Home Video Round-Up: 9/21/2018

American Animals (9/13/2018)

This film gained a certain degree of infamy earlier this year because it made some sort of deal with MoviePass so they’d hawk it on their app and they actually have their logo at the front of it.  It’s kind of an odd film to try to launch a career on as it does have a bit of an experimental hook in that it doesn’t call itself a documentary and plays out like a regular feature film for something like two thirds to seventy five percent of its running time but it also includes documentary style talking head interviews with the real people involved in the story it was based on.  That’s a potentially intriguing format but I really don’t know why anyone involved thought this story was of a group of college students coming up with a half-baked heist scheme that goes nowhere was deserving of this much fuss.  There might be something in their about suburban angst and boredom to be found but it doesn’t do much to highlight the relevance of why these idiots did this rather senseless crime.  There also just isn’t a whole lot of material to be found here in general, it feels like it has more the makings of a “Dateline” segment than a feature film and given that the documentary elements feel kind of tacked on as padding and as a means of trying to fool people into thinking it’s a more interesting movie than it really is.

** out of Five

Crime+Punishment (9/16/2018)

Policing has become an increasingly hot topic as of late and into that debate comes Crime+Punishment, a documentary which takes a hard look at the practices of the NYPD.  Specifically the film is about a group of twelve New York police officers who are suing the department because they say that they’ve been illegally ordered to fill arrest quotas and have had their careers curtailed in retaliation for their refusal to participate in this practice.  I was expecting the film to be a bit more focused on the quota system as a concept and laying out a case for it along the lines of Ava DuVernay’s 13th but the film ended up being a bit more personal and verite in nature.  The film follows some of the police in question as they explain the situation they were placed in as well as the Serpico angst of being viewed as an outsider within the force.  The film does not include any talking head interviews or “experts” in the movie but it does fill in some of the gaps of that by also following a private investigator who has been working on the case for a while and has collected a lot of stories about how this quota system has effected the communities at hand.  The movie probably could have done a little more to lay out some of the evidence the cops at hand had assembled and I’m not sure that a test case involving someone wrongfully imprisoned at Rikers is as relevant as the filmmakers think it is but for the most part this is pretty impressive both as a work of issue advocacy and as a portrait of the struggles of going up against the system.

**** out of Five

Upgrade (9/18/2018)

Upgrade was a movie produced by Blumhouse Productions which goes against the studio’s usual MO by not really being a horror movie so much as dark science fiction actions film… or maybe it is a horror movie.  It certainly has the violence you’d associate with a horror movie at times and there’s a sort of “Black Mirrror” darkness to the science fiction that one might call horror in a certain way.  Personally I’d be more inclined to simply think of it as a nasty little B-movie about a guy who gets augmented by a computer system that gives him special powers but also seems to increasingly control him.  The scenes where the computer “takes over” and allows him to fight with superhuman senses are really well executed and give the handful of action scenes in the film a unique feel.  I also admired its rendering of certain aspects of the future and the film’s ending, but there are downsides to being what is essentially a B-movie.  In particular I feel like the film kind of cheaped out when it came to casting.  I wouldn’t say there are too many actors here that are “bad” exactly, but the film probably would have benefited from some more familiar faces to lend a little more gravitas to the film and add a little flavor.

***1/2 out of Five

Active Measures (9/20/2018)

Given the absolutely depressing chaos that recent politics has been I can say pretty conclusively that the last thing I generally want to do is see even more of Donald fucking Trump when I’m watching movies.  That having been said, if you like me only have it in you to watch one documentary involving the recent presidency this is the one to watch.  Active Measures is not particularly concerned with Trump’s policies, attitudes, or rhetoric, instead it keeps its focus squarely on his connections to Russia and makes the case from top to bottom that he was essentially planted by Putin as a sort of Manchurian Candidate.  That is of course a seemingly farfetched claim on its surface but the film does a very good job of both establishing how Russia has done this in smaller countries and also about how far back Trump’s ties to Putin and to the Russian mafia goes.  This is all presented in a fairly impersonal “just the facts” style with a lot of archive footage and interviews with a  lot of credible people including Hilary Clinton, John McCain, and the former president of Georgia as well as a murderer’s row of journalists and former intelligence figures.  There’s not a lot here that wasn’t already readily available in various articles and news stories but the film manages to lay these little clues and hints out into an argument that fits together pretty well.  At the end of the day the film is better at finding a whole lot of smoke than it is at conclusively proving a fire, and I’m sure that Trump’s base will just dismiss it as “fake news” but for those of us looking for some explanation of the last two years of madness this gives an answer.

