DVD Round-Up: 12/10/2013

Blancanieves(11/17/2013)

Those who levied excessive praise on The Artist, take note, because THIS is how you make a contemporary silent film.  Director Pablo Berger was already in production on the film when Michel Hazanavicius’ overrated neo-silent film premiered at Cannes, and I can only imagine his frustration when he learned that his film’s most unique feature would be overshadowed by another film which, quite frankly, didn’t use it right.  That movie used the idea of making a modern silent film as a platform of to bounce a bunch of meta jokes off of, but this one take the form more seriously and feels more like a visual aesthetic than a gimmick.  “Blancanieves” is the Spanish name for “Snow White,” and the film is indeed an adaptation of that story (the Grimm version, not the Disney version) which places the action in the world of early 20th century bullfighting.  It’s a really smart way to tell what is essentially a pretty simple fable and bring new life to it.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a new classic, but it’s easily the best silent film of the last fifty years.

***1/2 out of Four

Pain & Gain(11/30/2013)

Coming off of three straight Transformers movies, I guess Michael Bay needed to take a break by making a decadent hyper-violent satire.  If I’m going to compare Pain & Gain to any movie from this year it’s probably going to have to be Spring Breakers, another crass hyper-stylized ostensibly satirical glimpse at a bunch of extremely vapid people who have taken some of the excesses of American pop culture too seriously.  Like that movie Pain & Gain is like a semi-interesting idea that sort of got out of hand, it makes its point about body-building/self-help culture about twenty minutes into its run time and then keeps on repeating that point for 90 more minutes.  I could forgive that if the film was actually all that funny, but I think a lot of the film’s wit is drowned by Michael Bay’s excessive proclivities.  He shoots the film like an action blockbuster rather than a real comedy and a number of genuinely biting moments are kind of wasted as a result.  The Coen Brothers managed to say more about people like this in a sub-plot of one of the less fondly remembered films (Burn After Reading) than Bay could in two hours and nine minutes of Pain & Gain.

** out of Four

Stories We Tell (12/3/2013)

This documentary from Sarah Polly has received what can only be called rapturous praise, and while I found some things to like about it, I can’t say I fully understand why people are so enamored with it.  The film is about Polly’s own family, and focuses in on the revelation that the man who raised her was not her biological father and that she was actually the result of an illicit affair between her mother and an actor named Harry Gulkin.  To be blunt, I don’t think the story of Sarah Polly’s family is inherently interesting.  I suppose it would be odd to learn that you were the child of an extramarital affair, but it isn’t all that unusual and the circumstances of the affair itself aren’t all that unusual either.  The idea, which Polly explicitly brings up through voice-over, is that this is meant to be a sort of existential meditation on the nature of truth and the differences between people’s accounts, but that’s not an overly original idea (it’s been explored dozens of time in the 63 years since Rashomon came out) and I don’t think the extremely minor differences in people’s perceptions of this particular story really shined all that interesting of a light on this one, especially given that these people don’t even really seem to disagree about all that much to begin with.  The film is well edited and put together I suppose, but if Polly’s intent really was to suggest that her family history “says so many interesting things about the human condition” she failed.

**1/2 out of Four

World War Z(12/7/2013)

If ever there was a film that was the beneficiary of lowered expectations it was the film World War Z, which was plagued with highly publicized production problems and reshoots.  By the time it finally came out critics and audiences were so relieved that the finished product was even coherent that they more or less gave it a pass.  But the truth is that this is a film that really has no idea what it wants to be.  It completely eschewed the “oral history” format that made its source material memorable and instead tries to split the difference between being Michael Creighton style techno-thriller and being a Roland Emmerich disaster film.  It was going to be screwed either way because its director, Marc Forster, has no business directing a blockbuster: a fact that was established by Quantum of Solace and more or less confirmed here.  In addition to lowered expectations, the film was also the lucky beneficiary of good timing.  For whatever reason, zombies are a huge craze right now and the film was able to ride that wave of enthusiasm.  Oddly though, this movie doesn’t even deliver on the two things people have come to expect from zombie fiction: an apocalyptic tone and gore.  The movie is an oddity that tries to split the difference between horror film and action blockbuster and fails at being both.

** out of Four

The Bling Ring (12/10/2013)

Rounding out 2013’s mini-trend of satires about idiots with questionable values going on crime sprees (the other two being Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain) is Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, a movie telling the true story of a group of upper middle class L.A. teenagers who started breaking into celebrity’s houses and stealing millions of dollars in designer merchandise.  When the film opened this summer it was widely interpreted as a critique of celebrity-worship gone awry, but I don’t think that’s quite right.  None of these teenagers seem to really care that much about any of these celebrities outside of the fact that they’re easy marks.  Their motivation to steal seems to have a lot more to do with their need of money to pay for their drug habits and partying.  In other words, these are common criminals, or at the very least common mischievous teenagers.  If they had lived on the “Boyz n the Hood” side of L.A. rather than the “Less Than Zero” side, I doubt people would have been so quick to view their actions through some pop culture prison: they would have just locked them up and never given them another thought.

So, too me what’s interesting about this story isn’t what these kids were doing so much as the reaction that society had to them, but this film doesn’t do a whole lot to explore that.  Most of the ironic attention that they received after the fact is only briefly touched upon in the film’s last fifteen minutes.  Mostly the film focuses on the crime spree itself, and I’d say this was to mixed results.  On one hand, this was the first Sofia Coppola film I’ve actually enjoyed watching in quite a while.  She’s left behind the snore inducing minimalism of Somewhere and the her interest in dumb rich kids is less obnoxious here than it is in Marie Antoinette.  For that matter I think she once again proves to be pretty adept at depicting modern teenagers without falling back onto too many lame High School clichés.  A couple lines of slangy dialogue here and there don’t quiet ring true, but for the most part I found the kids here more believable than the ones in 90% of movies about young people.  So, The Bling Ring is a perfectly watchable film and it gave me some food for thought and while I’m not exactly sure that Coppola sees this story the same way I do I think the movie is filmed “matter of factly” enough that this isn’t a huge problem.

*** out of Four

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One response to “DVD Round-Up: 12/10/2013

  1. Pain and Gain – Pretty much in complete agreement. The actual story is interesting enough, but Bay doesn’t really handle the material correctly.

    World War Z – I actually think this movie’s okay. It has some cool set-pieces and I think the film worked around the PG-13 rating well enough. It’s not a good film or something I’d really jump up and defend, but I didn’t dislike it either.

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