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    ‘Burning’ Review: Pulling the Fire Alarm in Australia

    A new documentary looks at the visceral impact of wildfires and climate change on the country, from its beleaguered people to sickly koalas.If you think what climate change portends for America is scary, wait until you hear about Australia. That’s the gist of “Burning,” which focuses on that country’s sadly familiar experiences with warming temperatures: terrifying wildfires, drill-baby-drill politicians, and activists desperately trying to save us all by pointing out the facts about the future.The big difference is that Australia’s fires are the biggest: Over 50 million acres burned during its so-called “Black Summer” (2019-20), dwarfing losses in California or the Amazon. The director, Eva Orner (“Chasing Asylum”), makes her contribution to documentaries on climate change by sticking to Australia and underlining the visceral impact on Australians. It’s hellish: red skies and dark days, fear and helplessness, pregnancy complications and death.Orner’s flood of talking heads and footage from the field (including beleaguered locals and sickly koalas) settles into a drumbeat of worry — justified, obviously, but numbing. The film also suffers by comparison with a more complex and stimulating look at climate change, Lucy Walker’s alarming “Bring Your Own Brigade.” But the young activist Daisy Jeffrey does provide this film with a smart rebel leader, versus Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, and his coal-friendly politicking.Like many environmental docs, Orner holds up a possible savior (a tech billionaire pitching a pivot to renewables) and a prelapsarian vision (the Aboriginal stewardship of the land before European arrival). Her film is ultimately another in a series of distress signals for the world, with the hope that Australia doesn’t become a continent-sized Cassandra.BurningNot rated. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes. Watch on Amazon. More

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    ‘’Twas the Fight Before Christmas’ Review: A Not-So-Silent Night

    This documentary recounts how an Idaho man filed a discrimination lawsuit after his neighbors refused to let him host an annual Christmas light extravaganza.If your holiday dinner table sees some heated arguments this year, just be glad if it doesn’t result in an actual melee, with armed standoffs in front of a blow-up Santa Claus.That’s how bad things get in “’Twas the Fight Before Christmas,” an Apple Original documentary that recounts how Jeremy Morris, an attorney from Idaho, sued his neighborhood homeowners association, claiming religious discrimination after it refused to let him host his annual Christmas light extravaganza.Directed by Becky Read, the film feels at first like a mundane depiction of a neighborhood squabble, giving play-by-play accounts of the stern letters sent back and forth between Morris and the West Hayden Estates Homeowners’ Association. But once Morris decks his house with over 200,000 Christmas lights and orders a camel — yes, a live camel — to his front yard despite warnings not to do so, the stakes quickly escalate.Morris, who eats up the screen in his on-camera interviews, has the tenacity of both a well-trained lawyer and a zealot, positioning himself as a “miracle worker” unable to fully practice his Christian faith even as he makes life difficult for those around him. Read also interviews many of the West Hayden Estates residents, who participate in soft re-enactments of the events that help bring the absurdity of the conflict to light.By the time the legal battle reaches its conclusion (for now), the film is more than ready to hint at the greater political implications of Morris’s actions, with the attorney voicing his desire to run for senator. One can’t help but wonder if Morris has already calculated the number of Christmas lights needed to cover the White House.’Twas the Fight Before ChristmasNot rated. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. Watch on Apple TV+. More

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    ‘Keep Sweet’ Review: A Legacy of Polygamy in a Religious Sect

    This documentary by Don Argott looks to the past and future of a community in the American West that made its own rules and lived by them.“Keep Sweet” concerns the conflicts in two towns on opposite sides of a state line. The area of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., was settled by members of a breakaway faction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that continued to practice polygamy after the church had banned it.The group, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ran what has been described as the largest polygamous community in the country. The sect’s critics have characterized it as a dangerous cult. In 2011, the group’s leader, Warren S. Jeffs, was sentenced to life in prison for the sexual assault of two girls he maintained were his wives.This documentary, directed by Don Argott, with some interviews filmed as recently as early 2020, charts a rift within the breakaway group. We hear from former members who say they were disturbed by the way Jeffs controlled and isolated the sect, forbidding books and public education for the children. On the other side are those who have stood by Jeffs even after he was convicted and who refuse to believe the charges against him.The loyalists still shun pop culture and defend Jeffs’s practice of exiling dissenters. But “Keep Sweet” is surprisingly vague on which of his dictates the group has retained. In its second half, the movie tries to show some sympathy for Jeffs’s adherents by turning to a knotty dispute over the ownership of the land, which is controlled by a trust.When people who had left the group under Jeffs began returning to the area, the followers who had stayed faced the possibility of eviction when they refused to sign legal agreements required by the trust. While the ethical issues of the property situation add complexity, the film’s efforts to balance the arguments on both sides aren’t convincing.Keep SweetNot rated. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. Watch on Discovery+. More

