Home Video Round-Up: 7/15/2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (6/25/2017)

When John Wick came out in 2014 it certainly didn’t look like much, but the response to it was quite strong and it’s become something of a cult classic of the action genre.  When I finally caught up with it I could sort of see why.  It had some really strong fight/shootout choreography and it had a rather unapologetic brutality that I approved of.  It was basically bringing the kind of action seen in Asian films like The Raid into the Hollywood mainstream and doing it pretty well.  Unfortunately it was also dumb as a sack of rocks.  It was a very silly little revenge story set against some rather strange world building about a ritualized world of assassins.  The film’s sequel is even weirder and expands on this assassin’s guild ideas in ways that suggest that they hadn’t fully thought out a number of the rituals in the first movie because this world makes less and less sense the more it gets explored and simply doesn’t hold up if you think about it too much. Of course the plot isn’t necessarily the most important aspect of these movies, the action is, and for the most part John Wick: Chapter 2 does deliver on that front.  It doesn’t necessarily bring the gun-fu style of the first movie up to eleven like I might have hoped; in general it’s just kind of more of what we got before.  There’s definitely fun to be had here by action fans but I don’t know how much more steam this franchise has and if given the choice I’d probably lean towards the first movie rather than the second simply because that one had simplicity of purpose that propelled it.

**1/2 out of Five

T2: Trainspotting (7/4/2017)

The original Trainspotting is something of a classic, I won’t deny it that, but it isn’t necessarily a movie that’s precious to me.  I probably watched it when I was sixteen or something and was bingeing through all sorts of great movies at a rapid pace and Trainspotting was just kind of another one of them.  That is maybe where I’m at a disconnect when it comes to this 20+ year later sequel, whose appeal seems to mostly be drawn from the prospect of seeing these characters that you’ve built a lot of nostalgia for after all these years.  Truth be told, I barely even remember some of the supporting cast here (Renton was always front and center to me) and seeing them in middle age didn’t really fascinate me too much.  Some of the film’s attempts to tap into the modern zeitgeist were sort of interesting, some not so much.  Danny Boyle is able to inject the film with energy as he usually can, but I’m not sure this was as appropriate for this movie given where these characters are in life at this point.  It’s like the point of the movie is that these guys are no longer youthful and yet it also sort of lacks the conviction to actually make them act their age for fear that this would be boring.  Frankly I feel like Danny Boyle, now an Academy Award winning director, should be above going back to the well like this and so should a lot of the cast.  Trainspotting has often been called Britain’s Pulp Fiction, and god help us if Quentin Tarantino ever decides we need a sequel to that.  Also, what the hell were they thinking with that title?

** out of Five

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (7/4/2017)

Nobody Speak is a documentary that looks at a pair of recent incidents which seem to be red flags suggesting that the moneyed class are trying to use their influence to silence the free press: the Hulk Hogan v. Gawker lawsuit and the purchase of the Las Vegas Review Journal by the Adelson family.  These are both stories worth considering but they’re not exactly obscure, both were covered pretty extensively in the press while they were happening and Brian Knappenberger’s documentary does not really bring a whole lot of new information or perspective to either of them.  Knappenberger also tries to link these cases to the general hostility towards the press that Donald Trump has been fermenting, but in many ways that feels like something of a separate issue to me as that hostility long predated Trump and probably can’t be blamed on the actions of any one rich asshole.  It also doesn’t help that I find the documentary’s take on Hogan/Gawker affair to be a bit preachy in its analysis.  It is very possible to both support the free press and also think that posting a covertly filmed sex tape is a violation of privacy worth suing over and the fact that the dude funding said lawsuit is a vindictive asshole doesn’t really change that.  Had the film actually gotten access to Peter Theil or Hulk Hogan and tried to understand their side of the story we might have gotten something kind of unique and interesting instead we’re just given a news summery which I’m not sure will be all that useful to anyone who would be interested in it in the first place.

** out of five

The Defiant Ones (7/13/2017)

