07/21/10 2:00am

Countdown to Zero

Directed by Lucy Walker

This interview-heavy documentary is crowded with so many important subjects that ultimately, like stars on stage at a Bono charity concert, their combined luminance cancels out the impact of any individual appearance.

In Countdown to Zero, a chorus of generals, former CIA agents (Valerie Plame Wilson), former heads of state (Carter, Musharraf, Blair, Gorbachev), nuclear physicists and policy experts, each repeat, with bitter smiles, what many of us already know about nuclear weapons:

1. It’s easy for anyone to traffic highly enriched uranium.
2. A nuclear accident is highly probable.
3.Rogue leaders are bent on building nuclear warheads and they are easy to make.
4. Bombs do all matter of terrible things to human bodies.

While we take these points (again and again!) in utmost confidence, trusting that the people telling us have been around this sort of information on a daily basis, with all these talking heads essentially saying the same thing, the effect is an echo-chamber. One imagines that the filmmakers, fearful of removing any single high-powered sound-bite, were unable to sift the “merely good” from all this greatness. Likewise it appears as if every bit of archival stock footage tagged with the word ‘nuclear’ was included.

The film’s production company, Participant Media, also producer of An Inconvenient Truth, bluntly calls itself a maker of films that are “socially viable and strike a populist chord in the hope of effecting change for the good of the world and the benefit of humanity.”

So those looking for artistic levity will find it in the film’s grand finale: an aerial simulation of a hypothetical nuclear bomb attack on Manhattan cut with a montage of oblivious New Year’s revelers in Times Square and then treated to a voice-over describing the gruesome effects of nuclear radiation on human flesh.

While Countdown‘s mission is a noble one, the film for the most part feels more like a long scroll down a very well supported, but overblown (sorry) Wikipedia page.

Opens July 23

06/02/10 4:00am

Directed by Eric Merola

Many aspects of The Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski Story seemed suspicious to journalist Craig Malisow as he researched the Polish-trained cancer pharmacist’s battle against the FDA for The Houston Press last year. Though witness testmonials and Burzynski’s self-funded trials show that the patented drugs he produces in Texas, called Antineoplastons, appear to work, the thought that irked Masilow most was that “Burzynski seem[ed] to have amassed exactly zero outspoken allies in conventional medicine.”

If the dearth of allies, of articles in peer-reviewed oncology journals, of support from the FDA, or any cancer organizations, including the National Cancer Institute, is not enough to raise eyebrows, does Burzynski, a documentary by a filmmaker who has worked his whole life for advertising agencies and production companies specializing in paid content, suffice?

In Burzynski: The Movie, director, producer, cinematographer, writer and Burzynski cheerleader Eric Merola forms a narrative that exempts the doctor from peer judgment while also exempting himself from interviewing any Burzynski detractors. This is the narrative that Burzynski himself prefers, one in which he is a beleaguered outsider, a innovator misunderstood, facing a monolith medical culture mired in red tape and pharmaceutical influence, and with much to lose in the event of Burzynski’s radically different methodology’s approval.

While the injustices of the medical system might merit an advocacy-journalism approach, this documentary’s press notes place an unusual emphasis on its objectivity. The press agent, perhaps the protean director himself writing in the third person, explains that Merola (who has not produced any other independent documentaries), only pursued the baldly biased project once he found evidence that exonerated Burzynski from his critics—evidence unavailable elsewhere, but which may or may not be in the film itself: “Mr. Merola relentlessly acquired any and all documentation required to prove that everything Dr. Burzynski had shared was indeed the truth. The evidence that supports this truth is one of the highest forensic standards and hard documentation [sic]. Some of this documentation is internal documentation that was never intended to wind up in the hands of Dr. Burzynski, much less the general public, and especially not a whistle blowing film such as this.” Is the “internal documentation” the slow panning footage of Burzynski’s self-published articles, the forlorn CG animations featuring constellations of chemical compounds names like Dasatinib and Gefitinib paired with double-helixes spiraling to an ambient musical score, the interview in which the wealthy Burzynski proclaims, “I am working in wartime conditions… working in Gaza Strip,” or the testimonies of cancer survivors who attribute their healing to Antineoplastons?