**** out of Five

Ocean’s Eight (9/21/2018)

I’m not sure how widespread the whole “gender flipped reboot” thing is going to end up being, but as franchises to do that to go the Ocean’s series was probably one of the better options, in no small part because it’s a franchise a lot of people like but which isn’t, like, a generation defining touchstone like Ghostbusters.  Additionally the film makes the smart move of existing within the continuity of the original films, making its protagonist the sister of Danny Ocean.  It’s actually been a pretty long time since I last watched Ocean’s Eleven, it’s a movie I consider to be fun and stylish but it isn’t a new classic or anything in my mind and I’m not the biggest fan of either of its sequels.  Given that I would put Ocean’s 8 squarely in the number two slot in a ranking of the series for whatever that’s worth.  The movie does assemble a pretty strong cast, one that maybe doesn’t have quite the star power of the original films but does have fewer weak links.  I also think The Met was well chosen as a location for this gang to be robbing and has that same aura of reality and sophistication that the Las Vegas casinos gave to the original film.  On the downside there are aspects of the heist this time around that I don’t think come together perfectly in the way you want movies like this to, and I’m also not sure it ever quite as the same sense of identity that that first movie had with its overt Rat Pack revivalism.  All in all it’s pretty efficient entertainment, which is more or less what the original film was, but like the original film there are limits to its importance.

*** out of Five

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Home Video Round-Up: 9/12/2018

Lean on Pete (8/25/2018)

 

In the spring and early summer we saw the release of two horse adjacent indie movies: The Rider and Lean on Pete.  Neither of these movies made a whole lot of money but critically the “winner” was probably The Rider, which sort of overshadowed Lean on Pete.  I’m not sure I agree with that consensus or disagree with it, both of those movies just kind of exist on that same “interesting but not remarkable” level that stands out more in the early summer when we’re kind of desperate for counter-programing.  Lean on Pete is the third major film from Andrew Haigh, who broke out with the movie Weekend and explored even more interesting territory with 45 YearsLean on Pete is pretty clearly my least favorite of his three movies but it’s not without its charms.  The film focuses on a teenager who finds himself hanging out near a rural racetrack and forms a bond with a horse named Lean on Pete.  That one sentence description makes this sound like a sentimental family movie but it’s more of a hard edged social realist movie than that, something closer to Kes than Secretariat.  The movie also doesn’t necessarily follow the structure and formula that you expect it to and becomes something of a Gus Van Sant style portrait of a young man on the fringes of Pacific Northwestern society.  This is kind of a hard movie to lay a final verdict on.  It goes in different directions than you think but not so different that I would call it some kind of groundbreaking effort.  It’s a movie that’s certainly good but not particularly memorable.

*** out of Five

The China Hustle (8/27/2018)

This Alex Gibney produced documentary has the rather unenviable task of trying to explain an aspect of the financial system that would not intuitively make for thrilling viewing.  In essence what the film is looking at are Chinese companies that are being traded on the U.S. stock exchanges which are not nearly as large as they claim to be on their reporting and in some cases may not be legitimate companies at all.  For example, one case study in the film is of a paper company that was supposedly very successful but upon investigation on the ground was revealed to basically be one dilapidated factory with puddles of water all over the floor and hardly a single truck going in or out on a given day.  The film follows a group of American investigators who make their money by finding scam Chinese stocks like this, shorting them, and then presenting evidence of their fraudulence in order to drive the price down significantly.  In addition to following these people the movie goes into some of the reasons why this happens, including the fact that it’s apparently not illegal in China to lie to foreign companies, and why this could be a pretty big problem.  Trading in stocks that turn out to be garbage in the real world was a huge part of what caused the 2008 mortgage crisis, and while this little practice probably isn’t going to be a disaster on that scale there does seem to be the makings of a bubble if too many of these Chinese stocks turn into toxic assets, and if that happens this will seem like a very prescient documentary.

*** out of Five

Disobedience (9/1/2018)

Disobedience is not a bad film at all but it doesn’t feel like a particularly notable one.  The film concerns a love triangle of sorts involving a woman played by Rachel Weisz, a woman played by Rachel McAdams she had a lesbian affair with as a teenager, and that woman’s husband, who she married because of the expectations of her ultra-orthodox Jewish family.  That could be the setup for something a bit naughtier and more subversive but this movie takes itself very seriously, almost to the point of being kind of dull.  Weisz and McAdams both give very good performances and director Sebastián Lelio (in his English language debut) manages to give the whole movie a nicely tasteful treatment that seems to capture the sub-culture at the film’s center accurately but I also never particularly cared about the proceedings.  Had this been made around 2005, when simply having a story about homosexuals in a relationship in a studio financed film was still novel, I think this would have felt a lot more groundbreaking and interesting.  Let’s make no mistake, 2018 isn’t exactly a paradise for gay representation, but I still kind of need a little more from a movie like this to really make it stand out.

