Home Video Round-Up: 11/28/2018 (New on Netflix Edition)

22 July (10/19/2018)

 

When I heard that Paul Greengrass was making a movie out of the 22 July Norwegian terrorist attacks I was excited but nervous.  Greengrass has managed to make some really powerful movies out of real life tragedy in the past like United 93 and Bloody Sunday but there were still any number of ways this could have been politically off or just in bad taste.  What I didn’t expect was for the film to be so mundane just as a piece of filmmaking.  Greengrass’ previous movies about national tragedies were constructed to more or less be feature length re-enactments of the events in question, that’s sort of what the first third of this movie is like as it follows the shooter carrying out his plan, but it lacks the same visceral feel of his other films.  Captain Phillips worked in large part because of the two personalities at its center and because there was a certain thrill in all the procedure of dealing with the situation.  United 93 lacked the personalities but still worked as a thriller in large part because you had a long time to sit with the passengers as they went through their ordeal and also because there would be incredible excitement once they started to fight back.  22 July has neither of these advantages; none of the victims have the gravitas of a Tom Hanks and the killer is cold and not even a little bit relatable like Barkhad Abdi was, and unlike United 93 there’s really not a lot of tension in the shooting spree as the victims are basically defenseless.  The film would then seem to be more like Bloody Sunday, but that movie gained a lot of power because it was about a very controversial moment in history and by recreating it the film was trying to get to the bottom of what happened and why.  There isn’t a similar mystery around the 22 July attack, it’s quite clear who did what and he was abundantly clear about why.

Greengrass seems to have known his usual approach wasn’t going to work this time so he adjusted into what is in many ways a more conventional movie that focused as much on the aftermath as on the event.  That section focuses on the trial of the shooter and is told from the perspective of the shooter’s highly conflicted lawyer and from a survivor of the shooting who is doing his best to overcome his injuries.  These scenes really do not play to Paul Greengrass’ strengths as a filmmaker and they’re also hampered a bit by the fact that everyone is being played by unknown Norwegian actors speaking English.  The sections with the lawyer are generally lacking in procedural detail, the film doesn’t really explain the points of Norwegian law that are at play (and some of them are indeed quite confusing), we only get the most cursory glance of the far-right world that inspired the killer and the lawyer isn’t really developed enough to get much of a deep dive into his conflict about taking this role in the trial.  The material with the surviving kid is frankly kind of cheesy.  I generally hate movies that are trying to be “inspirational” and a lot of this stuff feel more like the makings of a “movie of the week” than a hard hitting Paul Greengrass docudrama.  There are some interesting moments here and there.  The story is certainly topical and moments of the shooting sequence work better than others, but while watching it I couldn’t help but think “a documentary about this would be a lot better” and that’s never what you want to think when you’re watching a movie based on true events.

**1/2 out of Five

Shirkers (11/16/2018)

This personal documentary focuses in on a woman named Sandi Tan and discusses her youth in Singapore leading up to an attempt she made to make a French New Wave inspired movie with some friends and colleagues which was never finished because one of her friends named Georges Cardona stole all the footage and ran off without explanation.   From there the movie becomes something of a mystery/investigation type thing with Tan trying to figure out what happened to Cardona and why he took the footage.  Tan certainly seems like an interesting person who seems to have done some creative stuff in her youth and what we do end up seeing of the movie she was making does look kind of interesting.  I also like the tone she chose for this documentary, in part because she seems to keep things in perspective and tell her story in a fun and lighthearted way rather than trying to make it out to be some super serious injustice.

***1/2 out of Five

Hold the Dark (11/15/2018)

Jeremy Saulnier has emerged as one of the more promising young directors in recent years with Blue Ruin and Green Room (the “Color + four letter word that starts with R” films), two movies that I didn’t like as much as others but which were certainly made with a lot of skill.  With his third movie though I think the guy might have kind of struck out.  Hold the Dark, a film set in Alaska and following Jeffery Wright as a wolf expert who finds himself in the middle of some rather odd and rather violent hijinx seemingly caused by some kind of Native American wolf demon, certainly has some of the strong visual appeal that his previous films had but it’s story does not have the same simplicity.  Honestly I’m not exactly sure what is going on in this movie for a lot of its runtime.  There are certainly individual scenes in it that work and it has an interesting cast and it looks like a good movie, but the script is an utter mess that feels like it never really came together they way its makers intended.