I’ve long hesitated about reviewing multipart TV docs within the context of movie reviews but I’m making an exception this time because… well, because this thing is awesome and I want to talk about it.  This four part HBO documentary mini-series is ostensibly about the lives and business partnership of Dr. Dre and music mogul Jimmy Iovine and in covering them the film also chronicles the rise of gangsta rap, the formation of Interscope Records, and the business maneuvers that would eventually result in a multi-billion dollar deal with Apple.  The story of Dr. Dre, N.W.A., and Death Row Records has of course been recounted several times before this so there is a degree of redundancy here but I’ve rarely seen the story contextualized as well as it is here and we get perspectives we normally don’t get.  For example, everyone knows the story of how Suge Knight signed Tupac by bailing him out of jail but few people know he did it with money that Iovine advanced him for that purpose as is revealed here.  The film also has incredible access to the people involved in all of this with a rather staggering number of talking heads interviewed giving a range of perspectives, including some people who aren’t necessarily coming off great in the other interviews.  The basic filmmaking on display here is also really strong with director Allen Hughes clearly having a lot of money and resources to work with.  Hughes has found a treasure trove of relevant footage and has a seemingly unlimited music clearance budget.  Politics does stymie the film in a couple of places (they avoid mentioning Jerry Heller at all costs and its depiction of Suge Knight is… restrained) but it’s also not afraid to delve into some darker moments that have been discussed before like the Dee Barnes incident.  This is in many ways a movie that feels like it was tailor made to appeal specifically to me and my pop culture interests and I’m not sure how broad its reach will be amongst those who aren’t endlessly fascinated by music from the 90s, but for those who do care about this stuff it’s an incredibly well made piece of work worth checking out.

****1/2 out of Five

Okja (7/15/2017)

When the movie Chappie came out a couple years ago I suggested that it was a movie whose strange mixture of Spielbergian whimsy and R-rated adult material would have probably been better received if it had been made in a foreign language by a Japanese or Korean director than by a South African working with a Hollywood budget and the recent critical acceptance of Bong Joon-Ho’s new movie Okja suggests I was right.  This oddity concerns a little Korean girl who finds herself in the middle of all sorts of intrigue when the genetically modified pig she’s been raising is called back by the corporations that placed it with her father and she needs to go on a mission to save it.  I’d say the film’s first problem, and it’s a doozy, is that it is dependent on making its audience sympathize with the bizarre CGI hippo/pig thing that Joon-Ho has put at the movie’s center and to care about whether or not it gets saved simply because some kid has formed an irrational bond with her father’s livestock.  I don’t know, I’m not really a pet person so maybe I’m just never going to be on the wave length of a movie like this but this one certainly didn’t hook me in.  On top of that the movie is filled with insanely broad performances from all the English/American actors involved (the movie is something like 75% English language) and its anti-corporate politics seemed rather juvenile.  Bong-Joon Ho’s last movie, Snowpiercer was over-rated in some circles but it at least had some fun genre elements to enjoy.  This thing on the other hand is just a big mess of weirdness and I genuinely like it less than the aforementioned Chappie.

** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 6/21/2017

Beware the Slenderman (1/23/2017)

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I’ve been fairly interested in the Slenderman character ever since he emerged on the internet and think he’s a pretty cool monster.  Consequently I’ve been pretty interested in the “Slenderman stabbing case” ever since it happened as well.  It seems like such a strange case, like something out of Heavenly Creatures and the internet aspect of the case certainly gives it an extra dimension of interest.  The new documentary on the subject of the case and the internet ghost stories that allegedly led to it does a pretty good job of looking at Slenderman the fictional character but it feels rather incomplete in its analysis of the actual attempted murder case.  This may simply be a textbook case of a documentary trying to weigh in on something that isn’t over yet and which we don’t have enough perspective on yet.  As of now the Slenderman case is still in the courts and as such the lawyers and parents involved are all being rather guarded in their statements.  The film might have been better served in taking a deeper dive into the murky morality of laws that force prosecutors to try children as adults in certain cases. Otherwise I feel like it maybe should have just held off a little longer.

*** out of Five

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (4/2/2017)

I Don’t Feel At Home in This World is the directorial debut of a guy named Macon Blair, who was previously best known as the star of the movie Blue Ruin.  This film has become notable for the fact that it went straight to Netflix streaming mere weeks after it debuted to some decent buzz at Sundance this year.  As someone who’s generally seen “straight to video/VOD/Streaming” as a pretty big red flag I’m a little surprised that they were willing to take that approach with a movie that’s gotten some solid notices as no movie wants that kind of stigma.  Still in the case of this movie I think the approach kind of makes sense as this is one of those movies that screams “good enough to get a positive reception at Sundance but not really good enough to draw people out to real theaters in large numbers.”  The movie follows a lady whose home gets robbed and tries to track down the thieves on her own, largely just on the principle of the thing.  From there it becomes something like a Coen Brothers movie of the Blood Simple or Fargo variety with ordinary people awkwardly navigating a crime narrative where they’re in over their heads.  The movie has a certain amount of flavor but never feels particularly profound or engrossing and ultimately just feels a bit disposable.  I’d say “wait for it to show up on streaming” but…

*** out of Five

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Five Came Back (4/8/2017)

