Filmmaker Tom Berninger hasn’t amounted to much in life, and he knows it. A pudgy, Chris Farley-esque, shaggy-haired misfit whose hobbies include listening to heavy metal and making mini slasher movies, Tom catches a break when his older brother, Matt, lead singer of indie band the National, invites him to come along on the group’s world tour to “help out.”
Tom, who up until that point has been living in the basement of his parents’ Cincinnati home, takes this as an opportunity to make a documentary, and the awkwardness that ensues is frequently cringe-inducing but also charming, endearing, and relatable to anyone who’s ever had a sibling they just can’t quite live up to. To no one’s surprise, the best parts of the footage quickly become those based around Tom, the bumbling, beer-swilling, often-buzzed “director,” who asks such remedial questions of the hipster band members that they all need a beat before they realize he’s actually serious. (One example: Tom asks his brother if he ever “gets tired onstage” and, in a moment that veers into Spinal Tap territory, asks the band’s drummer, “How many drugs, and what kinds of drugs, have you done?”)
Initially, Tom thinks he’s signed up for a sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll party tour, but when he discovers the sedate Brooklyn-based band is way more into sipping wine than slamming Jack Daniels, he’s disappointed, to say the least. So he keeps getting in trouble, screwing up little tasks, and drinking too much of the band’s booze, all the while turning the camera on himself to capture just how bad he is at all of this “work” stuff. It’s almost enough to make viewer suspect the whole thing’s a Joaquin Phoenix-esque hoax. At one point, Tom complains to Matt about being picked on by his boss, the tour manager, who repeatedly tells Tom to put down the camera and get his job done. “It’s like they think the only reason I’m here is because I’m your brother!” says Tom. To which Matt responds bluntly, “The only reason you’re here is that you are my brother.” It’s a slap in the face, but obviously one in a lifelong string of misplaced expectations and comparisons. Through the rough-cut footage of the concerts, it quickly becomes clear that Matt, nine years Tom’s senior, is a naturally gifted star. He’s dramatic, cool, dynamic, a quintessential lead singer. As for Tom? He’s a roadie—on a good day.
The shootings at Columbine High School. Wes Craven’s Scream movies. These are the all-too-familiar cultural touchstones referenced by the teen killers in the utterly chilling beginning of Lost for Life, a world premiere directed by Joshua Rofé. The documentary, which examines the question of whether it should be legal for juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole, begins with 16-year-olds Brian and Torey plotting to kill a classmate—seemingly just for kicks. Rofé reenacts the crime through photographs and actual video shot by the two boys both before and after the murder. It’s shocking and horrific, and makes the film’s goal of garnering sympathy for murderers seem well-nigh impossible.
But Rofé does an admirable job. Many of the convicted juveniles he interviews were abused as children; one, who spent more than 20 years in prison, was involved in a gang from a very young age. In one scene, photographs are shown of a young boy with his mother and stepfather as the man that boy became describes how he killed them; later, as he recounts the emotional and physical abuse he suffered at their hands, the same photographs are shown, imbued with a new air of menace. Among the questions raised: What does it say about America that when innocence is corrupted and the system fails to help children who need it, they’re forced to pay with their whole lives? Should children not be given a chance at redemption?
There are no fancy corner offices to be found in Dawn Porter’s documentary about the career paths of public defenders in the South. With a mission that mostly focuses on lessening the penalty for the majority of cases that come across their desks (these lawyers see a 90-to-95-percent guilty plea rate), these attorneys operate in a subset of the legal system that doesn’t offer the glitz of TV courtrooms.
While the cases and clients in the film are somewhat stereotypical for a documentary about the many problems within the US legal system, there are scenes throughout that create a compelling narrative arc. Rather than focusing solely on the clients, Porter hones in to examine the lives of lawyers who work for paychecks that barely make a dent in their law school loans.
One scene features a room full of public defenders at a support group meeting—much like one their clients would be court-ordered to attend—where frustrations about innocent clients, moral obligations, and personal lives all emerge as topics that bring these lawyers to the verge of tears.
The obvious question is what motivates them to continue down this career path, and Porter offers a lesson in the history of public defenders dating back to the civil rights movement—the ones who fought hard in court to ensure justice was served for individuals sent to jail for sitting at the diner counter or the front of the bus.
Before online petitions and social media made it as easy as the click of a mouse, to protest in America could mean facing professional, social, and financial ruin, as well as a possible prison sentence. Bill Siegel’s The Trials of Muhammad Ali looks at a tumultuous period during the incomparable fighter’s life, when as an already divisive figure, he stood his ground, affirmed his faith, and protested against what he saw as an unjust war. But by seeking to cover the many different facets of Ali’s life, the film often seems to zigzag over the highs and lows of his career without finding its focus.
