DVD Round-Up: 2/22/2013

Mea Maxima Culpa (2/5/2013)

Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest film, Mea Maxima Culpa, is one of a number of documentaries to cover the long lasting Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal and while it doesn’t necessarily bring a ton of new information to light it serves as a good reminder that this is an ongoing issue that should not be forgotten.  The first half of the film focuses in on a priest who molested a number of boys at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin and how this was covered up.  It proves to be a pretty good case study which does a good job setting up the film’s second half, which is a more comprehensive examination of the wider scandal and how the church has responded to it.  Mea Maxima Culpa is a good documentary, but certainly not a great one.  Its filmmaking is highly competent, but there’s nothing groundbreaking about.  The story itself is an important one worth telling, but it’s not necessarily a shocking one that keeps the audience guessing throughout.  The film debuted on HBO, which is a good place for it to be because it’s not really a film I would ever recommend running to a theater to see but is something worth checking out if you’re interested in the subject and see it airing on a Saturday or something.

*** out of Four

Ruby Sparks (2/16/2013)

I skipped Ruby Sparks in theaters because it looked twee and derivative, but it did at least look moderately interesting so I didn’t mind giving it a chance on the small screen.  To be sure it is derivative (a sort of Weird Science meets Stranger than fiction), and it’s definitely twee, but there were certain things about it I enjoyed.  For one thing I think Zoe Kazan (who also wrote the film) did a pretty good job in the title role.  Also there is at least a slightly intriguing idea in the concept; this is more a deconstruction of the manic pixie dreamgirl than the celebration of the archetype that I expected.  On the other hand, I thought Paul Dano was kind of terrible in the film and I didn’t think his character was all that well written either.  Otherwise the film just didn’t seem all that creative or exceptional.  We’ve seen these kind of high-concept indies before and this one just didn’t do much to stand out.

**1/2 out of Four

Bully (2/18/2013)

This documentary, made to capitalize on the “it gets better campaign,” caused a stir earlier this year when the MPAA dared to hold it to the same standards as every other movie and gave it an R-rating for having more than one F-word in it.  Now that I’ve seen the film I’m even more certain that the hullaballoo was trumped up by Harvey Weinstein as a publicity stunt, because on its own this really isn’t a very good documentary.  The film seems to have no real purpose other than to say “hey, school yard bullying really is bad” as if that wasn’t already obvious. The film offers almost no real solution to the problem it addresses, nor does it delve much into the psychology of those who bully or into the major reasons that schools are unable to address the issue.  Instead it comes off as a rather shallow and exploitative piece.

** out of Four

Sinister (2/21/2013)

In October this surprised a lot of critics who held it up as the great horror movie of the season.  Many of them were perhaps overly wowed both by low expectations and by the fact that the film is a lot better than Paranormal Activity 4.  In fact the film has its flaws (namely an over-abundance of jump scares in its third act), however, when the film is at its best it really is pretty creepy.  In particular I was really impressed by a number of rather disturbing scenes where the main character is watching super 8 reels which depict families being murdered in a number of rather grotesque ways.  None of these are overly bloody or graphic but they’re shot to look like very real snuff films and they have a definite impact.  Beyond that the film’s main plot is a surprisingly competent mystery which comes together in a mostly satisfying way.  It’s no classic, but like Insidious last year it exceeds the modest expectations that most have come to have for one-off Hollywood supernatural thrillers.

***1/2 out of Four

Side by side (2/22/2013)

Side by Side is an odd film to try to review because it does pretty much everything it sets out to do, but at the same time that doesn’t seem like a wildly impressive accomplishment.  The film, about the influence of digital photography on filmmaking is definitely not for anyone who isn’t pretty intensely interested in cinema.  There’s a lot of “inside baseball” discussed here, but at least it’s discussed by a very impressive roster of interviewees including David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese, but also a murderer’s row of great cinematographers both young and old.  The film also delves into a lot of topics I didn’t think it would get to like a comparison of various digital cameras and a discussion of the difficulties of archiving digital images. It’s all very well made, but at the same time it feels more like an over-ambitious DVD bonus feature than a cinematic documentary in its own right.

*** out of Four

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