Home Video Round-Up 2/8/2023

Riotsville, USA (1/28/2023)

Riotsville, USA is a documentary that can probably be best classified as a video essay as it overtly makes its own point rather than bringing in talking heads to make them.  It consists almost entirely of archive footage and focuses in on the societal reaction to the rioting and uprests that occurred during the 1960s like the Watts Riots, the 1967 Detroit Riots, and the unrest at the 1968 Chicago DNC as well as a less known uprest that happened at the 1968 RNC in Miami.  It’s not too hard to guess why there would be a particular interest in this subject matter today and the film’s basic thesis is that the establishment basically reacted to these unrests the wrong way by focusing more on riot control policing than on addressing the underlying concerns of the rioters and this is perhaps most dramatically symbolized by footage of a military training facility that was built to look like regular city streets in which the army and police would practice riot control techniques.  That’s perhaps the most striking element of the documentary but it’s not the entire focus as the title would imply and is more about the broader discourse of the era.  In fact we see in a title card at the beginning that almost all the footage used in the film was either shot by the government or by the news media, which establishes that these were all conversations that happened very much in public and that this isn’t obscure stuff being dug up and the film further emphasizes how normalized all this discourse was from time to time by including commercial breaks and other bits of broadcast ephemera in the movie.  Those are some interesting techniques but the film is never quite sure whether it wants its message driven home by title cards or by voice-over and at times it does feel like some talking head type stuff might have made it a touch more watchable.
***1/2 out of Five

Causeway (1/30/2023)

The Best Actress nomination for Andrea Riseborough for the movie To Leslie was a gigantic shocker when the Academy Awards nominations were announced, to the point where it rather overshadowed the similarly surprising Best Supporting Actor nomination for Brian Tyree Henry in the movie Causeway.  This was less of a surprise in part because the movie had the promotional might of Apple behind it but Causeway is a not entirely dissimilar movie from To Leslie: both are these Sundancey indies about working class women struggling to overcome adversity (in the case of To Leslie that’s alcoholism and here it’s the physical and psychological toll of having nearly been injured in Afghanistan) by taking a menial job where they meet a friend that helps them (Tyree Henry here, Marc Maron in To Leslie).  Causeway is a better film however, mostly for small reasons that are a little hard to summarize.  Jennifer Lawrence is giving a more understated performance than Riseborough for one thing, and I also sense that this movie handles its New Orleans setting more authentically than To Leslie handles it’s Texas milieu.  That said I don’t think Causeway is a terribly notable movie in the long run either.  There have been a lot of movies about veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan which are trying to exist in that lineage with The Best Years of Our Lives and Coming Home, but none of them have really come close and I’m not sure many of them ever will at this point.  I think it’s because the kind of people who go to those wars live outside the experience of the type of people who write movies to a much greater extent than used to be the case and any attempt to tell their stories involves bridging a bigger divide than in generations past and I think that’s the case here as well.  As for Brian Tyree Henry’s performance… it’s good, but I wouldn’t say it’s too far off from his usual range nor is it a career best.  I feel like the nomination is more out of respect for Tyree Henry’s recent run of solid work as an actor’s actor than for this movie, but that’s okay.
*** out of Five

“Sr.” (1/31/2023)

About a year and a half ago the cult underground film director Robert Downey passed away, and I distinctly remember going into the trend on Twitter and seeing person after person expressing the relief they felt when they realized the person who died was Robert Downey Sr. rather than is significantly more famous son.  More than likely a lot of these people didn’t even know that the elder Downey was a person of note.  Hell, I’m a dedicated film buff and even I’ve only seen two of the guy’s movies, and it would appear this documentary was made in order to educate the public about this guy and also clarify what his relationship to Downey Jr. was.  The film makes some kind of unconventional choices along the way; for one, all the new footage in the film was shot in black and white (with movie clips and archival footage in color where applicable) for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.  The film has a decent amount of fly-on-the-wall footage of the whole Downey family interacting which does continue into the period in which the elder Downey’s health started to rapidly deteriorate.  There’s a conceit the film uses in which the elder Downey is cutting together his own version of the documentary separately, though not much ultimately becomes of this.  The film ultimately focuses more on this new material and with stories of the family’s personal dynamics than it does on really analyzing Downey Sr.’s actual movies, which sometimes take a bit of a back seat.  I feel like an interview with a film historian or critic may have helped a little here as some outside perspectives may well have gone a long way in making it clear to audiences that these movies actually did matter and weren’t just weird vanity projects by an eccentric guy.  I suppose the philosophy behind this is that a documentary about an iconoclastic filmmaker shouldn’t be too conventional and should have some experimental elements itself, but I’m not sure that Downey Jr. and director Chris Smith were really the right people to try an experimental format like that because it mostly comes across as kind of messy rather than truly experimental.
*** out of Five

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2/2/2023)

So, every year I do the best that I can to watch all the films nominated for the Academy Award in every category.  This year it looks like I’ll be able to see everything except the latest beneficiary of a Diane Warren song Tell it Like a Woman (which is not on streaming or anywhere else, and I’m not 100% convinced exists) and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish because even I have some standards.  However, this Best Costume Design nominee Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris thing was readily available on Peacock so, I figured “what the hell?”  Ugh.  To be fair I think the nomination in that category basically makes sense.  It’s a movie largely set in the Christian Dior fashion house in the 50s and obviously has a whole bunch of meticulously designed outfits that needed to be meticulously recreated, but man everything else about this movie was just pandering nonsense made for very undiscerning AARP members.  The titular Mrs. Harris is like a senior citizen Mary Sue who marches through the film just sort of magically getting her way through force of personality while managing to match-make the respectful young people and putting the snobby people who don’t believe her in their place.  Beyond that it’s just a boring bit of wish-fulfillment hooey that will more than likely be forgotten even by its fans less than a week after seeing it.
*1/2 out of Five

All That Breathes (2/8/2023)

All that Breathes is one of the most awarded documentaries of the year and also the one I’ve waited the longest to finally get to see since HBO has seemingly been holding onto it in anticipation of an Oscar nomination.  It’s funny really to experience that much fomo and anticipation for what turns out to be this really quiet and contemplative little documentary about a pair of brothers in India who take care of birds and nurse them back to health.  Specifically they have a little operation taking in kites (a species of birds of prey not unlike hawks) who have broken wings and the like.  The film is essentially a work of cinéma vérité shot “fly on the wall” style without the use of any interviews to the camera or the like, but it’s done with more carefully composed shots than you usually associate with that style.  In fact it’s kind of impressive how much the film is able to maintain a certain visual style and aesthetic despite being unscripted content and if you watch a lot of docs it is noticeable, but not in any kind of show off way.  As it goes on the film touches on the fact that the rise in Hindu Nationalism in Modi’s India is starting to seem threatening to these two brothers as they go about their bird nursing duties, but more as a kind of background anxiety.  Ultimately the movie’s arc never quite comes full circle for me but I can see why this has become something of a festival darling.
***1/2 out of Five

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