Home Video Round-Up: 2/20/2018

Faces Places (2/10/2018)

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

**** out of Five

Nocturama (2/10/2018)

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

***1/2 out of Five

Loving Vincent (2/15/2018)

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

***1/2 out of Five

Unrest (2/19/2018)

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

*** out of Five

Last Man in Aleppo (2/20/2018)

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

**1/2 out of Five

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Home Video Round-Up: 2/9/2018

Columbus (1/2/2018)

When Columbus came out in theaters I was pretty skeptical.  A film directed by a video essayist in which two people talk about architecture in Columbus, Indiana? Snore.  As it turns out the movie isn’t really all that much about architecture, which is really almost a McGuffin and more just a character study of a young woman who is a bit aimless despite clearly being quite smart and a guy in his thirties who’s in Columbus because his father is dying.  With the “man and woman have intellectual discussions” set up I was perhaps expecting something along the lines of a Before Sunrise but as I watched I realized that Lost in Translation was the much closer reference given that the relationship is platonic-ish and shared between people of different ages who are both kind of isolated in different ways. The film has a sort of quiet dignity to it but it also kind of never really “goes anywhere” ultimately.  The film’s first time director, who goes by the name “Kogonada,” clearly has a style he’s working on and I’d like to see how it develops but his debut never really rocked my world.

*** out of Five

Brigsby Bear (2/2/2018)

Brigsby Bear is a movie with an unusual title and an unusual concept.  In essence it’s kind of like “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” in that it’s about someone being re-integrated into society after spending a long time isolated with a cult of sorts but it’s not as much of a comedy or at least not as broadly comedic.  Instead the movie has a certain upbeatness in the way everyone seems to rally around this weird guy to try and make him feel welcomed.  To me the film’s “up with people” worldview kind of seemed like bullshit.  This guy just shows up and acts like a total weirdo and yet people just flock to help him out even though he does little to earn their affection and the notion that large crowds would show up to watch his recreation of his terrible looking fake TV show really seems like pure fantasy.

** out of Five

One of Us (2/3/2018)

This Netflix documentary takes a look at three apostates from the world of ultra-orthodox Hassidic Judaism and how they struggle between two worlds after leaving.  The first of these three is a guy who abandoned his wife and two kids (he was pressured into marriage at 18) to go to California, the second is a guy who struggles with addiction, and the third and most compelling is a woman whose husband was abusive and is forced to fight her former community in order to maintain some custody and get away from her abuser.  While that third story is obviously the best one it’s also the one the filmmakers had the least access to because the woman in question (understandably) wanted to maintain some anonymity.  The other two stories are more interesting but in some ways feel like they could be have been just as easily showcased as NPR stories or something.  The whole film is ultimately somewhat interesting but not exactly essential.

**1/2 out of Five

After the Storm (2/8/2018)

Hirokazu Kore-eda finally won me over last year with his slice of life drama “Our Little Sister” and I had wanted to catch his follow-up when it was in theaters, but it only really played for about a week and I was traveling at the time so I missed it.  Having finally caught up with it I do wish I had seen it in a theater but also think it was a slight step down from his last film if only because the material at its center seems a bit more familiar.  The film is about a divorced dad with a gambling problem who wants to see his son more but can never really seem to get his act together enough to really make it work.  The film never really tries to downplay the guy’s shortcomings but also makes it hard to really be against him either.  Kore-eda’s usual touch is present here and manages to make these characters feel real as usual, but this divorce scenario feels a bit more mundane than the “swapped at birth” scenario from Like Father, Like Son and the scenario with the sisters from his last movie.  Still, it’s a very well made little movie and a worthwhile entrant into this director’s body of work.

**** out of Five

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2/9/2018)

This horror film set at a catholic boarding school actually premiered in genre festivals way back in 2015 and was picked up by A24, but then its release got pushed back and pushed back until it finally got dumped in a day-and-date release in spite of having some clear defenders.  I’d thought that this was a case of a studio not knowing what they had on their hands but now that I’ve seen it I kind of get why they didn’t have much confidence in it.  The film is kind of hard to follow in the way it shifts around between characters and sometimes fails to introduce new protagonists before getting into their stories.  On top of that the film is made in a somewhat shoddy manner with many scenes being rather dark, and not in a cool moody way so much as a way that just looks poorly lit.  The film clearly wants to be something along the lines of The House of the Devil or The Innkeepers in its indie-horror slow burn kind of way but it mostly just seems lacking in payoff more than anything.

** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 1/14/2018

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (1/1/2018)

Rumble was a surprisingly high profile documentary which sought to examine the contributions of Native Americans in the development of rock and roll.  If the film’s aim was to prove that the Indian influence was central to the genre I can’t say it was overly convincing.  It’s best argument comes fairly early on when it looks at the Indian populations that were in the south which intermixed with the African American population and may have helped influence early roots music and blues.  There’s something to that argument, but most of the rest of the documentary consists of highlighting the careers of a couple of important artists like Link Wray who were indeed important rock artists but whose heritage doesn’t strike me as being overly central to their music and the mere fact that just about every major Native American in rock can seemingly be chronicled in one movie kind of works against the movie’s thesis.  In theory you could probably make a compelling argument that just about any ethnic group has a claim to rock and roll if you cherry pick people from the history of the form and the fact that a certain percentage of its most famous participants have happened to be Indians shouldn’t be that much of a shocker.  That having been said, if you view this less as an argumentative essay and more as simply a collection of interesting little Behind the Musics it works a lot better.  It’s got a very strong collection of talking heads and some of these stories are pretty genuinely interesting in and of themselves.

*** out of Five

Logan Lucky(1/6/2018)

I’ve never really been the world’s biggest Steven Soderbergh fan.  The dude has made some great movies but I don’t really get why he still manages to draw as much praise as he does when he makes mediocrities like Side Effects and Haywire.  Similarly I was pretty surprised that the movie that caused him to come out of his (admittedly probably doomed) retirement was this rather fluffy riff on his “Oceans” movies.  Those Oceans movies were successful firstly because they were well staged elaborate heist movies and secondly because they reveled in this extreme Rat Pack style Hollywood glitz.  Logan Lucky promised to be the opposite of that: an elaborate heist movie about poor West Virginia “rednecks” and it does more or less deliver on what it promises… but why would you want that?  Let’s face it, Channing Tatum and Adam Driver are no George Clooney and Brad Pitt as far as star power and given that that Oceans formula was already running out of steam I don’t know that this was enough to jump start it.  There’s enough entertainment here to make this worth streaming or something on a lazy Saturday but let’s hold Soderbergh to a slightly stronger standard than this.

*** out of Five

LA 92 (1/7/2018)

This is the second L.A. riots documentary I’ve seen this year, although I think it actually came out first and I think most people would have seen it before Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992, which is the more straightforward of the two and the one more interested in providing standard context.  This documentary has no talking heads, no narration, and minimal title cards; it’s instead edited together entirely out of news reports and home video footage from the era.  Together this footage does put together a pretty clear narrative and gives a pretty good portrait of how the riot occurred and how it affected various people.  There really isn’t a whole lot to say about it, if that description sounds interesting to you you’ll mostly get what you’re promised.  I’m not sure I would have been as interested in it if I had been old enough to have watched all this stuff on the news back in 1992 but with a lot of it being relatively new to me it certainly felt like a unique look at what was actually a pretty extreme moment in recent American history.  Certainly a more daring and visceral movie than Let it Fall, but maybe brings a little less new information to the table, both will work depending on what you’re looking for.

***1/2 out of Five

Lady Macbeth (1/13/2018)

Despite its title the new film Lady Macbeth is not a retelling of Shakespeare’s play so much as it’s a new story with the “Lady Macbeth” archetype at its center and with a similar fatalism to the famous play. Set in 19th Century England the film depicts a woman who’s forced into a pretty bad situation at the hand of her psycho husband and his doubly psychotic father and responds with a touch of psychopathy of her own.  It’s a pretty dark little piece of work, like if Neil LaBute trying to make Downton Abbey.  The film is also notable for placing a number of black actors into its period England setting.  This isn’t race blind casting, these are characters of color and I’m not sure how anachronistic this is or isn’t but it does bring something to the table that we don’t normally see in movies like this.  I’m not sure if all of this ultimately amounts to a whole lot more than a sort of “Black Mirror” style nihilism minus the technology but the performances are quite good and it’s an interesting exercise just the same

***1/2 out of Five

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (1/14/2018)

The title “Small Enough to Jail” is a reference to the phrase “Too Big to Fail,” which is invoked because the documentary covers the prosecution of the one and only baking institution which faced charges in relation to the 2008 financial crisis: a tiny consumer bank operating out of New York’s Chinatown called the Abacus Federal Savings Bank.  The film is clearly on this bank’s side and views them as a folksy “American Dream” operation beset by a government investigation that is unfair at best and a discriminatory witch-hunt at worst. To its credit the film does feature interviews with the people from the District Attorney’s office, which is kind of rare in these kind of documentaries, though I do have my suspicions as to how much of those interviews are lost in the edit.  By the end of the film I’m not entirely convinced of the bank’s innocence, in part because I know that in the mortgage industry it’s very easy to do some bad stuff without really thinking about it that way, but I do have reason to believe that they weren’t trying to run some kind of mass scam.  Of course technical guilt and innocence probably isn’t what director Steve James is most interested in here so much as the question of whether it’s fair that this is the institution that’s being gone after.

