Home Video Round-Up 6/20/2015:

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (3/30/2015)

3-30-2015GoingClear

I’ve long been fascinated and horrified by the phenomenon that is The Church of Scientology, so fascinated in fact that I read Lawrence Wright’s Scientology expose “Going Clear” a couple of years ago.  Now Alex Gibney has made this book into a documentary and, well, my main reaction is to just say “been there done that.”  It’s weird, when you see a film adaptation of a novel there’s always something new to experience in seeing how it’s adapted but the same isn’t always true of watching a non-fiction book get turned into a documentary.  I basically knew all of the information presented here from having read the book and didn’t really get a whole lot from seeing it re-presented here in less detail.  If the film did something with the adaptation to really do something different or at least present the information in a particularly compelling way that wouldn’t be a real problem but I don’t really think it does.  Gibney’s documentaries are rarely “bad” exactly, they’re all very professionally made prodects that present information efficiently but there’s nothing particularly artful about them and I increasingly feel like they’re being made on an assembly line.  Of course this might have all been a lot more illuminating to me if I hadn’t read up on the topic beforehand, so to less informed audiences this might work a lot better than it did with me.

*** out of four

Girlhood (6/13/2015)

First thing’s first, ignore the dumb English language title.  The film’s original title was “Bande de Filles,” which translates to something along the line of “Gang of Girls.”  I get why they’d want to change that to something that sounds a little less awkward but giving it a title that seems to be exploiting the success of anther movie that has nothing to do with it was not the right way to do that.  The film is sort of a social realist portrait of a Black Parisian girl who drops out of school and joins a “gang” of street girls.  It’s the kind of slice of life movie you expect to see coming out of the United Kingdom more often than France and it generally seems more interested in painting a picture of a certain socio-economic class than it is in really telling a story or really developing a character study.  If that’s what you’re looking for the film will mostly satisfy, if you want a little more to grab onto this may seem a little slight to you.  I was mostly pleased by the film’s craft elements and I would like to see what director Céline Sciamma is capable of when working in a slightly different format.

*** out of Four

6-13-2015Girlhoood

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (5/11/2015)

5-11-2015KurtCobainMontageofHeck There have been a number of documentaries made about Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana but I think this is the first one that’s been made with the cooperation of Cobain’s family.  Normally that would be a red flag, estates are usually controlling and not particularly artful, but they seem to have made the right choice this time, in part because they and the director seem of have the same fascinating goal in mind.  This is not really a movie about Kurt Cobain the rock star and it certainly isn’t really a movie about Nirvana or their music.  It doesn’t focus on the most famous moments in Cobain’s life or over-explain any biographical detail and sort of expects you to know the broad strokes of this story coming in.  Instead what it sets out to do is act as a sort of portrait of Cobain’s often misunderstood personality.  In the wake of his suicide the world has done a lot to turn Cobain into a tortured martyr, a sort of Jim Morrison for the 90s who was a tortured poet that was too pure for this world.  His seemingly angry and discordant music hasn’t done much to dissuade the public from this impression so what director Brett Morgan has tried to do is use diary entries, home movies, and artwork in order to paint a more complex picture.

Among the biggest revelations is that Kurt Cobain was kind of a goofball who wasn’t above joking around and being a little silly.  The evidence of this has always been there but people have always kind of ignored it.  It’s all there in the film’s title, which was taken from a mix-tape/art project that Cobain made at one point.  It makes sense for the movie because the documentary does take the form of a montage of sorts and when Cobain’s heroin addiction comes into the story it does become rather… ugh… hecky, but why the minced oath?  Because Cobain was a silly guy, that’s why.  It’s the dimension that the younger bands that would follow Cobain’s influence missed out on, they would have missed the irony and just called their projects “Montage of Hell.”  This isn’t to say that the film depicts Cobains life as completely lighthearted, he was a suicidal drug addict after all, but it does a great job of getting away from the uninformed narratives that have built the guy’s legacy.  It helps that Morgan is once of the best visual stylists working in documentary.  He knows exactly how to bring archival footage and ephemera to life on the screen.  Occasionally he goes too far with this, I certainly could have done without the bits of animation he uses a few times here even if it does at least look better than the grotesque recreations he used in the film Chicago 10, but for the most part he gets it right and makes a much more fascinating film than I would have expected from an HBO doc about a dead rocker.

