Home Video Round-Up: 2/22/2016

Cartel Land (2/14/2016)

There have been a lot of movies about the drug wars in Mexico recently, which would seem to make sense given how dire those events are, but it hasn’t always been the easiest to get an original take on them.  It’s a problem that seems so entrenched that very few people really know any solutions to propose and that makes most of the films about the topic seem rather hopeless.  This documentary at least focuses on a different aspect of the situation than most as it looks in on a movement in the Michoacán in which a bunch of citizens tried to use vigilantism in order to solve the problem.  The film is really well shot by director Matthew Heineman and his crew, it’s one of the best looking documentaries about a potentially dangerous current situation I’ve seen to be sure.  Heineman does seem to get footage of some rather dangerous situations but I also feel like his overall access to some of the people involved was more limited than it needed to be.  I don’t know that I got a full picture of what this Mexican vigilante group was up to and I feel like you can sense a certain point in the film where Heineman kind of loses track of them.  I’m also not exactly sure what he wanted to get out of contrasting this group to a right wing minuteman-type who takes up something like a quarter of the film’s running time.  I think the point might be to show just how ridiculous that guy comes off getting freaked out while being pretty far removed from the horrors that the Mexican group has to deal with but I’m not sure that this is made entirely clear in the film.  Overall, the movie is a pretty good watch and is certainly an exceptionally crafted doc, but perhaps not one with a clean message to impart.

***1/2 out of Four

Fresh Dressed (2/16/2016)

As Chris Rock once said, you can’t just like rap music, you constantly have to defend it.  Indeed, liking mainstream rap music means getting into all sorts of arguments and conflicts with people who say “oh, that’s just a bunch of materialistic garbage where people brag about their money and their cars and their stupid clothing lines how can you listen to that stuff?” to which I need to patiently explain that being able to say “money isn’t really important” is a benefit of privilege and that when you grow up with nothing you don’t have the luxury of pretending that there’s something noble about not celebrating when you make a windfall and that for people who grow up in rough neighborhoods there’s something liberating about seeing someone who looks and acts like you being able to flaunt large sums of money.  That isn’t easy, so I was glad to see that there was a documentary out there that makes more or less that argument for me, at least about the part where rappers seem obsessed with fashion.  That said, I’m a bit of a hypocrite about all this because as hard as I’ll defend these rappers rights to talk about Gucci I don’t actually care much about any of it myself so my interest in the documentary itself only goes so far.  As these things go this is pretty well made and has a fairly impressive roster of talking heads but doesn’t do anything overly novel.  It’s on Netflix right now and airs on CNN occasionally, it’s definitely worth a casual watch on formats like that if you’re interested, but I never would have recommended anyone pay to see in in theaters, so take that as you will.

*** out of Four

The Look of Silence (2/18/2016)

Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 film The Act of Killing is one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries of recent times and I had a lot of respect for it myself.  It was a film about the mass murders that occurred during the mid-60s in Indonesia and focused in on the perpetrators of this atrocity who are alive and still holding positions of power in modern Indonesia and seemingly show no guilt about what they’ve done in the past and are in fact still quite proud of their actions.  This follow-up documentary has been widely billed as a companion piece which focuses on the victims rather than the perpetrators, but that isn’t exactly the case.  Instead this is a movie that focuses more closely on the sort of conspiracy of silence that exists in modern Indonesian society around what happened in the past.  Perpetrators are once again questioned but rather than giving them enough rope to hang themselves this time they are instead confronted by an unnamed Indonesian man whose older brother was killed in these purges.  It’s interesting how these people who are happy to give psychotically blunt answers when Oppenheimer asks about these events non judgmentally suddenly clam up and get defensive whenever this Indonesian man politely but pointedly tries to get to the heart of what they’ve been saying.  It’s less novel than the previous film to be certain, but I don’t think lesser.  The two films are part of a greater whole and the whole project is a pretty fascinating study in how people can lie to themselves in various instances.

***1/2 out of Four

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2/21/2016)

Netflix has become a pretty big player when it comes to the distribution of documentaries and they seem to particularly like putting out docs about political strife and uprisings.  In 2013 they scored a big success with a movie called The Square, about the Egyptian revolution and it was that movie that more than likely led them to pick up the rights to this movie about the protests that were staged in Kiev against a corrupt president who was almost certainly a crony for Putin, these were the same protests that ultimately led to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and have generally put us in the weird quasi-cold war with Russia for the last couple years.  Like The Square it’s a movie that seems a little more enamored with the spectacle of mass protest than it is in examining the complexities of the situation.  In fact the movie is rather shamelessly biased in favor of the protestors, which is understandable to some extent as I do think they were ultimately the ones who were in the right, but there were definitely people in Ukraine (many of the ethnic Russians) who I’m sure see it differently and the fact that these voices are willfully ignored by the film makes it a lot less rich than it could have been.  Why not try to interview some of the police who were seemingly behaving like thugs or some of the politicians who let it happen?  I’m sure they have explanations for what went on and I’m also sure there were some people among the protestors who were a little less noble than the documentary would have you believe.  Good documentaries look for grey areas, they don’t just propagandize like this one does.  That said, there is some really good footage here and the movie does a pretty decent job of both explaining the basic course of events and of showing the conflict evolve.

**1/2 out of Four

Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2/22/2016)

Considering the ridiculous controversy that erupted over Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance it’s clear that people still don’t really understand the Black Panthers.  In fact a lot of people seem to make false equivalencies between the Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan so it’s a good thing that Stanley Nelson Jr. has made a new documentary to set the record straight.  Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution has a fairly straightforward format that consists mainly of archival footage and talking head interviews but it does act as a very effective primer for how the party formed and what they did and didn’t do.  Given that it’s largely an informational documentary it doesn’t really stand out all that much and it makes sense that it’s now being distributed by PBS, which tends to be the home of documentaries that are substance over style, but if you aren’t already familiar with what the Black Panthers were all about this is a good place to check.

*** out of Four

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