** out of Five

Filmworker (11/24/2018)

As someone who has a habit of looking up all things related to Stanley Kubrick the name Leon Vitali is not entirely new to me.  Vitali was Kubrick’s assistant and right-hand man during the latter part of his career, he acted in Barry Lyndon and continued on in behind the scenes worth throughout the shooting of The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut and after Kubrick’s death Vitali sort of became his spokesman and the go to expert whenever Kubrick’s movies were being restored or re-released.  That’s kind of the part of his career I was most familiar with given that he was often interviewed whenever Kubrick’s movies came out on DVD or Blu-ray etc.  I must say I was a bit surprised that anyone else cared enough about the guy to make a somewhat high profile documentary about him.  Of course the big attraction here is to learn about Stanley Kubrick and his work habits through Vitali’s anecdotes and to get some anecdotes about the fights to maintain the integrity of his films on home video.  There are some interesting stories to be sure, but I think I got a better portrait of Kubrick’s work habits from the documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (which Vitali was interviewed for).  All told this thing would be great as a DVD/Blu-ray extra but as a stand alone film that got a theatrical release it doesn’t seem so essential.

*** out of Five

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs(11/28/2018)

Quentin Tarantino has said that a director needs to make three westerns to officially be considered a “western director,” which means that the Coen Brothers have surprisingly beaten him to the punch in that regard at least if you’re willing to count their 2007 triumph No Country for Old Men as a sort of modern western.  That movie represented the genre at its absolute bleakest and while their adaptation of True Grit is a lot lighter than that it’s still a pretty reverent take on the genre.  With their new western anthology film for Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, they seem to be letting loose a bit and having a little fun with the genre and bring more of their parodic sensibilities to the table.  This is most evident right out of the gate with the film’s first segment, which is a sort of hyper-violent riff on westerns of the Roy Rogers variety and the second segment feels like of like a Spaghetti western but with a particularly morbid little joke of an ending.  In fact almost all of these stories end with a bit of ironic gallows humor and some of them are quite dark.  Individually I’d say I enjoyed all of them but I’m not sure that they collectively add up to anything particularly profound.  There are very few authors who can make their short stories collections feel as important and vital as their novels and the same is probably true of filmmakers and anthology films like this.  I view this thing as being a side project rather than a core entrant in their filmography, but as side projects go it’s really fun and well made.

**** out of Five

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Home Video Round-Up: 10/27/2018 (Halloween Edition)

Unsane (10/1/2018)

In the mid-2000s Steven Soderbergh came up with a scheme to make small films, usually about people with unusual occupations, and shoot them on early digital video inbetween his bigger films with celebrities.  Among the films shot this way were Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience and this experiment probably eventually led to his surprise hit Magic Mike.  It would seem that Soderbergh has now found a shooting medium even more “indie” than the “red” camera he was using back then: iPhones, and the first film he has opted to make using those for cameras is his psychological thriller Unsane about a woman who is involuntarily committed to a psychological hospital after visiting a psychologist in order to talk about the lingering trauma she’s experienced after having escaped from a stalker.  There’s a lot going on in Unsane: there’s the “is she insane or isn’t she” paranoia, there’s the lingering fear of her former stalker, and there’s the question of how these mental institutions are run and whether they should have so much power over people.  Of the three strains I think the expose of mental institutions is probably the weakest.  I’m not sure how seriously Soderbergh wants the movie to be taken as some sort of political statement and given all the strange goings on I don’t know that I’m inclined to view it as much of one, but the other elements do yield some returns.  I don’t want to give away too much about the reveals in the film’s third act but they do mostly work and while I wouldn’t call it the most thrilling movie in the world it does justify its existence fairly well.  I’m not sure that it’s “filmed on iPhone” nature was necessary, and it is trying to look a lot more like a digital film than something like Tangerine was, but it mostly makes sense in this movie.

*** out of Five

Insidious: The Last Key (10/6/2018)

In this era of lame horror movies that string together jump scares I have always felt that the Insidious films were a bit of a cut above the other lame jump scare haunting movies in part because they had a somewhat interesting mythology behind them.  There was kind of a long (by cheap horror movie standards) three year break between the third film and this fourth installment and that was probably a mistake because in the wait between the two I feel like I’ve sort of lost the plot a bit.  I know the ghosts come from an alternate dimension called “the further” but some of the details about the horror logic have slipped away a bit.  Despite the word “last” in the title this is hardly meant to be the end of the line for this franchise, in fact it’s the second installment to technically be a prequel.  It’s set between Insidious: Chapter 3 and the original Insidious but also has flashbacks to the youth of Lin Shaye’s Elise Ranier (who has become the breakout character from the series).  The film ends by finally lining up these prequel installments with the original two movies, but by now the memory of those original films have become a bit hazy.  I’m sure that if these were movies I cared more about those callbacks and Easter eggs would have more impact, but I don’t, they were movies I moderately enjoyed seven years ago and moved on from.  But I’m not going to entirely blame myself for this film’s lack of impact because the filmmakers have quite intentionally slowed the pace of the series down a lot in order to do two prequels that feel like insubstantial and somewhat redundant side-stories.  Lin Shaye does remain a pleasant screen presence and the character elements with her do elevate this a little, but as a horror movie this feels as cheap and jump-scare dependent as anything.