*** out of Five

Minding the Gap (9/5/2018)

Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap is one of those documentaries that was clearly meant to be one thing when it started filming and over a long time of shooting morphed into something bigger and better.  The film could perhaps be viewed as something of a Hoop Dreams story (the film is, perhaps non-coincidentally produced by that film’s director, Steve James) in that it began as a look at a trio of young amateur athletes, in this case skateboarders, but becomes more of a look at lower class contemporary American life.  Of course that comparison only goes so far.  For one thing the film only runs about 93 minutes and covers a much shorter length of time than Steve James’ masterpiece and it also has the distinction of having been directed by someone who is more or less one of its subjects: a skateboarder who started out filming his friends in Rockford Illinois as they act like the usual rambunctious skate kids but continued to follow them as they entered the adult world somewhat with varying degrees of success.  As the film goes on it begins to center around one issue in particular which I’m not going to reveal at this time but it is tackled in a very serious and impactful way.  I wouldn’t call it a perfect documentary as Liu is not always able to document his own side of the story with complete objectivity and some of the subjects here are more interesting than others but it’s still a very impressive piece of work.

**** out of Five  

Tully (9/12/2018)

Screenwriting careers are not always easy to keep going, especially ones where you’re coming up with original ideas and speaking with an original voice.  As such I wasn’t always sure if we’d be seeing much more from Diablo Cody after her big Oscar winning breakthrough with Juno, but she seems to have stuck it out pretty effectively.  Her latest film (and I think it’s fairly safe to say she’s the bigger creative force on it than director Jason Reitman) is Tully, a film about a middle aged woman whose just given birth to her third child and feels like she is beyond stressed.  To cope with the pressure her brother-in-law hires a night nurse for her whose job is to watch the child at night and wake her up when it needs feeding.  The film largely concerns her relationship with the night nurse and how these women and their outlooks contrast with one another.  The film’s depictions of the frustrations of parenthood certainly ring true and the cast certainly brings these moments to life and paint quality character portraits.  I had a couple of issues with the film as I watched it but the film actually managed to clear a lot of them up by the time it ended.  Not quite a movie that fills me with excitement but a strong piece of work to be sure.

***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 8/22/2018

Thoroughbreds (7/16/2018)

Thoroughbreds is a movie that really seemed to come and go when it was released in theaters earlier this year.  The film, a story about two teenage girls who plot to murder one of the girls’ stepdad, seemed to sit in this NetherRealm where it wasn’t ever going to really get a mainstream audience but also wasn’t really fare for the art houses either.  Seeing it though I can see that there are some fairly admirable qualities to it.  First and foremost I quite liked the performances by both of the teen girls.  The film features another interesting appearance by The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke is particularly noteworthy as someone who’s a diagnosed sociopath.  Both performances do sort of fit in the tradition of the “goth girl” of the type that Chloë Grace Moretz or Christina Ricci might have played in the past, but they do make them interesting just the same.  The basic story is certainly something reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, but that was a slightly more sympathetic look at a pair of younger teenagers who sort of lose track of reality to violent ends.  The characters in this movie are older and very much aware of the difference between right and wrong and the movie treats it with a sort of sterile meticulousness.  You can tell that the guy who directed this (a first timer) really, really, really likes David Fincher movies.  Nothing wrong with that really and I’d like to see what he does next.  As for this one, well, I like it but I kind of get why it’s been viewed with a sort of critical and commercial antipathy.  As a movie I rented for a night it was satisfying but I’m not sure it would have been overly rewarding if I had made a special trip to a theater to see it.

*** out of Five

The Bleeding Edge (7/27/2018)

Kirby Dick might now be as big a name as Michael Moore but there are few other well-known documentarians who are as dedicated to making films that are openly activist in nature.  Dick’s documentaries as of late have focused on taking down anti-gay politicians and on exposing sexual abuse in places like the Catholic Church, the military, and college campuses.  His most recent film, The Bleeding Edge, focuses on unethical practices in the medical device industry.  That is perhaps a less loaded topic than some of his other projects but perhaps a valuable one given that it’s shining a light on something that is not already a major topic of conversation in progressive circles.  Dick’s argument is pretty straightforward: that the medical device industry doesn’t get the same public scrutiny that big pharma rightly gets and that they are dangerously under-regulated as a result.  To illustrate this Dick goes to his usual format of finding and profiling a handful of people with tragic experiences in the topic at hand and interspersing these stories with context provided by talking head experts.  It’s not a very flashy or innovative style, but it works well enough to deliver the message.  Some of these stories are, well they’re kind of gross, they describe malfunctions by devices that sound like rather horrible ideas in the first place and they also outline how these things manage to get FDA approval through a loophole that should have been closed a long time ago.  Probably not going to be a wildly popular doc, but offers some food for thought.

