Home Video Round-Up: 2/18/2017

Zero Days(2/8/2017)

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

**** out of Five

Under the Shadow (2/9/2017)

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

***1/2 out of Five

Tower (2/14/2017)

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

***1/2 out of Five

Deepwater Horizon (2/12/2017)

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

**1/2 out of Five

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

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

*** out of five

Lights Out (2/13/2017)

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

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 2/7/2017

The BFG (1/26/2017)

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

Little Men(1/28/2017)

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

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

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

Captain Fantastic (1/31/2017)

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

Under the Sun (2/2/2017)

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

A Man Called Ove (2/7/2017)

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

Home Video Round-Up: 1/22/2017

Florence Foster Jenkins (1/12/2017)

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

Gleason (1/13/2017)

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

Anthropoid (1/14/2017)

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

Cameraperson (1/21/2017)

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

Jason Bourne (1/22/2017)

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

Home Video Round-Up: 1/10/2017

Warcraft (12/7/2016)

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

** out of Five

The Seventh Fire (12/16/2016)

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

*** out of Five

Morris From America (12/17/2016)

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

*** out of Five

Holy Hell (12/18/2016)

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

***1/2 out of Five

Krisha (1/10/2017)

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

**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 11/5/2016 – Docs on Netflix Edition

Amanda Knox (10/26/2016)

I’m usually not one to follow tabloidy “trials of the century” and often don’t know some of these cases exist until they’re over and people suddenly start freaking out about their verdicts.  The Amanda Knox case was no exception to this so I don’t know that I had much more than a cursory knowledge of this story before watching the new Neflix produced documentary about the subject, and frankly I don’t know that I have much more than a precursory knowledge of it after watching it either.  This documentary feels very… short.  It has the unfortunate timing of coming out hot on the heels of a string of highly detailed long-form true crime documentaries like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and of course O.J. Simpson: Made in America, which all make this 90 minute account of the case, trial, and media frenzy around this case feel rather rushed and incomplete by comparison.  The number of talking heads here seems rather limited, there were clearly principals involved in the case who refused to cooperate with the documentary and the film completely fails to illustrate how the prosecutors came to believe their rather strange theories of the crime.  I feel like there’s another side to all this and while one cop who believes in Knox’s guilt is interviewed extensively he doesn’t do a great job of making his case, which says to me that he’s either the wrong person to be making the case or that the film simply isn’t letting him.  All through the movie though I kept being frustrated when you want some of the interview subjects they do have comment on certain aspects of the case and they just don’t.  Directors Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn seem to have put a lot effort into this movie’s look (they’ve clearly studied their Errol Morris, whose film Tabloid is a much smarter and more nuanced exploration of a media circus caused by British tabloids) but I wish they had simply provided a more detailed account as they leave a whole lot of interesting questions on the table.

** out of Five

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (10/28/2016)

If you watch enough documentaries you are probably very familiar with the “old person kiss-ass profile” documentary format in which a filmmaker follows an old famous person around with a camera for a week or two and intercuts this footage with discussions of their past successes.  This new documentary about the groundbreaking showrunner Norman Lear is this format at its worse at is seems to spend well over two thirds of its runtime trying to get to the heart of Norman Lear’s soul instead of focusing on the thing everyone cares about: his work.  Lear himself is a pretty simple person and followed a pretty standard course in life of being a middle class intellectual with an interest in using his medium of choice to elevate the discourse.  This is not something that needs a whole lot of exploration.  What could use a closer look are Lear’s shows and if I were making this movie I would spend most of the runtime analyzing each of his shows and focusing in on their production and impact.  There is a little bit of that here and it’s clearly the film’s strongest segment but not nearly enough.  Hell, I don’t think they even take the time to bring up “Sanford & Son” despite the fact that it’s one of the greatest successes in television and had a star that almost certainly generated some good stories and I don’t think there was a word about “One Day at a Time” even though it ran nine seasons and not a word is said about his string of failures that debuted later in the 70s.  It’s a movie that seems to think that the fact that this man is still able to speak clearly at 93 is more noteworthy than the shows that actually built his legacy.

** out of Five

Into the Inferno (10/30/2016)

Into the Inferno would be the second documentary that Werner Herzog put out this year and between it and Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World you get the two sides of Herzog the documentarian: Herzog the adventurer and Herzog the philosopher.  This film sees Herzog returning to violence of the natural world as a theme by looking at volcanos around the world and certain volcanologists who’ve dedicated their lives to studying them.  The film lacks some of the focus of his last nature doc, Encounters at the End of the World, in the way it jumps all over the world and at times sidelines Herzog himself and his nutty musings to its detriment but there are definitely highlights.  A segment late in the film where Herzog travels to North Korea to examine the role Mount Paektu plays in that country’s propaganda is clearly a standout segment and I kind of wouldn’t be shocked if the whole rest of the movie had been a façade for Herzog to find his way into the DPRK because there’s certainly a lot of “ecstatic truth” to be found in that place.  This certainly isn’t Herzog’s best work but it’s also far from his worst, it lacks some of that mischievousness you crave from Herzog but probably makes up for it with some good nature photography.

