Big Men: Lots of words, little point to this expensive doc

Sometimes what a documentary needs is a good old-fashioned narrator. Rachel Boynton’s Big Men is so crowded with places, names, facts and faces you need a spreadsheet to sort it all out, especially since the director is reluctant to give in to the prosaic option of employing a simple voice-over to help guide us along. It’s become something of a non-fiction filmmaker’s badge of honor to make their films without the aid of an omniscient storyteller, but I’m not sure whether this is due to smugness or an inability to write a script. The result is a worthy but exhausting film like Big Men. With subject matter too sprawling to express through the voices of its characters, it resorts to using huge blocks of on-screen text to keep us oriented. You don’t so much watch this picture as read it.

Finding Vivian Maier: Pictures from beyond the grave

Finding Vivian Maier is an often fascinating film of anthropology, an investigative peek down the rabbit hole of one eccentric and very private woman’s life. Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for several wealthy Chicago families. She was, by most accounts, responsible, dutiful, imperious, harsh, and intrepid. She took her young charges on outings throughout the rougher corners of the city, bringing along the usual accouterments of the nanny trade: strollers, diapers, baby bottles and snacks. She also carried a Rolleiflex camera, a boxy big cousin to the old Brownie cameras of 50’s and 60’s era childhoods.  With it she snapped thousands upon thousands of pictures, most of them black-and-white, many of them left undeveloped in their canisters. Nearly all of them are astonishing.

The Unknown Known: Errol Morris's know nothing whitewash

The poster for the new Errol Morris documentary, The Unknown Known, displays a picture of a grinning Donald Rumsfeld along with the caption, “Why is this man smiling?” Well, you’d smile too if you came to your interview with Morris expecting him to hold your feet to the fire and instead you end up getting a foot massage. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was one of the main architects of George W. Bush’s war on terror, which began first in Afghanistan and then continued in Iraq. It was a disastrous campaign of astounding incompetence and murderous ruin, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and tens of thousands of American soldiers, and the physical and psychological maiming of tens of thousands more. It’s important to remember all of this when watching The Unknown Known, because at no point in this film does Morris hold the former Secretary accountable for his actions. At no point does he present the irrefutable evidence of Rumsfeld’s dereliction. At no point does he confront the man with pictures of the dead and damaged. I kept waiting for Morris to produce the infamous memo, the one alerting the Bush administration to Osama bin Laden’s determination to attack within the United States, and to ask Rumsfeld, charged with the nation’s security, why he ignored it. But the memo plays no part in the film. What, one wonders, was Morris’s intent in making this picture?

Anita: Absorbing new documentary about the Hill-Thomas fiasco

Where were you in October of 1991? I know where my daughter was. She was asleep in her car seat while my wife and I sat in our SUV during a weekend vacation, our ears glued to NPR’s live coverage of Anita Hill’s testimony during the confirmation hearing of U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas. “Anita-who?,” my now 24-year old daughter asked me the other day. “Clarence Thomas? Him?” she said, when recalling a few articles she may have researched about the Hill-Thomas episode while in college. If nothing else, the new documentary, Anita, will thrust this now celebrated author, law professor and women’s rights advocate back into the spotlight, and illuminate for an entire generation of young women the antediluvian attitudes toward sexual harassment that persisted a mere 20-some years ago. Anita is not groundbreaking as a documentary, but Anita Hill the person was, even though the idea of becoming a cause célèbre was the furthest thing from her mind.

Hide Your Smiling Faces: A confident, disquieting directorial debut

Hide Your Smiling Faces opens on a close-up of a snake slowly devouring a fish. The process looks like it will take awhile. The camera, in no hurry to leave the scene, reveals the surrounding environment of babbling creek and rustling forest. The shot–obviously skewed toward metaphor–suggests an eternal life-and-death episode of primordial timelessness, but it smolders with a fresh and transfixing friction. What I liked most about this shot was how long it lingered, with nothing yet to suggest its ultimate meaning. Patient observation for observation’s sake has become a rare thing in American movies. You watch something like The Hunger Games, with its frenzy of unmotivated editing, and you have to wonder if there is a clause in the cameraman’s contract insuring that his every angle will make the final cut. But Hide Your Smiling Faces, a whispery, disquieting independent film, is so far removed from studio formulas it seems to have fluttered down from another planet, alighting in an Eden-like glade fraught with impending doom.

Out of the Furnace: This searing drama got lost in the 2013 Oscar shuffle

Hard luck lives provide a breeding ground for bad breaks in the bruising, emotionally wrought tale, Out of the Furnace, a movie that faded quickly from theater screens last December, a victim of competition from Oscar favorites and its own regrettably bland title. Now resurrected on home video, the picture deserves a much closer look, not only for its beautifully rendered sense of place, but also for its knot of embattled, resonant characters, fully brought to life by a near-perfect cast of veteran actors.

Jodorowsky's Dune: The El Topo director's epic that never was

I missed Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo when it first showed up on midnight movie screens in the ‘70s. A decade ago, Jodorowsky introduced the film for a special screening at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. After finally getting a chance to see itI realized it could be viewed as either a surrealist masterpiece or a load of shit, depending on whatever drug you ingested that night. I happened to be straight, and also distracted by the botched screening of my own documentary at the festival earlier in the week. So perhaps I didn’t have the patience to appreciate “Jodo’s” trippy, outlandish intentions with the movie, nor was I aware of its blockbuster reputation among the bohemian esoterica. But right now, as I write this, I’m awaiting my Netflix delivery of the film, flush with an anticipation ignited by the experience of seeing the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which not only seeks to canonize the director and his offbeat oeuvre, but to also explain how the now 85-year old filmmaker came to direct the “greatest movie never made.”