*** out of Five

Borg Vs. McEnroe (8/1/2018)

When Borg Vs. McEnroe came out internationally last year and domestically this year it ran into a rather unenviable commercial position of being too much of a conventional sports movie for the arthouse crowd and too “not entirely in the English language” for the jock crowd.  The film looks at the rivalry (which didn’t seem to be all that personal) between Swedish superstar Bjorn Borg and the then controversial newcomer John McEnroe and uses their legendary finals match at the 1980 Wimbledon tournament as its framing story.  The film uses the two tennis players as a contrast in styles with Borg being a highly disciplined “iceman” and McEnroe being the “fiery” upstart that he was.  It probably would have been a lot easier to make McEnroe the hero of the film given his underdog status and his arc of rising to maturity by the end and to have made Borg something of an Ivan Drago style villain what with his somewhat robot-like training regimes, but instead the film seeks to see how Borg ticks and show how the two maybe weren’t as different as it would appear.  It tries to do that anyway but I’m not sure the movie probes quite as deeply as it wants to.  It does a good job of laying out Borg’s childhood and how he was once just as wild as McEnroe before trainers made him into what he became, but in many ways that narrative runs out of time and rests too much of his behavior on a single moment. Meanwhile McEnroe seems to get a lot less exploration, which seems odd given how much of a two hander this is supposed to be.  There are a couple of flashbacks to his past as a gifted rich kid but that never quite adds up to what he was like as an adult.  Aside from that there just seems to be something a bit stilted about the scenes here.  Director Janus Metz Pedersen certainly films the tennis sequences quite well and he gets decent performances out of Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf (which was an inspired bit of stunt casting) but the two halves never really congeal and the movie is never really able to escape its sports movie trappings and is also never able to simply embrace them either.

*** out of Five

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (8/15/2018)

“Come Inside My Mind” is a slightly ominous title for a movie about a guy who famously ended his life by suicide.  That might not be the most enjoyable mind to come into, but I think the idea was more to suggest that this would be an examination of his mind as quick witted comic rather than an exploration of the demons that led to his untimely demise.  Still, this is being made not very long after Williams’ passing and as such a lot of interviewers are still pretty glum when they talk about him, which at times makes the film almost play out as a sort of wake, which I’m not sure was entirely intentional.  A lot of the film consists of stock footage of Robin Williams being Robin Williams both onstage and in movies and on talk shows.  Often these clips are shown in montages that run a rather long time and sometimes even seem like more of a focus than the various interview subjects.  Of course given how much of an amusing person Williams is that’s not exactly unwelcome.  The film also doesn’t seem terribly interested in looking at some of the more controversial aspects of Williams’ career like the joke stealing accusations from his early stand-up comedy days.  So the movie doesn’t delve too deep into Williams’ personality, isn’t willing to be warts and all, and doesn’t exactly conjure up the right atmosphere to be funny so I’m not exactly sure it’s a movie with a purpose, but some of the interview tidbits (especially the ones about the final days) are of some interest and it’s not an unenjoyable watch.

**1/2 out of Five

You Were Never Really Here (8/22/2018)

This Lynne Ramsay film which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival has been accused by some of being little more than a legitimized Liam Neeson thriller, which I don’t think is exactly fair.  In very broad strokes, sure, it is ultimately about a guy on a mission to save the child using his “very particular skills” but it isn’t really an action movie and it is more interested in the psychology of someone who would do that than the Taken movies are.  I think the movie I’d be more inclined to compare it to is Drive, which was also about a mercenary with a screw loose trying to find redemption through saving a female, though this one leans a little more towards the gritty and less towards the 80s synth soundtrack.  Coming from me that comparison is not entirely a compliment as I liked Drive but generally found it to be a bit over-rated back in 2011 and this movie strips away from some of the elements I liked about it.  Ultimately this is a movie where the execution is significantly better than the substance.  It looks great, Joaquin Phoenix is good in it, it generally sells itself quite well but the conspiracy/kidnapping plot is ludicrous and I don’t think it delves as deeply into the psyche of its main character as it tries to make you think it does.  Worth watching for the craftsmanship but I don’t think it’s going to stay with me.

*** out of Five

Documentary Round-Up (Summer Counter-Programming Edition)

This summer some of the most successful counter-programming efforts have been by documnetaries rather than scripted independent films. Normally i’m not one to see docs in theaters but with MoviePass now a factor (while it lasts) it’s become easier to justify seeing these movies before they hit DVD and streaming. Here are my capsule reviews of the summer’s biggest non-fiction hits.

