Top Docs: Star-Worthy 'Rolling Like Thunder'; 'Laserium'; and More

LJ’s documentary film reviewer picks four intriguing works, now available on DVD/Blu-ray. 

Enemies of the State. 104+ min. IFC Films. 2022. UPC DVD 1438114518. $27.99.

Sometimes truth is malleable; that’s the lesson to be learned from director Sonia Kennebeck’s slippery cyber-thriller. This story of a hacktivist caught up in a lair of government conspiracies takes multiple twists on its serpentine journey. Was Matt DeHart persecuted by the FBI for his connection to WikiLeaks? Was he hiding even darker secrets? There will be no easy answers in Kennebeck’s film, but it is a gripping rabbit hole of shadowy revelations involving espionage, computer hacking, and sexual abuse. VERDICT Lies, trust, and truth are all up for debate in this paranoid documentary.

Laserium: The Gods of Light. 86+ min. Silent Gallery Films. 2022. DVD UPC 1010368080. $18.99.

Way back in the 1970s, nothing screamed “science fiction” quite like laser beams. From the first moment Ivan Dryer saw a laser, he was hooked. By 1973, he had people lining up by the thousands at the famed Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles in what would ultimately become a global phenomenon with millions of tickets sold. Director Bjorn Schaller has created an incredibly fun film about Dryer and other laserists via the rise and fall of Dryer’s career in laser art. These laserists combined increasingly powerful lasers with optical effects and music to form a mind-expanding new visual art form, and Schaller homes in on the other-worldly quality of what could be done with light. The film also has a surprising emotional element as fans and laserists talk about what the art form means to them. VERDICT Take an entertaining, far-out visual trip into the galaxy of laser art.

Rolling Like Thunder. 71+ min. Showtime. 2022. DVD UPC 1007254890. $24.99.

When a documentary has ended but you want to watch more, that’s a good documentary. Director Roger Gastman’s lively, fast-paced film about “freight writing”— the risky underground art of covering train cars in graffiti—is over too soon. Gastman does a wonderful job telling about this subculture; by film’s end, he has covered the history and slang of freight writing, different kinds of graffiti, and the qualities that make the art form so appealing to its devotees. It’s a fascinating, raw, and profane look into a unique environment where art is not made for money or acclaim. One of the documentary’s subjects, describing his addiction to freight writing and its link between art and crime, summarizes the appeal: “We’re vandals.” VERDICT A view of the obsessive and dangerous world of train graffiti, blending underground art and illegal activities.

Yellowface: Asian American Whitewashing and Racism in Hollywood. 55+ min. Wichita Films. 2022. DVD UPC 9516389229. $19.99.

The term “yellowface” refers to the history of A-list white actors (including John Wayne, Marlon Brando, and Katharine Hepburn) playing Asian roles in movies— an industry practice with a sadly long history. Clara and Julia Kuperberg’s documentary attempts to shed light on yellowface as well as other barriers that Asian American performers have encountered in the movie industry, focusing particularly on filmmakers and performers of Japanese heritage. The film dips into social history to provide context (including Hollywood’s response to World War II, with anti-Japanese propaganda like Capra’s Know Your Enemy); it could have used more viewpoints to tell a broader story. VERDICT Limited in scope and depth, but still a necessary step film about the troubling ways Asians have been portrayed on the big screen.

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