Home Video Round-Up 9/7/2019

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary (8/24/2019)

The Amazing Jonathan was a magician/comedian who emerged around the same time as Penn and Teller and sort of deconstructed traditional magic acts in an irreverent way and made him a success.  He also apparently lived a hard life which involved severe drug addiction and all of it was brought to an end when he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and only had a year to live.  Ten years later he’s still alive but knows he’s on borrowed time.  Enter Benjamin Berman, a documentary filmmaker who has decided to step in and film The Amazing Jonathan while he goes on a farewell tour and make a portrait of what his life is like now.  Seems to have all the makings of a compelling but ordinary profile documentary but things take a bit of a twist when Jonathan announces that an award winning documentary producer also wants to make a movie about him and that he’s going to let that competing crew film him as well.  What follows is a movie that’s about as much about Berman and his reaction to the situation as a filmmaker as it is about The Amazing Johnathan and that may frustrate people who are looking more for a straightforward account of the magician and his predicament.  Personally, as someone who’s sick to death of “profile docs” about famous people I found the whole thing to be something of a refreshing deconstruction of that genre and about how there seems to be a rush to send documentary crews to every event that’s in the news.  There is also the question of how “real” any of this is and while I have my suspicions they lead me more in the direction of viewing this as a work of meta trickery like Exit Through the Gift Shop than a genuine attempt to deceive.

**** out of Five

Alita: Battle Angel (8/29/2019)

Asking for original blockbusters is easy, actually liking them when we get them is hard.  Take Alita: Battle Angel for example, which isn’t technically a new IP given that it is an adaptation of a manga but is clearly not trying to be sold to an existing fanbase and is an original blockbuster as far as most audiences were concerned.  Everything about the film made it look like the next Valerian or the next Mortal Engines, so it was a bit of a surprise when its box office performance was merely lackluster rather than disastrous at the domestic box office and was actually a hit in international territories.  I’m not entirely sure why this one took off while other visual overload blockbusters have not (good timing perhaps) but it was a success and a surprise comeback for director Robert Rodriguez, who has never really been trusted with budgets like this before.  I will say that the film is pretty impressive on a technical level.  The protagonist’s face has some uncanny valley issues but it’s otherwise able to bring this world together pretty well and there are a couple decent-ish action scenes.  That said, this is not an easy world and IP to warm up to, it all just looks kind of silly and the film does not introduce it gradually.  Imagine if the original Star Wars trilogy did not exist and audiences were asked to just get on board with that universe from The Phantom Menace.  The film’s story is also pretty standard hero’s journey stuff and the film’s look only takes it so far. Not for me.

**1/2 out of Five

American Factory (9/6/2019)

American Factory has received a lot of press because it was distributed (via Netflix) by the Higher Ground production company, which is owned and operated by Barrack and Michelle Obama.  The film itself was actually an independent production which was picked up at Sundance and was directed by the veteran documentarians Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, a pair I’m not familiar with but from watching this I can tell they are way into the “direct cinema” movement pioneered by Robert Drew, Barbara Kopple, and D. A. Pennebaker.  The film is told primarily through fly-on-the-wall footage taken on the floor of the Fuyao auto-glass plant which opened in Ohio in 2016 with the aim of bringing the Chinese company’s work ethic to the United States, the result was a bit of a culture clash which culminated in an attempt to form a union in 2017.  If that premise sounds interesting you should definitely give this a shot because it’s a very mature and even handed documentary that goes to great pains to paint this factories troubles as a sort of honest misunderstanding between business cultures without vilifying the Chinese executives and managers or discounting the concerns of the American workers.  If I have any problems with the film it might simply be that it isn’t always great at explaining how much time has passed as the film progresses and isn’t always great at conveying the scale of things at the factory.

**** out of Five

The Beach Bum (9/7/2019)

Harmony Korine is one weird dude and I’m not really sure what to think about him.  He’s a filmmaker who isn’t terribly popular and isn’t exactly a critic’s darling but he does have a cult following and his movies are generally a bit to “out there” to completely ignore.  After the relative box office success of his slick but still intrinsically weird 2013 film Spring Breakers he finally had some clout to get a reasonably large budget for his latest film and he’s apparently used it to make a stoner comedy of sorts starring Matthew McConaughey and Snoop Dogg among others about a poet named Moondog who lives in a hedonistic stupor in the Florida Keys most of the time while living off his wife’s money.  If I were to look for meaning in it I might suggest that there’s something a bit autobiographical about all this given that Korine is himself an artist of apparent talent who some would say squanders his potential making movies about depraved weirdos.  If that what he’s doing I can sort of vibe with that, but as an upstanding citizen who’s proud to have a nine to five job there’s only so much sympathy I can really conjure for this Moondog guy and as someone who only gets high on life I wasn’t as amused by all the weed stuff as I think I was supposed to be, though there were a couple of legitimately funny bits here and there.

**1/2 out of Five

Hail Satan? (9/7/2019)

When promoting the book and film “The Exorcist” William Peter Blatty was known to say things like “If you believe in god then you also believe in the devil.” Presumably that would also mean that if you don’t believe in god than you also don’t believe in the devil, and that has been more or less my animating principal as a somewhat militant atheist.  In fact I’ve always found the basic idea of devil worship, authentic devil not the fun unserious heavy metal kind, to be about the stupidest thing imaginable.  Like, if you’re going to believe in a pretend being you might as well believe in the one who’s into good deeds rather than the one who was specifically invented to be the worst villain in the universe.  So it was with some interest that, while watching this documentary about the rise of the Satanic Temple, I learned that most of the people involved in that little movement are not really believers in a literal Satan so much as they’re activists against Christian supremacy in America and around the world.   It’s a position which I’m kind of conflicted about: on one hand I think they’re doing a great good by turning the tables on the religious right and using their rules against them (like when they stopped a state government from erecting a ten commandments monument by proposing the construction of a demon statue next to it) but I also think they’re kind of undermining their position by giving away that they don’t really believe in this shit and they could also inflame passions so much that they generate a backlash.  As for the movie, it’s a pretty good overview of the movement and its history, worth a watch if any of this sounds interesting.

*** out of Five

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