DVD Round-Up: 1/24/2014

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (1/18/2014)

In this world where every documentary is either bringing new light to some untold story or is resting on some kind of gimmick, this Alex Gibney documentary stands out because it’s simply a very well researched and constructed piece that examines a major news story in a lot of detail.  Gibney was not able to get an interview with the documentary’s central characters (Julien Assange and Private Manning), but he does manage to get the perspective of a pretty impressive roster of experts.  There aren’t really any explosive new allegations here and people who’ve been following this story probably won’t learn anything new, but this is a very competently put together overview of whole affair that makes the case that Wikileaks has made an important impact but that its leader has become a megalomaniacal hypocrite.   There are few reasons to dislike the film, although I wouldn’t call it a mind blowing thing that everyone should rush to either, but for what it wants to be it functions as well as you’d want it to.

***1/2 out of Four

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (1/19/2014)

I stayed far away from Lee Daniels’ The Butler when it was out in theaters, in part because I’m of the opinion that Lee Daniels is a lunatic.  I despised Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Saphire and pretty much everything else the guy has directed has looked like a bizarre exploitation film.  I suppose the good news is that this film doesn’t seem like the work of a madman, but the bad news is that it’s otherwise a rather uninspired and unfocused work that bites off significantly more than it can chew while simultaneously having almost nothing of particular interest to say.  Much as Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Saphire, seemed intent to squeeze in pretty much every social woe that could possibly face an African American girl in the 90s, this movie seems to want to incorporate every single landmark of the civil rights era into the highly fictionalized life of this butler who worked for the White House for much of the 20th century.  It doesn’t offer much insight into any of these events, but it certainly lists them and explains them for whatever audience isn’t already aware of them.  Lee Daniels has said in interviews that he made the film in order to teach his son about the events it depicted, and I think that’s a big part of the problem: much like the makers of Red Tails and 42 he seems to have made the mistake of thinking he’s an Elementary history teacher rather than a filmmaker and making a film that would be of no interest to anyone who already has a rudimentary knowledge of American history.

** out of Four 

Dirty Wars (1/20/2014)

Dirty Wars is a rather messy documentary that seems to have been largely spearheaded by an investigative reporter named Jeremy Scahill.  It’s kind of a messy film; at first it seems to be about the war in Afghanistan, then it seems to be about drone strikes, then it seems to be about the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, and finally it starts to be about the way the war on terror is spreading around the world.  One could maybe argue that this messiness reflects the chaotic nature of the conflicts it covers, but in my humble opinion it’s the job of a documentarian to make sense out of chaos, not to simply reflect it.  The film is never really able to investigate any of the topics it brings up, partly because it keeps jumping from subject to subject, and partly because the film seems to be more interested in the process that Jeremy Scahill went through to discover all these things than it is in actually analyzing them and discussing the implications.

** out of Four

Insidious: Chapter 2 (1/23/2014)

I have such mixed feelings about these Insidious movies.  On one hand I think their “astral plane” motif is a really creative means of depicting ghosts in haunted houses and leads to a lot of cleverness, on the other hand they mostly just use this motif to inundate their audience with a bunch of cheap jump scares.  All in all I’d say this is definitely a step down from the first Insidious, and I kind of resent that it was even made if only because it kind of ruins the perfect little question mark of a note that the first movie left us with.  Despite that, I do think that this is on the better side of the “things going bump in the house” genre that’s been all the rage in horror cinema as of late.  A lot of people compared it unfavorably to James Wan’s other haunted house movie of this year, The Conjuring, but I’d say they’re more or less equals.  The Conjuring was probably constructed with a bit more care, but these Insidious movies seem a lot more creative to me and do more with the genre.

**1/2 out of Four

20 Feet from Stardom (1/24/2014)

For whatever reason, most of the art houses in my area ran the trailer for this movie over and over again for months and months.  Now that I’ve actually seen the movie I can say that it is… more or less what the trailer made it look like.  It is essentially a profile of a number of African American women who made their names as background singers on a number of famous songs from the 60s and 70s as well as one contemporary singer who’s trying to transition from being a background singer to being a solo artist.  I’m going to be blunt, I think there’s a reason why these singers were largely relegated to a background role: they don’t seem to be very artistically talented.  Their raw vocal range is undeniable, but they don’t demonstrate any songwriting ability and they didn’t seem to be able to develop interesting personas.  If there’s a problem with the film it’s that it’s a little too polite to point this out.  This is unfortunate because I think that would have been a decent lesson for the “American Idol” viewers of the world who don’t seem to realize that people with good singing voices are a dime a dozen and that most of their favorite artists have a lot more going for them than that.  Still, it was cool to put faces to the voices we’ve been hearing in the back of the songs on the radio all these years, and they seem like nice people who are worth spending a little time with.

*** out of Four

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