‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’
Every great artist deserves a Great Artist doc, and the life of musician Nina Simone offers the usual doc grist: a genius equaled by turbulence in her personal life, which turmoil often bled into her songs. But the demons that haunted Simone weren’t the usual kind. Simone was a classical pianist who found herself crashing the charts with her eccentric twist on jazz/soul, her barreling, gravelly alto jibing with her pulsating piano work. When the Civil Rights Era kicked into full swing, this unlikely (and reluctant) star found herself turning increasingly political, eventually disappearing from the scene altogether.
Director Liz Garbus doesn’t exactly suggest Simone’s politics getting in the way of her success is a bad thing, but she doesn’t quite know how to handle these and other tricky subjects. Simone recording “Mississippi Goddam” in the wake of the murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing is given appropriate fire, but Garbus tiptoes around her call for violent revolution, plus her later abuse of her daughter. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” gets the job done, and it buys into the current, highly welcome trend of favoring rich archival footage over dull talking heads. But it also emerges onto a scene now fresh with music docs — namely “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and “Amy” — that get in close with troubled subjects, attempting an intimacy over mere Wikipedia factoids. Garbus keeps her distance yet she’s still in over her head.
Spousal projects rarely come better than the one made by actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead and director Riley Stearns, who tackle the subject of cults with disarming aplomb. Winstead plays a woman whisked clumsily off to a motel room, where she’ll be deprogrammed by a disgraced, flustered pro (Leland Orser), who’s introduced trying to grift his way into a free hotel lunch. What starts off darkly funny gradually slides into something more harrowing, but it’s also a showcase for two actors — Winstead and Orser — who, especially on the basis of their expert work here, deserve to be in everything.
‘Hard to be a God'
Even a big TV — much less your smartphone — isn’t the ideal way to take in the late Alexsei German’s impressively brutal slog, which demands not only a massive screen but a feeling of being trapped with something sometimes amusingly unpleasant. There’s a hard sci-fi premise in this grimy number, involving an earthling trying to survive on another plane, that’s just like ours but about 800 years behind, meaning they’re still in the inhumane, dirty Dark Ages. But the majority of its three hours is devoted to shots that rub our noses in filth and misery and murder, like Bela Tarr's palate meets Fellini's knack for long takes that keep ditching and picking up new people to follow. It's mostlyrepetitive. This is a compliment. It’s a uniquely punishing experience, its intensity slightly leavened by its dark sense of humor. Watch it with your phone off, your blinds pulled, if not shuttered, and plagued by as few distractions as you can muster in this day and age.