For a filmmaker so purportedly devoted to muckraking, and releasing top-secret evidence to the general public, Merola expresses great tact in avoiding the risk that his viewers wind up hearing any other point of view. The issue over whether Burzynski’s medicine works (it just may) won’t be answered for viewers, since to parse fact from fiction in a documentary as one-sided as this one would be like distinguishing the celebrity’s testimonial from that of the real-life participant in an informercial for Proactiv.

Opens June 4

06/02/10 4:00am

Living in Emergency
Directed by Mark Hopkins

Medical practice never occurs in a vacuum, but to take the Hippocratic Oath in today’s globalized world commits the doctor to ever more complex non-medical entanglements. In no instance is this more apparent than with the doctors who volunteer to work with relief organizations like Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders). In addition to the medical work that tries them, logistical and existential conflicts are magnified under political duress and feelings of alienation abroad. These in turn are captured on tape in the dramatic documentary Living in Emergency.

Following a group of European and American doctors on missions in areas still smarting from escalated civil wars, director Mark Hopkins (who before turning to documentary films worked on features like Wonder Boys) captures no shortage of action. Not only are we witness to one distressing medical procedure after another (the leg of a peacefully anaesthetised patient is sawed off in one of the first scenes), but also to the terrifying responsibility that Western-trained doctors face when left to work in the field alone, without the diffusing effect of committees, hospitals or infrastructure.

Aside from private stress, Hopkins captures interpersonal clashes, often stemming from language, cultural or professional differences. Perceiving Western aide as a hostile infringement, one doctor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, his pride clearly hurt, yells to our cameraman witness: “Tell your doctors to talk to me like a doctor and not like a small boy.” On a lighter note, we also see loose-lipped doctors at happy hour. One volunteer disses the red-tape inaction of other NGOS: “[MSF] offers…none of that touchy feely [stuff] … If I met some guy from UNICEF who told me he had seven meetings in the last 24 hours about all the theoretical programs that might happen in the next three years, I’d say fuck off.”

While by no means an expose on MSF, Hopkins’ film captures do-gooders confronting the limits of their own idealism under excruciating conditions, documenting how the emphatic impulse functions, or malfunctions, in the global village.

Opens June 4

02/16/10 4:00am

To Die for Tano (1997)
Directed by Roberta Torre

To watch To Die for Tano requires that you be willing to shift uncomfortably in your seat, to cringe a little at the over-expository script, and to watch a movie that feels sped up (but not cut) like a montage. You also need to be prepared to listen to musical numbers at every turn, to tune in to one narrator and then drop that one in favor of a Grecian chorus of ladies in a hair salon. A consistent fanfare consumes the film, the uproarious din of community drowning it out.

This is a musical, after all. In fact, it’s a modern opera buffa about the murder of an overprotective mafia patrician named Tano. It’s easy to draw simple comparisons to West Side Story, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the films of Lloyd Kaufman and John Waters. Stage sets, which face the audience as they do in sitcoms, are exaggerated and cartoonish, and the song-and-dance numbers seem literally to animate all of the village’s ordinary surroundings: the fishmonger bouncing an octopus on a fork to the beat of a hokey rap; the chickens and sausagelinks rhythmically swinging back and forth in the butcher shop.

The acting is pantomimed and bobbleheaded, but it helps to remember that, incredibly, the actors are all amateurs—residents of Palermo’s Vucciria neighborhood. A nurse and a baker play the leads, while an electrician, farm workers, housewives, a regional inspector, and a street peddler all play parts. There is a freedom in the absurdity of the premise that brings about an unexpected lightheartedness. And zeal: the residents perform amateur dances with operatic effort.

The film was shot in 1998, back when making a movie that parodied Palermo’s mafia culture was a brave move, something that could have gotten filmmaker Roberta Torre whacked. Today, the movie is already an historical document, painting, in broad strokes, what the insular regionalism and culture of the Vucciria market area was like prior the change in zoning laws that now pose a threat to the neighborhood’s livelihood. Though “I make hamburgers out of guys like you” probably never was a line used by a mafioso butcher in Vucciria, it’s entertaining to think maybe it was. For 75 minutes, anyway.