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    ‘Jagged’ Review: The Painful Road to Era-Defining Success

    This documentary from Alison Klayman catalogs the odds that Alanis Morissette overcame to make her 1995 hit album “Jagged Little Pill.”Alanis Morissette’s megaselling, epoch-defining 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill” sounds like an obvious centerpiece for a film. Until, that is, you consider the comparatively low number of documentaries about women in rock and pop, especially focusing on the creation of a record. Just look at how few female musicians are represented in the long-running documentary series “Classic Albums.”Kudos, then, to the director Alison Klayman for getting “Jagged” done in the first place.It kicks off with Morissette’s start as a teen sensation in the 1980s and tracks her transformation into a generation’s electrifying bard. Klayman (“The Brink”) is at her best illustrating Morissette’s candid, thoughtful reminiscences with period footage, and documenting the wild year that followed the release of “Jagged Little Pill,” when the newly minted star toured nonstop, backed by male bandmates who now semi-sheepishly confess to preying on the girls and young women flocking to the concerts. (Morissette has recently distanced herself from “Jagged,” accusing it of having a “salacious agenda” and offering a “reductive take.”)The film, which is fairly conventional aesthetically and narratively, follows the testosterone-laden “Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage” in HBO’s Music Box series. Taken together, they paint an unsettling portrait of the structural and behavioral sexism pervasive in the music world — a former radio program director interviewed in “Jagged” remarks, for example, that “it was regarded as a no-no to play female artists back to back.”This makes the vision of Morissette reclaiming her life and art in great, powerful yelps while pacing arena stages in baggy T-shirts all the more thrilling: We know the cost.JaggedNot rated. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. Watch on HBO Max. More

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    The Moment That Janet Jackson’s Career Stalled and Justin Timberlake’s Soared

    Jackson was vilified after her 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, while Timberlake’s popularity seemed to take off. Our new documentary examines how the superstars were treated after their unforgettable wardrobe malfunction.Reuters//Gary Hershorn (United States Entertainment)‘Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson’Producer/Director Jodi GomesReporter/Senior Producer Rachel AbramsReporter Alan LightWatch our new documentary on Friday, Nov. 19, at 10 p.m. on FX and streaming on Hulu.The term “wardrobe malfunction” has been part of our vocabulary ever since Janet Jackson’s right breast made a surprise appearance at the end of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.When Justin Timberlake tore off part of Jackson’s bustier in front of 70,000 people in Houston’s Reliant Stadium, over 140 million people watching on TV gasped — if they noticed.It happened so quickly (the moment lasted nine-sixteenths of one second) that even some of the halftime show’s producers missed it until their phones, and phones all over America, started ringing.“Did you see what just happened?” Jim Steeg, the National Football League’s director of special events, asked Salli Frattini, the MTV executive in charge of the halftime show. She had to rewind the tape to be sure.“We looked at the close-up shot. We looked at the wide shot, and we all stood there in shock,” Frattini recalled in a new documentary by The New York Times.Was it an accident? Was it planned? Was it a stunt?The ensuing uproar — from the N.F.L., from the Federal Communications Commission, from politicians and their allies — was the peak of a national debate at the time over what’s acceptable on America’s airwaves, and who gets to decide.In our documentary, premiering Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern time on FX and Hulu, we hear from the former commissioner of the N.F.L., Paul Tagliabue, and the MTV executives who were in charge of producing the halftime show. And we talk to some of the politicians who seized on the moment to try to rein in content that they deemed inappropriate.We also look back at Jackson’s long career, which never seemed to recover, while Timberlake’s soared. And we consider how issues of race and sexism mixed to consume one superstar’s legacy and propel another’s career to the next level.Supervising Producer Liz DayProducers Fred Charleston, Jr., Anthony McLemore, Timothy MoranCo-Producer Melanie BencosmeDirector of Photography Asad FaruqiVideo Editor Geoff O’Brien“The New York Times Presents” is a series of documentaries representing the unparalleled journalism and insight of The New York Times, bringing viewers close to the essential stories of our time. More

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    ‘The First Wave’ Review: How to Fight a Virus

