Home Video Round-Up 1/28/2020

Cold Case Hammarskjöld (1/5/2020)

The documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld, which investigates the 1961 plane crash that killed UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, opens with its director saying something along the lines “this could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.”  I would say I do quite like that touch of modesty because the end result of this film is that they fine a great deal of smoke but ultimately fail to prove the presence of a fire.  Presented in a more straightforward manner I would probably not be on board with that given that I’ve come to be increasingly wary about the spread of unproven conspiracy theories and the damage they can do, but here the film’s director places himself front and center in the film for the explicit purpose of showing you that he is just as frustrated about how thin the evidence around this case is.  The film even goes so far as to incorporate a device in which the director explains the whole story of his investigation to a skeptical third party to sort of get their confused reaction to all of it.  That having been said, some of the things that this guy does seem to uncover around the periphery of this case are pretty major if they’re true.  Ultimately, I’m not sure if this was ready for the presses, but I wouldn’t necessarily discourage the director from digging deeper into all of this and if he manages to make a sequel doc with more concrete evidence about all of this I’d be interested in seeing it.

*** out of Five

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (1/8/2020)

This documentary seeks to look at the relationship between Leonard Cohen and his onetime girlfriend Marianne Ihlen, who is believed to have been the inspiration for a handful of his famous songs.  Both Cohen and Ihlen are dead and neither were interviewed for this so we mostly get the story through mutual friends of the two as well as some archival interviews and stock footage.  I like Cohen’s music but I’m not a superfan and don’t know a whole lot of biographical information about him.  In fact I don’t know that his life story is as widely known as a lot of musicians and as such I’m not sure this documentary necessarily needed to search for a novel entry point into his life like this one relationship.  In fact the film does end up needed to do a lot of straightforward biopic stuff with him so trying to sell this as two people’s story seemed a touch misguided.  That said their time on the Greek island of Hydra during the height of the sixties does sound interestingly idyllic and the film shows a much different side of the guy than I would have expected.  Probably best left for the hardcore fans.

**1/2 out of Five

Judy (1/10/2020)

This film about the last days of Judy Garland’s life has largely been viewed as Oscar bait in the discourse and there’s probably some truth to that.  The film looks at Garland when she’s at her lowest point, drug addicted and out of her mind forced to focus almost exclusively on doing live performances of songs from her old movies in order to maintain her lifestyle.  Specifically the movie looks at a residency she did in London where she delivered some rather inconsistent concerts about six months before her death.  This period is then intercut with flashbacks to her time as a child star where she was more or less psychologically abused by Louis B. Mayer in order to become the perfect star.  Front and center of all discussions of the film has been Renée Zellweger’s work as Garland.  I’m not necessarily in the best position to judge how close she is to replicating Garland’s look and mannerisms as I’m not terribly familiar with what Garland was like in this stage of her life, but Zellweger certainly does a good job of portraying a character who’s drug addicted and constantly fighting back demons.  Outside of that I’d say the movie is a solid C+ piece of work.  Director Rupert Goold appears to primarily be a theater director and while he is not without visual ideas here he doesn’t exactly execute on them perfectly and the script is generally pretty straightforward.

*** out of Five

The Peanut Butter Falcon (1/11/2020)

I really want to have stronger feelings about this film but for me it was just kind of the personification of an average indie movie.  The film is a Southern picaresque in the vein of Mud or Undertow in which a guy with Down syndrome escapes from the institution he’s living in and connects with a drifter played by Shia LaBeouf while a nurse played by Dakota Johnson also pursues them.  I would say that the film’s cast is pretty good; LaBeouf is in good form and it’s cool that they found an actual Down syndrome person to play that role.  That said I found a lot of the characters here to be pretty broadly drawn.  The staff at the home the Down syndrome guys was living in felt more like the kind of staff he would have had to deal with in a different era than what a modern disability home would be like and the LaBeouf character’s effortless homespun wisdom did not ring particularly true to me and the way they drag the nurse into the adventure leading to a romance between her and the LaBeouf character felt contrived in a very clichéd movie way.  Beyond that the whole movie kind of seemed to get its point (that people with mental disabilities should be treated more like regular people) across really quickly and doesn’t really have much else to do from there and it reaches its finale in a way that didn’t strike me as overly satisfying.

