DVD Round-Up: 2/16/2015

Life Itself (1/25/2015)



The death of Roger Ebert was a great loss to film culture, and I know I personally felt it given how much of an influence Ebert’s film reviews and television show were on my formative years as a budding cinephile.  And yet, I oddly wasn’t all that excited to see the new documentary about Ebert’s life, in part because I kind of felt like I already knew everything there was to know about the guy.  I had even read his memoir (also called “Life Itself”) and found it a little disappointing.  It’s not a terrible book, but it wastes a lot of pages going over the mundane details of Ebert’s childhood family life and seems to omit major parts of his career like, say, Richard Roeper.  In this film version Roeper still kind of gets the shaft but director Steve James has done a good job of re-prioritizing the biography.  I still don’t feel like I learned much of anything about the guy that I didn’t already know, but watching it all I did start to see value in having all the information gathered in a more visual medium, espeicially given that it’s the same visual medium that defined his career.  All in all I’d say I can’t really think of much that could have been done to improve on this, it just wasn’t really what I needed given my previous expertise in the subject of Ebertology.

*** out of Four

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2/3/2015)

There’s nothing quite as annoying as a documentary that very clearly wants to sway you to a certain set of beliefs but so utterly fails that you end up drawing the exact opposite conclusions from what the filmmaker clearly wanted you to think.  Such is the case with The Internet’s Own Boy, a film that tries real hard to make a young computer programmer named Aaron Swartz into some kind of martyr to cause of internet somethingorother, but the more I watched of the film the less I liked the character at the center of it and the mindset he represents.  I usually get real defensive whenever people of my generation are criticized for feeling “entitled” but some people are guilty as charged, and that especially seems to be the case whenever you start hearing certain members of the tech cognoscenti talk about copyright law.  Long story short, there are a lot of people out there who think they can take whatever they want, are enabled to do so because of technology, and then make up a lot of bullshit in order justify this to themselves and make themselves into rebels fighting against the system which refuses to just give them everything they want for free.

Case in point: Aaron Swartz, a young man who used hacking techniques to covertly download thousands of journal articles with the intent of distributing them for free online. Swartz was plainly guilty of this crime and was charged for it.  One could argue that the penalties he could have faced from this prosecution were excessive, but the likelihood of him having been given the maximum sentence were nil and the fact that he turned down a very generous plea bargain out of sheer hubris kind of makes him hard to sympathize with on that level, at least for me.  Swartz’s only real defense seemed to have been “I don’t like this law, so I don’t have to follow it” and I suppose that brings me to the agit-prop documentary at the heart of all this: The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. The movie starts with a quote from Henry David Thoreau which is pretty indicative of how “fair and balanced” the movie is.  Now, this isn’t to say that I hate this movie simply because I disagree with it; rather it annoys me because it actively seems to flee from the nuances and complexities that could have made it a lot more interesting.  True tragedy, in the literary sense, is rarely caused entirely by outside forces conspiring against the tragic figure, rather it’s almost always caused by an inherent (tragic) flaw in their own personalities.  I think that was definitely the case with Aaron Swartz, but the movie completely ignores this in order to make its point, and frankly it doesn’t do much to make that point to anyone who isn’t already in the choir.

*1/2 out of Four


The Last Days of Vietnam (2/7/2015)

2-7-2015LastDaysinVietnam Most of the documentaries that break out these days are the ones that either tackle some sort of social issue or the ones that take on some kind of human interest story.  What you don’t see so often are documentaries about historical events, which makes the relative success of The Last Days of Vietnam interesting.  As the title would imply, the film looks at what went into America’s pulling out of Vietnam and specifically the attempts to evacuate the Vietnamese collaborators who would face persecution after the fall of Saigon.  This is an important story and it’s interesting that it doesn’t really get talked about very much, for most people it pretty much begins and ends with that photo of the helicopter on top of the building with a line of people going to it.  This film addresses that photo by the way, and it isn’t quite what it looks like, but the story that picture tells is not far from the truth.  As a film, I wouldn’t say that this is an overly innovative or artful production.  It has a very straightforward “talking heads and archival footage” visual style and it doesn’t take many unexpected left turns.  The film is eventually going to air on PBS as part of their American Experience series and it will probably fit in well there, but the story is still pretty interesting and I honestly don’t know that it would be better served by adding more frills.

***1/2 out of Four

Keep on Keepin’ On (2/14/2015)

I like to think I’m moderately knowledgeable about jazz but I have to admit I don’t think I’d really heard of Clark Terry before I saw this documentary filmed during his twilight years.  That’s odd because he was by all accounts a highly influential trumpet player who was a major influence on Miles Davis himself.  This may well have been because Terry had one of the less… dramatic… lives of all the jazz greats.  That’s probably a big part of why he lived to be 94 but it isn’t necessarily going to make you an ideal documentary subject.  As such this film doesn’t spend a lot of time going over Terry’s life story and mostly focuses on what life was like for the veteran musician when he was in his 90s.  In particular the film focuses on the mentor relationship he forms with a young blind pianist named Justin Kauflin, a relationship that couldn’t possibly be more unlike the one depicted in Whiplash.  This is a movie about kind and decent people making the most of bad situations they find themselves in… it’s a great way to live but not necessarily the best way to make an interesting movie.

*** out of Four


The Green Prince (2/16/2015)

2-16-2015TheGreenPrince The Green Prince is a documentary about a young Palestinian man named Mosab who was the son of the one of the founders of Hamas but who was secretly working as an undercover agent for Isreal’s Shin Bet.  Mosab is alive and well today and much of the runtime is dedicated to a talking head interview he gave for the film.  I feel like this story works a little better in the abstract than in the details, write a newspaper article about it and it will be fascinating, but were there really enough twists to make a feature length documentary?  Maybe, but the film doesn’t really do a lot to present them in a way that really makes them flow in a super interesting way.  There is enough there to make for a fairly interesting watch, but I don’t see this being a documentary that stick out in my memory for long.

*** out of Four

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