*** out of Five

13th (11/1/2016)

Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a documentary that was filmed in secret and seemingly came out of nowhere to quickly become the year’s most talked about documentary when it showed up on Netflix shortly after its festival premiere.  The film, which is told largely through archival footage and talking head interviews, attempts to recount a history of how American society vilified African Americans and built a culture of mass incarceration out of direct malice towards African Americans.  The film does not have very much information in it that will be unfamiliar to any reasonably educated audience, but what it does do is assemble this information into a sort of manifesto for a certain worldview.  That worldview at time seems a tad conspiracy minded but there is a certain degree of evidence to back it up.  The film is less an argument about the facts and more about perspective.  Was the crackdown on crime in the 70s and 80s truly a malicious attempt rooted entirely in racism or was it more of an inevitable reaction to a genuine crime wave?  The answer is probably not as black and white as the documentary argues; this is a complex situation and while racism is definitely a factor there are almost certainly a multitude of other factors and the movie also isn’t terribly great at offering alternatives.  Not everyone making up the prison population is a patsy who’s been thrown into jail for having an ounce of marijuana and I’m not exactly sure what DuVernay proposes we do when someone is guilty of a violent offense other than imprisoning them.  Still this is about as well constructed and shot as something like this is ever going to be, so it’s definitely worth a look to see this perspective and judge for yourself.

***1/2 out of Five

The Witness (11/5/2016)

It’s usually pretty arbitrary which murders end up being picked up by the media and which ones don’t, all too often it mostly comes down to how pretty the victim is or if the perpetrator does something particularly strange or sensational.  Then of course there’s the Kitty Genovese murder, which rose to prominence not because of the murder itself but because it was allegedly witnessed by a number of people who did nothing to help.  This documentary revisits that case through the lens of the victim’s brother, William Genovese, as he seeks out answers some fifty years later while also examining his sister’s life and the consequences of her death.  I’m not entirely sure I believe that William is as personally determined as he’s portrayed in this film or if this has been exaggerated to provide a convenient framing story, but the exploration this inspires is pretty well done.  I’d first heard about this case via a trashy hour long made-for-cable documentary that was shown to us in a high school social studies class and it’s interesting how much more detail can be gleaned from the case than the usual anecdotal citation it usually garners.   Occasionally the film does lean a bit too hard on gimmickry, I was not a fan of a stunt towards the end for example, but for the most part it’s a respectful and insightful exploration.

**** out of five

Home Video Round-Up: 10/25/2016 (Halloween Edition)

Hush (10/5/2016)

Going into Hush I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  On one hand it was directed by Mike Flanagan, who made the fairly solid horror flick Oculus, on the other hand the movie went “straight to Netflix” and that’s definitely a bad sign.  Netflix may have some great original programing when it comes to TV shows and documentaries, but outside of Beasts of No Nations it’s been little more than standard VOD platform when it comes to regular movies.  Between this, Green Room, and Don’t Breathe it’s kind of becoming clear that the whole siege/home invasion sub-genre just doesn’t really do it for me, but I think I might have actually preferred this one out of the three in its simplicity.  There are no convoluted plans to make wholesale massacres look like self-defense cases here, and the film doesn’t try to make the disabled person defending her home into the villain either.  Instead it’s this bare bones thriller about a deaf woman trying to survive the night when, for reasons that are unexplained, a crazy person with a crossbow and a big knife tries to break into her home with murderous intent.  There’s not a whole lot more to it than that and little to distinguish it from other similar movies, so it’s not likely to go down as one for the ages, but lead actress Kate Siegel does an admirable job of getting the audience involved and the few unexpected tricks the movie does try generally work.

*** out of Five

The Shallows (10/7/2016)

I’ve never really truly thought of Jaws as being a horror movie, in part because it’s mostly set in bright summer days and in part because I don’t really consider it all that “scary” per se.  Still, it’s certainly created a whole sub-genre of B-movies about shark attacks, the latest of which is a movie called The Shallows, about a woman stranded on a small bit of land off the shore in Mexico with a great white shark circling her location and waiting excitedly to devour her and any poor soul that tries to come to her rescue.  One of the amazing things about Jaws is that it works even though it has a profoundly ridiculous premise, which is a testament to Steven Spielberg’s profound skill as a filmmaker.  The Shallows is directed by a guy named Jaume Collet-Serra and needless to say he’s no Steven Spielberg, but he does make a stronger case for his stupid premise than most people making shitty shark movies do.  The behavior of the shark in this movie is beyond ridiculous.  The extent to which it seems intent on eating this one woman makes very little sense and the fact that he spends so much time just hanging around her rock is not very believable.  The movie’s visual effects are also pretty inconsistent with some of them being enjoyable to too many of them just being pretty crappy.  The film is pretty well shot overall though and it has moments that definitely work, but the film as a whole feels pretty insubstantial and as a pure work of tension decent but hardly special.

