2016 Updates

2016 in Review: July – September

In this update: TIFF, volcanoes, Justin Timberlake, refugees, concentration camps, blind men, voyages into time, dressmakers, and more.

Review: The Infiltrator

Fascination endures with the cocaine trade of the 1980s, as evidenced by everything from Netflix’s Narcos to the two separate upcoming biopics around minor characters in this week’s The Infiltrator. (One for Pablo Escobar, to be played by John Leguizamo… who is also in this film. And one for Barry Seal, to be played by Tom Cruise… who is also in this film. Weird, right? No, that last part is a lie. Sorry.) But this movie, based on the memoir of the same name by Bob Mazur, differentiates itself by focusing less on the bang-bang cartel action in the streets and more on the backroom money laundering in the sheets. That’s not an angle we usually see with crime films… for good reason, as it turns out, since The Infiltrator is deathly boring.

Review: Star Trek Beyond

After the first film’s origin story and the shoddy Wrath of Khan remake that was the second,Beyond decides to carry the series forward more in the spirit of the movies that followed from the first Trek show, which were mostly lightly serialized, super-sized episodes. The story doesn’t attempt to shake up the universe in a big way or “change things forever” — it simply throws its characters into a new situation to spur on some action and character beats, and hopefully say something about these people and this world in the process.

Review: Gleason

Gleason is a decently effective sob-extraction mechanism, a nexus where sports fans and documentary enthusiasts alike can join to vent some ragged emotion. The film, which follows former football player Steve Gleason over the course of five years or so, during which he simultaneously succumbs to Lou Gehrig’s disease and experiences the joys of new fatherhood, is full of all the devastating and gladdening life beats you’d expect from both situations. And yet I was mostly unmoved.

Review: Anthropoid

As wartime thrillers go, Anthropoid is disappointingly limp. The plot to kill Heydrich wasn’t terribly complex, but rather than fill the solid hour or so of runtime leading up to the attempt with, say, an exploration of life in Prague under occupation, the movie mostly streeeeetches out each development in the plan. The various figures of the Czechoslovak resistance, from the main characters to leaders like Jan Zelenka-Hajsky (Toby Jones), are mostly righteously grim ciphers. The most intriguing figure is Anna Geislerova’s Lenka, a steely resistance foot soldier who’s given not nearly enough to do and has a “romance” with Gabcik apparently missing all of its actual romantic scenes.

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

While I don’t believe in criticizing any based-on-a-true-story film for its historical inaccuracies, I dothink it’s worthwhile to question what it says through what it changes from the facts. In real life, Jenkins seems to have been fully aware of her own, ahem, “limitations,” since she had an active role in hosting her concerts, ensuring they were invitation-only, and paying off willing critics while keeping real critics out. This is a far cry from Streep’s pure, guileless heroine in this film. It also hefts all of the actual story-driving actions onto Bayfield, leaving Jenkins more of a plot device than anything else. When, in Bayfield’s absence, she and McMoon make their own recordings, it comes across less like her seizing initiative in her life and more like an unchecked force of nature inevitably taking its course. Rather than rehabilitating her image, this is actually insulting to her agency as a human being.

Review: Don’t Breathe

Writer/director Fede Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues have cleverly set up a scenario in which the characters must move with the utmost care, as a creaking floorboard, tinkling glass, or sharp intake of breath could spell their doom. Horror films have historically used disability as an easy source of tension by way of dramatic irony (see: everything from Wait Until Dark to this year’s Hush), but Don’t Breathe reverses that paradigm. An audience watching a blind victim stalked by a danger unknown to them feels fear based on a remove from that victim’s actual point of view, whereas here, we are fully with the protagonists as they gingerly, desperately try to not draw the attention of a vengeful god. (Of course, this gets mixed up a bit when the blind man levels the playing field by knocking out the lights, but even then we stay mainly with the teens.)

Review: The Dressmaker

Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel The Dressmaker is described as “Gothic,” but its new film adaptation more often comes across as a picaresque with too much killjoy drama. It is an odd story, mixing haute couture, small-town gossipry, romance, dark secrets, an old murder mystery, and multiple random deaths. And yet it’s also not nearly odd enough, delivering all of this with a disappointingly straight-laced sensibility. It’s soapy melodrama with the fun dampened by “verisimilitude” – a Marvel-movie treatment for the book-club set.



