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Docs. Leonard Retel Helmrich, Andrei Ujică, More

A roundup on documentaries opening tomorrow or still in theaters.
The DailyPosition Among the Stars

"Leonard Retel Helmrich's Position Among the Stars should be essential viewing for anyone curious to know what the rapidly modernizing 'second world' actually looks like," writes Steve Macfarlane in the L: "motorcycles, bootlegged t-shirts, plastic Tupperware containers, cell phones, and scores of dead cockroaches. Indonesia — the fourth biggest country in the world, and the nation with the largest Muslim population — has been the topic of Helmrich's life work, a trilogy of docs culminating here."

This "third documentary about the same Indonesian family is a dazzler in at least a couple ways," adds Seth Colter Walls in the Voice. "First off, it's the rare final chapter in a decade-plus-long saga — a trilogy that also includes 2001's The Eye of the Day and 2004's Shape of the Moon — that you can slide right into without any prior knowledge. There's a brief 'previously in post-Suharto Indonesia' montage at the beginning that draws from the earlier films; its practical efficiency at communicating the emotional background (if not all the political stuff) also introduces, surprisingly, Helmrich's affection for thriller pacing. The other way the film amazes is by taking rote family life… and sculpting individual scenes that feel poetically distinct from other family narratives we've seen before."

"His camera glides through spaces in a way that just seems impossible," documentarian Robb Moss tells John Anderson in the New York Times. To Helmrich, notes Anderson, "his innovations — like the SteadyWing, a camera mount with handlebars, and the placing of a camera on a bamboo pole (to get that trestle scene) — arise out of a philosophy that he calls single-shot cinema. 'It happened when I stopped thinking in shots, and started thinking in camera movement,' the Dutch-born director said via Skype from a film festival in South Korea. 'I don't want to make the camera movements in anticipation of the editing. I want to make the editing in celebration of the camera movements. I want to have complete freedom in how I move the camera. When you start thinking that way, you come up with shots that are never done before. And shots that can only be done with equipment that doesn't yet exist.'"

ContemporAsian Special Edition: Leonard Retel Helmrich's Indonesia Trilogy opens today at MoMA and runs through Wednesday.

Waste Land


Trashed: Two Films About Garbage is a pairing at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Scrappers, screening tonight, "zeroes in on the workaday routines and liabilities facing two laboring subjects, Oscar and Otis, good men who cruise Chicago's South Side for scrap metal," writes Max Goldberg in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The doc "details economic unrest as well as the complex race and class hierarchies of Chicago's scrap scene…. While Scrappers works to convey layers of ongoing experience, the Oscar-nominated Waste Land is witness to an exceptional intervention. The film," screening Sunday, "follows Vik Muniz, a successful Brooklyn-based artist originally from São Paolo, as he spearheads a collaborative art project in Jardim Gramacho, a gigantic landfill outside Rio de Janeiro. Muniz first contemplates the site from his Brooklyn studio using land art's modern surveying tools, Google Earth and YouTube. Once on the ground, his initial disbelief at the scale of the landfill gives way to the more modest realization that many of the pickers working there don't view themselves as the wretched of the earth."

"In 1982, doc filmmaker Pamela Yates traveled to Guatemala to capture both sides of the then-raging civil war, in which the despotic regime of military commander José Efraín Ríos Montt was responsible for the genocide of nearly 200,000 indigenous Mayans." Aaron Hillis in the Voice: "Yates's potent and vibrant footage, which fortuitously included face time with Ríos Montt, became the 1984 Sundance award winner When the Mountains Tremble — and now, in an uplifting twist more than two decades later, Exhibit A for the prosecution in a Madrid war-crimes tribunal. Although Yates's follow-up Granito: How to Nail a Dictator is comparatively and frustratingly artless, the film — which tracks the process of Yates looking through her old footage for evidence — is easy to root for; as the filmmaker revisits 16mm outtakes, Granito becomes both a humanitarian legal thriller and a quest to find justice through cinema."

At the IFC Center through Tuesday, then in Austin on the following Wednesday; Anne S Lewis interviews Yates for the Chronicle. More on Granito from Elise Nakhnikian (L), Nick Schager (Time Out New York, 2/5) and Jordan M Smith (Ioncinema).

 

OPENING TOMORROW


"One of the biggest sub-popular trends of the late 80s and 90s was 'found audio': ranting celebrities, prank calls, and in the case of the Shut Up Little Man series, drunken arguments." Noel Murray at the AV Club: "Matthew Bate's documentary Shut Up Little Man! tells how two guys in their early 20s started putting snippets of their hollering neighbors on the mix-tapes they sent to friends, and how those friends demanded more, until there was a thriving mail-order market and interest from movie producers. Subsequent squabbles over money rights ended friendships and raised troubling ethical questions."