RBG (7/8/2017)

The new Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG fits pretty clearly into the trend of “profile documentaries” like Mavis!, Joan Rivers: Piece of Work, or Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.  There are seemingly dozens of documentaries like this each year which follow a pretty rigid formula: follow an octogenarian around for a week and then intercut that footage of their still exciting life with talking head interviews which illuminate what makes them so important.  As such I was a little surprised when one of these profile docs managed to break out and become something of a sleeper hit at the box office.  For the most part this is exactly the documentary you think it is.  It probably is a slight cut above some of the other profile docs out there if only because Betsy West and Julie Cohen have a knack for cutting to funny excerpts from their interviews at smart moments and because they do a reasonably good job of summarizing the various legal cases into brief segments.  That said, the movie isn’t breaking much new ground or digging overly deep into Ginsburg’s career.  The interviews they do with Ginsburg herself appear to be rather surface level and aren’t very revealing, the film seems to gather a lot more information from interviews with her various friends and colleagues.  The film is also oddly disinterested in talking about how she interacted with other members of the court outside of her odd friendship with Antonin Scalia.  Keeping you documentary focused is one thing but it seems downright strange that the movie only spends about a minute mentioning Sandra Day O’Connor and even less time on Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

I am not really the target audience for RBG as I’m something of a Supreme Court junkie (or at least I was before that hobby turned into a rather depressing exercise recently) and I already knew most of the facts that are being imparted here.  Rather, this seems to be directed at people who primarily know Ginsberg from the “Notorious R.B.G.” meme, which is a meme that always seemed to bug me for reasons I was never quite able to place my finger on until late in the film when it begins talking about her role as “the great dissenter” and cuts to interviews by people talking about how “awesome” her various rulings in descent are.  In short it feels like these people are making an icon out of Ginsburg less for what she’s able to accomplish on the Roberts Court and more for how woke she sounds while failing on the Roberts Court.  It’s like a perfect symbol for everything wrong with modern online activism where sounding righteous is valued more than actual political wins.  I deeply wish that Ginsberg’s fans had spent a little more time providing Ginsberg with likeminded justices than making her look “badass” but I digress.  If you don’t know much about Ginsberg’s career this is probably as good a place to start as any but for me personally something a bit more interested in legal reasoning than pure iconography would have hit the spot a little better.

*** out of Five

Whitney (7/13/2017)

I’m not exactly sure what made me want to see Whitney outside of the fact that I’ve been on something of a documentary kick as of late and can see things for free with MoviePass.  I wouldn’t call myself much of a Whitney Huston fan and I’m not even overly familiar with most of her music.  Her peak years were a bit before my time and outside of a few key singles she’s been off my radar.  That said I have always been somewhat fascinated by her downfall.  We’ve seen a lot of artists fall to drug use, but unlike the Janis Joplins and Amy Winehouses of the world Houston never really cultivated the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” image, rather she always seemed like she wanted to be this classy “diva” singer but stories of her being a straight up junkie kept emerging.  Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary about the singer doesn’t exactly break ground with the form but it does answer a lot the unanswered questions and does so in an unflinching but dignified way.  The film is mostly told in a chronological narrative fashion through interviews with surviving family members, most of whom tell the story in guarded but honest fashion and through some pretty effective investigation director Kevin MacDonald does seem to get to the bottom of things.  The one thing that the documentary is never really able to do is draw a connection between Huston’s life story and her music, though I’m not exactly sure that those connections are there to be found given that she wasn’t really a songwriter and cultivated an image that was distinct from her reality.  The film has drawn comparisons to the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, personally I think this one is a little stronger if only because Huston strikes me as a more substantial artist whose career lasted longer.

***1/2 out of Five

Three Identical Strangers (7/17/2017)

There are some news stories that stand the test of time and almost become legend and some that don’t. For instance, there was a documentary a couple of years ago called The Witness that sought to explore a famous murder case that was quoted over and over again over the years and had becomes something of a case study in group psychology.  The new documentary Three Identical Strangers does something similar in that it takes a human interest story that was once headline news and takes a deep dive into it and what it has to say about humanity.  That story is less famous than the one talked about in The Witness (I’d never heard of it) but it was apparently a big deal when it happened in the 70s and involved two people who encountered each other more or less by chance and realized they were long lost twins and once this became a news story they discovered that they were actually an entire set of triplets that had been separated at birth and adopted by separate people.  This would not seem to be a story that could easily be told visually but the movie does have some news footage from their time in the spotlight to work with as well as home videos and makes reasonably dignified use of reenactments to tell the story of how the three first met and a couple of other key moments.  Mostly though, the film uses talking head footage and you get the impression that the guy who made it is quite the Errol Morris fan given the movie’s form and tone.  I don’t want to give away too much about the film’s second half, but there is a bit of a twist that is worth keeping secret and what follows is a pretty interesting mediation on nature vs. nurture and medical ethics.

