“Tower” (2016, Kino Lorber) Deeply moving and effective documentary about the 1966 mass shootings at the University of Texas at Austin, and its impact, both immediate and long-term, on its survivors and the city and country as a whole. Director Keith Maitland places viewers in the middle of the chaotic violence by taking the direct recollections of the victims and observers and then recreating them, through remarkable rotoscope animation; though the outcome of the shootings, which left 15 people dead in less than two hours, is known to history, Maitland’s approach generates considerable suspense, due largely to the intimate testimony of the survivors (as well as archival interviews with several participants). Their words illustrate in simple but potent terms both the terror and panic that grips such incidents, and the incredible acts of bravery that they often inspire. In a cultural atmosphere that struggles to reconcile personal freedom with paralyzing violence, “Tower” stands as testimony to the pursuit of sanity and humanity in the face of horror that is becoming commonplace. It’s one of the best films of 2016, and required viewing for the years to come. Kino’s Blu-ray includes post-screening interviews with Maitland, producers like Pamela Coloff (whose feature for “Texas Monthly” on the shootings inspired the film) and many survivors, as well as profiles of the participants and clips of the live-action footage (shot in Maitland’s back yard and at the offices of animators Minnow Mountain) prior to rotoscoping.
“The Creeping Garden” (2014, Arrow Video) The slime mold is a study in contradictions: despite its name and sticky, amoebic appearance, it’s neither plant nor fungus, and though it can move (slowly) and consume prey (very slowly), it’s not an animal. And while it lacks a brain, the slime mold is capable of very complex behavior, from navigating a maze to expressing itself through simple communication. Such properties have earned the slime mold star billing in this very unusual and visually striking British documentary, which opens on a strong note, detailing the organism’s durability, determination and lengthy history through soothing interviews with scientists and aficionados and some remarkable computer effects. The second half of the picture is somewhat more speculative, with a host of Ludwig von Drake types suggesting the slime mold’s capability as a sort of biocomputer, artist and music composer; these elements, while intellectually intriguing, are less compelling than the film’s primary appeal, which is directors Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp’s charming aesthetic nod to ’70s-style nature-makes-me-nervous docudrama (i.e. “The Hellstrom Chronicle,” “Phase IV,” “The Andromeda Strain”). Still, as a deep and hypnotic dive into largely unknown science, and as a sort of modern-day head film (a point driven home by Jim O’Rourke’s loopy-creepy electronic score), “The Creeping Garden” is a unique take on a very unusual subject that by all accounts, exists all around us – and is on the move. The Blu-ray – part of Arrow’s new arthouse line, Arrow Academy – includes commentary by Grabham and Sharp, as well as several associated shorts, including an exploration of the fungi repository at Kew Gardens, a musical collaboration between slime mold and composer Eduardo Reck Miranda and a trio of alarming short films by Grabham’s independent studio and alternate ID, illobia, as well as a CD of O’Rourke’s music for the film.
“Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story” (2016, Kino Lorber) The sound in question is the product of jazz alto saxophonist Frank Morgan, whose sweet and melancholy tone, developed while still he was still a teen at jazz clubs along L.A.’s Central Avenue, drew favorable comparison to Charlie Parker. The redemption part forms the meat of this fine documentary, and follows Morgan’s descent into heroin addiction and countless years of imprisonment in San Quentin for a host of criminal charges to support that habit. Director NC Henkin does a fine job of assembling interviews with Morgan’s extended family, admirers and collaborators (among them Ron Carter, Horace Tapscott and Central Ave legend Clora Bryant), who detail his brilliance as both a player and determined addict-criminal, with introspective images and words from and most notably performances by the man himself; a tribute concert held at San Quentin, where Morgan spent much of his time behind bars, is a spirited and often emotional framing device that underscores both his travails and his talents.
“SCUM Manifesto” (2016, Facets) Two women (Polish actresses Hanna Maciag and Anita Sokolowska) face each other at a table dominated by a typewriter and a television. One reads from and translates in Polish Valerie Solanas’ infamous 1967 SCUM Manifesto , which advocated the overthrow of male-dominated society by whatever means necessary (SCUM stands for the Society for Cutting Up Men), while the other pecks out her words onto paper. The work is occasionally interrupted by news footage of nationalist fervor in Poland – anti-immigrant/Islam rallies, extreme military actions, hooliganism – which both women watch impassively. A near shot-for-shot remake of the 1976 French film of the same name by director Carole Roussopoulous and actress Delphine Seyrig (“Last Year at Marienbad”), the 2016 “Manifesto” is an effort by directors Jill Godmillow, Joanna Krakowska and Magda Mosiewicz to address the rise of extreme conservatism, all largely male-driven around the world through the ferocity of Solanas’ words. As before, one has to determine whether the manifesto is allegory or actuality (and weigh it against her own attempt to carry her theories into real life by shooting Andy Warhol a year after issuing her text), but as almost daily attempts to corral, deny and reduce the power and presence of women are carried out, both here in the States and abroad, the picture makes a case for desperate times calling for desperate measures. Facets’ DVD includes detailed liner notes by Godmillow and Krakowska.