The images and the quotes from newsreel interviews with Ali in the ’60s and ’70s certainly reinforce the narrative of a life spent struggling with issues of race and religion, but the additional attempts to frame these events within a larger context come up short. The opening scene from a British talk show reveals Ali listening to host David Susskind refer to him as “a simplistic fool and a pawn,” while the fighter remains utterly cool and expressionless. Nothing from the film’s present-day interviews can match the composure Ali expresses in that single 30-second clip.
The movie explores Ali’s conversion to Islam, the changing of his name (from Cassius Clay), and his bold decision to protest the Vietnam War and to face prison time rather than enlist. The reaction it engenders is stark and undeniable, and Ali faces constant pressure to defend and explain himself. In a brutal Floyd Patterson fight, Patterson refuses to call him anything but Cassius Clay, so Ali strategically pummels him for 12 rounds.
We have the benefit of hindsight to enjoy watching Caucus, A.J. Schnack’s new film about the Republican primary race in the months leading up to the 2012 Iowa caucus, but it’s also possible we could have used a little more time to get the taste of deep-fried butter and Godfather’s Pizza out of our mouths.
Not that there aren’t moments in the film that, almost shockingly, the passage of time has all but eradicated—Tim Pawlenty flipping pork chops at the Iowa State Fair, say, or Sarah Palin strutting around in a tight white T-shirt and stoking the speculation embers into a veritable conflagration. That was back in August of 2011, when Michele Bachmann was—now somewhat unbelievably—Mitt Romney’s fiercest competitor, tooting her campaign bus horn over and over again (it starts to feel like a metaphor) and winning the Ames straw poll that same month.
Schnack documents all the eccentricities of the leadup to Iowa in infinitesimal detail, from the way Bachmann tenderly pats an elderly woman’s shoulder and coos at her to Mitt Romney’s statement that corporations are people (my friend). His camera is everywhere—sometimes improbably so. He’s in the lobby filming while an Iowa state representative complains to a Republican that the Fox News hosts at the previous night’s debate were too critical of the candidates. He’s there when Herman Cain hands a woman his business card, leaving both giggling. And he pans in on Ron Paul attempting to close a car door for what starts to feel like an unfairly long time.
The sight of an all-white, all-male panel discussing issues that affect women is, sadly, not unfamiliar in these times, whether it’s the House Oversight Committee debating contraceptive insurance coverage, or a Judiciary subcommittee proposing a nationwide ban on abortions after the 20-week mark, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff testifying about sexual assault in the military. But there’s still something shocking about the CSPAN footage of Anita Hill testifying to a Senate committee about being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas in 1991. Led by none other than Vice President Joe Biden, and featuring an all-star lineup including Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter, and a distinctly uncomfortable Ted Kennedy, the panel seems to approach Hill with attitudes ranging from bewilderment to barely concealed rage.
Anita is Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock’s tribute to Hill, 22 years after she polarized America. Mock follows Hill around her Brandeis University office (the words “Speak Truth to Power” are framed on her wall) and explores in detail the case that made her both a household name and a national target. The film opens with a lingering shot of a telephone, followed by the audio of a now-infamous voicemail left by Ginny Thomas in 2010. “Good morning, Anita Hill,” says the voice. “I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.”
To a generation for whom the legalization of gay marriage has become one of the defining issues of the day, The New Black is a film with both national and local significance. Taking place in Maryland during the months surrounding the passage of the Civil Marriage Protection Act and the subsequent referendum on the issue, director Yoruba Richen’s documentary examines the struggle to legalize gay marriage through the perspective of African-Americans—both advocates for it, who frame it as a civil-rights issue, and opponents of it, who base their objections on religious beliefs.
An early scene flashes back to President Obama’s first inauguration. Sharon Lettman-Hicks, a member of the Coalition for Black Justice, recalls the elation she felt at seeing a black man elected President being swiftly tempered by the passing of Proposition 8 in California—and the subsequent blame that fell on the African-American community. The question: What does it mean to be both African-American and LGBT?
