13 posts categorized "Docudrama"

June 08, 2018



For the first time since Quentin Tarantino reinvented the heist genre with “Reservoir Dogs” way back in 1992, a filmmaker has broken the whole thing wide open. With a handful of documentaries under his belt writer-director Bart Layton crafts a snappy docudrama rendition of a small-town heist at a university in Lexington Kentucky that finishes with appropriate grace notes of hubris and pathos. Bart Layton isn’t a household name, yet.

Layton uses interview clips with each of the real-life young men who schemed to steal rare books and manuscripts from Transylvania University’s library, as overseen by a lone librarian — one Betty Jean Gooch. A first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and four double-size folios of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” are on the would-be thieves’ shopping list.

American Animals1

We relish as the amateur heist team of college students assemble. Pals Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) watch a collection of heist movies ranging from Kubrick’s “The Killing” to “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Naturally, the guys gets colors for names. Warren names himself Mr. Yellow because he’s his mom’s “sunshine.”

American Animals2

No one wants to hurt the librarian, the only person guarding the university’s precious books, but pain must be inflicted. By the time the heist takes place, the suspense is gut-wrenching. Here is a thrilling caper movie that makes us empathize with the crooks and their victim in equal measure. By interviewing the real thieves, while dramatizing their story, Bart Layton adds a meaty layer of social realism to the film. Get out your knife and fork; this is one movie you can really sink your teeth into.

Warren Lipka - Evan Peters

Rated R. 116 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

September 20, 2017


ColesmitheyThere is beautiful chemistry between the legendary 88-year-old French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda and JR, the youthful French photographer who cares for Varda as a loyal would-be grandson of artistic intentions. JR and Varda share directing credits for this disarmingly sweet and poignant documentary that plays more as a docudrama due to the circumstance of uncertainty regarding Ms. Varda’s health.

The movie is a nuanced sociological study of French culture. Needless to say, the amount of pretense on display is near zero. Think of it as neo-realistic French New Wave ethnographic study in B minor. The personal and artistic elements are articulated to their fullest — a rare cinematic, event to say the least. It doesn't hurt that JR and Agnes Varda are two of the most endearing human beings you'd ever want to spend two hours of your life with. 

The harmonious pair of inspired film-project pals travel to small towns in France in a Mercedes Benz truck decorated to resemble a giant camera. Already we are in a filmic world. The sides of JR’s fancy mode of transportation includes a photo booth where locals are photographed. The truck then prints out black-and-white portraits on gigantic sheets of paper that JR pastes to the sides of buildings to create dramatic personalized statements about the significance of human faces and truth.


Although Varda’s vision is constantly blurry due to an eye condition, she complains about JR’s proclivity for always wearing sunglasses. She wants to see his eyes. But it is clear that JR separates himself as an artist from his subject so that your attention can focus on the art rather than the artist.

Cole smithey

“Faces Places” is a film you discover and revel in the joy of its simplicity, patience, and naturalistic discourse. Like all of Varda’s films, this one is special. It won this year’s L’Oeil d’or at Cannes for good reason. If you only see one film at NYFF55, “Faces Places” is the one to watch.


Not Rated. 89 minutes. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

What to Watch at the 55th New York Film Festival from Cole Smithey on Vimeo.

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July 12, 2013

The Act of Killing

Act-of-killing-posterUnrepentant Cutthroats:   
Joshua Oppenheimer Leaks Indonesia’s Genocide

At once the most micro and meta combination of cinéma vérité, documentary, and docudrama filmmaking techniques ever assembled, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is an earth-shattering cinematic experience.

A challenging movie to throw into any cocktail party discussion, its parameters are deceptively straightforward but also wildly ambitious. It helps to know in advance that Errol Morris and Werner Herzog agreed to executive produce the film based on its remarkable merits.

