The Shocking Truth

Killing Them Safely is a serviceable summation of the history of the Taser’s efficacy. The documentarians have interwoven newspaper stories, training videos, presentations, TV news stories, segments of “60 Minutes” and “Nightline,” and a handful of current interviews, to good effect.

The tone of the film is disturbing from the start. A video shows one member of a herd of buffalo repeatedly brought to its knees by an electrical shock, while the off-camera operator of the shocking device comments, to the amusement of a small audience. The technology was adapted for the purpose of subduing humans, but a reliable product wasn’t developed until 1999, when the power was increased considerably. The Taser was marketed aggressively to police departments as a completely non-lethal tool for subduing the belligerent. And then things went wrong. Police started using the device indiscrimately, hitting people with multiple Taser darts and zapping children and the elderly. And here and there, people died.

The manufacturer insisted that the Taser was incapable of killing; people who died were just fated to have a heart attack anyway. (Even today, employees who build the device insist, cult-like, that their product is innocuous.) And those representing the victims of Taser abuse bore the burden of proving the biological mechanism that made Tasers dangerous. The film carefully tracks the series of lawsuits and the medical research; it makes a nice, suspenseful story.

And then there’s the kicker/spoiler: Police forces that stopped using the Taser haven’t seen a rise in injuries to their officers. But the Taser company will be okay; they’ve gotten into the business of making body cameras.

Killing Them Safely (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Nick Berardini
Running time: 95 minutes
DVD release date: March 29, 2016

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The Unexpected Virtue of Immigrants

The title character of Victoria is a young Spanish woman (Laia Costa) with elfin features who works at a Berlin cafe. As the film starts she emerges from a disco and meets Sonne (Frederick Lau), and shortly thereafter his friends Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fuss (Max Mauff). The five of them hang out for a while and get a little high. Then a shady character calls in a favor from Boxer; he demands the crew perform a dangerous task. When the men need one more participant to make the job work, Victoria volunteers. And things get hairy.

So: a caper film, and a good one. But the filmmakers add another degree of difficulty by shooting the entire movie in one unbroken take. And the single camera, almost constantly in motion, adds to the kineticism of the story. It’s quite a feat.

One note: The movie begins with what one might call a play on film. The opening shot, inside the disco, is illuminated by a strobe light, chopping the first few seconds of the film into a barrage of discrete flashes–in appearance the opposite of the single continuous shot that constitutes the film.

Victoria (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Sebastian Schipper
Written by Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, and Eike Frederik Schulz
Languages: English, German, and Spanish
Running time: 138 minutes
DVD release date: March 8, 2016

Hardscrabble Boys

The doc Rich Hill draws me in almost immediately. The city limits sign for this Missouri town, showing a population of 1,396, reminds me of my high school years in a north Texas town of 2,061 (a figure from the 1960 census which the town was slow to update after the next survey). The film centers on three poor white boys, Andrew (14 years old), Appachey (13), and Harley (15). These are hard-luck kids–one of the first shots is Appachey losing his skateboard down a storm drain. The film switches back and forth between the boys: Andrew boiling water for a bath, since there’s no hot running water; Harley taking pills to control anger issues; Appachey hanging out at the laundromat with his mom and four sisters; Harley trick-or-treating with friends; Andrew’s dad, having moved the family to another town to find work, celebrating a paycheck by taking Andrew and his sister to Walmart and letting them pick out something for themselves. And there’s backstory for the kids, much of it dark.

This slice of these kids’ lives is immensely touching.

Rich Hill (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos
Running time: 92 minutes
Awarded the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, Documentary, at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival
DVD release date: June 9, 2015

Voyage to the Bottom of the Brain

I have a weakness for Guy Maddin’s nonsense, so it’s no surprise I took to The Forbidden Room, which takes its mission from a Bible passage: “When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” (John 6:12) Maddin has taken an array of ideas from old silent film fragments and layered them into a giant phyllo pastry of a film.

We start with an instructional video, “How to Take a Bath,” hosted by a man (Louis Negin, who also plays other roles in the film) in a loosely-worn bathrobe. A shot of the bathtub drain dissolves to one of a (special-effects) submarine near the ocean floor. Four submariners are sweating out a deep dilemma: A supply of explosives on board has thawed out and is only prevented from exploding by the ocean pressure. Their air supply is running out, though they can extend it a little by consuming flapjacks. When they see water leaking from a hatch, they open it, and out steps a woodsman. He doesn’t know how he got there; he had been walking through the forest with his fellow sapling jacks (i.e., apprentice lumberjacks) on the way to rescuing a kidnapped woman, who was being held in a cave by men who called themselves wolves. Eventually the woman escapes via a dream of her own, and there are other dreamers, including a mustache that dreams of its owner’s wife and child. And so on.

