DVD Round-Up: 1/14/2015

The Battered Bastards of Baseball  (1/7/2015)

 1-7-2015TheBatteredBastardsofBaseball I’ve talked before about how damn hard it is for sports documentaries to excel now that we’ve become spoiled by ESPN’s “30 for 30” series and I think this is yet another example of a perfectly good sports doc that just doesn’t seem all that special when similar things are showing up on TV every other week.  The film is about the founding of the first independent minor league baseball team of the modern era, a club called The Portland Mavericks which was founded by a TV actor named Bing Russell (who was the father of actor Kurt Russell).  The film basically uses talking head to give an overview of this team’s rise and fall and tell a few colorful stories along the way.  There doesn’t seem to have been a ton of archive footage of the team’s games, so the film needs to engage in some trickery to work around that limitation like using a lot of newspaper headlines and title cards.  All in all it’s an interesting enough watch but I can’t say it really stood out.

*** out of Four

The Congress (1/10/2015)

Ari Folman’s 2008 film Walz With Bashir is probably one of my favorite films of the 2000s.  It used animation to tell a very real and very honest story about his own experiences in the 1982 Lebanon War.  For his follow-up he’s completely abandoned the seriousness of his debut and has instead completely leaned into the occasional surreal touches that were displayed in it.  The film is pretty clearly split into two separate halves, one live action and the other animated.  I thought the live action sections pretty much just straight up sucked.  They were filmed with almost no style and mostly set up uninteresting characters.  The animated portions didn’t really work much better on a character level but did sort of make up for it by simply being insanely surreal and surreally insane.  The animation is sort of a cross between Saturday morning cartoon stylings and a sort of 70s midnight movie acid trip sensibility.  I more or less gave up trying to make any sense out of its wacky science fiction story and just went along for the ride and was not completely unrewarded, but as a narrative the movie is a mess and kind of feels like a misguided venture from the beginning.

** our of Four

 1-10-2015TheCongress

Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger (1/10/2015)

 1-10-2015Whitey When I first heard about this documentary I kind of assumed it was a quick cash-in on a topical news story, but that was before I learned that it was directed by Joe Berlinger, one of the two filmmakers behind the “Paradise Lost” trilogy.  The film actually has a pretty interesting approach in that it doesn’t simply give a chronological recantation of Whitey Bulger’s life but instead focuses in on his trial and uses that to help look back on his exploits.  There was little doubt about Bulger’s guilt and he himself seemed to know it.  Instead he devoted a lot of his trial to trying to prove that he wasn’t an F.B.I. informant while a number of people both in the prosecution and within the media were looking to the trial as a potential means of uncovering heretofore unproven levels of corruption within the F.B.I. and Boston politics.  The movie paints the Whitey Bulger era as a wildly confused and chaotic time within both organized crime and the F.B.I. and I’d be lying if I was fully able to follow every one of the left turns that the story took.  Bulger’s trial never really does uncover the juicy dirt that many were hoping it would, but in spite of this Berlinger is still able to craft a very detailed documentary that paints a very good picture of the scars this criminal left on the community.

*** out of Four

The Guest (1/13/2015)

The Guest is a movie about a family that’s recently lost a son to the war in Afghanistan and is visted by a man claiming to have served with him.  The family invites this guy in, but he starts acting a little suspicious and it starts to seem he’s harboring a dark hidden personality.  Wait a minute… well off family that has a crazy person enter into their lives… this is a yuppie horror film!  Alright, the characters here aren’t actually yuppies but it’s hard to deny that this is basically following the formula set in the early 90s by movies like Fatal Attraction, The Stepfater, and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.  I watched a bunch of those movies not too long ago and the experience did not lead me to believe that it was a genre in need of reviving.  This movie tries really hard to make an argument for a return to this kind of thriller and while it is somewhat entertaining I don’t think it really succeeds.  This material is really schlocky and a little exploitative at its heart but the movie itself never really seems to commit to that.  Instead it’s trying to act like a respectable thriller while following a very predictable formula and just becoming really stupid in its third act.  A nice try I guess, but ultimately a rather lackluster film.

** out of Four

 1-13-2015TheGuest

The Return to Homs (1/14/2015)

 1-14-2015ReturntoHoms I don’t know that the documentary The Return to Homs is any kind of triumph of documentary filmmaking but it is definitely proof of what can potentially happen when someone with a camera is given amazing access to a subject that’s in a crazy situation.  The film is about a young Syrian man who seems set to become a soccer star but who instead feels driven into the anti-Assad rebellion.  The film then basically follows this rebel cell through their various struggles in the civil war.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a documentary present such an unobstructed view of a ragtag militia cell as they’re in the midst of a conflict.  Whoever it is who was allowed to make this does not seem to have had any restrictions at all as to what he could and couldn’t film and the film never looks away at all.  The film doesn’t dwell on blood and gore but there is some violent combat footage here and the movie isn’t for the squeamish.  It also isn’t for anyone trying to get a more complex picture of the conflict because it never really breaks from the militia’s point of view and is consequently rather one-sided.  Still, it’s a pretty big accomplishment that this thing exists and it’s a very interesting way to get a ground’s eye view of a conflict that the mainstream media hasn’t really been able to see.

*** out of Four

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