scene from Psycho (the title of the documentary refers to the 78 shots that comprise the 52-second sequence). Bloviating dude after bloviating dude gives their mostly unnecessary takes on Hitchcock, naturally leading to spurious claims about how Psycho was the first film to ever do everything. Obviously, I’m interested to hear what film scholars and qualified experts like Janet Leigh body double Marli Renfro and ex-critic/contemporary Peter Bogdanovich have to say about Hitchcock (although Bogdanovich appears especially grumpy here, possibly the victim of an overly tight ascot), but not narcissistic windbags like Eli Roth and Richard Stanley. Not Bret Easton Ellis. Not Elijah Wood. Not Danny Elfman and not even Amy Duddleston, the editor of the Psycho remake (although this does lead to a marvelous story about a tense moment in the editing room, when she and Van Sant realized their version of the shower sequence wasn’t working, even though they were following the original film shot-for-shot…that was the only time this concern came up?!). Most irritating: Phillippe’s overuse of shoddy re-enactments and chintzy black-and-white cinematography, while actual clips from Psycho are sparingly seen.
Whose Streets? (2017; Dir.: Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, August 11, at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Landmark California in Berkeley.
A portrait of activism captured by activists, mostly focusing on street-level views of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which were held in response to the police murder of African-American teenager Michael Brown. The sickeningly violent and dehumanizing police and military actions against peaceful protesters in Ferguson eventually sparked riots, but they also galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement into a literal life or death cause. Naturally, the compliant mainstream media stood behind the lines and reported on looters instead of investigating police brutality, but Whose Streets? was largely assembled through various cell phone videos, giving us a powerfully intimate look inside a city under occupation and a people under siege. Black Lives Matter leaders are understandably wary about their portrayal in the media, and even though the activist credentials of the directors allowed them unique access, background details and personal arcs are still reduced to a bare minimum. While the result is less coherent and lacerating than last year’s Do Not Resist, as a horrifyingly immediate compilation of battle footage from the American war on black people, and as a snapshot of activism in flux, Whose Streets? is utterly indispensable.
Dawson City: Frozen Time (2017; Dir.: Bill Morrison)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, July 14, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
A stunning work of curation from documentary filmmaker Morrison, a story of fortune, folly, film and fire preserved in permafrost. When the Yukon Gold Rush struck in the last 1890’s, the remote Alaskan town of Dawson City boomed to a population of over 40,000, and numerous theaters sprang up to entertain idle stampeders. Dawson City’s population dwindled when the gold rush skipped town, but enough residents remained to support a couple of silent movie houses. The outpost became the last stop along the theatrical exhibition trail, often receiving films years after their release, and the studios refused to pay to have the highly flammable nitrate prints shipped back. Instead, discarded film stock was dumped under an ice hockey rink and forgotten for decades, when the treasure trove was unearthed during renovation and hundreds of presumed lost silent movies were found. Morrison does dramatic justice to the Dawson City story, a rise-and-fall epic that weaves in enough turn-of-the-century celebrities to satisfy E.L. Doctorow, without overindulging in precious recreations. Many assemblage documentaries of this sort strike me as obtusely opportunistic and reductive (e.g., it was the 1930’s, so insert any random shot of jitterbugging flappers), but Morrison creates something wistfully beautiful from the material, and his respect for both cinema and history shines through.
Nowhere to Hide (2017; Dir.: Zaradasht Ahmed)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, June 30, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
Politically charged, video vérité war documentaries have been appearing so frequently (and so similarly) in recent years that it becomes too easy for formalist aesthetes to callously dismiss their depictions of pain and suffering as genre cliches. Few if any of these films boast distinctive cinematic values, and most aim for a simplistic, middle-of-the-road message, so even a highly personal story of life during perpetual wartime like Zaradasht Ahmed’s Nowhere to Hide seems strangely distant. The film follows Nori Sharif, a big-hearted medic from the Iraqi town of Jalawla, as he treats the beleaguered villagers and protects his adorable family in the years following the American withdrawal. An initial sense of uncertainty in the region quickly descends into the chaos of sectarian violence, and Nori and his family are finally forced to flee when ISIS takes over their town. Incredibly powerful scenes and images abound, but Nowhere to Hide is ultimately too concerned with brushing broad strokes to stand out in this sadly crowded field.