Ta’ang is nearly two and a half hours long — and feels it. But Wang’s astonishing eye grants the doc an almost hypnotic power for most of that runtime. This is a film that knows with a seemingly supernatural instinct the precise distance to keep the camera from the subjects, when to move the frame, when to cut away from something and when to step into a scene. The result is a dizzying sense of immersion, as each sequence captures scores of small details and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them interactions. This is nonfiction film as a nearly pure experiential document.

Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey

As a more lyrical take on material well-covered by two different versions of Cosmos and a thousand “I Fucking Love Science”-related internet memes, Voyage of Time is reasonably engaging. But as the culmination of decades of work on the part of legendary director Terrence Malick, for whom the project was a labor of almost reverent love, the film is a severe letdown. Though it looks exactly as gorgeous on a big screen as Malick’s name will automatically make you expect, the experience as a whole is lacking.

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

The fact that Morris made a small film about a friend and turned her into a sort of archetypical vector for musings on art and life is a testament to his skill. In her reminiscing over, among other things, her history of taking portraits of her family and herself, her friendship with Allen Ginsberg and the process of taking large-format Polaroids, the viewer is drawn a nuanced survey of artistry as a long-term evolution tied more to diligence than tortured creative passion. And the link between Dorfman’s retirement and the end of Polaroid — a somber symbol of the ongoing death of analog technology — lets the film bow out with a melancholy, but unsentimental, feeling. The unassuming Dorfman makes a better case for the format than a thousand hipsters, and Morris demonstrates that even at his most relaxed, he’s inspired.

I Am Not Your Negro

The free intermingling between primary and artistic sources with Baldwin’s manuscript makes I Am Not Your Negro a unique blend of social commentary, film criticism and memoir. To Baldwin, there was no distinction between the psychology of mass action and mass entertainment — everything could be traced to shared perception enforced by the culture at large. As he saw it, this was both where American racism came from and how it perpetuated itself, and Peck goes beyond the time of his passing to make the case that this process has only continued unabated. Ezekiel Kweku wrote of viral police brutality videos as the cinema of black death. The intercutting of such videos with everything from slave auction notices to lynching photographs to Hollywood’s historic inhumanity toward the nonwhite suggests that all of American culture, implicitly or explicitly, is in fact about black death, or at least white assurance.

Rodnye (Close Relations)

Rodnye’s journey, which takes the audience from the farm-dotted countryside into the thick of rebel-controlled Donetsk, does not settle for any pat answers on who is “right.” The sole “answer” it can turn up, if it can be called such, is that regardless of what people believe, there will be someone in power ready to pander to them for their own gain, and that these distinctions are all purely constructed perception. Not exactly an inspiring takeaway. Mansky does not preach this to us; he seeks only to provoke responses from his family members. He’s making an ersatz video album, not a screed.


With Austerlitz, the audience both watches another audience and is, in a way, part of that audience. The viewer simultaneously watches how the visitors interact with the site and interacts with the site on their own, though removed physically from the location and constrained by what the doc deigns to show them. You will take what you will both from the camp itself and what you observe of its current inhabitants. At times, one can imagine the horrors of the past in the same frame as people listening to a guide explain said past, prisoners gassed as Americans in polo shirts and khaki shorts watch on impassively. The Holocaust is the 20th century’s perfect atrocity thanks to cinema. This film replaces the act of constructed witness with direct witness to the place where some of the events took place. It forces us to reconsider what it really means to remember.

Karl Marx City

The doc effectively melds past and present into a haze of ambiguity around the truth of the matter. Constantly wearing headphones for sound work, Epperlein looks as if she herself could be a Stasi agent at a listening post. Stark sequences in black and white contribute to an eerie tone, as the camera constantly finds unsettling imagery to fixate on, such as an ominous giant bust of Marx which still watches over the city (it was “too heavy to move” as the film puts it in a cold bit of symbolism), or the hypnotic turning of the levers which operate the seemingly endless shelves of the Stasi library. Samples of films like the “red westerns” from the 1960s illuminate the Soviet mindset, while more modern depictions of the time like the movie The Lives of Others are used as examples of how we fail to understand that mindset. The push-pull between how the past truly was and how we understand it is the heart of the film.