***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 12/30/2017

Girls Trip (12/13/2017)

Looking back on my old review it appears that I did like The Hangover back in 2009 but I don’t really have overly positive memories of it.  Part of that might simply be because of all the imitators that came in its wake included among them its own sequels and the decent but not great Bridesmaids.  Now almost ten years later we’ve got another one, this time with black women called Girls Trip.  I’ll give Girls Trip this: 2017 has been a horrendous year for mainstream comedy and with competition like Baywatch and Rough Night to go against this probably does look like something special and I don’t think I would call it “bad” but I don’t quite get what all the fuss was about either.  One thing that I found divergent from the usual formula is that in these movies are usually populated by losers, schlubs, or at the very least profoundly average people, which usually helps explain why they act like morons over the course of the movie.  This movie on the other hand is populated by highly successful aspirational symbols including a wealthy publisher and someone who’s on the cusp of being a lifestyle guru along the lines of an Oprah, so their behavior on the trip seems a bit odd.  The film’s ultimate moral about the importance of friendship is also a bit on the nose and sort of kills a lot of the comedy in the last quarter of the movie.  That said the characters are overall enjoyable and there are some amusing points along the way.

*** out of Five

Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (12/15/2017)

2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the post-Rodney King L.A. riots and between that and the fact that anger about police violence was very much a big issue again in the last couple of years there was a sort of race to make documentaries about that event.  As such there are two major docs about that event: there’s LA92, which I think is more of a visceral collection of archive footage from the riot, and then there’s this film from director John Ridley which is more interested in delving into the context  of the time and the tensions that led up to the riot.  In fact I was a little surprised there wasn’t more of that given the title.  The 1982-1990 portion is pretty brief and the movie does get to Rodney King and some of the other events that immediately proceeded the riots faster than I expected.  There’s certainly archival footage to be found, but also some pretty good talking head interviews from people who were around at the time including some of the people involved in the Reginald Denny attack, who have become reflective with age.  The film certainly establishes its ties with the present day and is obviously opposed to the injustice that was going on at the time, but it isn’t a fire spitting polemic and is clearly willing to listen to talking heads who occasionally defend some of what the police were doing at the time.  It doesn’t exactly break the mold and isn’t quite the definitive take on this event, but it’s a good overview for those who are interested.

***1/2 out of Five

Patti Cake$ (12/17/2017)

This Sundance hit about an aspiring white female rapper was seemingly set to be the next indie crowd pleaser but then it never really took off.  Seeing the movie I think I get why.  For one thing I think the movie is kind of dated in its understanding of hip-hop.  The kind of lyricism that Patti is bartering is falling out of favor in the trap era and she also seems to have some rather old fashioned ideas of how to break into the industry.  Has this girl never heard of Soundcloud?  Ignoring that there just isn’t a whole lot here that isn’t done better in 8 Mile and Hustle and Flow aside from the fact that Patti Cake$ herself is fairly interesting screen presence.  The basic filmmaking here also doesn’t really come together in a way that makes it stand out.  It’s a little too ugly to feel slick but a little too pretty to feel “raw,” and to some extent that could be said about the whole movie; it’s not a bad movie exactly but it doesn’t have that special quality it needs and frankly it feels like a pretty textbook example of a movie that Sundance made feel more noteworthy than it was.

**1/2 out of Five

Kedi (12/18/2017)

Kedi could be called a sleeper hit and is the fourth highest grossing documentary of the year behind the Inconvenient Truth sequel, I Am Not Your Negro and a Disney documentary about pandas called Born in China.  It probably has the most in common with that last title as Kedi concerns itself with the population of stray cats in Istanbul but it’s also way more pretentious in its presentation.  The movie mostly consists of footage of said cats as well as interviews with various people who have made it their hobby to look after or interact with these cats.  The interviews are mostly a bunch of anthropomorphizing nonsense, I wanted Werner Herzog to show up and knock some sense into these people.  The footage of cats didn’t necessarily strike me unprecedentedly brilliant either though there was some interest in the way it showed what Istanbul was like and there were a few interesting tidbits about how the number of different cat species were brought in by the various ships that docked in the city.  Not a fan of this, or at the very least it’s not for me.  Frankly it felt like little more than the slightest intellectual veneer to justify watching a bunch of cat videos.

