Home Video Round-Up: 10/7/2015

White God (9/2/2015)

The Hungarian drama White God is both unlike anything I’ve ever seen and yet suspiciously similar to one specific film.  I’m sure it’s unintentional but it’s crazy how much this seems like an almost beat-for-beat arthouse remake of the 2011 Hollywood blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes except with dogs instead of apes and magical realism in place of science fiction. Both films involve a seemingly exceptional animal that is reluctantly abandoned by its owner and, after being abused by other humans, leads other animals in a sort of revolution against the human oppressors before coming face to face with their former owner.  It’s crazy how similar these seemingly disparate movies are.  This isn’t a criticism really because, to my tastes, White God actually does a better job of telling a story like this.  Director Kornél Mundruczó is certainly quite the discovery and has a really solid control of tone and of the film’s mysterious elements and really brings the film to life with some great visuals.  He and cinematographer Marcell Rév have certainly made one of the year’s better looking films and while I don’t exactly get what the message to the whole thing is supposed to be it certainly had me pretty interested throughout.

***1/2 out of Four

What Happened Miss Simone (9/2/2015)

I’ll be honest, up until earlier this year I hadn’t the faintest clue who Nina Simone was.  She was clearly pretty famous/infamous in the 1960s but here music lacks a certain pop appeal and as such it wasn’t the kind of stuff that would show up in commercials and get much play on the classic R&B stations which are the two big ways that musicians from the past generally seem to stay alive in the minds of here public.  However, as the whole “social justice” thing continues to be all the rage her explicitly activist music has found a new audience and in a very short period of time I’ve seen her get quoted a number of times (such as in the film Beyond the Lights).  This documentary seems to follow with the trend by focusing on Simone as a political figure more than as a musician and I can’t say it did a whole lot to endear me to her music, but that is perhaps to be expected.  There wasn’t anything too notable about the filmmaking here, it’s pretty standard talking heads stuff and it felt less like a theatrical doc and more like an episode of PBS’s “American Masters” series and I suspect that if Netflix hadn’t noticed the uptick in interest about Simone and picked this up that is probably where this would have ended up.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that of course, the docs on that show are quality productions, but they aren’t necessarily what you’d call “exciting cinema.”

*** out of Four

Slow West (9/7/2015)

The western is a genre that’s been so widely re-envisioned since around 1962 that it’s really become hard to find a new “in” to the genre.  For example, the recent film Slow West is pretty damn strange but even it doesn’t exactly feel like a radical departure from previous takes on the western.  The film was directed by a Scottish filmmaker named John Maclean and was shot in New Zealand (which can apparently double for the American West in much the way Spain once did in the era of the Spaghetti western) and as such the film focuses heavily on the experience of immigrants and outsiders in the west and specifically on a love-struck Scottsman who is attempting to find a woman he loves who has gone to the new world.  It’s not the easiest movie to describe or talk about but there is something kind of captivating about it all.  It reminded me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man in that it was slightly surreal and it focused on a city slicker’s adventures through a Western landscape that’s foreign to him, but this isn’t quite as crazy as that.  In fact I was surprised to find that this was more accessible than I expected.  I had feared that the “slow” in the title referred to the film’s pacing but the actual movie moves along just fine and there are set-pieces throughout that keep the movie pretty engaging.  I can’t say it really did anything to blow me away, but it’s pretty successful at what it does and definitely has its moments.

***1/2 out of Four

Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop (9/7/2015)

The case of Gilberto Valle, AKA the Cannibal Cop, was apparently a pretty big story in New York but personally I had never heard about it before watching this documentary about the case.  Valle was not really a cannibal… well at least there’s no evidence that he ever actually ate anyone.  Rather, he was arrested for having lurid conversations on the internet in which he fanaticized and created elaborate plans to kidnap, murder, cook, and devour women he knew.  The whole case brings up some pretty interesting questions about the legal system.  The movie really had me going back and forth on this guy; I’m inclined to think that simply talking about something on the internet shouldn’t be illegal, but then I hear some of the details about the extent to which these conversations seemed more like plans targeting real people than they do fantasies and I begin to think that maybe he did go too far and maybe there was a certain point where lay enforcement needed to step in.  Cinematically there isn’t a whole lot special going on here and the movie does feel a bit TV-ish, but it did leave me with a lot to think about and that’s definitely enough to make it worth a watch.

*** out of Four

Timbuktu (10/7/2015)

I’ve long been curious to get a better idea of what African cinema was all about, but there really just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of it.  The release of the recent Mauritanian film Timbuktu seemed like good opportunity to fill that void a little bit, especially given that it was among the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Oscars.   The film concerns a city that was briefly taken over by Muslim extremists who imposed a number of very repressive laws to regulate religious morality.  The film was a French co-production and has a bigger budget than a lot of African films seem to but it’s not without its production value limitations.  For one thing, the movie could have used a few extras.  The real Timbuktu has a population of 54,000 people, making it a pretty large town, but in the film it looks like a really tiny village.  The film also isn’t big on exposition or arcs.  It begins after the militants have taken over and ends before they’ve left and we’re just kind of thrown into it and there’s no central character to really follow.  It’s ultimately a pretty episodic movie but it covers some really interesting ground and gives a glimpse into situation that we don’t often get a view of.

*** out of Four

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