Now Playing

02/05/10 9:43am


In notes Sontag took in 1962, she referred to two modes of “seeing”. One, the “primitive” way, with one’s eyes, and the other a scientific way, which is “artificial, a product of abstraction. We never believe it; i.e., experience it.” The coincidence and irreconcilability of these two systems long held Sontag’s interest, both personally and in her intellectual pursuits, eventually serving as a platform for work like “Against Interpretation.” For the only documentary she filmed, 1974’s Promised Lands, revived for a week at Anthology Film Archives, Sontag describes the dual truths comprising the mental landscape of contemporary Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War by using these two ways of seeing as formal structuring elements, allowing them to overlap, contradict, and occasionally, coincide.

In the opening shots, for example, minarets chime to cuts of turrets and satelite dishes, and fade into the sound of brass goat bells; a long shot of an arid valley where a herdsman tends his slick black flock. But unsatisfied with mere symbolism, Sontag keeps these visual similies rare. In Promised Lands, most shots are self-contained; long enough to give pause, and a discrete proxy for Sontag’s own compassionate scrutiny. Together, the images slip over themselves, and most significantly, they slip up against the word. Against footage of the physical landscape, funeral rites, modern marketplaces, and still-smoking battle sites filled with scorched bodies, we see (and then only hear) the matter-of-fact lecturing of two Israeli intellectuals coming to different truths about the significance of Israel’s recent history in view of Judaism at large. The result is not a contrast, but bafflingly incongruous: Yoram Kaniuk explaining the history of the Israeli political interspersed with the simple household chores of bedouins (like kneading dough in a cracked white ceramic pot); audio of physicist Yuval Ne’eman, who can only see the modern issues as mere continuation of the problem of anti-Semitism inscribed within Mohammed’s teachings, is played over the footage of beautiful young Israeli soldiers disembarking from their recent assignments.

In the film, we hear the most from Kaniuk (whose mannerisms and appearance bear a striking similarity to Slavoj Zizek in Astra Taylor’s documentary Zizek!). His mention of the irony that an enlightened, Westernized, “rationalized” nation built has been built on a “mystical deed” (granted by God to Abraham) parallels Sontag’s interest in two coinciding modes of perception. Unpacking the paradox of Zionist consciousness, he argues that “finality” of actually settling the Promised Land is antithetical to “the eternal search” internalized in the Jewish narrative, but somehow acknowledges that Israel and the embattled state it is in may simply be another chapter in the narrative. The ambient unease that Sontag’s camera captures in the scenes of day-to-day life in Jerusalem supports his suggestion that Israel is a tragedy in the Greek sense of the word; “Here there are two rights—the Palestinians have full right to Israel and the Jews have full right to Israel. It works in theatre but not in life. There is no solution to tragedy, and this is a tragic situation.”

Sontag was fully conscious of the documentary form’s limitations and chose not to call Promised Lands one: “‘Documentary’ suggests that the film is a document… [but] nonfiction films can have a broad choice of nonfiction literary models… Possible literary analogues to the film discourse of Promised Lands, I suppose, are the poem, the essay, and the lamentation,” she wrote at the time, in Vogue. The film allows two modes of understanding; embodied reality and rational analysis, to live alongside one another in an uneasy peace. Her own best critic, she wrote of her film: “Promised Lands hardly tells all the truths there are about the conflicts in the Middle East, about the October War, about the mood of Israel right now, about war and loss and memory and survival. But what the film does tell is true. It was like that. To tell the truth (even some of it) is already a marvelous privilege, responsibility, gift.”

01/06/10 8:00am

Garbage Dreams

Directed by Mai Iskander

Class stratifactions in Cairo are as follows: there is the upper class, the middle class, and then, says 17-year-old documentary subject Adham, there is his own, the “nothing” class. Adham and his family are members of the Zabbaleen, a sect of some 60,000 Coptic Christians who make their living by collecting, sorting, and recycling the garbage produced by the 18 million residents of Cairo. Profiling Adham and his two friends, Nabil and Osama, Mai Iskander’s excellent documentary is first a primer on how a class of scavengers makes do on a day-to-day basis, but also an acute example of how external forces and cultural shifts dramatically alter tradition.