** out of Five

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets(12/30/2017)

I clearly remember seeing the trailer for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and thinking “that’s going to bomb even harder than Jupiter Ascending and John Carter.”  Sure enough that did prove to be the case (although it did do better internationally than Jupiter Ascending).  You’d think that with the Star Wars franchise being the behemoth that it is that it would be easier to get a space opera series off the ground but they seem to just fail spectacularly every single time.  I think the problem is that when these things get made in the era of CGI directors just can’t help themselves and end up making overly busy and frankly kind of gawdy worlds that just become eyesores.  Star Wars and Star Trek were immune from this because they were made during a time when technological limitations forced them to show a little restraint.  The other problem also seems to be that these filmmakers over-think the worlds they’re creating so much that they lose track of just how off-putting they can be to audiences who haven’t been living in them for years and don’t really properly introduce them.  The other other problem is that they’re often being based on these old pulp sources that audiences care a lot less about than the people making the movies, which is part of the problem with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Valerian is based on a Franco-Belgian comic book series, the kind of thing Mœbius would have been involved in.  I’ve never read these comic books but the two minutes of googling I did about them suggests to me that the Valerian in them was something of a take on the traditional 50s/60s masculine hero and here they’ve replaced that with Dane DeHaan, who has a much more millennial take on what a hero is supposed to look like.  That’s certainly an idea, but they don’t actually seem to adjust his behavior enough to make it work.  His partner Laureline as played by Cara Delevingne fares a bit better but she doesn’t really have the time to establish herself either and both ultimately end up playing second fiddle to the film’s many other concerns.  The film is filled with interesting visuals, but it’s so jam-packed by these ideas that it feels like overload.  If they wanted to make this they should have started with a much simpler story that would introduce people to this world and these characters.  All that said, I don’t exactly think the movie is terrible and probably wouldn’t even call it bad, at the very least it’s never even a little bit boring.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 12/7/2017

Spielberg (11/9/2017)

 

 

I’m not exactly sure why 2017 was the year that Steven Spielberg decided to put out a feature length HBO documentary that looked at his life and films, it also isn’t exactly the first time he’s done something like this.  He did the documentary Spielberg on Spielberg with Richard Schickel about ten years ago which had a very similar format, but this documentary is a little bit longer and certainly flashier.  In addition to Spielberg there are a lot of other talking heads here including colleagues from the 70s like George Lucas and Brian De Palma, family members, and some critics.  There are definitely interesting tidbits here and there and I don’t have a whole lot of complaints about anything that’s actually in the documentary, but despite the two and a half hour running time I feel like there just wasn’t enough here to really justify this thing.  Entire movies like The Terminal and The Adventures of Tintin are ignored entirely, many films like War Horse and Amistad are only barely mentioned, and even the major movies are generally only discussed for something like five to ten minutes apiece.  I get that there are a lot of people that simply don’t care about some of these minor works but given that there’s already more than enough discussion of Jaws and Jurassic Park out there this would have seemed an ideal time to shine a light on some lesser known or at least less talked about films.  Overall the documentary is probably worth at least watching if you’re a Spielberg fan but it’s hardly definitive and would have felt a lot more special if it had been expanded into a two or three part event that really digs into this career.

*** out of Five

Beatriz at Dinner (11/28/2017)

In the trailer for Beatriz at Dinner a critic is quoted as saying it was “the first great film of the Trump era.”  That’s certainly not true, as this is by no means a great movie, but I could sort of see why someone would invoke “the era of Trump” when talking about the movie.  The movie is set up to be a sort of battle royale that happens when an under-privileged hippie earth-mother type played by Salma Hayek finds herself at a dinner party at a mansion and has to confront a billionaire arch-conservative played by John Lithgow.  If the movie wants these people to be representatives of the left and right it sure seems like the filmmakers are stacking the deck.  Beatriz is this almost saintly paragon of virtue while Lithgow seems to be playing an almost cartoonish asshole, and while I don’t exactly object to Billionaire arch-conservatives being depicted as assholes (the shoe certainly fits), a little more nuance would have probably made for a more even matchup that might be more fun to watch.  Still I could see why they would want a clear contrast set up this incredible match-up of forces… except that the battle royale we were promised never actually emerges.  Beatriz ends up folding pretty quickly rather than confront Lithgow for long and Lithgow doesn’t seem terribly interested in defending himself either.  That is probably a more realistic result of how a meeting like this would end, but given that the situation was pretty contrived in the first place I would have expected something more and as it is I’m not sure what the point of making a movie like this even was if this is all they’re going to do with a concept like this.