**1/2 out of Five

I Lost My Body (1/20/2020)

I’ve come to really appreciate the animation branch of the Academy as they really seem to do their research and have shown a willingness to nominate unexpected choices. This year their big discovery is I Lost My Body, an R-rated animation from a largely unknown French animation studio that appears to primarily make television rather than film and which is currently being distributed by Netflix.  The film is about a severed hand which, through some unexplained magic, has come alive and become sentient as it tries to find the body it was severed from and that is intercut with flashbacks to how said hand came to be severed.  That’s a neat Gogol-esque concept and the movie finds interesting ways to capture this hand crawling around the city like Thing from “The Addams Family” and that part in and of itself would have been a pretty good forty minute short-subject but the movie feels like it’s been expanded to feature length with mixed results.  The flashback sections here certainly aren’t “bad,” in fact some of them are kind of touching and relatable but if given a choice between watching them and the adventures of a sentient severed hand I’m going to have to side with the severed hand and in many ways the flashbacks just gets in the way of that.  Still a pretty cool and daring little project to be sure, just kind of think it’s in the wrong format.

*** out of Five

Klaus (1/20/2019)

Sergio Pablos is a Spanish animator who worked for Disney during the late 90s when they were making computer assisted 2D animated films like Tarzan and then he left them and took more of a leadership role Illumination where he became one of the co-creators of the Despicable Me franchise.  For his latest film he is bringing 2D animation back and claims to be trying to run an experiment to see what western 2D animation would have evolved into if people were still making it through the last twenty years, which certainly a cool idea from a visual perspective.  The film is hardly hand-drawn and uses a lot of computer assistance but it does mostly have a cool look.  I would also say its base storytelling idea is interesting in that it’s a sort of origin story of Santa Klaus that re-imagines the legend as a non-supernatural woodcutter who lives on a weird island where everyone fights like Hatfields and Mccoys and starts delivering toys to kids as part of a sort of joint-venture with a desperate mailman.  I’m a little queasy about the film’s basic message, which basically boils down to “materialism brings world peace” but the real problem here is really the film’s sense of humor and writing in general.  When Pablos said he wanted to see what 2D animated movies would evolve into the modern era he apparently also meant that it would take on a sort of sub-Dreamworks/Illumination sensibility where people talk in this bad anachronistic patter and the film is filled with some pretty bad slapstick and leads to a dumb sentimental moral for children.

** out of Five

Harriet (1/28/2020)

In the last ten years or so there have been more movies about the black experience in America than ever before but I’ve been a little disappointed that so many of the movies that get made about black history seem to be more interested in inspiring children than in getting into the complexities of the black experience and you can pretty safely place Harriet alongside the likes of 42 and Red Tails in that regard.  The film generally falls into a lot of the usual traps that mediocre biopics tend to fall into; I wouldn’t accuse it of being a hagiography exactly since Harriet Tubman is enough of a legendary figure that there aren’t many “warts” that need pointing out, but the movie in in such a rush to point out her righteousness that it doesn’t really make her feel like a fully human character and a lot of the period trappings felt undetailed and bland and the movie also struggles mightily to fit even a fraction of the character’s life into a two hour film.  That’s not to say that the movie is horrible or anything, Tubman and her Underground Railroad rescues were interesting enough that you would have to work pretty hard to make a movie about the subject that wasn’t at least watchable, which this mostly is.  It will probably be shown in a lot of middle schools in the years to come and if that’s what Kasi Lemmons set out to accomplish then she accomplished it, but I want a little more out of my historical movies than that.

** out of Five


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