Charles Ferguson’s Timely ‘Watergate’ Doc Is Routine But Vital [NYFF Review]

It’s been a hell of a week. A divided, partisan country ripped at the seams and what was once a split has become an unnavigable chasm. The protracted and ugly Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh turned into a culture war — left vs. right, men vs. women — when a courageous woman came forward with sexual assault allegations against the nominee and instead of a thorough investigation from the FBI, the country was given a contentious set of hearings Thursday. And while it might seem naive or Coastal, it’s hard to imagine that anyone out there didn’t already have an unyielding opinion that was only exacerbated throughout this whole, repugnant process.

From the depths of this collective despair, it’s hard to see the light on the other side — some sort of unifying kinship that allows us to no longer detest (or at least lack respect for) our neighbors, though it is easy to remember less contentious times (both those fueled by war and those that just simply weren’t batshit crazy). It is therefore easy to forget that this level of chaos has consumed our government and our country before: Watergate. The scandal of all American scandals, Watergate truly was the sort of Constitutional crisis that people claim is encroaching today. This impossible-to-miss parallel is a good portion of what gives Charles Ferguson’s new six-part docu-series “Watergate” its urgency. It’s also what is most likely to glue you to your seat for 260 minutes of this thorough and engaging, but generally uninspiring, film.

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Buster Keaton Crashes Through Exalting Doc ‘The Great Buster: A Celebration’ [Venice Review]

Few, if any, forms of art have changed as fast as cinema. From the beginning, it was married to the greatest boom of technology the world has ever known. From the Kinetoscope and the Lumière Brothers to the birth of studios to talkies to color to 3D and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Movies have always been changing as fast as they could be made, which, generally speaking, has left audiences rapt. But this avalanche of change — like the gloriously unhinged avalanche in “Seven Chances” — has had little regard for the norms and the people in its way. Buster Keaton, the indelible king of physical comedy danced around the boulders in “Seven Chances” but was thoroughly bulled over by the changing industry. While his legacy remains intact, the arc of his career is one of painful, if humble, desperation. But while “The Great Buster: A Celebration,” a new documentary about Great Stone Face, covers the arc of his life, it aims for simplicity, for a celebration of his unrivaled talents, and often fails to explore the complexity of the very man at its center.

Keaton was born into a pratfall. His family was a touring comedy troupe and the young Buster was on stage before he was two. He transitioned into films under the guidance of Fatty Arbuckle before rocketing to fame as the director and star of his own two-reel shorts. Stardom came quick, of course, and Keaton was soon writing, directing and starring in his own features, most of which he made during the 1920s. His fall, though, began in 1927, with the birth of sound. That alone might have been a storm Keaton could have weathered, but he also signed a disastrous deal with MGM that robbed him of his creative agency, divorced his wife (who changed the last names of his children), and sank into alcoholism. That he bounced back to rebuild and sustain a reputable, if, at times, unworthy-of-his-former-glory career, is no small feat.

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‘This Is Congo’ Is A Devastating & Unsettling Portrait Of A War-Torn Nation [Review]

This Is Congo” is not an easy documentary to watch. And anyone who knows anything about the tumultuous, war-torn country would understand that from the get-go. Still, despite expectations, it is an engaging, if unsettling, film about the decades of violence that have ravaged the central African country, the poverty and displacement that has abounded, and all the stolen promise of a land so rich in culture and resources. Which, it might be argued, is to say it is a film about the Democratic Republic of Congo. And while “This Is Congo” is an immersive and captivating film that features incredible and upsetting footage of bloody battles filmed by director and cinematographer Daniel McCabe, it is a scattershot of characters and consequences that manage to capture what is undoubtedly a piece of the truth of the region, while also somehow feeling incomplete.

“This Is Congo” starts with the war. It is a war that has been raging for at least two decades, mostly between the government forces and the many rebel groups that control vast swaths of the resource-rich eastern portion of the country, which is far-removed from the capital of Kinshasa. Trapped in the grips of this conflict are four people upon whom the film builds its story: a young and popular military commander, a whistleblower elsewhere in the army, an illegal mineral trader, and a displaced tailor. Their stories, without ever overlapping or connecting, come together to paint a grisly picture of the war — both of those who fight it and those whose lives are irrevocably impacted by it. The conflict at the heart of the film is over the battle for Goma, a city situated in the North Kivu province on the border with Rwanda. When the film begins, in 2012, rebels are threatening the town and the young military commander, Mamadou, is tasked with pushing them back.

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Netflix’s ‘Bobby Kennedy For President’ Documentary Series Is A Portrait Of What Could Have Been [Review]

Netflix has become the new home of the true crime documentary series, the tightly knotted, edge of your seat sort of documentary that has as many cliffhangers as it does chapters (“Making a Murderer” and “Wild Wild Country” most recently). Which is what makes the streaming service’s newest edition, “Bobby Kennedy For President” such an anomaly. Certainly, there is plenty of crime, conspiracy, and murder in the life of the lesser-known Kennedy, but the series, as directed by Dawn Porter (“Trapped,” “Spies of Mississippi”) is more of a PBS docuseries than anything else. At least until the fourth chapter when Porter dives headfirst into the unseemly underbelly of RFK’s assassination and the plots that may have been behind it.

