In Review: Whitney

In a rare moment of quiet solitude in Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney, the embattled Whitney Houston sits alone at an empty bar. Normally surrounded by a large family of handlers, not to mention an aggressive press apparatus, it’s strange to see the singer alone to herself. Softly, she sings a few notes of “Run to You” under her breath. Smoking her cigarette, we sense in her body language that being alone is as unnatural to her as it is in our perception of her.

Or maybe she just feels us watching her. At once, the disquieting layers of the punishing gauntlet of our unfeeling media circus become cuttingly human.

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In Review!: “Kiki”

Personal, political, and built with indefatigable spirit, Kiki is a no bullshit, all ferocity documentary debut from Sara Jordenö. Following the current LGBTQ ball scene of New York City, the film is part baby cousin, part update to classic Paris Is Burning. If not as immersive as that landmark film, Kiki is populated with as many absorbing characters within its passionate world of outcasts.

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Comparisons to Burning will come easy to most, especially considering Kiki hardly shies away from recognizing that film’s impact on our understanding of the subject (and without hijacking Burning’s distinct visual identity). Despite existing in a post-MTV, insta-fashion era, Kiki feels unburdened by contemporary influences, defining itself by its youthful pulse whenever a moment seems structurally familiar. Even if the Category is not “Trendsetter”, it is still “Fresh As Fuck”.

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In Review!: “Kate Plays Christine”

Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine is an intelligent and intense documentary skewering modern media ethics and studying psychosis, persona, and gender politics. At the center is journalist Christine Chubbuck who committed the first on-air suicide on a Sarasota news station, and the actress Kate Lyn Sheil charged with playing the woman in all of her various unknowable selves and deep depression. As the actress digs deep to find truth, her struggle for authenticity converges with Chubbuck’s own story (also featured this year in Antonio Campos’s Christine).

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With nerve and patience, the film is an audacious hybrid of genre and thematic focus. It plays for psychological horror and satire while its journalist discovery of Chubbuck’s disposition remains the focus. The lines of documentary have been blurred plenty but not often in ways so reflective of the implications of the subject – the effect is disorienting and unsettling in unique ways.

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In Review!: “13th”

Ava DuVernay’s relentless documentary 13th charts the connective tissue between American slavery to our current mass incarceration epidemic, showing the evolution of American degradation of black bodies through the loophole language of the 13th Amendment that allows slavery to continue through criminal punishment. The film is exhaustive and vigorous, connecting history with our present with an inarguable force and impact.

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DuVernay crafts the film like a fortress against the opposition ready to call the film mere propaganda. The data exposed at every turn is accessible (if suppressed) elsewhere, but the power of 13th lies in the rational linear assembly of its thesis. Where propaganda aims to play squarely for your emotions and baser instincts, this is a document that calls primarily upon your intellect and rationale. Similarly it is also deconstructing insidious racist ideologies and practices through examining how they have evolved around legality to continue suppressing African Americans. There is condemnation for all sides of the political divide; 13th stakes no political affiliation beyond common decency for black people in America.

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In Review!: “Heart of a Dog”

Fueled by the loss of her rat terrier Lolabelle, her mother, friend, and most famously her partner Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is an open-hearted diary film of love and loss, and one of the most potent film experiences of the year. A mixed multimedia approach of photography, original home footage, and poetic text transcends the emotional limitations of such experimental efforts due to Anderson’s deft ability to cut deep with respect to the universal questions about death and enduring love that she is asking. Dog is about ruminations when faced with grief, but her questions are ours as well.

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Anderson recalls in the film a Buddhist teacher professing the art of “feeling sad without being sad,” and the film itself is an exercise in just that. A film as attuned to the humanity of grief as this is certain to stir up some emotions in an audience open to Anderson’s meandering approach, but it is never a depressing enterprise. Dog is fascinated by the deep regrets and longings that invade us when we deal with death, but doesn’t allow room for wallowing in pain as it works steadily toward acceptance and inner peace.

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