The movie works its way down through layers of story, and back up again, sometimes all the way to the bathing video, and back down to more stories, and near the end reaches the “book of climaxes,” which includes a plane dropping a bomb on a giant brain floating on the sea. There’s plenty of madness, and seduction, and injury, and general weirdness, and there are a few recognizable stars, such as Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, Caroline Dhavernas, and Charlotte Rampling. The film style imitates our experience of the old silents: lots of scratches and splices, pops on the soundtrack, tinted monochrome.

It’s thrilling and exhausting–Maddin takes special care “that nothing be lost.”

The Forbidden Room (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Guy Maddin
Co-directed by Evan Johnson
Written by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk, John Ashbery, and Kim Morgan
Running time: 119 minutes
DVD release date: March 8, 2016

* * *

The ABCs of Death has a lot of imagination. Twenty-six filmmakers were each given a letter of the alphabet and asked to produce a five-minute vignette involving death, built thematically around a word of their choosing that starts with the assigned letter. The resulting quickies are often comic, disturbing, or disgusting. A couple of them involve toilets; a few break the fourth wall. Sometimes there’s a twist; sometimes the story is straightforward; sometimes the story is incomprehensible. But the quality isn’t quite there overall; too often a bit will register as an interesting idea, insufficiently developed. (Maybe it’s the five-minute format.)

ABCs of Death 2 amps up the gore; gutsplatter seems to be the sole purpose of some segments. After a dozen or so grisly stories, this gets tiring. This one is more of a hard pass–though if you get a chance to see Bill Plympton’s segment, “H Is for Head Games,” take it.

Memoirs

Cameraperson gives Kirsten Johnson a chance to review her career as documentary cinematographer, displaying images and clips from her many films, going back to 2001. She has captured a frightful number of instances of inhumanity: sites of rape or murder in Bosnia, Wounded Knee, Tahrir Square, the World Trade Center, a Rwandan church, Afghanistan, and Liberia–as well as Jasper, Texas, where prosecutors display trial evidence of the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. Images link some of the stories: A woman in an Alabama health clinic has torn jeans that echo the damage done to Byrd’s clothes. On occasion, we get images from Johnson’s own life–her twin children finding a dead bird, her mother showing signs of Alzheimer’s. It’s a portrait of Johnson’s world–our world, too–a world of grief and a sprinkling of hope. It’s amazing that one person’s life has touched all of these stories.

Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is narrower in scope, but moves just as deeply. The title subject is Anderson’s dog Lolabelle. Different breeds of dog have different personality traits, Anderson tells us: The German shepherd says, “I obey”; the poodle says, “Please love me”; and the terrier says, “Will it be fun?” Lolabelle is a rat terrier. Even late in life, after going blind, she seems to be enjoying herself, playing a toy piano for doggie treats.

But Anderson’s movie isn’t just about her dog. She is artist, composer, and musician, and for the film she draws on material from several of her performances over the years–dreams, stories, philosophy. Like Johnson, Anderson talks about her mother. At the beginning of the film, her mother is on her deathbed; at the end, Anderson is striving to remember a moment when the two of them connected.

At times Anderson comes across as arch and self-absorbed, as if to say, “I am making art now.” But overall the movie is touching and painstakingly crafted.

Cameraperson (reviews)
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Running time: 103 minutes
DVD release date: February 7, 2017

Heart of a Dog (reviews)
Directed and written by Laurie Anderson
Running time: 75 minutes
DVD release date: December 6, 2016

Little Revolutions

A Touch of Sin features four loosely-connected vignettes of life in modern China, all involving violent responses to corruption in society. Some people–from a cabal of corrupt city officials to managers in a factory–abuse their power until someone else explodes. It’s all filmed precisely and beautifully, a proclamation that things are not right.

A Touch of Sin (reviews)
Directed and written by Jia Zhangke
Language: Mandarin
Running time: 130 minutes
DVD release date: April 8, 2014

Sex Workers in Chicago

Imagine a van prowling the streets of Chicago, looking for prostitutes. Creepy, right? Not in the documentary Dreamcatcher, where that van contains Brenda Myers-Powell, an urban angel. Myers-Powell finds streetwalkers and offers them condoms, advice, and other assistance; she does not pass judgment. After all, she once worked the streets herself, until a customer almost took her life.

She volunteers for the Dreamcatcher Foundation, which offers assistance to sex workers. On camera, several tell their stories, which generally involve abuse early in their lives; drug abuse and low self-esteem (and, of course, manipulative pimps) keep them in the trade. But a few of them are ready to try and get out. Myers-Powell and the foundation are in their corner.

This film packs a punch; you would do well to watch it once, but you won’t want a repeat.

Dreamcatcher (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Kim Longinotto
Written by Lisa Stevens
Running time: 98 minutes