Garbage Dreams opens with footage of a garbage trucks floating through streets of Cairo at dawn, and of young Zabbaleen kids scrambling to pick up bags of trash off the doorsteps of residents. The documentary then follows the refuse on a journey to the goat-filled town of Mokattam, the “garbage slum” where the Zabbaleen take their work home to sort, tear to bits, and ship off to manufacturers in other countries. Isolated details (sorting yogurt lids) and interviews with Zabbaleen expose the grueling work of sorting trash, and show also the psychological effect of the profession: “Sometimes I get embarrassed [by my job] but I must live with this, it’s my fate:” says Adham, who proves himself a trooper over the three year span in which Iskander filmed.

The time frame gave the filmmakers the opportunity to cover the recent encroachment of private garbage contractors from Spain and Italy, whose arrival has since upset the fragile human ecosystem of Cairo’s waste management. The green hazmat uniforms and fancy new garbage trucks appeal to richer residents who see “traditional” garbage picking as old-fashioned, and yet, we are told though interviews with community organizers ( who figure prominently in the film as field guides) the Zabbaleen recycle 80% of waste, compared to the miserly 20% the foreign companies achieve. Following Adham and his friends into their social circles and family homes, Iskander and Hirson demonstrate how this newfound hardship has affected the formative moments of Zabbaleen youth, many of whom have now delayed marriage for lack of income. Meanwhile, clan loyalties break when the 16-year-old Osama defects from the family garbage industry in exchange for a stable job with the foreign trash collectors.

Using microcosmic examples to demonstrate universal issues of globalization, modernization, and coming of age, Iskander braves the smell to provide us with a transportive cultural exchange.

Opens January 6 at IFC Center

12/11/09 4:00am

Until the Light Takes Us
Directed by Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell

Norweigan black metal drew attention to itself in the mid-90s, when its leaders publicly condoned and at times participated in a series of criminal gestures, including church arson and murder.

Years after sensationalist media coverage and contemporary art’s momentary fixation (around 2000) on black metal have both warped and mythologized the genre, Until the Light Takes Us attempts to give those involved a chance to testify. Documentarians Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell give viewers a better notion of the moment’s chain of events and media blow-up with archival concert and news footage, but they notably resist hard statements, leaving us with a purposefully tenuous grasp on the implications of the black metal genre.

Part of the reason for this is that while those interviewed (mainly Burzum member and convicted murderer Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes and Darkthrone’s Glyve “Fenriz” Nagell) often decry the popular appropriation of their genre as substanceless and derivative, it remains unclear if they even know what the movement’s original intents were-beyond a vague nationalism.

Virkernes, who killed his rival, Euronymous (the guitarist of Mayhem) in an escalated scuff in 1992, proposes that the movement was a reaction to global capitalism: “When McDonald’s appeared in 1991… We stockpiled weapons to prepare for war. We not only suspected there might be a third world war we hoped there would be. If you want to build something new you have to destroy the old world first.” He speaks, vaguely, about Christians burning the pagan texts in the library of Alexandria, and justifies the burning of churches as retribution for 2,000 years of Christianity’s smothering of “true” Norwegian culture: “It was no worse doing it now than [destroying Pagan culture] was in the year 900.”

Since the film’s release, Vikernes has been set free on good behavior. Meanwhile, the black metal aesthetic has been fetishized by Swedish artist Bjarne Melgaard, who invited Kjetil “Frost” Haraldstad from Satyricon to slit his wrists for a show in front of well-coiffed gallery-goers in Europe, and by Harmony Korine, who sent up the genre in a frightening tap-dance at Patrick Painter in 2000.

What remains so luridly appealing and fascinating about black metal are the extremes to which violence has been stylized and built into the ethos of a musical genre; though that genre is musically not much different than American death metal, it sparked a toxic reaction in a homogenous population in a small Scandinavian country. While Aites and Ewell provide us with a good overview of black metal’s history, their main accomplishment is revealing the intrinsic hypocrisies and contradictions of the genre, leaving us to wonder to ourselves when and why, in this particular instance, performance and reality collapsed.