**** out of Five

Won’t You Be My Neighbor (7/22/2017)

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a show I have some hazy memories of watching when I was a very small kid but it’s not necessarily something I remember as a childhood favorite.  Frankly I kind of feel in retrospect that it was a show my parents wanted me to like more than I actually did and compared to the flashy and entertaining cartoons of the era it was a bit dull.  However, this documentary about the life of Fred Rogers has gained massive acclaim, and its trailer seems to be promising that it would reframe Rogers as a true revolutionary on the air.  As an argument for Rogers’ show I found the film a bit lacking.  There’s a lot of talk about Rogers’ philosophy of childhood education but to me this philosophy just seemed like some rather run of the mill appeals to self-esteem, and while there’s nothing wrong with that exactly I’m not exactly sure it’s “revolutionary.”  The film is also interested in highlighting certain moments where Rogers’ show intersected with current events throughout the late 20th century, but it’s oddly light on the video of these reactions.  For example, there’s a moment where the film spends a few minutes setting up the Challenger disaster as a moment in history where Rogers’ would step up and inspire a nation, but then the movie only shows a couple of lines of what he had to say before moving on.  I would argue that a bigger part of his success was that he could act as something of a surrogate father for kids in an era where fathers were particularly distant and cold.  If I was a kid in the sixties and had some Don Draper type as a father I can see why having nice Mr. Rogers come in and act as a caring father figure in my mornings would be nice.  By the time I was personally in the target market Rogers had aged into more of a grandfather figure, which is probably part of why the appeal was a bit lost on me.  As for the documentary, its surprising box office success has largely been viewed as a response to the rise of Donald Trump given that Rogers’ kindly accepting wholesomeness is the exact opposite of Trumps’ mean-spirited assholery.  I can sort of see that, but Rogers’ appeal as a progressive hero is probably a bit limited outside of this particular moment and there are probably other heroes I’d prefer to put on a pedestal before him.

**1/2 out of Five

McQueen (8/3/2017)

The new documentary McQueen is not about Steve McQueen (either of them), rather it’s about a fashion designer named Alexander McQueen who turned out to be a rather tortured soul.  Needless to say McQueen is not a figure I was overly familiar with outside of the occasional Nicki Minaj shout out, but it turns out he was a fairly popular English designer during the 90s and 2000s who had his own line but also did work for other houses. He appears to be primarily famous less for his actual clothing that someone would actually wear and more for his extremely outlandish of runway shows, which he turned into these themed spectacles that intentionally set out to shock and disturb.  It was exactly the kind of stuff that Sasha Baron Cohen was making fun of with his Bruno character.   I can tell why the film would focus so heavily on these runway shows as they are pretty visually interesting even for someone like myself who is rather hostile to the very concept of haute couture, but I’m not sure they really get to the heart of McQueen’s work and they only gave a rather superficial insight into what made him tick as a person.  While the film is on the long end for a documentary I still don’t think the film ever quite got to the bottom of what made McQueen tick as a person or to fully explain what led him to kill himself at the age of forty.  I think part of the problem is that almost all the interview subjects here are McQueen’s friends and colleagues and I would have liked to hear from someone with a more critical take on his work and a more objective take on his life.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 7/11/2018

The Cloverfield Paradox (2/28/2017)

I’ve been a big supporter of the whole “Cloverfield” brand going back to the original film ten years ago, which is part of why I was so disappointed when it was announced during the Super Bowl that the latest Cloverfield would be coming straight to Netflix, a move that signaled pretty clearly to me that the studio had no faith in it whatsoever.  I still held out some hope for the thing despite the toxic reviews but the movie they came out with is pretty hopeless.  Basically the idea here seemed to be to make the movie Sunshine but to do every single element of it a whole lot worse and to even make the same misguided ending and do it worse as well.  The characters who populate the space station in this thing are complete idiots who clearly shouldn’t be manning urgent space missions and the basic science fiction ideas here are muddled and uninteresting.  The Cloverfield elements also make absolutely no sense.  We’re apparently supposed to believe that the happenings on this space station caused the monster from the first film to come into existence, which doesn’t exactly track given that that first movie was very specifically set in 2008 and showed no signs of the energy crisis that’s said to force the creation of that space station.  This thing is a total whiff and I question why they were willing to tarnish the Cloverfield brand with it.

*1/2 out of Five

Andre the Giant (4/13/2017)

I’ve never had anything but the most snobbish of disdain for professional wrestling but I have always kind of been curious about Andre the Giant.  There seems to have been this mystique around him that pervades all of pop culture.  Shepard Fairey would make stickers about him, House M.D. would accept him as his higher power in rehab, his performance in The Princess Bride is widely discussed, it seems like to a certain generation he was a mystical god among men.  The Kayfabe of wrestling made him into this legendary figure and much of his life was mired in myth.  I was kind of hoping that this documentary would be able to set some of the mythmaking aside and get to the man, and while it certainly tries to do that but it’s a bit hampered by the available materials.  There seems to be little in the way of archival footage of interviews where Andre really opens up and most of the talking head interviews from people who knew him seem to fall back into old habits of describing him at his most superhuman.  Oddly enough the material I found the most compelling are the things about the history of the WWF and how Andre the Giant acted as a transitionary figure between the era of regional promotions and nationally televised ones.  All in all the documentary is an interesting enough watch but I’m not sure it quite lived up the hype that’s been surrounding it because at the end of the day I don’t think it does a whole lot that a 30 for 30 couldn’t have done.