    The documentary tracks the first four months of the novel coronavirus in March 2020, as it overwhelms works at a hospital in Queens.The documentary “The First Wave,” an intimate portrait of the first four months of the coronavirus pandemic in New York City, goes inside the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, as doctors, nurses and patients attempt to fight a surge that threatens to overwhelm the hospital’s capacity.The director Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land,” “A Private War”) prefers a fly-on-the-wall style as he observes the scenes in the hospital. It’s clear he was granted a remarkable degree of access to make this documentary. The camera watches from the bedside of flat-lining patients as their doctors try to resuscitate them.Heineman pans close to intubated faces, and the audience sees the desperation of patients who try until their last breaths to expel fluid from their lungs.In the scenes that follow, the film’s central figure, Dr. Nathalie Dougé, is overwhelmed by a new disease that doesn’t follow familiar patterns. It’s agonizing to witness the degree of suffering that this movie documents, all the more so because the pandemic is still ongoing.Heineman doesn’t include talking heads to contextualize the images that are presented, preferring to allow doctors and nurses to explain the chaos surrounding them. The deliberate lack of an external perspective adds to the crushing atmosphere at the hospital. This is not a comprehensive portrait of diagnostics, treatment plans or even the political circumstances that produced such a deadly first surge. But the film succeeds in presenting an on-the-ground view of what it felt like to be inside a hospital in the spring of 2020. It was harrowing, death was everywhere and there was no end in sight.The First WaveRated R for graphic images, medical gore and language. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theaters. More

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    ‘Procession’ Review: Art as Exorcism

    In this experimental documentary streaming on Netflix, six survivors of abuse within the Catholic Church use filmmaking to confront traumatic memories.Robert Greene’s two most recent documentaries pondered the ethics of re-enacting traumatic events, with an interest in immersion’s psychological effects on performers. “Kate Plays Christine” followed an actress as she prepared to play a newscaster who killed herself on the air. “Bisbee ’17” watched the residents of an Arizona town as they recreated a large-scale deportation that had occurred there a century earlier.With “Procession,” Greene pushes the concept of staging-as-exorcism to an extreme: Can men who endured childhood sexual abuse within the Catholic Church confront painful memories through filmmaking — and perhaps gain some solace from that process? The movie is billed as a three-year collaboration among six abuse survivors, a professional drama therapist and the director and his crew. In an expansive “film by” credit, Greene gives the victims top billing.“Procession” follows the men as they help one another brainstorm and shoot five scripted scenes based on their experiences. Various elements of the production process (casting, costuming, finding locations the subjects haven’t visited since youth) become means for coping and reckoning. A sixth survivor, Tom Viviano, says he cannot tell his story because it’s still before the courts. His contribution is to act — playing predator priests, in what must be agonizing feats of impersonation — in two segments.“Procession” is exceptionally difficult to watch, as it should be. It’s also difficult to assess as art, given how it collapses lines between collaboration and co-option and between cinema and supportive treatment. To judge Greene’s experiment, not least because of its visible salutary effects, feels like intruding on private breakthroughs. But the discomfiting power of “Procession” comes from its ability to show and, to all appearances, facilitate them.ProcessionRated R. Discussions of childhood trauma. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. Watch on Netflix. More

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    ‘Aulcie’ Review: Love and Basketball, in Israel

    This melodramatic documentary chronicles how Aulcie Perry, a basketball center from New Jersey, became a celebrity in Israel after he joined the Maccabi Tel Aviv team.You may not know the name Aulcie Perry, but in Israel, the former basketball center is a legend — like “Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar rolled into one,” as a sports journalist in the documentary “Aulcie” puts it. Through interviews, archival images and illustrated sequences, the movie, directed by Dani Menkin, offers a treacly biography of the overseas celebrity athlete whose career was ultimately derailed by an addiction to heroin.Born in Newark, N.J., the 6-foot-10 Perry always saw basketball as his calling. Hoop dreams propelled him to the N.B.A., but after he was promptly cut from the Knicks, Perry took a chance: He accepted a spot with Maccabi Tel Aviv. The team proved a solid fit, and Perry led Maccabi to European Champions Cup victories in 1977 and 1981, before drug addiction and a trafficking charge forced him to shelf his remarkable career.
    There is a contagious thrill to the movie’s portrait of its subject’s achievements, especially his whirlwind romance with the Israeli supermodel Tami Ben Ami. But when it comes to Perry’s moments of struggle, “Aulcie” trips up. Schmaltzy music and fuzzy pictures give a hard tug at the heartstrings, and footage of Perry missing shots on an empty court is frequently deployed as a superficial visual metaphor for hardship. The movie also declines to engage with Israel’s evolving politics or culture and where Perry fit in, opting instead for a melodramatic portrait of a star that fell too soon.AulcieNot rated. In English and Hebrew, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes. In theaters and on virtual cinemas. More