Dok.cetera: 3 HBO Max Documentaries to Watch

20 April, 2022

With its Romanian launch on March 8, HBO Max dramatically expands on the streaming offerings from the company’s original HBO Go selections. Aside from theatrically released movies joining the platform 45 days from release, HBO Max also offers exclusive content from Warner Bros, DC, Cartoon Network, and its own Max Originals. Though the app does include such blockbuster fare as Dune, The Matrix Resurrections, and The Suicide Squad, its documentary selections can also rival anything competing services have to offer. From the well-received Romanian productions like Collectiv and Holy Father to interesting international features like Poland’s The Wind: A Documentary Thriller, the documentaries on HBO Max are extensive, diverse, and engaging. For this edition of Dok.cetera, we’ll look at three HBO Max documentaries of particular note.

Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall, a film by Erin Lee Carr
Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall, a film by Erin Lee Carr

Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall (dir. Erin Lee Carr)
HBO’s two-part true crime investigation Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall is familiar tabloid fare flipped into a novel feminist appreciation. Incited by the mysterious disappearance of the Pulitzer-Prize winning Swedish journalist, Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall bypasses the traditional damsel in distress territory all-to-frequently guiding the true crime genre. Instead, it focuses much of its runtime on the journalistic talents, professional accomplishments, and emotional fallouts of its subject’s life and death. In 2017, Kim Wall was dispatched to Denmark to interview the eccentric Peter “Rocket” Madsen, an entrepreneur known for his private rocket fleet and midget submarines, where she would meet a particularly gruesome fate. The film’s director Erin Lee Carr, who has helmed some of HBO’s most feminist-leaning true crime of the last decade, including At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal and I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter manages to involve an expansive array of figures, archival footage and never before heard audio recordings to piece together the timeline of the strange events. However, she does this by rendering Madsen mainly a side note, forfeiting anything remotely aligned to entrepreneur worship. Instead, the twice-Emmy nominated director ingeniously renders Madsen as something of a middle-aged narcissist with mommy issues, frequently running afoul within his own companies. The result makes Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall the most tasteful of revenge tales.

Read more about the True Crime genre in the first Films in Frame print magazine!

Phoenix Rising, a film by Amy J. Berg
Phoenix Rising, a film by Amy J. Berg

Phoenix Rising (dir. Amy J. Berg)
At its core, the #MeToo movement seeks acknowledgment. The acknowledgment of wrongdoing, the acknowledgment of privilege, and, ultimately, the acknowledgment of accountability. Yet, in the throes of its valid intensity, the movement has occasionally stumbled into a sensationalist territory, with an overreliance on immediate emotion and an internet-wide subjectivity in definition. Still, at its foundation, it has exposed and rightfully destroyed many of society’s most deviant predators. Amongst these names (a list that includes the Weinsteins, Cosbys, and CKs of the world) is Marilyn Manson. The “shock rocker” whose three decades career has garnered a near-constant firestorm of controversy has recently been accused by a multitude of women of systemic grooming and assault. The highest-profile accuser is celebrated Thirteen (Catherine Hardwicke, 2003) and Westworld (HBO, 2016 – ) actress Evan Rachel Wood, whose years-long relationship with Manson has yielded several credible such accusations. However, like many survivors, Wood’s trauma is embedded, a process requiring a delicate balance of personal safety, societal trust, and faith in its justice system – a trifecta primarily seen in the ideal. For Wood, by the time her understanding of the events came to a place of mental and emotional readiness, California’s statute of limitations on domestic abuse had expired, rendering her legally powerless to pursue any official action against her abuser, thus avoiding any public displays of acknowledgment or accountability. In its straightforward documentary form, director Amy Berg’s (The Case Against Adnan Syed, 2019) film follows Wood’s journey from acting to direct action as she contributes, and successfully lobbies for, the aptly titled Phoenix Act, legislation to extend the statute of limitations on domestic abuse. Phoenix Rising also juxtaposes this present of Wood’s life with her past, particularly her memories of a Hollywood upbringing and her sexualization at a young age (a subject Wood previously addressed in 2020’s Showbiz Kids). Equal parts compelling in its predatorial pattern-identifying and entertainment industry hyper-sexualization and devastating in its graphic retelling of abuse, Phoenix Rising succeeds in shining the brightest of lights on the systematic nature of power abuse and its lingering effects.

Michael Mann discussing Heat (1995) in HBO Max One Perfect Shot
Michael Mann discussing Heat (1995) in HBO Max One Perfect Shot

One Perfect Shot (ep. Ava DuVernay)
A fascinating, albeit indulgent, 6-part docuseries from filmmaker and activist Ava DuVernay (Selma, 2016; 13th, 2016), One Perfect Shot‘s premise is simple: invite some of Hollywood’s top directors to take an in-depth look back at one of their most iconic scenes, doing so one frame at a time, culminating in comprehensive 3D rendered walkthroughs. The series draws inspiration from the popular Twitter account @oneperfectshot, which itself shares visually rich stills from a range of cinema through poignant and often humorous anecdotes about how those scenes came to be. The guests on DuVernay’s series include Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman, 2017), Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7, 2020), Kasi Lemmons (Harriet, 2020), Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, 2018), Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, 2017), and Michael Mann (Heat, 1995). Along for the deconstructions, each film and filmmaker is also represented by select key crew members to converse and mostly reminisce on the motivations, compromises, and creation of the scenes discussed and their contexts within the broader film. For Jenkins, presupposing her take on Wonder Woman’s celebrated “no man’s land” sequence, the conversation comes with producer Charles Roven and VFX artist Bill Westenhofer; for Michael Mann, he invites director of photography Dante Spinotti and co-editor Joshua Goldberg to discuss that film’s classic on-location shootout. Though much of the conversation, and ultimate series focus, falls into a particular filmmaker indulgence, their individual stories (aside from Mann and Sorkin, all featured come from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds) and career paths do offer valuable perspectives on the individual correlations between politics and art. Ultimately, One Perfect Shot may not satisfy the cinephile in the same way Netflix’s collection of video essays VOIR might. Still, it adds to the always interesting peers into the creative process and doing so through DuVernay’s.

 



"New to Bucharest by way of Amsterdam, Brooklyn, and a few others, Steve is the communications manager/industry editor for Modern Times Review documentary magazine. He was also senior editor for New York-based IndieWood/Hollywoodn’t. At Films in Frame, his documentary column features on the last Wednesday of the month.