The War Show

Zytoon’s friends are for the most part not rabid seditionists, but this does not save them from persecution. Characters we meet early on and get to know in relatively peaceful times — regular men and women whose lives look a lot less different from those of any Western viewer than one may presume — are later tortured and/or killed, left bereaved or forced out of their homes. It is crushing in a way unlike any other depiction of the Syrian Civil War made so far. Finished as it is in the midst of an ongoing conflict, The War Show is unable to offer much hope or any glimpse of an end in sight. It’s an epitaph for a lost moment in time, not a call to arms or a rallying cry for the future.

In Exile

A somber but non-sappy look at the exploitation of people already ground down by circumstance, In Exile at its best feels like snippets from a modern-day Grapes of Wrath. That conviction can only carry it so far, but its brevity means it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Like Burma itself, Naing remains in an uncertain position by the doc’s end. Here’s hoping he gets to keep using his camera.

Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids

This doc could be a single still shot of the concert and remain remarkably mesmerizing. Timberlake is an adroit performer, the kind who seemingly devotes the entirety of his vocals and physicality to letting everyone in the audience know that he would like nothing more than to make love to them. He and his backup dancers demonstrate better footwork than anyone in this year’s musical favorite La La Land, to boot. The production itself is calculated for maximum showmanship, incorporating grand light displays and, in one wow moment, a section of the stage lifting into the air and hovering over the audience.


Headshot follows the Raid philosophy that there is no kill like overkill – nay, that there is no killexcept overkill. No one is shot merely once in this film; they must spring at least half-a-dozen leaks before they go down. Bones break the skin, faces get caved in, people catch fire, throats meet sharp objects, so on and so forth. I find this tremendously agreeable in an action movie, and I expect most other fans of the genre do as well. More importantly, the carnage is cut cleanly and for maximum visceral impact, the camera staying energetic without shaking to the point of obfuscation. Getting out of the way of physically gifted people hurting one another is one of the purest forms of cinema we have.

Their Finest

Produced by BBC Films, Their Finest is the latest studio film to assert the importance of, well, studio films. I didn’t think it possible for one to turn movies into life or death more than Argo, but this might actually have pulled it off, positing its fictional production as vital to the morale of the British public. There is of course a spirited discussion to be had about what kind of influence wartime propaganda has in the popular consciousness, and how powerful that influence is, but nuance isn’t exactly in the cards here. Which is fine, honestly. It’s more fun to watch pretty British people make movies and fall in love than for them to debate public policy. But the rosy portrait of the subject (the word “propaganda” isn’t even spoken once) will weird you out the more you think about it.

Into the Inferno

Herzog, aware of his reputation as a madman, insists on camera that he is rather “the only sane filmmaker,” and that he takes every precaution when filming around volcanoes (though very few people should have multiple anecdotes about how they escaped being killed in eruptions). His reverence is reflected in the film’s style, which frequently depicts the mountains with religious awe. Choirs sing praises on the soundtrack as lava flows and bursts in slow motion.

The Edge of Seventeen

In severing Nadine’s sole healthy relationship early on, The Edge of Seventeen instead makes every time when her abrasiveness emerges into a moment of suspense over whether or not she’ll hurt someone and spiral further. When Nadine asserts that she’s “not like other kids” because she likes old music and movies and isn’t addicted to her phone, her teacher / unwilling mentor (the ever-droll Woody Harrelson) cuts her down with a simple “Do any of them like you?” This is not a role for the misfits of the world to romanticize. Rather, it’ll hopefully help them to mind the line where self-deprecation simply becomes off-putting performative self-loathing.

By Dan Schindel

Born and raised in Maryland and currently based in New York, Dan Schindel is an associate editor at Hyperallergic, freelance culture writer, and available for any copy-editing/proofreading needs you may have. This website was originally a blog called Days of Docs, and chronicled his attempt to watch and review a documentary every single day for a whole year. He was mostly successful at this, and now he knows everything. He puts this knowledge to use by writing about movies, TV, games, books, comics, art, and more.