Shut Up Little Man!


For Time Out New York's David Fear, the doc "does an expert job on tracing the evolution of SULM! from lark to 'art,' and how a cult formed around two middle-aged lives of loud desperation. Then tenuous, halfhearted connections are made between the immorality of it all and today's cultural crassness — and that's where this portrait starts to lose the plot. For once, trying to expand into a bigger exploration of the zeitgeist actually proves to be a misstep; the movie works best when it simply shuts up and concentrates more on the anatomy of a prank gone pop phenomenal."

More from Alan Scherstuhl (Voice), Matt Singer (IFC) and Justin Stewart (L). Earlier: Reviews from New Directions / New Films. Vulture has a clip (1'18").

"Some personalities are such that it's almost impossible for someone not to make an interesting documentary about them; all a filmmaker needs to do is turn on a camera and point and shoot to come away with a product audiences will want to see." Kalvin Henely in Slant: "Such is the case with The Weird World of Blowfly, a year-in-the-life documentary about the original Ol' Dirty Bastard, the prickly, perverted alter ego of singer-songwriter Clarence Reid, an important presence in the Florida R&B scene of the 60s and 70s, responsible for songs by Betty Wright, Sam & Dave, Gwen McCrae, and KC and the Sunshine Band, not to mention some chart-topping hits of his own. Though it was made by a fanboy, The Weird World of Blowfly manages not to blindly glorify its subject, if only because Clarence, now somewhat depressive being elderly and poor, isn't the party monster his Blowfly music makes him out to be ('Girl Let Me Cum in Your Mouth,' like any of his nearly unprintable song titles, clearly elicits his virile mood)."

"Jonathan Furmanski's film is frustratingly unfocused, a scattershot collection of candid footage and biographical information," writes Eric Hynes in the Voice. "Thankfully, Blowfly's world is weird as promised, a discordant mélange of hairnets, hissy fits, cock talk, and cockamamy fears of the feminine sex." More from David Fear (TONY, 2/5) and Nathan Rabin (AV Club, B).

Sound It Out

Photo: Jeanie Finlay


"A swan song for the tactile pleasures of physical media, Sound It Out draws its name from the one of the last remaining record shops in Northeast England, a cozy bastion for what's become a progressively marginalized hobby." Jesse Cataldo in Slant: "Befitting its outsider standing, the shop is a haven for misfits, collectors, and general eccentrics, a clientele director Jeanie Finlay recruits in explaining the significance of vinyl, which she posits as a symbol for the importance of human contact. It's not an understated approach, and sometimes a shallow one, but it pays dividends in highlighting the collateral damage of an increasingly digital world."

"Finlay's handheld style is as casually intimate as her subjects, and the film stirringly posits music as a path to communal bliss," notes Nick Schager in the Voice. At Brooklyn's ReRun Gastropub Theater. Echotone is just now leaving ReRun, by the way, but see the site for further dates. It's "about Austin, Tex, and what happens when a city becomes too hip for its own good," writes Andy Webster in the NYT. "In New York, it has typically been visual artists who adopt a crumbling district, only to see it taken over by gentrification in a few years. In Austin, which is billed as the 'Live Music Capital of the World,' it is musicians who have raised the city’s cultural profile nationwide. Now their outlets for performing are increasingly eclipsed by the skyscrapers shooting up at seemingly every corner." More from Joseph Jon Lanthier (Slant, 2/4) and Michelle Orange (Voice).

"Spectacularly photographed and journalistically lame, Jane's Journey blows a 105-minute kiss to Dr Jane Goodall, the seventysomething primatologist-turned-conservationist oft-mistaken for the late gorilla expert Dian Fossey," writes Rob Nelson in the Voice. Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant: "Despite the fact that Goodall narrates the bulk of the material, there are scant details about her concrete contributions to animal and life science save for her observing of chimp-made tools; director Lorenz Knauer instead seeks to bathe us in the down-to-earth demeanor yet larger-than-life celebrity of his subject, interpolating generally awe-struck testimony from Pierce Brosnan, Angelina Jolie, and an oddly puckish Michael Eisner among thumbnail sketches of events from Goodall's globe-trotting, lecture-giving life."

"Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace opens with a four-minute history of 4000 years' worth of conflict in the Middle East," writes Michelle Orange in the Voice. The doc then turns to the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian treaty brokered in 1979 and the "comprehensive but unavoidably wonky inside story of how Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin were persuaded to spit and shake hands."

 

HELD OVER


Festival madness has led to my falling behind on roundups for theatrical releases, and while some of those films will simply have to slip on by, others that are still around, including documentaries, of course, are worth more than mere mentioning.

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu


"Though it belongs to the tradition of found-footage documentaries — from the work of such Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s as Dziga Vertov and Esther Shub, to such later practitioners as Edgardo CozarinskyAndrei Ujică's astonishing film The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu adds a twist," writes Tony Pipolo for Artforum. "Boldly declaring itself an autobiography, it invokes the hidden other self that shadows all autobiographies and makes that the nucleus of the film's deconstructive construction of the public life of the former Romanian dictator. A document of relentless self-aggrandizement that Ceauşescu himself could hardly have matched, the film, through sheer ingestion of the cloying, propagandistic media record — much of it commissioned by the dictator — of its subject's manufactured persona, is both compelling and repellent."

More from Manohla Dargis (NYT), David Fear (Time Out New York, 5/5), Michael Koresky (Reverse Shot), Noel Murray (AV Club, B+), Michael Nordine (Slant, 3.5/4), Nick Pinkerton (L), Ray Pride (Movie City News), Vadim Rizov (GreenCine Daily) and Matt Singer (IFC). Earlier: Daniel Kasman's review from Toronto 2010 and the NYFF 2010 roundup. Brandon Harris talks with Ujică for Filmmaker.

"A simple, powerful act of bearing witness, We Were Here is a sober reminder of the not-too-distant past, when gays were focused not on honeymoon plans but on keeping people alive," writes Melissa Anderson in the Voice. "David Weissman's oral history of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco also explores the specifics of psychogeography: Vividly recalling the specific street corners, bars, and shops forever linked with their earliest memories of the disease, his five interviewees recount their experiences living in the city at the height of the epidemic in the 1980s and early 90s." More from David Fear (TONY, 4/5), Stephen Holden (NYT) and Bill Weber (Slant, 3/4). Scott Macaulay interviews Weissman in Filmmaker.

"Like the recently released Iron Crows, Eugenio Polgovsky's The Inheritors profiles the plight of poorly paid manual laborers, anonymously occupying a life of backbreaking work." Jesse Cataldo in Slant: "Yet the differences between them, specifically the absence of leading narration, broad context, and emotionally manipulative music in Polgovsky's film, shows that a little restraint goes a long way. Assembled from short, naturalistic shots of people at work, The Inheritors becomes a bittersweet testament to labor and a damning representation of a vicious cycle, its images speaking entirely for themselves." More from Polly Bresnick (Brooklyn Rail), Jeanette Catsoulis (NYT), Mark Holcomb (Voice) and Keith Uhlich (TONY, 4/5).

The Voice's J Hoberman on The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975: "Black nationalism lives and breathes in this remarkably fresh documentary — a standout in last spring's New Directors/New Films — assembled by Göran Hugo Olsson. Sampling and lightly annotating hours of news footage discovered in the Sveriges Television basement, The Black Power Mixtape opens with the 1967 arrival of 'fair-skinned and starry-eyed' Swedish journalists in Hallandale, Florida, and ends with excerpts from the 1975 documentary Harlem: Voices, Faces. In between, the Swedes report on political trials in Oakland and breakfast programs in New York; they follow Bobby Seale through Stockholm, visit Eldridge Cleaver in Algiers, and hang out with Stokely Carmichael in his mother's living room."

"We are dealing with a complex artifact; and anybody who does not have complex feelings about it is just not sentient," writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. "My own feelings, listed in no particular order, include beguilement, admiration, empathy, horror, shock, gratitude, hunger and dismay." He explains. More from Noel Murray (AV Club, B), Sam Price (Playlist, B-), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 4/5) and AO Scott (NYT).

Ernest Hardy in the Voice on Where Soldiers Come From: "The strength of director Heather Courtney's documentary as it follows a group of young, small-town friends on their journey from aimlessness to war is that, in laying out 'where soldiers come from,' she adroitly maps out overlapping terrains: the material (brutal economic realities), the intangible (the mindset of her subjects), and how they feed one another." More from David Fear (TONY, 3/5), Michael Nordine (Hammer to Nail), Jordan M Smith (Ioncinema) and Lauren Wissot (Slant, 2/4). The L's Mark Asch interviews Courtney. Check the site to see Where Soldiers Come From is now playing.

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