Home Video Round-Up: 12/7/2017

Spielberg (11/9/2017)



I’m not exactly sure why 2017 was the year that Steven Spielberg decided to put out a feature length HBO documentary that looked at his life and films, it also isn’t exactly the first time he’s done something like this.  He did the documentary Spielberg on Spielberg with Richard Schickel about ten years ago which had a very similar format, but this documentary is a little bit longer and certainly flashier.  In addition to Spielberg there are a lot of other talking heads here including colleagues from the 70s like George Lucas and Brian De Palma, family members, and some critics.  There are definitely interesting tidbits here and there and I don’t have a whole lot of complaints about anything that’s actually in the documentary, but despite the two and a half hour running time I feel like there just wasn’t enough here to really justify this thing.  Entire movies like The Terminal and The Adventures of Tintin are ignored entirely, many films like War Horse and Amistad are only barely mentioned, and even the major movies are generally only discussed for something like five to ten minutes apiece.  I get that there are a lot of people that simply don’t care about some of these minor works but given that there’s already more than enough discussion of Jaws and Jurassic Park out there this would have seemed an ideal time to shine a light on some lesser known or at least less talked about films.  Overall the documentary is probably worth at least watching if you’re a Spielberg fan but it’s hardly definitive and would have felt a lot more special if it had been expanded into a two or three part event that really digs into this career.

*** out of Five

Beatriz at Dinner (11/28/2017)

In the trailer for Beatriz at Dinner a critic is quoted as saying it was “the first great film of the Trump era.”  That’s certainly not true, as this is by no means a great movie, but I could sort of see why someone would invoke “the era of Trump” when talking about the movie.  The movie is set up to be a sort of battle royale that happens when an under-privileged hippie earth-mother type played by Salma Hayek finds herself at a dinner party at a mansion and has to confront a billionaire arch-conservative played by John Lithgow.  If the movie wants these people to be representatives of the left and right it sure seems like the filmmakers are stacking the deck.  Beatriz is this almost saintly paragon of virtue while Lithgow seems to be playing an almost cartoonish asshole, and while I don’t exactly object to Billionaire arch-conservatives being depicted as assholes (the shoe certainly fits), a little more nuance would have probably made for a more even matchup that might be more fun to watch.  Still I could see why they would want a clear contrast set up this incredible match-up of forces… except that the battle royale we were promised never actually emerges.  Beatriz ends up folding pretty quickly rather than confront Lithgow for long and Lithgow doesn’t seem terribly interested in defending himself either.  That is probably a more realistic result of how a meeting like this would end, but given that the situation was pretty contrived in the first place I would have expected something more and as it is I’m not sure what the point of making a movie like this even was if this is all they’re going to do with a concept like this.

** out of Five

Whose Streets? (11/29/2017)

Whose Streets? Is a documentary focused on the unrest that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer.  The film is a combination of news footage, footage drawn from social media, and footage that was shot by the filmmakers who were on the streets while the protests were going on.  The film is, if nothing else, a great source of raw footage of what was going on in Ferguson, much of it very dramatic.  However, a lot of this footage does start to get a little tedious after a little while.  We see a whole lot of footage of very angry people doing all sorts of protest chants and lots of footage of increasingly militarized police acting coldly towards them, and occasionally footage of activists talking amongst themselves about how incorrectly they’re perceived.  The filmmakers have said a big part of their reasons for making the film was because they felt the protesters weren’t being covered correctly by the mainstream media and that they wanted to paint a fuller portrait and if that’s the case I’m not sure they really succeeded.  The film’s narrative about the protests isn’t too far removed from the narrative I went into it with (that of angry protestors being pushed around by an overly jumpy police force) and while there are some individual protestors who are highlighted along the way I don’t know that the film is ever really able to fully turn these events into a complete story.  Hesitant as I am to make a suggestion that would have made things a bit more conventional, some talking head interviews with some of the protestors shot after the fact to establish context might have helped.  Still there’s definitely enough here to give you something to think about even if it’s a bit messy along the way.

*** out of Five

Mudbound (12/1/2017)

It has been a policy of mine that movies which debut on Netflix without legitimate national theatrical releases are to be relegated to these short capsule reviews, and this has been mostly painless. That said the latest Netflix acquisition Mudbound is probably the closest we’ve come to a “real” movie debuting on the streaming service.  The film, an adaptation of a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, is set during World War II and its immediate aftermath looks at a white family and their interactions with a family of black sharecroppers who live on their farm in rural Mississippi.  The film is impressively helmed by Dee Rees, who has clearly honed her craft significantly since her work on the micro-indie Pariah, but as I watched it I increasingly got the impression that the novel the movie was adapting was decidedly “good but not great” and that the movie wasn’t really doing enough to elevate it and break it out of the mold of its original format.  It simply feels like it was being told from the point of view of too many characters and as a result it ended up short changing a lot of them and the performances are a bit of a mixed bag as well.  In many ways I kind of wish they had de-emphasized the white family significantly and just focused exclusively on the point of view of the black family.  The format they did choose to go with had some rewards but I don’t think they outweighed the drawbacks.  Still, the movie does get better as it goes and comes together in a pretty satisfying way by the end, so it’s definitely worth seeing even if I don’t think it’s any kind of new classic.

***1/2 out of Five

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (12/7/2017)

Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender woman and a major LGBT activist during the 70s and 80s and was actually at the Stonewall riot in 1969.  She died in 1992 under mysterious circumstances and her death was ruled a suicide by police at the time, but activist Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project had long been suspicious about this and the documentary follows her as she attempts to investigate Johnson’s death some twenty five years later.  Alright, spoiler here but this investigation does not really turn up much in the way of concrete answers and I think director David France expected as much.  In many ways this investigation is meant less as a true crime story like Making a Murderer or even Strong Island and more just as a literary device to look at Marsha’s life as well as explore the dangers that trans-women face in society and the work of the Anti-Violence Project.   This format gets a little messy at times but I’m not sure that the PBS “American Experience” version of Johnson’s biography would have necessarily worked better.  France’s previous documentary, How To Survive a Plague, is an amazing piece of work and I wouldn’t necessarily say the same about this one but it’s interesting enough and worth a look.

*** out of Five

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