DVD Round-Up: 12/14/2013 (The HBO Documentary Series Edition)

Every year HBO puts out a series of Documentaries, and while I normally shy away from looking at movies that premiere on television, I’m going to go ahead and look at these ones in part because most of them debuted at film festivals before being picked up by the network and also because the Academy seems to think they’re perfectly eligible for Oscar consideration.

Valentine Road(12/8/2013)



Valentine Road is a film about the murder of Lawrence King, who was shot in the head at point blank by a classmate because he was gay.  To say that this story is sad and infuriating goes without saying, firstly because of the obvious tragedy at the center but also because of the rather bizarre wave of support that King’s killer seemed to receive in the aftermath of the murder.  There are some downright sickening interviews in this movie with some of the people who, with a completely straight face, sit and make excuses for this hate crime.  You can’t help but look at these people and think “do these people know that they have a camera on them?”  This didn’t happen in some hillbilly backwater in the 60s either, it happened in Southern California in 2008.  It makes you wonder how clear-cut a case needs to be before idiots come out of the woodwork, but once again we find that some people have no shame.  There’s certainly a lot of food for thought in this case, but I’m not sure that this is the best movie that could have been made about it.  Director Marta Cunningham add a couple unnecessary flourishes like a couple of animated sequences and also makes some very questionable music selections (Macklemore’s “Same Love?” Really?  Could you be more treacley and on the nose?), but this is a story that people should hear about so the film comes recommended.


*** out of Four


The Crash Reel(12/9/2013)

I’m beginning to think that ESPN has spoiled us when it comes to sports documentaries.  Their “30 for 30” series has flooded the market with so many quality documentaries about interesting sporting stories that a documentary about sports needs to really be something special in order to stand out, and I’m don’t think that HBO’s snowboarding documentary The Crash Reel quite fits that criteria.  The film is primarily about Kevin Pearce, a young man who was second only to Shaun White in the snowboarding world before a nasty accident left him with a massive brain injury.  While Shaun White continued to greater and greater superstardom, Pearce went through years of difficult rehab before finally having to admit that he’ll never be a pro-snowboarder again.  It’s a stark reminder that the differences between the fortunes of any two people can be so drastically swapped in an instant.  The film is kind of a downer in that way, but an interesting one that actually faces head on the dangers involved in action sports that are usually only given lip service whenever the X-games are on.  Still, it is hard to get to excited about something like this when comparable pieces are being broadcast on a major sports network almost every week.

*** out of Four


Life According to Sam (12/12/2013)

12-12-2013LifeAccordingtoSam Life According to Sam is a film about a disease called Progeria, which is a deadly disorder which causes children to age rapidly at a young age.  The film focuses in on a particular case study of a boy named Sam Bern, whose parents happen to be a pair of medical doctors that are in a position to try to research the disease in order to find a way to treat it.  I’ll be frank, I have a general distaste for the act of parading dying kids around as a means of getting at audiences, and this movie borders in on doing that.  Frankly this seems like odd subject matter for HBO in that I expect a certain edge out of that network.  This feels more like a PBS documentary to me, but maybe that’s just a misperception.  The movie itself is alright, though I think it tells too much of its narrative through title cards.

**1/2 out of Four

Six By Sondheim(12/13/2013)

And speaking of documentaries that seem like they should be on PBS, I’d say Six by Sondheim sort of fits that bill.  In fact I could easily see this fitting in with their American Masters series or perhaps being the kind of thing they would run during pledge drive.  I didn’t know much about Stephen Sondheim going into this and for that matter I can’t say I cared much about him.  Of course I’ve been in that position before going into various documentaries and when they’ve been well made they’ve made me come out with newfound appreciation for their subjects.  This film could have done that, but I think it was more or less torpedoed by a misguided structure.  The film essentially highlights six different Sondheim songs and periodically goes into detail about them.  These sections are accompanied by what are essentially newly created music videos of each song, and I guess the idea is to tell Sondheim’s life story through them.  That’s an interesting idea, but the film doesn’t really stick with it, instead it seems like a hybrid between being that and being a more straightforward biography.  The movie would have probably been better if it went all-in one way or another, and as someone who isn’t all that familiar with the subject I probably would have rather just seen a simple profile.

** out of Four


First Cousin Once Removed (12/14/2013)

12-14-2013FirstCousinOnceRemoved Of the five HBO documentaries I’ve looked at for this piece, First Cousin Once Removed is probably the most cinematic.  The film looks at an old man with Alzheimer’s (you can probably guess what his relationship to the director is) and looks at both his life before he began to lose his faculties as while also profiling his current state.  The fragility of human life has been something of a running theme through all five of these movies and its particularly clear in this one as it shows a smart and learned man slowly lose touch with reality.  Early in the film someone says something along the lines of “I want people to remember him for the man he once was.”  Fair enough, but let’s be real here, this is not a guy who’d be having a film made about him if he never had Alzheimer’s.  His work as a poet, professor, and literary translator are all well and good, but they aren’t the kind of accomplishments for which documentaries are usually made.  Still, the contrast is interesting, and director Alan Berliner does a really good job of making this story visually interesting.

*** out of Four

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