** out of Five

Whose Streets? (11/29/2017)

Whose Streets? Is a documentary focused on the unrest that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer.  The film is a combination of news footage, footage drawn from social media, and footage that was shot by the filmmakers who were on the streets while the protests were going on.  The film is, if nothing else, a great source of raw footage of what was going on in Ferguson, much of it very dramatic.  However, a lot of this footage does start to get a little tedious after a little while.  We see a whole lot of footage of very angry people doing all sorts of protest chants and lots of footage of increasingly militarized police acting coldly towards them, and occasionally footage of activists talking amongst themselves about how incorrectly they’re perceived.  The filmmakers have said a big part of their reasons for making the film was because they felt the protesters weren’t being covered correctly by the mainstream media and that they wanted to paint a fuller portrait and if that’s the case I’m not sure they really succeeded.  The film’s narrative about the protests isn’t too far removed from the narrative I went into it with (that of angry protestors being pushed around by an overly jumpy police force) and while there are some individual protestors who are highlighted along the way I don’t know that the film is ever really able to fully turn these events into a complete story.  Hesitant as I am to make a suggestion that would have made things a bit more conventional, some talking head interviews with some of the protestors shot after the fact to establish context might have helped.  Still there’s definitely enough here to give you something to think about even if it’s a bit messy along the way.

*** out of Five

Mudbound (12/1/2017)

It has been a policy of mine that movies which debut on Netflix without legitimate national theatrical releases are to be relegated to these short capsule reviews, and this has been mostly painless. That said the latest Netflix acquisition Mudbound is probably the closest we’ve come to a “real” movie debuting on the streaming service.  The film, an adaptation of a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, is set during World War II and its immediate aftermath looks at a white family and their interactions with a family of black sharecroppers who live on their farm in rural Mississippi.  The film is impressively helmed by Dee Rees, who has clearly honed her craft significantly since her work on the micro-indie Pariah, but as I watched it I increasingly got the impression that the novel the movie was adapting was decidedly “good but not great” and that the movie wasn’t really doing enough to elevate it and break it out of the mold of its original format.  It simply feels like it was being told from the point of view of too many characters and as a result it ended up short changing a lot of them and the performances are a bit of a mixed bag as well.  In many ways I kind of wish they had de-emphasized the white family significantly and just focused exclusively on the point of view of the black family.  The format they did choose to go with had some rewards but I don’t think they outweighed the drawbacks.  Still, the movie does get better as it goes and comes together in a pretty satisfying way by the end, so it’s definitely worth seeing even if I don’t think it’s any kind of new classic.

***1/2 out of Five

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (12/7/2017)

Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender woman and a major LGBT activist during the 70s and 80s and was actually at the Stonewall riot in 1969.  She died in 1992 under mysterious circumstances and her death was ruled a suicide by police at the time, but activist Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project had long been suspicious about this and the documentary follows her as she attempts to investigate Johnson’s death some twenty five years later.  Alright, spoiler here but this investigation does not really turn up much in the way of concrete answers and I think director David France expected as much.  In many ways this investigation is meant less as a true crime story like Making a Murderer or even Strong Island and more just as a literary device to look at Marsha’s life as well as explore the dangers that trans-women face in society and the work of the Anti-Violence Project.   This format gets a little messy at times but I’m not sure that the PBS “American Experience” version of Johnson’s biography would have necessarily worked better.  France’s previous documentary, How To Survive a Plague, is an amazing piece of work and I wouldn’t necessarily say the same about this one but it’s interesting enough and worth a look.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 10/31/2017

Gerald’s Game (10/16/2017)