4-8-2017FiveCameBack In its unending quest to become every channel under the sun Netflix commissioned this documentary series to be their answer to what Ken Burns has done for PBS.  The film is an adaptation of a book by journalist/film historian Mark Harris’ book of the same name, which I read a couple years ago.  It’s a quality book, one of the better film books in a while.  It looks at five golden age Hollywood film directors and their involvement in World War II as makers of propaganda films and battlefield documentaries.  It’s been split into three episodes, which would normally make it something I wouldn’t review as a film, but I can pretty easily imagine it as a three hour feature (and they’re four walling it as such in hopes of Oscar qualification) so I’m going to allow it.  I was a little skeptical going into it as it started out mostly feeling like a Cliffs Notes version of the book but it proved to be a pretty easy sit over time and it won me over.  Unlike the book this has the obvious advantage of being able to include footage from the various movies being talked about and it also includes interviews with a pretty impressive roster of filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, and Guillermo del Toro to talk about the influence and legacies of the various films being discussed.  Del Toro in particular proves to be surprisingly insightful, but there are strange gaps as well like the fact that Spielberg never comments on John Ford’s D-Day footage given his own work in re-introducing that battle to the public imagination.  If you’ve never read the book and have no intention to, definitely watch this, and if you have read the book this is a pretty decent supplement.  That said, if they were going to pass this off as episodic rather than as a feature it does seem a little odd that they couldn’t have added an extra episode in there to flesh things out a bit as it does feel a little rushed.

***1/2 out of Five

Split (6/21/2017)

M. Night Shyamalan had one of the more dramatic and bizarre falls from grace of any director in recent memory. He started out as they director of oddly restrained and intelligent thrillers and seemed to just sort of lose his mind as he made some astonishingly silly movies like Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. His latest film Split was viewed as something of a comeback and certainly turned out to be a surprise hit at the box office but what really makes it different from Shyamalan’s other recent failures?  I’m not sure a whole lot does differentiate it as there are some truly odd moments in this thing and there are definitely elements of that Shyamalan stiltedness to be found.  Much has been made of the movie’s final stinger and its implications, and they are indeed curious, but that has perhaps clouded the fact that the film’s actual climax is fairly unsatisfying.  The one saving grace here is almost certainly James McAvoy’s showy performance as the villain, which is fun to watch and the whole movie is generally more watchable than some of this guy’s true bombs but that isn’t saying much.  I can only chalk up the movie’s blockbuster status to its release during a pretty barren place in the calendar and while I am curious about what sequels this thing will generate I certainly don’t think it’s the return to form that some people are making it out to be.

** out of Five

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Mommy Dead and Dearest (6/5/2017)

6-5-2017MommyDeadandDearest If there’s one thing in modern American life that I’ve come to find a bit distasteful it’s this idea of the lurid spectacle trial that gets covered extensively on Court TV and the like long before all the information has come out.  I’m not talking about cases that have actual social import like the Trayvon Martin shooting or something, I’m talking about court cases that people watch out of sheer salaciousness like the Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias that become objects of voyeurism unlike other trials for often unclear reasons.  I do however feel there is value in looking back at some cases like these after the fact to see where things went wrong and see what can be learned from them.  I don’t know how much media attention the Gypsy Rose Blancharde trial got but the new HBO documentary certainly suggests that it had all the makings of the “televised trial.”  The film concerns a teenage girl who experiences Munchausen syndrome by proxy in which she is manipulated into believing that she is the sufferer of numerous ailments by an abusive mother who liked the attention that having a “disabled” child would give her.  Upon realizing her ailment was psychosomatic she escapes this mother via murder.  The film itself doesn’t do anything terribly special but it does have access to Gypsy, who was allowed to give interviews from behind bars and her story and personality is quite disturbing.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 2/18/2017

Zero Days(2/8/2017)

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Much has been made about Alex Gibney’s insane workload and the sheer quantity of documentaries he seems to put out every given year.  His workload has been a bit lighter in 2016 than it has been in other years but the one major documentary he put out is a doozy.  What’s held back some of Gibney’s recent output is that he’s been focusing on subjects like Julian Assange, Steve Jobs, and the Church of Scientology which have already been getting a ton of press elsewhere, but that isn’t really the case with Zero Days which looks at an event that has been somewhat under-reported in part because it’s been over-classified.  Specifically the movie is about the Stuxnet computer virus, which was created by American and Israeli intelligence to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.  I’d heard a little bit about this operation before this and it was mostly framed at the time as a clean, successful and relatively peaceful operation that got one over on the Iranians, but the film suggests that the operation actually wasn’t all that successful and that it posed a lot of dangerous side-effects in that it spread to some innocent computers and some of the code in it could be copied by nefarious actors.  The movie itself is certainly a talking heads kind of thing, but it makes its argument well and seems to have been researched pretty deeply and presented about as well as it could be.