**1/2 out of Five

Red Sparrow (6/7/2017)

Jennifer Lawrence is one of the few actors in Hollywood that can really be called an A-lister at this point and can basically write her own ticket, so one wonders what it is about the movie Red Sparrow that appealed to her.  The movie is certainly not respectable enough to have ever been considered awards fare, it’s also a bit too out there to have ever been any kind of sure thing at the box office, and given that it’s about a Russian you can’t exactly say it’s a part that uniquely plays into her skillset.  It may have been she took the part out of loyalty to Francis Lawrence (no relation), who directed the last three of the Hunger Games movies, but Lawrence is nowhere near as talented as Lawrence’s other directorial BFFs like David O. Russell and Darren Aronofsky and yet this project is not quite the right fit for him either.  The film is set in the world of modern Russian espionage and suggests that basically nothing has changed in that world since the Cold War and that the KGB is still hatching elaborate schemes right out of “The Americans” to this day and finds blindly loyal agents to assist.  Specifically this it’s about a woman who’s recruited to be a “honeypot” agent who fucks sources into giving information and goes to a sort of whoring academy to learn how to do this.  That is a wild premise straight out of the exploitation movie playbook and yet this movie plays the idea completely straight to minimal effect.  They should have gotten someone with a much more unique sensibility to direct this thing, Paul Verhoeven maybe, to really give this thing the wildness it seems to call for.  As a straightforward spy thriller it’s hardly unwatchable but it certainly isn’t memorable and it probably wasn’t worth paying a huge star $20 million plus to make.

** out of Five

The Tale (6/14/2017)

Historically I’ve avoided reviewing HBO original movies on this site as I have generally felt like TV movies are kind of their own separate thing.  I probably will still go by that when it comes to movies that HBO produces from the jump but Jennifer Fox’s The Tale was more of a festival acquisition than an original production and given that I’ve been letting Netflix’s roster of movies into Home Video Round-Up I don’t see much of a valid reason to treat HBO’s films differently.  That said, medium does seem to matter with this movie as I couldn’t help but detect something of a televisual aesthetic to The Tale and I can’t help but wonder if that would be less noticeable if I had seen it for the first time in the theater.  Fox has a background in documentary rather than scripted features and her camerawork seems to have something of a matter-of-fact quality to it that is perhaps carried over from that work despite the film’s meta aspects.  This was perhaps intentional given that the film is more or less a true story, her own true story, but the way this carries over to the performances is also a problem.  I could of course be doing the film something of a disservice by focusing so much on its construction when the focus here is meant to be on the story it’s telling about Fox’s experience with sexual abuse as a child and her realization late in life of how inappropriate that was and about the ways she had sort of blocked out the trauma.  Still if her intention were simply to get her story out she maybe would have benefited from leaning into her documentary background even more and creating a sort of hybrid documentary/drama.  As movies about the trauma of creepy age inappropriate abusive relationships go I probably preferred the movie The Diary of a Teenage Girl from a couple of years ago, which tells much the same story with a bit more flair.

*** out of Five

Game Night (7/11/2017)

In its trailers Game Night certainly had the look of something that would be rather forgettable but after its release I did end up hearing a surprising number of positive things about it.  Though it doesn’t entirely signal it, Game Night is meant to be something of a parody of the style and work of David Fincher (particularly early pre-Zodiac David Fincher) and twisty thrillers in general.  Its plot has a great deal in common with Fincher’s 1997 film The Game, it’s got some Panic Room style long shots, and one character probably not coincidentally brings up the idea of fight clubs a lot.  As such this has a lot more in the way of production value than most comedies and at times actually functions as a reasonably competent action movie despite actually being a spoof.  I wouldn’t say that the movie is wildly hilarious, it has some good gags that stand out but for the most part this feels more like a fun ride than a laugh riot and the sum of its parts is maybe better than the whole.  Still this is a surprisingly enjoyable film as these things go and it definitely worth a look if it shows up on Netflix or HBO or something.

