A look at two critically lauded documentaries opening this week: Don Argott’s “The Art of the Steal” and Kimberly Reed’s “Prodigal Sons.” “Art of the Steal” was a runaway hit at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, while “Prodigal Sons” arrives in theaters following its multiple festival wins, including Best Documentary at the 2009 Newfest Awards.
“The Art of the Steal”
“If there was room left to doubt the ascending impact of ‘The Wire’ on 21st-century television and film, consider the latest exhibit of its influence, which shifts the epicenter of urban American power brokerage from Baltimore to Philadelphia,” writes Kevin B. Lee in Slant Magazine. “Instead of drugs driving the political and economic cityscape, it’s the Barnes Foundation’s collection of impressionist and early modern art, valued in the tens of billions of dollars. Weaving a dense web of interviews, archival footage, and graphics, Don Argott portrays a cabal of politicos and cultural institutions conspiring to legislate the Barnes’s move from its private residence to the tourist heart of the city, possibly breaking the law in the process.”
“The film mounts a conventional argument, that the good, insightful, and generous art-lovers want to preserve the Foundation’s ‘democratic nature,’ but are beset and thwarted by profiteers,” notes Cynthia Fuchs at Pop Matters. “Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times art critic, calls the debacle ‘a nonprofit corporate takeover,’ as the Philadelphia Foundations endeavor to ‘remake the [Barnes] board so you have a compliant body on your side.'”
Time Out New York’s Joshua Rothkopf: “Despite the unsubtlety of the movie’s stance, a dizzyingly complex portrait emerges: that of pissed-off museum neighbors, arrogant critics and even the NAACP’s dignified Julian Bond, articulating a racial component. (Barnes originally left control to Lincoln University, a minority school.) Ultimately, the matter is a legal one—how durable are our property rights? The prickliness of the doc will stay with you long after its sour hysteria fades.”
“‘The Art of the Steal”s thorough research, bolstered by many fiery talking heads, makes it one of the most successful advocacy docs in recent years and may prompt some firsthand investigating of your own,” writes Melissa Anderson in the Village Voice.
More from James van Maanen over at his blog. In the New York Times, Constance Rosenblum profiles Argott. Adrian Curry chooses the film’s one-sheet as the poster of the week over at the Auteurs. Watch the trailer for “The Art of the Steal” on YouTube.
Kevin B. Lee runs down the salacious plot of Kimberly Reed’s new doc: “A Montana high-school football stud grows up to be a stunning transgender lesbian named Kim; her adopted brother harbors a lifelong grudge against his popular sibling. Suddenly, the ‘slighted’ sibling discovers that he’s the biological grandchild of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Welcome to an outrageous plot twist worthy of a Pedro Almodóvar melodrama, but to paraphrase the title of an aborted Welles film: It’s all true.”
Michael Koresky, in his review for indieWIRE, writes: “Besides its undeniably juicy story, perhaps what most distinguishes ‘Prodigal Sons,’ and what makes its point of view so valuable, is that it’s imbued with the non-patronizing, searching voice of a transgender filmmaker. Inelegant as it may seem to call out such specifics, and to project such gender identities on to the film, try to imagine any other filmmaker attempting to get this close to such tricky territory, and the detached, even condescending attitude that can come from even the most well-meaning director.”
“As with most fam-cam documentaries, dysfunction pushes the story along, tipping over into exploitation,” finds Melissa Anderson over at the Village Voice. “Despite a fascinating midpoint revelation—seeking information about his biological parents, [Reed’s brother] Marc discovers he’s the grandson of Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles—Reed spends too much time capturing her sibling’s terrifying outbursts, devoting the film’s final act almost exclusively to his increasingly abject circumstances.”
“Besides drawing somewhat heavily on cliché (‘It looks like a fairy-tale child, but looks can be deceiving’), [Reed’s] narration too often tries to fit the circumstances of her story into a readily digestible schema,” notes Andrew Schenker for Slant Magazine. “But even if her forced thematic links occasionally reduce the complexity of her (and especially Mark’s) experience, they still serve to give shape to a messy store of material, and more importantly, they finally do little to overshadow Reed’s thoughtful, bracing treatment of what amounts to some seriously heavy shit.”