**** out of Five

Under the Shadow (2/9/2017)

Under the Shadow is a film set in Iran and filmed in Persian but was made outside of the Iranian film industry and is technically a British film, and this allows it to tell a kind of story you wouldn’t normally see made in Iran proper.  This is not a wildly political film however and makes the points it wants to make within a genre context.  It takes the form of a psychological thriller with a supernatural element and can be pretty readily compared with The Babadook… and I mean really readily compared to it.  Both films feature supernatural threats that may or may not be manifestations of a mother’s frustrations more so than an actual demon, or Djinn in this case.   The difference is that this particular woman’s psychological hang-ups are rooted more directly in the ways that the society she lives in wants to oppress her and keep her cooped up in her home despite her bigger ambitions.  Where the film falters in comparison to The Babadook is in its horror imagery.  Nothing in Under the Shadow is as memorable or as chilling as the popup book in The Babadook or various other horror moments to be found in that film.  That’s not to say that the horror imagery in Under the Shadow is weak exactly, it just isn’t the best the genre has to offer.  Overall this is certainly an interesting movie but I do think director Babak Anvari might need another movie or two before he reaches his full potential.

***1/2 out of Five

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Tower (2/14/2017)

2-14-2017Tower Tower is a documentary of sorts which focuses on the 1966 tragedy in which a deranged person went to the top of the University of Texas tower and started indiscriminately murdering people with a sniper rifle.  It was essentially a school shooting before school shootings were a sadly normalized part of the American landscape.  The film spends no time discussing the shooter or his motivations and instead focuses entirely on the victims and the occasional heroism of some of the police and bystanders.  There was limited footage of the actual incident so the film uses a mixture of the footage that exists as well as animation reenactments of the incident as well as interview audio from eye-witnesses.  I’m not always the biggest fan of animation being used in documentaries and I don’t think the art style here was ideal, but I do think the decision to recreate things in this way does ultimately work for the film.  The incident was often cited as an example of how things were going to hell in a handbasket in the post-Kennedy malaise of the 60s, but the documentary suggests there was some hope to be found in the way the non-crazy majority of people that day managed to react to the situation and how it would continue to affect those people as the years went on.

***1/2 out of Five

Deepwater Horizon (2/12/2017)

Peter Berg has had a weird career in general and his latest string of “ripped from the headlines movies starring Mark Whalberg” movies is particularly strange.  Deepwater Horizon, which dramatizes the offshore oil rig disaster which resulted in that huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico about eight years ago.  Like Sully it’s in the difficult position of making a feature film out of an incident that was kind of brief in real life.  They try to pull this off by dramatizing the mistakes that led to the disaster, but it feels like the problem is diagnosed almost immediately when we see the cement testers leaving the rig as our heroes enter and we’re left kind of waiting for the inevitable as we’re given various heavy handed metaphors about simple checks paying off in the long run.  Also John Malkovich is horrendous in these early scenes and feels like he comes from a different movie with his over the top accent.  The movie does become a fairly well crafted disaster movies once things on the rig start blowing up but frankly it had kind of lost me by that point.  Peter Berg, I don’t know what movie you plan to do next but for the love of god can it please be something that isn’t going to end with a maudlin montage of photographs of the real life victims of whatever?

**1/2 out of Five

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I Am Not Your Negro (2/18/2017)

2-18-2017IAmNotYourNegro When I first heard about the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro I was kind of expecting it to be a standard PBSish biographical documentary but it actually seems to be something more ambitious than that.  The film doesn’t use any talking heads or narration and basically consists only of Baldwin’s own words and appearances.  Ostensibly the film is an adaptation of Baldwin’s final manuscript “Remember This House” which is read through voice-over by Samuel L. Jackson, but that manuscript (which was a retrospective comparison between Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X) is really only about a third of the movie and it goes off in other directions like talking about the depiction of African Americans in popular culture and other various musings about race in America.  This is where the movie starts to lose me a little as I found it to be kind of disorganized.  James Baldwin was clearly an awesome figure and any movie that collects some of his thoughts and writings is going to be interesting of course but some of his statements probably work better when written than spoken; you really need to stop and think about some of his statements, which can make them imperfect for a movie that has to move on rather than rest with an idea.  The movie also incorporates a lot of modern images of racial strife to suggest that the struggle that Baldwin is discussing is not safely in the past which, I mean point taken but there’s still something kind of jarring about the movie putting a historical figures words to images he was not alive to see (and don’t get me started on the decision to end the movie with an aggressive Kendrick Lamar song).  The movie is probably worth seeing for anyone who wants a Baldwin 101 primer but it was a little bit disappointing to me in the end, you frankly might be better off searching for old videos of Baldwin speaking on Youtube.