***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 2/20/2018

Faces Places (2/10/2018)

Agnès Varda and the increasingly reclusive Jean-Luc Godard are among the last leaders of the legendary French New Wave still standing and it’s admirable that both still seem to be making movies.  Varda’s latest is a documentary of sorts, albeit not a traditional verite one, in which she is more or less the subject.  In the film Varda and a modern artist who goes by the name JR(who shares co-director credit) travel into the French countryside meeting people and taking pictures that are pasted onto surfaces as posters in interesting ways, which seems to be JR’s medium of choice.  These poster projects are neat and have a certain element of Banksy style street art but if the movie only existed to depict this little art project it would be a rather slight work. Instead I think this is primarily a movie about Varda herself and what light is shed by her friendship and collaboration with this younger artist who in many ways seems to have styled himself after the mannerisms of the generation of artists she came from.  All of this was almost certainly intentional and I suspect that a lot of the framing here was staged, which is part of why I hesitate to even call it a documentary really, but hanging out with these people is quite pleasant and the film ends up being a very fascinating watch.

**** out of Five

Nocturama (2/10/2018)

This controversial French thriller begins with a group of young people carrying out a series of terrorist attacks and then meeting up in a department store after hours to regroup and wait out the law.  The terrorists in question are young, multi-racial, and do not appear to be driven by Islamic extremism. They appear to be some sort of anarchist collective or environmentalists or something but the film goes out of its way to make unclear what their motives are for these actions or what they thought they would accomplish by carrying them out.  This was clearly a deliberate choice but I’m not sure what it was supposed to accomplish as it becomes incredibly difficult to understand any of these people without some insight into their motivations and without that this stops being any kind of useful character study and resigns itself to being a slick procedural.  Director Bertrand Bonello shoots the film with clear efficiency and there is excitement to seeing these people carry out their plans, in part because it isn’t exactly clear what they’re up to at first and there’s also a certain interest in seeing them hang out afterward though the absence of motivation does start to hurt the film in those segments as well.  The film walks the walk of a great movie and it is worth watching but its script’s decision to avoid explanation ultimately lets it down.

***1/2 out of Five

Loving Vincent (2/15/2018)

Loving Vincent is a Polish/English co-production about the life of Vincent Van Gogh told through a unique animation style.  The film was constructed by filming actors in front of green screens and then animating over them, but rather than using traditional cartoon style animation the film animates using oil painting in Van Gogh’s signature style by hand.  I repeat, this is an animated movie done in oil paint.  That technical/visual accomplishment is amazing and makes the movie worth seeing, unfortunately the movie itself doesn’t really live up to its style.   The film takes something of a Citizen Kane approach of investigating a life through flashbacks as someone investigates him after his death which isn’t a terrible idea but the movie doesn’t do much to really invest the audience in the investigator or any of the side characters being interviewed.  The actors her also feel a bit “central casting” and I feel like the movie would have been elevated if it had the budget to bring in a couple of more noteworthy actors.  Were it not for the animation style this would be little more than the type of movie they show to tour groups at museums, but again, that animation style is really interesting so I can’t mind too much.

***1/2 out of Five

Unrest (2/19/2018)

When you watch a lot of documentaries you come to learn about a lot of issues and movements you otherwise would have been oblivious to.  One such issue was the way the medical establishment treats sufferers of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  This disease is controversial within the medical establishment, with many suggesting that it is likely psychosomatic.  The film is clearly opposed to such skepticism in no small part because it was directed by someone who suffers from the ailment.  That director, Jennifer Brea, was struck down and bedridden by what is believed to be ME/CFS and actually made most of the movie via interviews over skype and with footage taken as she begins reacting to the ailment.  The film looks a bit at the history of ME/CFS in medicine and profiles a handful of other sufferers around the world as well as the run-up to a large scale day of protest that apparently happened (I don’t think it got much press).  Part of the argument here is that the affliction is simply so neglected by the scientific establishment that there’s really not enough research to know one way or another what is at the root of the disease and that a lot more funding needs to go into the field.  That having been said, Brea has obvious reason to be biased in this and I did get the feeling throughout that we were only getting one side of this debate and that there must be more to the scientific consensus than what we’re being shown.

*** out of Five

Last Man in Aleppo (2/20/2018)

I’ve seen a decent number of documentaries set in war zones, and I’ve got to say they aren’t always as exciting as you might expect.  The people in them tend to be too busy trying to survive to really take on much of a character arc and when the action pops off it’s rarely as compelling as you’d thing, in part because for some reason the camera people tend not to be very careful with their framings while explosions are going off around them and bullets are whizzing past.  This documentary has some of those same problems as it looks at what life is like in Aleppo during the ongoing civil war (spoiler: it’s not a very nice place).  The film is, more specifically about a group called “The White Helmets” who are civilians who have volunteered to act as first responders saving civilians caught in bombing runs.  Last year’s Oscar winning Documentary short subject The White Helmets gave a pretty good overview of this group for those interested, this documentary (which is not affiliated with the other one) was made by locals and gives an expanded look at this group and paints more of a picture of their day to day lives.  It’s hard to fault the movie too much, it is being made by people who are risking their lives after all and it is certainly of some worth but I didn’t personally connect with it too much.

**1/2 out of Five