Home Video Round-Up: 11/5/2016 – Docs on Netflix Edition

Amanda Knox (10/26/2016)

10-26-2016AmandaKnox

I’m usually not one to follow tabloidy “trials of the century” and often don’t know some of these cases exist until they’re over and people suddenly start freaking out about their verdicts.  The Amanda Knox case was no exception to this so I don’t know that I had much more than a cursory knowledge of this story before watching the new Neflix produced documentary about the subject, and frankly I don’t know that I have much more than a precursory knowledge of it after watching it either.  This documentary feels very… short.  It has the unfortunate timing of coming out hot on the heels of a string of highly detailed long-form true crime documentaries like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and of course O.J. Simpson: Made in America, which all make this 90 minute account of the case, trial, and media frenzy around this case feel rather rushed and incomplete by comparison.  The number of talking heads here seems rather limited, there were clearly principals involved in the case who refused to cooperate with the documentary and the film completely fails to illustrate how the prosecutors came to believe their rather strange theories of the crime.  I feel like there’s another side to all this and while one cop who believes in Knox’s guilt is interviewed extensively he doesn’t do a great job of making his case, which says to me that he’s either the wrong person to be making the case or that the film simply isn’t letting him.  All through the movie though I kept being frustrated when you want some of the interview subjects they do have comment on certain aspects of the case and they just don’t.  Directors Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn seem to have put a lot effort into this movie’s look (they’ve clearly studied their Errol Morris, whose film Tabloid is a much smarter and more nuanced exploration of a media circus caused by British tabloids) but I wish they had simply provided a more detailed account as they leave a whole lot of interesting questions on the table.

** out of Five

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (10/28/2016)

If you watch enough documentaries you are probably very familiar with the “old person kiss-ass profile” documentary format in which a filmmaker follows an old famous person around with a camera for a week or two and intercuts this footage with discussions of their past successes.  This new documentary about the groundbreaking showrunner Norman Lear is this format at its worse at is seems to spend well over two thirds of its runtime trying to get to the heart of Norman Lear’s soul instead of focusing on the thing everyone cares about: his work.  Lear himself is a pretty simple person and followed a pretty standard course in life of being a middle class intellectual with an interest in using his medium of choice to elevate the discourse.  This is not something that needs a whole lot of exploration.  What could use a closer look are Lear’s shows and if I were making this movie I would spend most of the runtime analyzing each of his shows and focusing in on their production and impact.  There is a little bit of that here and it’s clearly the film’s strongest segment but not nearly enough.  Hell, I don’t think they even take the time to bring up “Sanford & Son” despite the fact that it’s one of the greatest successes in television and had a star that almost certainly generated some good stories and I don’t think there was a word about “One Day at a Time” even though it ran nine seasons and not a word is said about his string of failures that debuted later in the 70s.  It’s a movie that seems to think that the fact that this man is still able to speak clearly at 93 is more noteworthy than the shows that actually built his legacy.

** out of Five

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Into the Inferno (10/30/2016)

10-30-2016IntotheInferno Into the Inferno would be the second documentary that Werner Herzog put out this year and between it and Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World you get the two sides of Herzog the documentarian: Herzog the adventurer and Herzog the philosopher.  This film sees Herzog returning to violence of the natural world as a theme by looking at volcanos around the world and certain volcanologists who’ve dedicated their lives to studying them.  The film lacks some of the focus of his last nature doc, Encounters at the End of the World, in the way it jumps all over the world and at times sidelines Herzog himself and his nutty musings to its detriment but there are definitely highlights.  A segment late in the film where Herzog travels to North Korea to examine the role Mount Paektu plays in that country’s propaganda is clearly a standout segment and I kind of wouldn’t be shocked if the whole rest of the movie had been a façade for Herzog to find his way into the DPRK because there’s certainly a lot of “ecstatic truth” to be found in that place.  This certainly isn’t Herzog’s best work but it’s also far from his worst, it lacks some of that mischievousness you crave from Herzog but probably makes up for it with some good nature photography.

*** out of Five

13th (11/1/2016)

Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a documentary that was filmed in secret and seemingly came out of nowhere to quickly become the year’s most talked about documentary when it showed up on Netflix shortly after its festival premiere.  The film, which is told largely through archival footage and talking head interviews, attempts to recount a history of how American society vilified African Americans and built a culture of mass incarceration out of direct malice towards African Americans.  The film does not have very much information in it that will be unfamiliar to any reasonably educated audience, but what it does do is assemble this information into a sort of manifesto for a certain worldview.  That worldview at time seems a tad conspiracy minded but there is a certain degree of evidence to back it up.  The film is less an argument about the facts and more about perspective.  Was the crackdown on crime in the 70s and 80s truly a malicious attempt rooted entirely in racism or was it more of an inevitable reaction to a genuine crime wave?  The answer is probably not as black and white as the documentary argues; this is a complex situation and while racism is definitely a factor there are almost certainly a multitude of other factors and the movie also isn’t terribly great at offering alternatives.  Not everyone making up the prison population is a patsy who’s been thrown into jail for having an ounce of marijuana and I’m not exactly sure what DuVernay proposes we do when someone is guilty of a violent offense other than imprisoning them.  Still this is about as well constructed and shot as something like this is ever going to be, so it’s definitely worth a look to see this perspective and judge for yourself.

***1/2 out of Five

11-1-201613th

The Witness (11/5/2016)

11-5-2016TheWitness It’s usually pretty arbitrary which murders end up being picked up by the media and which ones don’t, all too often it mostly comes down to how pretty the victim is or if the perpetrator does something particularly strange or sensational.  Then of course there’s the Kitty Genovese murder, which rose to prominence not because of the murder itself but because it was allegedly witnessed by a number of people who did nothing to help.  This documentary revisits that case through the lens of the victim’s brother, William Genovese, as he seeks out answers some fifty years later while also examining his sister’s life and the consequences of her death.  I’m not entirely sure I believe that William is as personally determined as he’s portrayed in this film or if this has been exaggerated to provide a convenient framing story, but the exploration this inspires is pretty well done.  I’d first heard about this case via a trashy hour long made-for-cable documentary that was shown to us in a high school social studies class and it’s interesting how much more detail can be gleaned from the case than the usual anecdotal citation it usually garners.   Occasionally the film does lean a bit too hard on gimmickry, I was not a fan of a stunt towards the end for example, but for the most part it’s a respectful and insightful exploration.

**** out of five

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