*** out of five

Lights Out (2/13/2017)

I’ve been pretty outspoken in my belief that the current crop of “haunted house/things jumping out and yelling boo” horror movies are a kind of lame trend that got old a while ago.  Lights Out is neither the best nor the worst of this silly little trend but it does come on (what I hope is) the tail end of the trend and that makes it seem all the more superfluous because of it.  The story itself isn’t quite as formulaic as some entries of the haunting subgenre but its scares certainly are.  Now to be fair, like a lot of these movies there are moments that are effective, I mean jump scares usually do work even if they’re cheap.  The bigger problem I guess is that this one seems pretty thin.  The thing is only a little over eighty minutes and you can tell they were kind of struggling to fill that run time and it all leads up to an ending that’s really anti-climactic and not terribly well earned.

*** out of Five

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Home Video Round-Up: 2/7/2017

The BFG (1/26/2017)

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Roald Dahl was the author of a number of strange children’s books that not too many kids actually care that much about, however a disproportionate number of his fans seem to grow up to become film directors and as such we seem to get a whole lot of Roald Dahl adaptations that no one asked for.  The latest Dahl adaptation to bomb at the box office was made by none other than Steven Spielberg, which truly baffles me because this movie both seems unlike anything Spielberg has ever made both in style and quality.  Very early on while watching The BFG I quickly found myself saying “what the fuck is this shit?”  To call this movie an oddity would be an understatement, it exists on a whimsical level that is impenetrable and operates on a bizarre fairy tale logic that is hard to get a grasp of and its plot goes in a direction about half way through that is frankly insane.  Its protagonist is a kid with minimal distinguishing traits and her giant friend is a weird simpleton whose relationship with said protagonist is frankly creepy.  On top of all that the movie is just a big fail on a technical level.  The little girl seems completely detached from all the CGI around her and the giant is this freakish creature from the uncanny valley with weird gravity defying hair.  Steven Spielberg feels completely out of his element here as even his most childish of family films tend to be more grounded than this and if anything this gives me a newfound respect for the works of Tim Burton as this kind of thing is clearly harder than it looks.

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Little Men(1/28/2017)

I skipped this movie in theaters because it looked like another “small” movie about life in New York and movies about life in New York are something of a plague in the world of independent cinema.  This one is better than most however, mainly because it’s not about twenty-somethings with first world problems.  Instead it’s about thirty-something’s and teenagers with first world problems… but I’ll take what I can get.  The movie is about a landlord who inherits a store from his father and has to decide whether or not to raise the rent to market value, thus pricing the shopkeeper out, which is complicated by the fact that his son has befriended the shopkeeper’s son.  Not exactly the most relatable predicament in the world, but I can’t say I’ve seen a movie about that recently.  I don’t get the impression that this shopkeeper is going to be completely destitute if she’s forced to re-locate and I don’t know that the landlord is going to be to broken up about the decision a year later so… not the highest stake either.  Having made these dismissive smartass observations, I will say that the movie is pretty well executed and the fact that it’s told about 50/50 from both the parents and the kids perspective does give it a certain extra bit of interest.  The movie is pretty easy to label a “trifle” and… yeah I don’t think that’s unfair, but if you’re in the mood for a sort of low stakes drama about the dynamics of privilege it’s worth a look.

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Jim: The James Foley Story(1/29/2017)

1-29-2017JimTheJamesFoleyStory As the title would suggest, Jim: The James Foley Story looks at the life of James Foley, the photo journalist who was beheaded by ISIS militants in 2014, an incident that probably would have sparked a war if Trump had been president at the time.  Brian Oakes’ documentary is a difficult one to talk about as it basically just follows the usual talking head documentary format and while it’s pretty good at what it’s trying to do you can’t help but think there isn’t a lot of “there” there.  There’s little about Foley’s life that would surprise you as it seems pretty similar to that of most war correspondents: he as a bright young man who became dedicated to getting the truth out and then ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It’s all very tasteful and whatnot but is it a cinematic accomplishment?  Ehh, maybe not, but at the same time not every documentary needs to have some innovative gimmick so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much.