The 1965 – 1966 genocide of more than half a million accused “communists” [ethnic Chinese, intellectuals, and union organizers] in Indonesia by right-wing paramilitary and freelance death squads — many consisting of self-proclaimed “gangsters” (a.k.a. “free men,” really unemployed racists) — serves as the stepping-off point for Oppenheimer to inspire, enable, and encourage a handful of aging remorseless killers to dramatize their heinous deeds with whatever artistic trappings they choose. A shadowy film-noir set, or a cheesy take on a ‘60s era American war movie, gives the former executioners artistic cinematic opportunities to act out stylized versions their ideal selves when they tortured and killed thousands of men by hand for the fun of it. One sequence finds the killers dressed up as gaudy cowboys seemingly inspired by “Lust in the Dust,” Paul Bartel’s campy western farce. They even have a drag queen in the group who acts as a gunsel to the gang.

The leader of one such gang is Andrew Congo, a grandfather with a skinny frame and thinning grey hair living in the town of Medan in North Sumatra. Congo fancies himself a cross between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. He breaks into a cha cha routine on the patio where he personally killed hundreds of men either by shooting or by strangling with a long sturdy piece of wire fixed to a pole at one end, and with a wood handle at the other.

Joshua Oppenheimer was cornered by Indonesian authorities into reinventing his initial concept for the film after being repeatedly arrested — along with his crew and original group of interview subjects. The filmmaker’s attempt to tell the story of the genocide by interviewing surviving family members and friends was made impossible by Indonesian authorities intent on preventing any such document from ever being created. Oppenheimer craftily turned the repressive atmosphere by working with the oppressors rather than directly with the victims. The result provides a uniquely cinematic mirror that allows the criminals to indict themselves in a way that their accusers never could.

The film’s provocative title echoes throughout the movie in expanding meaning. “Killing” as an “act” takes on a host of different subjective and objective definitions from the personal to the political. Congo and his equally culpable associates retain their gangster bond nearly 40 years after their punishment-free crimes. They gleefully orchestrate and perform peacefully symbolic movements in nature, before a giant waterfall to the strains of “Born Free.” No amount of description can prepare an audience for the sickening levels of surreal irony of witnessing Congo and his men act out staged scenes of the violence they perpetrated against their neighbors, friends, and associates.

A guest appearance by Congo on an Indonesian television talk show — complete with a female teenybopper host — reveals how the public discussion of the genocide is openly discussed and celebrated for achieving its desired effect of silencing any and all dissenters. Fox news has nothing on Indonesian television.

In another clip, an aging gang member gleefully brags about killing his Chinese girlfriend’s father back in the day. Another gangster defends his belief in the atrocities he committed and his willingness to be brought up before a war crimes tribunal at The Hague for the fame it will bring him. “The Act of Killing” is a transforming movie. Every audience will be affected differently, but every single one will be changed by it.

Not Rated. 122 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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May 07, 2013


Bloody SundayAlthough originally produced for British television in 2002, Paul Greengrass’s vivid depiction of a violent turning point in the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland was released in theaters in the States. The Sundance and Berlin film festivals showered awards on the docudrama for its persuasive vérité style, which depicts a January 30, 1972 attack by British army paratroopers against 10,000 Irish demonstrators in a civil rights protest march in Derry, Northern Ireland. Fourteen protestors were killed and 14 more were injured; British soldiers suffered no injuries or casualties. The 1998 Bloody Sunday Inquiry ordered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the most expensive investigation in British history.

Greengrass based his terse, episodic screenplay on Don Mullan’s acclaimed book “Eyewitness Bloody Sunday” (1997). Drawing on his early career spent directing episodes of the investigative British television program “World in Action,” Greengrass deploys an arsenal of shooting and editing techniques to place the audience in the flow of the film’s roughly 24-hour timeline.


Sound from radio transmissions between British military officers preparing for confrontation segues into a stream of hand-held camera sequences that expose the two sides in an infamous street battle. Loose camera pans and impulsive zooms capture the naturally lit action in a gloomy urban district where barbed-wire barricades and roadblocks were commonplace. A young Catholic couple kisses and parts ways by the light of military vehicle headlights. This is what military occupation feels like — brutal, dangerous, and mundane.

Each scene begins in mid-action and cuts away with a sustained blackout fade that keeps the audience off balance. The audience’s eyes are temporarily closed. Like the Irish, we don’t know where we will wake up next in the conflict. Our uneasy frame of reference is that of an itinerant bystander grasping at whatever semblance of reason we can read into the absurdist narrative of military oppression.

Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) is a charismatic Member of Parliament of Northern Ireland and civil rights leader charged with leading the march. Like the local priests, Ivan is on a first-name basis with many citizens, whom he treats as his own flock of “peaceful” protestors. However infectious his idealistic, and fearless, belief in the potential power of a demonstration to effect change, there are plenty of young men who think differently. An Irish Republican Army leader dispatches orders to his comrades from behind the wheel of his car while chatting with Cooper.


Major Steele (Chris Villiers), a British Army commander, instructs his war-painted Charlie Company troops to teach the locals a lesson. Picking up “200 hooligans” is their stated mission. Back at the Army’s headquarters Maj. Gen. Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) focuses on “winning the propaganda war” when he isn’t modeling the aggressive attitude he expects from his crew of trigger-happy goons.

When all hell breaks out, as we know from history, the audience is thrust into the middle of an orgy violence against innocent civilians that makes clear why Bloody Sunday served as “a moment of truth and a moment of shame” that “destroyed the civil rights movement” and gave the IRA its “biggest victory.”

Bloody-sunday (1)

Rated R. 107 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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February 12, 2013

Caesar Must Die

Caesar Must DieHere’s the set up. Real-life Italian prisoners in Rome’s high-security Rebibbia prison rehearse and stage an abbreviated version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” for an audience of friends, family, and prison guards. Conceived by co-directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani ("Padre Padrone" — Berlin Film Festival 1977 winner) as a reality/theatrical statement on Italian self-identity, and the lasting relevance of Shakespeare’s political play "Julius Caesar."

The docudrama reveals the personalities of convicts using a play to displace their inner struggles and reinvent the walls that contain them. The film is a high-wire act with a very small net. Filmed largely in black-and-white, the movie establishes its characters during auditions where naturally gifted inmates give breathtaking and hilarious performances of an assigned sketch scene. Each Itlaian face is familiar and yet every animated gesture is fresh. We sense thousands of years of Italian culture pouring out from convicts doing time for everything from murder to various Mafia activities. Blood temperatures rise in keeping with the play within the film. Context is everything. The talented prisoners exhibit a wide range of emotions in playing their theatrically-bound roles. You can't help but wonder how much this dedicated and loyal group of men could add to society if given the proper support.

Shakespeare’s overriding text provides the surprisingly adept “actors” with an ongoing inner and outer dialogue regarding loyalty and betrayal. “Caesar Must Die” is an unconventional docudrama that engages its audience in a dialogue about the similarities between politicians and criminals, between actors and non-actors, and between observers and leaders. If you’re looking for an adventurous thought-provoking film, “Caesar Must Die” more than fits the bill.

Not Rated. 76 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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February 01, 2013


Touching the VoidThe docudrama genre has rarely been so well served as it is by director Kevin Macdonald’s groundbreaking rendering of the remarkable true story of two young British mountainclimbers’ near-death experience scaling a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Based on mountainclimber Joe Simpson’s book "Touching the Void: The Harrowing First-Person Account of One Man's Miraculous Survival," the film features in-depth interview accounts with the actual climbers (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) in conjunction with breathtaking reenactments using stunt climbers and actors (Nicholas Aaron, Ollie Ryall, and Brendan Mackey) on the Siula Grande and on locations in the Alps. One highlight is Joe Simpson's reenactment of a sequence from his terrifying experience on the mountain.

Besides being based on one of the most captivating tales of survival one can imagine, the film gains credibility from sequences filmed in the exact locations where the events took place. Tearing a page from the Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”) school of documentary filmmaking, Macdonald uses a similar interview system, allowing his subjects to open up directly to the camera as if looking the audience in the eye like a trusted confidant. Macdonald’s inclusion of Richard Hawking, the man entrusted to watch over base camp until the climbers’ return, proves an enormous benefit to the film, partly due to Hawking’s sincere yet lively demeanor.

Touching the void

Macdonald’s concentrated use of close-ups in the snowy reenactments conveys the bizarre mix of emotions on display despite the layers of protective clothing that cover the subjects. The filmmaker’s rigorous reenactments put the viewer inside the physical and mental weeklong nightmare that Joe Simpson and Simon Yates endured.