***1/2 out of Four

Blackhat (6/20/2015)

This movie got some really bad buzz when it was unceremoniously dumped in January so I was braced for a movie with problems, but I still held out hope.  I thought, this was directed by Michael Mann, how bad could it be.  Pretty damn bad it turns out, and I’m pretty curious about what went wrong.  Mann has some blemishes on this record (notably Miami Vice) but he seemed to be in pretty good form with his last film Public Enemies but something seems to have happened to him in the rather lengthy wait between that film and this follow-up because this movie is just a mess.  In the couple of actions scenes here there are maybe a few flashes of the Michael Mann action film we wanted to see here and there in but the movie itself is pretty much a failure on every other level.  Mann’s digital photography driven style has not evolved at all since we last saw it and its novelty has worn off significantly in the decade since it was first implemented.  What’s more the film’s story is completely misbegotten.  It has absolutely nothing interesting to say about hackers and Chris Hemsworth is woefully miscast.  Honestly I’m having some trouble to find anything nice to say about this one, it’s really just an incredibly disappointing failure from a master filmmaker.

*1/2 out of Four

6-20-2015Blackhat

Hot Girls Wanted (6/8/2015)

6-8-2015HotGirlsWanted Reed Hastings has been quoted saying his goal is to have Netflix become HBO before HBO can become Netflix and he has indeed been following a lot of HBO’s old moves.  So perhaps it should not be surprising that the latest Netflix exclusive documentary, Hot Girls Wanted, felt so much like something HBO would have broadcast in the bad old days.  Some context for those too young to remember, way back when HBO had a series of documentaries called “America Undercover.”  Some of the movies made under this rather loose brand-name turned into legit docs but the vast majority of them were either sensationalistic nonsense or were simply an excuse to air softcore porn while still seeming slightly classier than Cinemax.  Titles aired in this programing slot included such hard hitting exposés as High on Crack Street, Pimps Up Hos Down, Hookers at the Point, Strippers: The Naked Stages, and of course Taxicab ConfessionsHot Girls Wanted, which focuses on the world of amateur porn, kind of remided me a lot of that series.  To its credit, it doesn’t go out of its way to show nudity the way some of the aforementioned “documentaries” did and I do think it was probably made with less cynical intentions but I do get a similar whiff of exploitation out of it just the same.

The film’s subjects are called “amateur porn” actors, but they actually are paid for their services and are not technically amateurs.  A more accurate label would probably be “novice porn stars” or something because they are notably very young 18-19 year olds, a fact that the film seems to find rather shocking.  The movie claims that this is some kind of new low for pornography but the idea of people showing up in porn at this age isn’t exactly new (the Traci Lords incident certainly comes to mind).  I don’t know, the movie really wants the viewer to be mad about what they’re seeing but the film’s subjects actually don’t seem to be doing all that badly for themselves.  You certainly get the idea that there’s a certain amount of manipulation going on to get them where they are and they also sound like they’re being underpaid, which isn’t cool, but they don’t act like they’re all that bothered about the fact that they’re starring in porn.  Ultimately the filmmakers seem a lot more bothered by what’s going on than the supposed victims and barring any real relevations all the filmmakers can really do is sort of follow around these “broken women” and sort of gawk at their depravity.  Look, I’m not immune to a little sleazy exploitation and I did find myself somewhat interested in the girls the film was following despite the moralizing on the part of the film they were in.

**1/2 out of Four 

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