** out of Five

The Endless (10/8/2018)

Earlier this month I made a point of watching an earlier film from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead called Resolution because I heard some people were theorizing that their new film The Endless was something of a secret sequel to that movie and I can confirm that the rumors were true, the story connections are there and they’re overt, but they are tangential enough that you don’t need to have seen the earlier film to enjoy or understand the later one (which is good because Resolution isn’t exactly a popular and widely seen film).  That said, as sequels go this is a bit of an unusual one because it actually behaves and operates in much different ways than the original.  The film concerns a pair of brothers who once escaped from a UFO cult environment who find out that this cult is still in existence and they begin to wonder if their memories of it may not have been as negative as they seemed to think and go back to investigate.  This film feels less like a horror movie than Resolution did, though that movie also fit into the horror genre in somewhat unconventional ways, and it also seems a bit less interested in metatextual readings and more interested in exploring the sci-fi/fantasy implications of the world that Benson and Moorhead have created while still having a bit of the old menace beneath the surface.  It’s also pretty clear that these filmmakers have grown a lot in their skill behind the camera; they still make some peculiar decisions here but the film has noticeably higher production values than its predecessor and doesn’t have that feeling of being a precocious indie project.  It’s not going to rock the cinematic landscape but it is an interesting and refreshingly unpredictable little movie than ends up being a lot larger in its ambitions than what you expect.

***1/2 out of Five

The First Purge (10/18/2018)

I’m still not entirely sure what I think about these Purge movies.  I was kind of starting to be won over when I watched the last one, in part because the current political climate was making me a lot more receptive to a movie about the fear of a society going completely mad and doing something incredibly stupid and barbaric.  This prequel tries to lean even further into that political overtone and frames the Purge as largely being an elaborate fraud that was carried out in order to cull the lower classes of people in order to free up resources, which is a bit odd given that even today America hardly has a welfare state or even social safety net.  The big problem with this is the first film in the series, which is a big round hole that they keep trying to stick square pegs into.  That movie established in no uncertain terms that the purges do in fact work and that they made for a crime free world with a 1% unemployment rate, which is ridiculous but it is cannon. These later sequels have been doing everything they can to ignore why this society thinks they are a good idea.  Take this installment for example, throughout it the “New Founding Fathers” are watching it and hoping that there will be more and more violence in order to “prove” that the initiative is a success even though it would seem that monitoring the crime rates during the following year would do more to prove or disprove their crazy theory than how many people are killed the first night.  Overall the film’s pretentions of political relevance are kind of silly, these movies do have an eye for rather loaded imagery but they’re all in service of a very dumb metaphor and this one seems to take itself a little more seriously than the previous movies to its detriment (the Kendrick Lamar song in the credits is completely unearned).  There is however still some B-movie fun to be had here, the violence is pretty well rendered and the characters are generally a little more likeable this time around.

*** out of Five

Ghost Stories (10/27/2018)

Earlier this year I heard vague rumblings that this small UK horror movies was a knockout and its poster boasts that it is the “best British horror movie for years!”  Yeah, no.  The film follows a guy who makes a career out of debunking fraud psychics and mediums, a path he was inspired to go down by another academic from the 70s who did more or less the same.  Early on he finds and meets that academic, now in his old age, and the academic tells him that he no longer holds the same skeptic worldview and challenges him to investigate three purported hauntings that he had never been able to decipher, “creepy” reenactments of these paranormal cases ensue.  Not a terrible setup but there are inherent challenges to making horror movies into a series of flashbacks and the film never really overcomes this.  Even if it did I’m not overly impressed by any of the three vignettes presented, none of them felt overly creative and none of them felt overly scary and none of them tied in too well with the theme of skepticism.  From there the film presents a Black Mirrorish twist ending which is at least a little more interesting than what proceeded but doesn’t really make up for it.  The movie then ends with “The Monster Mash” of all things playing over the credits, a choice that would seem to suggest that the movie is a lot more fun and campy than it was.  I’m really not sure what the filmmakers were going for with this thing, it just seems like a big misfire and waste of some decent performances.

** out of Five

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

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