11/11/09 4:00am

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
Directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler

Like Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe shows media-savvy children reckoning with the conflict between their childhood worship of their father, and their revised adult understanding of his behavior. Neither vilifying nor glorifying him, the daughters of the late civil-rights lawyer William Kunstler have produced a clear-eyed biopic that weighs the questionable aspects of his past against his heroic achievements. Kunstler was the radical/activist lawyer of the 60s and 70s, known not only for having taken on every milestone case in civil, native American, and prisoners’ rights movements, but equally for his unruly hair, wrinkled suits and obstinate attitude towards judges. His conduct in the Chicago Seven trial (he once told a judge, “I feel so utterly ashamed to be an American lawyer in this court”) changed and theatricalized the American justice system.

The case had already been a three-ring circus (judge Julius Hoffman had Black Panther leader Bobby Seale gagged and bound), but, as the Kunstler daughters show us through newspaper articles and comic animated courtroom sketches, Kunstler turned the trial into first-rate commedia dell’arte. Defendants wore costumes (judge’s robes and police uniforms) while Kunstler invited poets, musicians and others, including the irascible Allen Ginsberg to testify, and entertain. A jury member interviewed in the film recalls the shock of Kunstler’s courtroom conduct, having at the time written in her diary: “He sure wears some flashy ties… he has been forgetting to comb his hair lately.” While effecting a general loosening of American courtroom propriety (giving way to hundreds of television dramas and perhaps even Jury Duty) the Chicago Seven trial also gave Kunstler a reputation for being an outspoken radical.

As Kunstler’s reputation began to precede, him the film shows how later in his career, his love of attention overtook his interest in justice. His daughters shamefacedly recall their father’s decisions, in the 80s and 90s, to defend much-loathed public figures like Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, and the Gambino family. Emily observes, “Dad had gotten so used to being in th espotlight it didn’t seem to matter how he got there anymore.” In an interview, even the loud-mouth talk-show host Phil Donahue admits he often only featured Kunstler on his show because “he drew a crowd… A lot of times [Kunstler’s] motivation was fame.” On her father’s decision to defend the mass murderer Colin Ferguson, Emily (a teen at the time) concedes, “Our father had completely lost his mind… I had always defended my father to the kids at school, but this time I couldn’t find the words.”

Nevertheless, in the spirit of a fair trial, the Kunstler daughters honor their father with a proper defense. (Hearteningly, he received a posthumous vindication when one of his most hated clients, Yusef Salaam, the accused “central park jogger” rapist, was proven innocent in 2002.) Weaving a balanced story, the daughters of this controversial lawyer have kept Kunstler’s record open for the public to decide.

Opens November 13

11/11/09 4:00am

Pirate Radio
Directed by Richard Curtis

Forever etched in our collective unconscious as a black-and-white clip of hysterical Beatles fans, England’s youth in the 60s was effectively starved for rock and roll. Embargoed by the cultural ministry and dished out by the BBC in single-hour radio servings, the vulgar new sound had been rationed, leaving fans begging, “please sir…” Then, the story goes, a savvy American businessman heard them (as is often the case). Don Pierson flew to England, and launched three “American-style” pirate radio stations, delivering rock to the people 24 hours a day. Broadcasting from boats docked off the coast, these and other outlaw set-ups that followed were operating without crown-issued permits. By 1966, however, a reported 25 million people (half the population of England) would nevertheless tune in every day to get their fix.

Given this interesting premise, especially in light of today’s murky issues of digital pirating, Pirate Radio, a fictional ensemble-comedy about a group of radio DJs on the hypothetical “Radio Rock” ship, might have been excellent. Add also that it features Philip Seymour Hoffman doing the best he can as the “Count” a Texas-import too-cool-for-school radio DJ—but a great back-story and Hoffman’s mere presence is not enough to save this one from sinking.