Captain Fantastic (1/31/2017)

Captain Fantastic was about the closest thing to an indie hit that we had this summer until Hell or High Water came along.  The film concerns a strange situation in which a man has chosen to raise his family out in the woods, homeschooling them and having them “rough it” out in the wild because he’s disgusted by modern American society.  That seems farfetched but the whole situation reminded me a lot of the family depicted in the 2007 documentary Surfwise, like, reminded me of it to the point that I’m surprised there hasn’t been a lawsuit.  The film does a pretty good job of giving you an idea of why such an arrangement could be tantalizing and sort of romanticizing it while also taking the cons of such an arrangement seriously.  Viggo Mortenson is solid here but I don’t know that I would have nominated him for an Academy Award.  I do like the assortment of kids they found to fill out the family though and I think the film is generally written with a degree of wit that made the movie roll along pretty effectively.  At the end of the day I don’t think the movie is terribly special but it’s certainly a very watchable little movie that mostly accomplishes what it sets out to do.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

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Under the Sun (2/2/2017)

2-2-2017UndertheSun North Korea is a country/tragedy that I seem to find endlessly fascinating and will watch pretty much any movie or documentary about.  Because of that country’s secrecy and image consciousness it’s extremely hard to film much of anything there that the government doesn’t want you to film, which is something a lot of documentarians take as a challenge.  Case in point: Vitaly Mansky Under the Sun, a documentary about a young girl entering the countries Children’s Union which Mansky agreed to make under all the government’s meticulous requirements only to then sneak all the outtakes out of the country and include in the version of the film shown abroad along with title cards annotating everything that was manipulated by the government.  As I said before, pretty much any footage taken in North Korea is of value but I’m not sure we learn much of anything about the country from this other than that they’re regressive and controlling of its image.  Honestly I’m not sure why North Korea bothered letting these guys in to film, if they wanted to make a propaganda film for internal consumption they should have just done it themselves and if they thought anyone outside of the country was going to be fooled by the film they wanted to make they were delusional.  This movie is an interesting project, but perhaps more for the story behind it than for the film itself.  If you do decide to watch it I strongly recommend doing some of the research into the backstory first because it doesn’t always explain itself well.  It kind of seems like a movie that was made to be shown at film festivals with Q&As.

A Man Called Ove (2/7/2017)

A strange thing happened this fall: a movie Swedish movie called A Man Called Ove opened up at my local arthouse and for months on end seemed to just keep playing there.  There aren’t that many arthouse screens in the city so normally the turnover at these places is really fast, especially if the movie isn’t a super buzzed about awards contender and Ove certainly didn’t seem all that buzzed about.  Critics didn’t seem to care about the movie and bloggers didn’t seem to care about it but clearly it was finding an audience.  Eventually I discovered that the movie was based on a fairly popular novel, which explained its apparent success to some extent, but beyond that the movie was apparently just a very warm and accessible movie: what Harvey Weinstein used to call a “friendly foreign movie.”  It concerns an old guy who’s extremely grumpy and angry at the world for a variety of reasons but mainly because his beloved wife recently passed but who gains a new lease on life when a new neighbor moves in next and starts to reach him through some simple empathy.  The movie is fairly well made and certainly watchable, I was about ready to give it a soft pass until I thought about it a little more and came to the conclusion that it was utter bullshit.  Ove’s dead wife is basically a manic pixie dreamwife in the film’s flashbacks (an endlessly chipper woman with no interior life who exists to bring light into the life of a male protagonist) and the neighbor is basically a manic pixie dreamfriend.  In the real world behaving like a misanthropic recluse does not attract saintly women to come into your life to bring you out of your shell, trust me I know.

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Home Video Round-Up: 1/22/2017

Florence Foster Jenkins (1/12/2017)

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The story of the real Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman from the early 20th century who achieved a certain infamy for her inept opera singing, is one of those true stories you pick up from sources like NPR or as the historical oddity anecdote that gets thrown at the end of a newscast as a sort of “news of the weird” kind of thing.  Every once in a while though someone tries to make a whole movie about this sort of thing and that’s what’s happened with Stephen Frears’ film Florence Foster Jenkins.  To the film’s credit, it mostly seems to realize that Jenkins’ story is the quirky curio that it is rather than some grand peek into the human condition and presents it accordingly.  Meryl Streep is up to her usual high standards in the title role and Hugh Grant is surprisingly effective as her husband as well.  The film is light, kind of frothy fun, not sure what else to say really.  Catch it on HBO or something on a night when you don’t have anything better to do or maybe watch it with a family member who is allergic to more challenging movies but also isn’t that into action movies or funnier comedies.

Gleason (1/13/2017)

Whoever works at the marketing department at Open Road should probably be fired because the trailer they cut for their documentary Gleason pretty actively made me not want to see their movie.  That trailer made their movie, a look at a former NFL player who was revealed to have ALS, look like this incredibly corny “triumph of the human spirit” and I had no time for that.  Fortunately the movie is a lot more dignified than the advertising would have you believe.  The film is actually a pretty intimate look at what Gleason and his wife are going through as this guy is slowly debilitated while the disease takes hold.  The film gives you a pretty good idea what the two of them are like and they are people you don’t mind being in the company of.  Occasionally we do get glimpses of his football fans rallying around him and that is a bit lame (I would have preferred a version of this about people who aren’t semi-famous) but the movie does a pretty good job of showing that while this support is meaningful it often doesn’t really change their lives and or lighten the load.

