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Doc Talk: Wilson performed, justice sought, change accelerated, Ornette celebrated, ‘Naked City’ revisited

Nia Sarfo performing in the finals of the 2018 August Wilson Monologue Competition.Jonathon Narducci

The Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” starts streaming Dec. 18. It stars Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. One way to think of “Giving Voice,” which starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 11, is as a curtain-raiser for “Ma Rainey.” An even better way to think of James D. Stern and Fernando Villena’s documentary about the 2018 August Wilson Monologue Competition is on its own terms: as a vigorous, often captivating, and even more often inspiring film.

The annual competition involves high school students delivering a speech of their choice from Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle.” We hear from Davis and Denzel Washington, and there are clips from interviews with Wilson (he died in 2005). More important, “Giving Voice” offers an overview of the competition and, best of all, an up-close-and-personal look at six of the contestants.


Three are from Chicago: Freedom, wonderfully articulate, who came from Oklahoma to attend a high school for the arts; Nia, who has the Juilliard logo as her screen saver; and Cody, who lives in the projects and has a nervy intensity. When a schoolmate asks how he did in an early round, Cody deadpans, “You think they’re filming me because I lost?” The other three are from Los Angeles (Gerardo), Atlanta (Aaron), and Dallas (Callie). All six are marvels of energy and talent; and one of them — ssshh! — is the winner.

Go to www.netflix.com.

Mug shots for Siti Aisyah, left, and Doan Thi Huong from "Assassins."Greenwich Entertainment (Custom credit)

That killing in Kuala Lumpur

Was the murder of Kim Jong-nam the strangest diplomatic story of the decade? The strangest crime story? Or both? Kim, the half-brother of Korean ruler Kim Jong-un, had lived in exile for more than a decade. On Feb. 13, 2017, he was in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, printing out a boarding pass, when two young women rubbed their hands over his face. They fled, and Kim was dead within an hour, killed by a deadly nerve agent, VX.


It is widely assumed that Kim Jong-un ordered the assassination. Four North Korean suspects fled Malaysia. The two young women were arrested on murder charges. As seen in airport surveillance footage, they commit the crime with shocking casualness. It’s as if they were playing a prank.

That’s what they thought they were doing: hired for a “Jackass”-style practical joke for a YouTube video. Kim’s murder was an assassination. As Ryan White’s engrossing documentary “Assassins” makes plain, it was also a setup. Kim was the victim, and the young women were the patsies. “Assassins” is streaming via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, starting Dec. 11.

The film has elements of thriller, courtroom drama, and geopolitical primer. Most of all, it’s a character study of the accused: Siti Aisyah, a single mother from Indonesia, and Doan Thi Huong, an aspiring actress from Vietnam.

With Kuala Lumpur as base, “Assassins” travels to Beijing, Pyongyang, Macau, Jakarta, and Hanoi, among other locations. That sense of sweep extends to White’s skillful mixing of modes and visual textures. Beside the surveillance footage, he includes talking-head interviews, news footage, cellphone video, courtroom sketches, even a clip from “Vietnam Idol” (yes, “Vietnam Idol”), in which Doan appears as a contestant.

Strange as that bit of pop-cultural incongruity is, it’s not the most bizarre one in “Assassins.” Kim had been the heir apparent of his father, Kim Jong-il, until 2001. That’s when he was found attempting to visit Tokyo Disneyland, on a fake passport, no less.


Go to coolidge.org/films/assassins.

A scene from "Sing Me a Song."Participant Media (Custom credit)

Present tense

Bhutan was the last nation to get television and the Internet. The last place in Bhutan to get them was the village of Laya. For his documentary “Happiness” (2013), Thomas Balmès went there and filmed an 8-year-old student monk, Peyangki. Balmès’s “Sing Me a Song” revisits him 10 years later. It can be streamed via the Coolidge, starting Dec. 11.

“Sing Me a Song” is a worlds-collide story, where chanting coexists with WeChat. It begins with Peyangki, at 8, doing cartwheels. Then he’s 18, a monk with a smartphone. Balmès offers striking images of many sorts. Some are spatial: the Himalayan landscape, the cityscape of Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital. Others are social: a roomful of young monks at a lamasery watching the World Cup, Peyangki sitting morosely in a Thimphu disco.

Some of the juxtapositions are too neat. Many of the scenes are clearly enactments, though not presented as such. The camera was set up in advance, the situation arranged (though not the dialogue, one hopes). The Oscar-nominated “Honeyland” (2019) took a similar approach, so many viewers seem not to care. Maybe they should.

As part of its ongoing Science on Screen series, the Coolidge will host a free Q&A with Balmès and Michael Rich, of Harvard Medical School, on Dec. 13 at 2 p.m.


Go to coolidge.org/films/sing-me-song.

Ornette Coleman in "Ornette: Made in America."Criterion Collection (Custom credit)

Hearing secret harmolodics

Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) was one of the great jazz visionaries. His compositions and playing (mostly on alto saxophone) helped launch free jazz, and Coleman’s later theory of “harmolodics” kept things moving right along. Self-conscious and overly arty, Shirley Clarke’s “Ornette: Made in America” (1985) is kind of a mess. It’s overedited and with various bits of stylistic trickeration, such as reenactments of the young Coleman’s life (which are kind of sweet, if also distracting) and the use of overexposed or saturated film stock. Celebrating an innovative and daring musical stylist, Clarke seems to be trying for a visual equivalent. Not a good idea.

The film centers on a performance Coleman gives with the Forth Worth Symphony of his composition “Skies of America.” Fort Worth was his hometown. In a charming scene, Coleman’s presented with the key to the city. There are segments in New York, where he lived most of his adult life, and some concert scenes from Italy and North Africa. William S. Burroughs — always welcome, if also always creepy — pops up.

At the heart of “Ornette: Made in America,” and what makes it worth watching, is the man’s simultaneous sweetness and sense of apartness. The camera lets us see what the ear can hear: Here’s someone hearing secret harmonies.

“Ornette: Made in America” is on the Criterion Channel Dec. 20, one of 28 features and shorts in its Afrofuturism festival. Presumably, Coleman qualifies under that heading because of the influence of R. Buckminster Fuller: “Probably my best hero,” Coleman calls the futurist thinker in the documentary. Think of harmolodics as geodesics.


Go to www.criterionchannel.com/browse.

"Uncovering 'The Naked City.'"Criterion Collection (Custom credit)

Urban exposure

“Naked City” (1948) has a special place in movie history. It’s both the first Studio Era film to be shot almost entirely on location, that location being New York; and “what may be the most New Yorkerish movie ever made.” That statement comes from Bruce Goldstein in a 23-minute short currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, “Uncovering ‘The Naked City’.”

Jules Dassin’s expert crime drama packs more than 100 locations into its 96 minutes. Goldstein, founder of Rialto Pictures and repertory director at New York’s Film Forum, directed, wrote, and presents this tour of many of those locations, using period photos, production shots, film clips, and views of how the sites look today.

Go to www.criterionchannel.com/uncovering-the-naked-city.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.