Fascinating, intense, and steeped in the riveting determination of one man’s will to live, “Touching The Void” is a startling film that rattles your nerves and sends a cold chill deep inside. Simon’s meticulous explanation of his conscious and subconscious thought processes during his ordeal illuminate his singularly straightforward personality. The fact that he never felt compelled to pray speaks to his uncompromising commitment to truth, and to surviving a situation that few people could or would walk away from if they found themselves in a similar predicament.


"Touching the Void" towers above the rest of that rarest of all film genres, the docudrama.

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July 05, 2012


Imposter-PosterThat least mined of all film genres — the docudrama — finds full-throated expression in the service of a true story that is, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction. Director Bart Layton puts to use the skills he polished while helming such television programs as "Locked Up Abroad." This time the subject is Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old European con artist who convinces Spanish authorities that he is Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio boy who went missing over three years earlier — when Nicholas was 13. In service to the telling of one of the most convoluted stories you could imagine, is Bourdin’s candid straight-to-camera recalling of every twist in a list of unlikely decisions and events that delivered him into the arms of a "loving" family with nearly as many secrets as him.

Much of the joy of watching “The Imposter” derives from the way bits and pieces of information gradually gel into a tangible form. Interviews with Barclay’s family members, FBI officials, and a local private detective, piece together the kind of policier puzzle that most pro screenwriters would marvel at. Layton’s elegant sense of restraint and purposeful organization of a dense exposition provides a seamless storyline that gains suspense as it goes along. The less an audience knows going in, the more rewarded they will be by the time the closing credits roll. The film’s tagline, “There are two sides to every lie” couldn’t suit this material any better.

Rated R. 95 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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March 03, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro-dreams-of-sushi-3As you might imagine from the documentary’s title, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a character study/biography of a master sushi chef named Jiro. The 85-year-old Jiro Ono’s 10-seat restaurant—located in the Tokyo subway system—has received dining’s highest ranking of three Michelin stars. Reservations are booked a month in advance. A true master of his craft, Jiro has taught his two sons to follow in his footsteps. Jiro’s oldest son Yoshikazu, 50, works directly under his father, preparing the most amazing sushi in the world.

Director David Gelb provides a crash-course in the stratified world of Tokyo fish markets from which Yoshikazu chooses the very best cuts of fish. The master chef lives by a simple set of rules that include things such as maintaining cleanliness and taking his job seriously. Here is a man attempting to live as modestly as possible in the service of the work he loves doing. There’s nothing flashy about David Gelb’s serviceable rendering of a man who has achieved an unrivaled mastery of a cuisine he helped invent. You too might come away from the movie craving Jiro Ono’s sushi, whether or not you like raw fish.

Rated PG. 81 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

January 22, 2012

Declaration of War

Declaration of warA new twist on the docudrama genre, “Declaration of War” is an affecting autobiographical story about a young French couple faced with caring for their 18-month son Adam after he’s diagnosed with a brain tumor. Director/co-writer/actress Valerie Donzelli plays out her real-life personage as her pseudonymous character Juliette, a young Parisian hipster. Juliette meets her mate-to-be, with the likely name of Romeo, at a house party. Like Donzelli, co-writer Jeremie Elkaim plays his real-life role as Adam’s father and committed partner to Donzelli’s character. An opening scene divulges Adam’s survival from the potentially life threatening disease so as not to hold the audience hostage with unnecessary suspense. This benevolent narrative movement allows the story to breathe with the kind of naturalism the filmmakers intend. Although the movie periodically stumbles during a few off-putting moments of commentary from indistinct narrators, the heartfelt chronicle percolates with a heightened sense of authenticity. Donzelli liberates the film’s potentially cloistering hospital atmosphere in which non-actors fulfill their roles. She does so with stylized elegiac sequences that communicate the couple’s romantic connection and practical methods for working through the terrible pressures that transform their daily lives. The filmmaker’s fluid camera work and brilliant use of music, adds a level of excitement to the drama without overpowering the film as you might experience in a typical Hollywood disease movie. There are no cheap flashes of sentimentality on display. The couple’s “declaration of war” against their son’s cancer comes with heavy personal costs that are transcended during the film’s joyful closing scene.

Not Rated. 100 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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