It’s a question with a great many sides, and the film explores several. We see people attempting to reconcile their love for their family with their family members’ rejection of their right to marry, and youngsters struggling to equate their idea of faith with the knowledge that the church community is attempting to use that faith against them. The opponents of gay marriage, led by the Maryland Marriage Alliance and its chairman, pastor Derek McCoy, insist that African-American ideas about gay marriage stem from long-running, unshakable beliefs rather than any sort of outside manipulation. He holds to this even after previously sealed court documents are released detailing a plan to “drive a wedge” between the gay and African-American communities as part of a strategy by the Christian right and a main campaign donor, the National Organization for Marriage, to divide and weaken the Democratic voting base. It’s a disturbing idea, underlined by a TV clip from 2008 showing Obama saying he believes marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. While he’s since changed his tune, the clip and documents suggest that opinions on gay marriage, while couched in rhetoric of religion and family values, are still controllable by the highest bidder.
Best Kept Secret follows a class of autistic students at John Franklin Kennedy, a special-needs public school in Newark, New Jersey, in the year leading up to their graduation. “Graduation,” however, is a euphemism. At 21, special-needs pupils age out of the system. After years of speech therapy and one-on-one attention, many JFK alums wind up in institutions or are shut in at home with little social stimulus. Teacher Janet Mino and her colleagues call it “falling off the cliff.”
Mino, with her wild laugh and intense extraversion, is a natural scene-stealer. Filmmaker Samantha Buck trailed her class for 18 months, interviewing families at home and shadowing the teacher as she works overtime to explore the fates her students will soon face—rote work at a grim gift-basket factory, dull comprehension lessons at a decrepit senior citizen center. Curiously, though, we never see Mino outside of her role as saintly special-needs instructor. If there is a partner, or children, impacted by her singular obsession, we don’t get access to them. We’re privy to the complex conflicts faced by her pupils’ families—one student’s father describes struggling to accept his son as he is; a caretaker diagnosed with colon cancer expresses agony over returning her nephew to his drug-addled mother. Mino, though, is contained to her role in the classroom.
Her grandfather—the larger-than-life writer Ernest Hemingway—committed suicide. Her great-grandfather—Ernest’s father—committed suicide. Her uncle, her great uncle, and her sister all took their own lives.
Is it any wonder that Mariel Hemingway says—in Barbara Kopple’s compelling documentary—that her whole life she’s felt like she’s “running from crazy”?
The film by two-time Academy Award winner Kopple (Harlan County, USA and American Dream) explores the subject of mental illness through the life of actress Mariel Hemingway, known for her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Woody Allen’s 17-year-old girlfriend in the 1979 movie Manhattan—and for being part of a family plagued by depression, alcoholism, and suicide.
“It was kind of like the Kennedy family,” she says. “We were sort of the other American family that had this horrible curse.”
The fact that the family was so famous turns out to be a blessing, at least as far as the documentary is concerned. Kopple and her team had access not only to archival video, audio, and photos of Ernest, Mariel, and her sister Margaux, but also to extraordinary footage of the family from a documentary Margaux intended to make. In one heartbreaking scene, the girls’ father, Jack, says to Margaux, once one of the world’s highest-paid models and a frequent partier at Studio 54: “I saw what effect fame had on Papa, both in a positive and negative way. Seems to me I heard you or Mariel say at one point, ‘Don’t worry, daddy, I’ll never change.’ But you do.”
Mariel’s childhood is not a happy one. Her father, Ernest’s oldest son, drinks, and her parents fight constantly—frequently to the point where one will hurl a bottle against a wall. Mariel, the youngest of three daughters, is often the one to clean up the blood and glass. Affection was rare in the Hemingway house. Also strangely absent was any talk of their famous grandfather.
Much has been said about the 37th President of the United States, but in her debut documentary feature, Our Nixon, artist and filmmaker Penny Lane takes a fresh look at a familiar figure through a huge trove of archival footage: more than 500 reels of home movies chronicling Richard Nixon’s presidency from 1969 to 1973. During their tenure at the White House, Nixon’s key staff members, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, took their Super 8 cameras wherever they could, hoping to capture some pivotal moment in American history, or just something to show their grandchildren. They weren’t disappointed.
The film begins with Nixon’s inauguration in 1969: The American people are hopeful, and Nixon delivers a fine address, promising the usual goals of world peace and mutual understanding. The found footage slowly offers insight into his relationships with his right-hand men, and the dynamic is one of professionalism but also of true friendship—it’s clear Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin respect Nixon, and vice versa.
Other milestones are documented in Nixon’s first term, including the moon landing in July 1969, his daughter’s wedding, the annual Easter egg hunt, and important moments in the Vietnam War. The events aren’t emphasized so much as used as reference points in the timeline of Nixon’s presidency. There’s no narration during the film, although every so often the clips are interspersed with interviews with Chapin or Haldeman from the ’80s and ’90s, offering their interpretation of events.