What director Richard Curtis hath brought us is the 60s repurposed for the quirk generation, a period piece that would likely embarrass any self-respecting radio DJ from that era. Instead of using recent history as a backdrop for a good plot, Curtis morphs history into a Yellow Submarine cartoon, simplifying the events into a battle of hippie swashbucklers (overgrown DJ-sailors who take full advantage of loosened sexual mores) versus stuffy government suits irrationally hell-bent on spoiling the fun (they bellow villainous lines like “find me a loophole in the law!”).

The DJ underdogs are a motley crew of stock characters. As they speak in turn, we are introduced to the quiet old guy, the cuckold, the silent don juan, the news nerd, the suave business man, the lesbian, the black guy, and the private-school dropout ingénue. The coming-of-age of this last one (played by the clay-faced Tom Sturridge) has been assigned as the lynchpin for a sub-plot, but it feels thrown in to fill in the gaps between the synch-licensing deals that run expensive songs back-to-back with little provocation. The soundtrack, as expected is good, (The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, plus some more obscure tracks) but it’s been pointed out that many of the songs post-date 1966.

The historical inaccuracies are perhaps the crowning failure of Pirate Radio, but also the most obvious indication of how substance has here been replaced by an easily digestible surface. From the too-costumey wardrobe (beret: check, pointed collar: check, velvet jacket: yes!) to the twee interiors, this candy-colored fantasy ship looks like the set of an ironic advertisement for a telephone carrier. Though Curtis has every right to use an interesting aspect of musical history as a jumping-off point to produce an outrageous fictional comedy with a killer soundtrack, like this summer’s Taking Woodstock, it’s condescending to feed us, so soon, crisp nostalgic images completely drained of the cultural politics they stood for. Then again, it would be disingenuous to assume that the writer of Four Weddings and A Funeral and Love Actually was going to make another Almost Famous.

Opens November 13

10/28/09 4:00am

Labor Day
Directed by Glenn Silber

In this film by Glenn Silber, Time Magazine’s national correspondent Karen Tumulty contemplates that only a year ago, to breach the issue of health care reform would have spelled instant death for any politician. “By 2008, politicians had pretty much decided that health care reform was something they didn’t want to go near…” Yet last week, only 10 months into Obama’s term, the $829 billion dollar health care reform bill was approved by the Senate Finance Committee on a 14-9 vote. We’ve come far, and Silber’s Labor Day attributes our significant attitude change about health care not only to the grass-roots campaign efforts of Obama supporters, but, importantly, the salt-of-the earth mobilization of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Comprised of American homecare workers, security guards, nurses, probation officers and hospital clerks, this massive union, Silber asserts, not only shaped policy but significantly influenced the nomination process. Silber’s interviews and footage of meetings between the politicians and union leaders clarify that the SEIU put democratic candidates Clinton, Edwards and Obama into pressure-vices at the beginning of the nomination process, forcing them to formalize their health-care platforms and initiatives. In an interview early on in the film, Newsweek ‘s Jonathan Alter avers “the SEIU is the fastest growing union in the United States, pretty much the biggest one, and if you’re a Democrat it’s… essential to have it.”

Filming rallies, behind-the scenes dry-erase boards, and once the nomination was cinched, early-morning Obama-canvassing trips to rural Pennsylvania, Silber captures the SEIU’s extensive organizational efforts. For the general election outreach, the union released major manpower for door-to-door work; sending 2,000 trained, paid, union members in purple t-shirts to spread the word of Obama.

The film’s title refers to the history of the labor lobby, and also the SEIU-co sponsored concert, “Take Back Labor Day,” featuring Mos Def and Tom Morello, held in St. Paul across from, and at odds with, the Republican National Convention. Featuring only positive interviews on the subject, and providing a background that casts the SEIU’s role in the 2008 election as an important landmark in the history of the labor lobby, it’s clear that Silber took sides when embedding himself for this documentary. His proposal that members of the SEIU are the unsung heros of the 2008 election and partially responsible for the current administration’s progressive platform could perhaps be a slight stretch, but in this case, the bias is easily forgiven, considering the lack of credit previously granted to this union by the mainstream media. What remains is a documentary on the moves taken by the SEIU to push the issues that most concern unionized, working-class Americans to the fore of National policy debate.

Opens October 30