dir. Jesse Moss
It can be easy to miss amidst the heavy emotional punch the film carries, but Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters brings a refreshing nuance to its story of a pastor torn between his family and congregation on the one hand, and the pull he feels to love his neighbors, in this case the itinerant workers who pour into Williston, North Dakota looking for work in the newly established oil fields. Moss presents Jay Reinke as a man driven, almost possessed by holy love for the stranger, yet at the same time a man deeply broken: manipulative, power hungry, and hypocritical.
Since fracking opened up the possibility of oil production in western North Dakota, people from all over the country–many unemployable by most standards–have congregated in the area, lured by the promise of lucrative jobs. They often find the promise empty, though, and arrive without accommodations or much hope. Jay Reinke, pastor of Concordia Lutheran, set up a program to let these men sleep on the floor of his church. As the program swells, though, he faces opposition from his own congregation, who feel nervous at the change in the status quo, and from the surrounding community, who view the men as dangerous interlopers. The program takes its toll on Reinke’s family as well, who seem supportive but clearly feel worn down. Despite his good motives, Reinke also alienates some men whom he has helped, who see him as pushy and deceitful. It’s a story told simply, with beautiful shots of the prairies suggesting the empty spaces between human beings that plague our efforts to live together in love. The film starts out a little too slow, and weaves in some strands that do not add much to the narrative; there’s also a crucial piece of information that gets withheld until the end which changes the film, and it seems a bit like cheating that Moss held his cards so close. Still, The Overnighters is a film that recognizes the challenges involved in sacrificial love while remaining hopeful for the possibility.
[notification type="star"]88/100 ~ GREAT. The Overnighters is a film that recognizes the challenges involved in sacrificial love while remaining hopeful for the possibility.[/notification]
The Notorious Mr. Bout
dir. Maxim Prozdorovkin and Tony Gerber
I talked in my first True/False column about the challenges of form and content in documentaries with regards to The Green Prince, where a fascinating story helped overcome some flaws in the form. On Saturday, I saw a compelling counterargument in the film The Notorious Mr. Bout, which somehow manages to botch the surefire story of the world’s most infamous arms dealer, Viktor Bout. The controversy surrounding this Russian “entrepreneur” should have made for easy pickings, but the resulting film, while not devoid of interesting content, is far more dull than it has any right to be.
The film starts with Bout’s 2008 arrest in Thailand, at the hands of an American sting operation. It then jumps back to cover his rise as a cargo shipper and sometimes arms dealer, presenting a man at once loyal to his family and dedicated to the pursuit of money in any form. The real boon in the film is the presence of lots of home movie footage (we should as a culture rue that Mr. Bout ended up in prison before the rise of the selfie, of which he would have surely been a dogged devotee), which shows the man and his family at work and play in various parts of the world. Bout relentlessly documented his life through the years, and watching moments stolen from the past provides one of the film’s true pleasures. What surrounds that amateur footage, though, quickly descends into a listless snoozefest. The film has no drive – feels meandering and aimless. It lacks the propulsive drive that made The Green Prince so fascinating, but it also avoids the other fruitful direction it could have gone: thoughtful reflection. It makes a few stabs at the ambiguities of Bout’s case (i.e. should Bout be seen as a supervillain, or a schmuck stuck in a corrupt system), but it never presses the questions enough.
[notification type="star"]55/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. The controversy surrounding this Russian “entrepreneur” should have made for easy pickings, but the resulting film, while not devoid of interesting content, is far more dull than it has any right to be.[/notification]
dir. Amir Bar-Lev
The Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal was a big enough national issue that an eventual documentary on it seemed inevitable from the outset. Thankfully Amir Bar-Lev, no stranger to navigating complex subjects (see his last film, The Pat Tillman Story), steps in to deliver a documentary that at least attempts to do justice to the nuances of the controversy. That the film seems more important than great is perhaps to be expected from a doc on this subject, but Bar-Lev does enough to elevate the material to make Happy Valley well worth a watch.
Avoiding a straightforward exposition of the allegations against Sandusky and his eventual trial, Bar-Lev instead attempts to understand the effect of the scandal on the soul and culture of State College and the surrounding area. To do this he focuses a number of different places at once, choosing a few key representatives of the community. The most rending of these portraits is of Matt Sandusky, Jerry’s adopted son who eventually came forward with his own accusations of molestation. Others include members of Joe Paterno’s family, Penn State students and faculty members, and local artists, lawyers, and historians. Through all these strands one central question emerges: to what extent to the inhabitants of Happy Valley value – or overvalue – football, at the expense of proper procedure and care. Everyone would of course say that safety comes first, but the actual picture Bar-Lev captures is much more murky. This theme becomes especially chilling in the last fifteen minutes of the film, where Bar-Lev abandons the somewhat staid talking head format of much of the film in favor of a swirling, damning look at a community perhaps a bit too quick to rebound from tragedy.
[notification type="star"]80/100 ~ GREAT. That the film seems more important than great is perhaps to be expected from a doc on this subject, but Bar-Lev does enough to elevate the material to make Happy Valley well worth a watch.[/notification]
dir. Frank Pavich
There are, I submit, two very different ways to read the events recalled in the new film Jodorowsky’s Dune. The first sees in the attempt of the Mexican surrealist director to bring a twelve-hour version of Frank Herbert’s novel to the screen a quest too far ahead of its time, too visionary to ever be embraced by the squares in Hollywood in spite of its obvious merits. This is the viewpoint that gets presented again and again in the film, by both Jodorowsky admirers and collaborators, as well as the man himself (who is his own biggest fan). As he describes it, his Dune was not merely a film but “a prophet”, a way to usher in a new consciousness that would change mankind forever. As glittering as this illusion may be, the more fruitful way to read his attempt is this: a man talented in visual aesthetics but quasi-profound in his mystical pronouncements fights against the gods of film out of sheer hubris, and is punished accordingly. By adopting the lens of Greek tragedy (or perhaps satyr-play, given Jodorowsky’s propensity for obscene jokes), the viewer can expose the empty façade of a man tilting at windmills.
Neither reading, however, precludes the audience from thoroughly enjoying Frank Pavich’s documentary on this quest. Jodorowsky and others recount the hunt for his holy grail, from the gathering of his “warriors” (reminiscent of gaining party members in an RPG) to the massive tome of designs and storyboards that form the one stone of remembrance to the would be project. Though Pavich attempts some interesting things, animating art from the pre-production and overwhelming the soundtrack with a sonic landscape from Kurt Stenzel, in the end the film sticks largely to a talking heads format, albeit with plenty of visuals to spice things up. Thank goodness, then, that Jodorowsky himself is so charismatic and consistently entertaining. Whether discussing trying to lure Salvador Dali to the project to describing his relationship to the book (“I was raping Frank Herbert!” will almost certainly make it onto my list of top ten movie quotes of the year), Jodorowsky attacks the past with a contagious vigor. Of course, his presence helps confirm what those not blinded by reverence can sense throughout the film: his Dune is more memorable as a dream than it could ever have been as reality.
[notification type="star"]82/100 ~ GREAT. Though Pavich attempts some interesting things, animating art from the pre-production and overwhelming the soundtrack with a sonic landscape from Kurt Stenzel, in the end the film sticks largely to a talking heads format, albeit with plenty of visuals to spice things up. Thank goodness, then, that Jodorowsky himself is so charismatic and consistently entertaining.[/notification]