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Anthropoid (1/14/2017)

1-14-2017Anthropoid The title “Anthropoid” refers to Operation Anthropoid, an occurrence in 1942 in which two Czech agents trained by the British SOE parachuted into Prague with orders to carry out the assassination of Nazi third in command Reinhard Heydrich.  Operation Anthropoid is something of a footnote in much of the world but in the country it happened in, the former Czechoslovakia, it’s an extremely important moment and the high point of their resistance movement.  It is then probably not a surprise that the new film about the operation was largely funded by Czech money out of a desire to spread word of this event outside the country’s borders via a Hollywood looking production.  To their credit this national pride has not led to this becoming a patriotic tract which ignores the difficult nuances of the situation and the film is very willing to weigh in on the moral gray area of carrying out an operation that will likely lead to the deaths of thousands of civilian through Nazi reprisals.  However, I’m not sure that the film’s British director Sean Ellis has quite the passion for this subject matter that the producers do and a lot of the lead-up to the assassination is kind of stiff and the characters never really jump off the screen as particularly interesting.  That said, once the assassination scene does arrive the film picks up a lot and leads up to a finale that’s very well done.  I wouldn’t necessarily call the movie a must-see, but there’s enough there to make it worth a rental.

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Cameraperson (1/21/2017)

Cameraperson is a sort of video collage that documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson put together mainly using outtakes from documentaries she photographed for other filmmakers and some of her home movies all presented without voiceover and simple captions establishing the various sources.  The title card at the beginning explains that she believes this collage will serve as a sort of autobiography and I’m just not so sure that’s what I got out of it.  We certainly get a good idea of the various places that she’s been in her career and the breadth of her work as well as a vague sense that she has a family, but beyond that we are told very little about her personality and outlook.  Perhaps if she actually were the director on these movies I could see a pure career retrospective being a bit more impactful, but if all she’s doing is pointing the camera in the direction that the various directors told her to I don’t see how much that’s really going to reflect on her beyond the various kinds of jobs she took.  I suppose that could be the point; that it’s about a simple worker trying to do the most she can in her oft overlooked role, but is that really enough to make this a great piece of work?  I don’t know.  The movie is a bit more watchable than you’d maybe think given the description and there is something a bit hypnotic about it all for the first hour or so, but as we returned to various locations over and over again it all got a bit tedious.  The film has been getting some rave reviews from sources I respect, so maybe I’m just missing something, but as of now I can’t help but kind of shrug my shoulders at the whole thing.

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Jason Bourne (1/22/2017)

1-22-2017JasonBourne I don’t know that I’d say the first three Bourne films form a perfect trilogy or anything, but they were certainly solid and by the time they got to The Bourne Ultimatum the style they’d come up with had been pretty much stewed to perfection.  With Greengrass and Damon leaving well enough alone Universal went ahead and made a Bourne film with neither of them and by all accounts it didn’t go well (wouldn’t know for sure, didn’t see it) but now a few years later Greengrass and Damon are back and… the results are kind of underwhelming.  Truth be told this fourth (or fifth depending on how you’re counting) Bourne film isn’t really bad so much as it’s unneeded.  The action scenes here are all alright I guess, but nothing comes close to scenes like the car chase from the first film or the fist fight from the third film and the story is basically a whole lot of “meh.”  We never really reconnect with our hero in any interesting way and the villains are largely retreads of villains from the previous films.  It’s like Greengrass made the whole film because he thought making one Edward Snowden reference in a major motion picture would automatically make this some kind of hyper relevant and necessary film, but it really isn’t, it mostly just feels like a standard case of Hollywood trying to milk a cash cow that’s run dry.

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Home Video Round-Up: 1/10/2017

Warcraft (12/7/2016)

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It’s weird, It’s been something like seven years since Avatar came out and became the worldwide highest grossing movie of all time and yet almost nothing seems to have come along that really picks up on that movie’s technical innovations, at least nothing until Duncan Jones tried to make a big budget adaptation of the computer game series “Warcraft.”  Warcraft is certainly a movie with a vision and it is definitely interesting to watch how it tries to bring the game’s visual aesthetic to the screen.  There are a couple of effects that fall a bit short but for the most part they’re quite good and the movie’s art direction and costume design is really going all out.  However, there’s a reason that this movie was not embraced by audiences (outside of China, where it was a surprise hit): this thing is really, really, really, really, really nerdy.  Believe me, I like me some super nerdy stuff (I own all five seasons of Babylon 5 on DVD), but even I found myself rolling my eyes and wanting to give a wedgie to whoever was writing this nonsense about orcs and their magic pacts or whatever.  It’s not even so much that it’s nerdy so much as it does nothing to adapt the material for a wide audience or even ease them into it.  It’s like if when they made the very first X-Men movie in 2000 they had just come right out with the yellow spandex and had the characters and they were going through some crazy storyline like “House of M” or “Age of Apocalypse” right off the bat.  The characters are unengaging, the plot is uninteresting, the action scenes are competent but don’t really stand out.  The whole thing is just this big messy thing with clear potential buried somewhere but ultimately just a clear failure.

