Joe Berlinger

Whitey Bulger Movie

Is it possible for a documentary to be too close to its subject? I don’t mean to the degree that a documentarian gets lost in their subject, or loses some simplistic ideal of journalistic objectivity. I mean, are there some subjects for which a documentary has been made too soon after the events depicted for the film to show strong perspective or insight on its subject? That would seem to be the case with Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger, Joe Berlinger’s portrait of last year’s highly publicized trial over Boston’s most notorious living criminal. Here Berlinger has three fascinating topics at play – the history of organized crime in Boston, the possibility of systemic corruption in the FBI’s relationship to said organized crime syndicate, and an eccentric and terrifying character at the center of it all – yet Whitey never quite coheres or fully expresses what exactly it wants to illuminate about any of these subjects, alone or in relation to one another.



With Earth Day coming up next week, it’s the time of year to highlight documentaries dealing with our planet and its well-being. In other words, we’ve got environmentalism films to recommend. For our first list devoted to this theme, I’m interested specifically in the low points, the damage that’s been done to the earth, some of it ongoing and some of it remedied. These docs look at disasters like pollution, oil spills, changes to eco-systems and more. And they aren’t all necessarily issue films devoted to making a difference. Most are simply a look at what’s been done. All are necessary works to remind us, maybe affect us, but also to stimulate us in other ways, too. Below are 12 nonfiction features — a few of them Oscar nominees and a couple of them outright masterpieces — from Werner Herzog, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Noriaka Tsuchimoto, Joe Berlinger, Ken Burns and other great filmmakers who know how to create a feeling in us, whether or not they’re also communicating direct information about these disasters. Where known and available, I’ve noted how you can watch each one. Before the Mountain Was Moved Robert K. Sharpe‘s Oscar-nominated 1970 feature is about the effects of strip mining in West Virginia. The primary focus is on the people living in an area where private homes are being damaged by the mountain top removal process and their attempt to either sue the coal company or at least get them to stop being “bad strippers.” It’s […]


death row stories cnn

Yesterday, Landon wrote about how serial television, particularly miniseries and ongoing shows working with closed season-long narratives and involving the prestigious talent of great film directors, are providing us with the best “movies” of today. The focus, once again, is on the current new “golden age” of TV, which for the most part has been limited to fiction programming. But what about nonfiction? Unfortunately, that other side of the small screen has remained for the most part in the rut of lowbrow and cookie cutter reality shows with few traditional exceptions here and there. This year could see nonfiction television joining its counterpart, though, as some are pointing out that 2014 is already filling up with highly anticipated new documentary series from prominent filmmakers and other major personalities. It’s in some of these shows that you’ll find the true true detectives in the new era of quality television. This Sunday night brings the premieres of two of these docu-series: Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, on Fox, and Death Row Stories, on CNN. The former is a 13-part sequel to the popular 1980 PBS miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which starred Carl Sagan and provided a sort of layman’s guide to everything then known about the universe. Sagan, who was the celebrity astrophysicist of the time and who passed away in 1996, has been replaced with host Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is now the celebrity astrophysicist of our time. The goal is for something even more mainstream in its presentation of scientific concepts, and the prominent filmmaker […]


Last week, filmmaker Joe Berlinger tweeted about a review of West of Memphis at DocGeeks in which the writer wrote, “I’ve never had the time or the energy to watch all 3 Paradise Lost films and, having seen West of Memphis, I’m glad I never bothered to.” As the co-director of the Paradise Lost trilogy, Berlinger had a right to be annoyed with that opening line and not just because West of Memphis probably wouldn’t exist without Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s coverage of the West Memphis 3 cases over the last 20 years. If there’s one thing we as film critics and/or fans should be good at it’s considering the distinction of individual works and the independent perspectives that go into their storytelling craft. With more and more documentaries being made it’s understandable that multiple films will tackle the same specific story. Sometimes they will seem like competitors, and sometimes, as in the case of this year’s two AIDS treatment docs, How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger, they’re actually linked through overlapping producers. Another new film, which just won a Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 DOC NYC documentary film festival and also recently received the Best Documentary Feature award at the Austin Film Festival, is one of the greatest examples of why it’s a wonderful thing that so many docs are being produced, even if some appear to be redundant on the surface. Titled Informant, this film tackles the exact same incident already covered by the […]


Okay, hear me out on this one. No, The Blair Witch Project didn’t need a sequel, and no, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is not the sequel that modern horror classic from 1999 deserved. But, love it – and some do really enjoy this film – or hate it, Blair Witch 2 was a controversial sequel to a film that already sparked enough controversy on its own. Book of Shadows, if for nothing else, takes an interesting path for a franchise that could just have as easily turned down Straight-To-DVD-Rehash Boulevard, but it tried something a little different, putting the character in a world where The Blair Witch Project actually exists. What’s more, this wacky horror sequel was also directed by documentarian Joe Berlinger, most famous for the Paradise Lost trilogy. Book of Shadows was taken out of his hands, and Artisan, wanting another horror hit on their slate, opted for re-shoots and re-cuts to make the film more traditionally scary. To Artisan’s or whoever’s credit, Berlinger was given the keys to a commentary on the DVD, which is what we’re digging into this week. The result is an honest look at what happens when a director and a studio have two very different visions. So sit back, crack open a Pete’s Wicked Ale, and blast that Godhead, because we’re all virgins on this bus! Yeah, I’m one of the people who actually digs this movie.


Sundance 2012: Under African Skies

I’ve listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland at least a thousand times (no exaggeration), so if you’re looking for an objective analysis of Under African Skies, Joe Berlinger’s documentary about that seminal work, you won’t find it here. Perhaps someone who doesn’t have virtually every lyric of every song on Simon’s masterpiece memorized, someone who doesn’t tear up just thinking of the “Mississippi Delta shining like a national guitar,” could do a better job of telling you what’s what when it comes to this movie.

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