**1/2 out of Five

Darling (10/10/2016)

Darling is a movie that has had a lot of commercial constraints, in no small part because it’s a psychological horror movie called “Darling,” but also because it takes a stylistic approach that is decidedly not designed for the masses.  The film is clearly a homage to Roman Polanski’s most paranoid works, particularly Repulsion, but also has shades of Pi and The Innkeepers.  The film depicts the mental collapse of a young woman after she’s hired to be the caretaker of an old brownstone in New York.  The film employs an unconventional filming style: it’s in black and white and employs a number of quick momentary cuts that reflect her mindset’s deterioration.  If I have a problem with the movie it’s that the main character’s decent into madness seems really fast.  It feels like she’s a full-fledged loon almost from the minute that she enters into the house and we never really get that arc of her losing her mind over time as either the ghost or her own personal demon takes over.  Also I can only support the movie’s crazy cutting to a certain extent, it’s interesting and effective, but at a certain point you do need to admit that some of these edits are basically just jump scares in the grand scheme of things.  I don’t think this movie is terribly deep or original in the grand scheme of things, but for the most part it does work and it’s certainly a bold film to make in this particular genre.

***1/2 out of Five

The Neon Demon (10/13/2016)

Nicholas Winding Refn is a filmmaker who is… interesting.  He reminds me a lot of Brian De Palma in that both of them are bold stylists almost to a fault and also in that both filmmakers’ tastes run towards the seedy and both filmmakers are very willing to fill their movies with unbelievably reprehensible characters and rather stilted dialog.  That’s certainly the case with his latest provocation The Neon Demon, which is about a young starlet who travels out to Hollywood to become a model only to find that the models that are already there see her as a threat and proceed to wildly over-react.  As one would expect from a Winding Refn movie at this point, the film is really well shot and has atmosphere in droves but its story is just nutty.  Clearly the film is supposed to be making some sort of point about the male gaze and about the obsession for fame and beauty but its message about these issues is muddled and ultimately feels more like a pretense for Winding Refn’s aesthetic obsessions.  The film is more original than Winding Refn’s overrated Drive and slightly more coherent than Only God Forgives but it would be fair to say that it’s very much of a piece with both, and I really would like to see Winding Refn move on and make something a little less unhinged like Bronson again.

**1/2 out of Five

The Conjuring 2 (10/16/2016)

The original The Conjuring was to my eyes incredibly over-rated.  When it came out people were going nuts over it but I was a bit bearish on it in part because it just didn’t seem to be adding much of anything to the very familiar “haunted house” format that has been dominating contemporary horror.  I feel like the world is coming around on this because that film’s sequel was not seen as much of an event so much as just another movie where ghosts jump out at you and go “boo!”  Indeed, this is basically a complete retread of the first movie which was itself a retread of a pretty common formula.  It’s a series of jump scares and haunting clichés one after the other with nothing making it stand out aside from the fact that it pretends to be based on a true story with more conviction than most.  That having been said, my expectations were in the right place this time around and in some ways I actually enjoyed this more than the first movie because of it.  I guess it’s because I do see an end in sight to this goofy trend in jump scare movies and if they’re going to keep making them for another couple of years I’d rather they get someone like James Wan to do them because he does do it better than most and that does kind of make the Conjuring movies the king of a dumb fucking hill.

*** out of five

The Invitation (10/25/2016)

Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is a horror movie of the “is this really a horror movie or is the protagonist being paranoid” variety and focuses on a bougie L.A. dinner party that may or may not be hosted by people with malevolent intent.  Our protagonist is a guy mourning the loss of a son who is attending a gathering hosted by his ex-wife, which is hard enough, but is made even more complicated by the fact that this ex-wife has started indulging in some freaky New Age Self-Help philosophy and everything about the way the night has gone just feels kind of weird… or maybe it isn’t, maybe he’s just making up paranoid nonsense out of a misplaced suspicion of his ex and her new friends.  The movie is pretty cagey about what exactly it’s going to be, certainly signaling that it will be some sort of thriller through its tone and occasionally its score, but perhaps that’s all a red herring meant to place you in the head of someone who’s delusional.  Personally, I’m in kind of a strange place with the film as I get what they were going for but I still don’t exactly know that I was down with it.  It spends a lot of time just being a movie about yuppies doing as yuppies do and minus the tonal trickery that is not something that would impress me, also when it finally does show its hand I don’t necessarily think it becomes a particularly interesting example of the kind of movie it becomes.  All that having been said I kind or really liked the reveal at the very very end and that kind of pushed the movie just into the “liked it” column for me.

*** out of Five