** out of Five

The Seventh Fire (12/16/2016)

It’s been said that there are a dearth of stories about African Americans, and that’s true, but there are other groups in this country that are also under-represented and that’s probably the truest of Native Americans who are pretty much non-existent on the screen outside of period pieces.  Truth be told though, this is hardly just a Hollywood problem, the media in general doesn’t seem terribly interested in Native American tribes, and in part that might be because much of their population is concentrated in reservations that are far from the major population centers and they just aren’t integrated into most peoples’ day to day lives the way that African Americans and Latinos are.  All this is to say, I think there’s a very big opening for documentaries like The Seventh Fire, which takes a look at life on the White Earth Indian Reservation and specifically looks at a man named Rob Brown who was involved in drug running and a restless 17 year old named Kevin Fineday who may soon be going down the same path.  In many ways the film seems to suggest that American Indians are suffering a lot of the same problems that the rural people on Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and less fictional shows are also suffering.  From a filmmaking perspective there’s not a lot to report on here, the movie kind of feels like it was destined to be broadcast on PBS’s Frontline or Independent Lens… in fact I’d be shocked if that didn’t already happen.

*** out of Five

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Morris From America (12/17/2016)

12-17-2016MorrisFromAmerica Morris From America is one of those movies that doesn’t have much of anything wrong with it at all but whose ambitions are so modest that you can’t really help but to not give much of a shit.  Well maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  The movie has something of a unique premise for a coming of age movie in that it’s about a 14 year old African American kid who’s living with his single father, who is an ex-pat living in Germany.  Not really a set up you see every day and Craig Robinson is pretty charming as the father.  There are some funny moments along the way and a couple of interesting interactions, but it’s shot without a even the slightest bit of visual flair and the arc the main character experiences is ultimately pretty standard for this kind of movie.  The whole thing feels less like a movie and more like a pilot for a sitcom, a sitcom I wouldn’t mind watching for what it’s worth, but it’s certainly not great cinema.

*** out of Five

Holy Hell (12/18/2016)

I’ve never really understood the mentality that would lead someone to join a cult, and perhaps because of this I’ve always been interested in stories about them to a certain extent.  This documentary was made by a guy named Will Allen, who was a former member of the Buddhafield cult.  While in that cult Allen worked as their official videographer and when he left them he managed to take a bunch of footage with him which he eventually used to make this documentary about the cult’s rise and fall.  Buddhafield was a weird little movement that appeared to have only about a hundred members at its peak.  It didn’t end in a mass suicide or anything but it certainly showed all the usual tendencies of a cult with an abusive leader and it’s not often that we’re given this level of access to one of these organizations.  Their beliefs and philosophies make almost no sense and I am once again left kind of baffled that people would go in on something like this.  Allen is ultimately not the world’s greatest documentarian but he does give the film something of a personal touch that it wouldn’t have had if he’d simply handed the footage over to an objective third party.

***1/2 out of Five

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Krisha (1/10/2017)

1-10-2017Krisha Do you have that one family member who seems to never be able to get their act together and no matter how many times you try to give them a chance they always find a way to ruin every family gathering?  Well I don’t.  In fact I don’t have a whole lot of experience with large multi-generational gatherings in general (my Thanksgivings in general have rarely involved more than six or seven total guests) and as such I’m not necessarily in the best position to relate to the super-low-budget indie Krisha even if I can see that it’s a pretty well put together little movie made in the family home of 26 year old debut filmmaker Trey Edward Shults.   The film actually stars Shults’ aunt Krisha Fairchild in the title role of a 60 something year old woman with mental problems attending her family’s Thanksgiving gathering.  Shults films the whole encounter in a fairly intimate manner but you can tell he’s not just randomly pointing a DV camera at his subjects and does have some legit filmmaking skill.  The film is effective at showing this woman’s breakdown and her family’s discomfort, but to what end?  At the end of the day this feels more like a movie at the stronger end of the “festival only” league of filmmaking than like something that should really be competing with general release films to me, but maybe people who can relate to it more closely will feel differently.

**1/2 out of Five