Porter’s series starts off much like Bobby Kennedy’s political career: unmoored and focused on someone else’s fame. The four-part series’ first chapter has the unfortunate responsibility to set the stage and introduce the boyishly good-looking politician in his ascendant years, as he grabbed onto the coattails of his elder brother, Jack, who rose to the highest office in the land. It’s hard to recap just how much is packed into the first chapter, which leaves the hour feeling like little more than exposition to set the stage for the real meat of the story: Bobby’s transformation, after his brother’s death, into the face of the progressive left, a senator from New York, and eventually the Democratic frontrunner in the 1968 presidential primary. What seems most important to Porter to establish early on in the first chapter, is that Bobby wasn’t a saint. He was a ruthless campaign manager for his brother and a hardliner Attorney General who was more interested in getting results than doing things by the books. His shrewdness, according to “Bobby Kennedy For President,” is integral to understand just how large his metamorphosis was into the radical humanitarian he became.

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‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher’ Ignores The Ugly Details In An Attempt To Redeem The King’s Legacy [Review]

There’s only one Elvis. A titanic figure, who, for America’s formative pop culture years, was the biggest and most influential star in the world — bringing rock n roll to the masses and crooning his way through dozens of Hollywood hits. He was, in many respects, the first superstar, blazing a dangerous and lonely trail to the top, where he was vulnerable and isolated. Even today he is Elvis, not Elvis Presley, a persona that grew out of personhood and into the mythology of America.

How, then, do you make a movie about such a legend? How do you whittle down the facts of such a life into something consumable? How do you make sense of his rise and his stardom and his tragedy? The answer, according to Thom Zimny’s documentary “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” is that you strive to capture the magnetism that radiated from Elvis, and you hope the rest comes along naturally. Unfortunately, for all the joys woven into Zimny’s film, it doesn’t ever feel like the seminal Elvis doc that it wants to be, and even for those viewers without a deep knowledge of The King, nothing feels particularly new or revelatory.

‘The Searcher’ is told in two parts: Elvis on his way to stardom and Elvis fighting to regain his status after returning from his U.S. Army deployment. Still, “The Searcher” is only a little over three hours, which means it packs a lot in very quickly. Elvis was born and raised poor in Tupelo, Mississippi, and got his first taste of music from church. As a teen, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where his taste and experience with music thrived — nourished in part in the Black blues clubs that he frequently visited.

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‘Alt-Right: Age of Rage’ Is An Unsettling, But Familiar, Portrait Of American Extremism [SXSW Review]

Since August of last year, the so-called alt-right has become an unavoidable tumor on the American conscience. In the wake of the Charlottesville protests, where Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist who drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, coverage of, and conversation about, the alt-right has grown tenfold. Profiles of the likes of Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos appeared on front pages everywhere and, at a point, some began to argue that such journalism was normalizing these extremist ideologies. Into this contested landscape comes the documentary “Alt-Right: Age of Rage,” a film that dives headfirst into the fierce and ugly battle of the alt-right and their polar opposite, Antifa, which has spilled from the internet and onto the streets. Of course, the question that has to be asked is: Does anybody want to spend any more time with Spencer and his belligerently bigoted ilk?

‘Age of Rage,’ of course, is banking on the fact that people are still interested in hearing what the faces of the alt-right have to say. Particularly, what they have to say about their opposition, Antifa — the anti-fascist left-wing activists that act as a counter to the alt-right, who also take up a good chunk of ‘Age of Rage.’ This fierce opposition between the far right and the far left forms the backbone of the film: Spencer and fellow white supremacist Jared Taylor are thematically paired against Antifa activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins and Mark Potok, a former senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, among several others who populate the film. But instead of deeply investigating the complex and often toxic ideology behind the alt-right, the film is more interested in exploring how exactly these groups feel about each other — an interesting but far less gratifying angle.

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Netflix Doc ‘Wild Wild Country’ Is A Wild, Unnerving Journey Into An ’80s Oregon Utopia [Review]

In the years since “Serial” and “Making a Murderer,” the limited series true-crime documentary has been booming. “O.J. Made in America” won an Oscar, “The Vietnam War” built a new narrative of America’s ugliest war, and “American Vandals” skewered the whole genre in a delightful comedic send up. But despite the deluge, people still seem to be hooked. It’s this momentum that “Wild Wild Country,” the new Netflix doc series, wants to ride all the way to cult status. And while it’s got all the right ingredients to be the next jaw-dropping TV event, the production, at times, falls short of the mesmerizing and absurd story at its heart.

In broad terms, “Wild Wild Country” is a series about generational divides, religious animosity, and the hate cast upon those who you don’t understand. But what makes the series stand out from others in the genre are the strange and hard-to-believe details that make up this very true story — the inundation of Rolls Royces, the biological attacks, the wild orgies, the violent meditation, the million dollar watches and the central figure, who doesn’t so much as speak for three years.

All of which makes the narrative of the series chaotic and overstuffed — which is hardly a fault of the filmmakers, Chapman and Maclain Way (the excellent “The Battered Bastards of Baseball”), who do good work translating a messy, years-long trainwreck into a compelling and almost-sensible story. Put simply, though, “Wild Wild Country” follows the Rajneesh movement and the utopian city of 10,000 they tried to establish in the early 1980s in rural Oregon.

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