Though I read a lot of Stephen King books in high school, Gerald’s Game is one title’s I never read, in part because I never wanted to be seen reading it and have to explain what it was I was reading.  To my young mind the novel’s premise, which involved bondage sex, seemed wildly dirty and I couldn’t imagine anyone ever making a movie out of it.  Fast forward a decade and “Fifty Shades of Gray” is a mainstream property and “Gerald’s Game” seems a lot more acceptable by contrast, especially given that its bondage sex scene is not consummated.  The story involves a middle aged woman who’s gone to a remote cabin with her husband and after he’s handcuffed both of her hands to a bed he suddenly has a heart attack and she’s left chained to the bed with the key out of reach and starts having hallucinations of her husband talking to her and of a strange looking bald man who may or may not be the grim reaper.  This is certainly a high concept movie what with its single room setup and lack of real supporting characters.  One could perhaps imagine a version of it being performed as a stage play give or take a couple of moments… including one incredibly gory moment that is decidedly not for the squeamish.  Mike Flanagan directs the film well and has an eye for some signature visuals, but some of the writing is not great (the hallucinations are basically an excuse for inner-monologue, and King is not always the best writer of inner monologue) and while Carla Gugino is good in the lead role her performance is not necessarily the tour-de-force required of someone who needs to 100% carry a film.

**1/2 out of Five

Strong Island (10/21/2017)

The usual line on documentaries is that they should be made by people who maintain some objective distance, but there are other approaches, like the one used for the film Strong Island.  The documentary is directed by Yance Ford and tells the story about how his brother (an African American) was killed in 1992 by a white person during an argument and how the police and district attorney did nothing to bring him to justice.  The central case of the film is not necessarily the most elaborate and isn’t filled with twists and turns.  The appeal to the movie is less the case itself and more the effect it had on the family.  Yance Ford makes for an interesting subject given the quiet dignity he shows while a lot of the painful facts of the case are dredged up and it’s compelling to hear about this family’s private In the Bedroom.  Obviously this movie is increasingly relevant in a post Trayvon Martin world, I don’t know that it’s a story that’s going to change many people’s minds about the value of black lives but seeing the long lasting torment of the family of one of these victims can add a piece to the puzzle.

***1/2 out of Five

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (10/22/2017)

This Noah Baumbach film ended up going straight to Netflix despite having a number of stars and a major director, which may say a bit more about just how rich Netflix has gotten moreso than the film’s quality.  In fact this is probably the best feature film to debut on that platform, though that’s relative.  The film stars Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel as the sons and daughter of an aging artist played by Dustin Hoffman who are dealing with their various feelings about their father and about their current situation.  The film’s set-up, with upper-middle class New Yorkers coming to grips with a large than life patriarch, is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums but the style here is obviously quite different and perhaps has more in common with what you’d expect from other films about worried New Yorkers like The Savages, Please Give, and Little Men.  Adam Sandler has been getting a lot of attention for appearing in a respectable movie and doing a decent job in it, but I do think he’s perhaps been the beneficiary of low expectations.  Ben Stiller is just as good here but is getting half the credit simply because he’s done similarly good work in Noah Baumbach movies before.  Baumbach’s films, and really most movies of this New York indie scene, tend to be a bit iffy for me.  His movie are never “bad” but my interest in them almost seems to vary by the mood I’m in when I watch them.  This one only did so much for me, the story just felt a bit too familiar and while I liked a lot of the cast and characters the scenario just didn’t generate enough interest to push it past other similar movies for me.

*** out of Five

Icarus (10/26/2017)

Sometimes the best stories just fall into the laps of the most unlikely people.  Take the (rather poorly titled) documentary Icarus, which was directed by a guy named Bryan Fogel.  Fogel is an amateur cyclist who competed in a major bike race in France but suspected that some of his competition was doping, and experience that inspired him to make a Super Size Me style documentary where he would start taking steroids and show on film the steps he would take to beat his drug tests and thus expose the system.  Not a terrible idea for a documentary, but that’s not what the project ended up being because in the process of making that silly high concept movie one of the experts he was consulting with turned out to be a key figure in aiding the Russian Olympic team in beating steroid tests and much of the film ended up following him as he became an enemy of the state in Russia and ended up defecting to America and blowing the whistle on Putin’s entire operation.  I’m not necessarily sure that Fogel was the best person to be telling this story but he does do an adequate job of bringing this crazy story to the screen and it’s definitely worth watching.  The movie sold for a record breaking sum to Netflix at Sundance, but its profile hasn’t quite been as high as it could be.  Part of that might be the crappy title, but part of it might also be that it’s been somewhat surpassed by real events.  When we’re worried about Putin invading his neighbors and stealing elections and sowing mass discord within the country, worrying about him cheating in the Olympics just seems kind of quaint.

***1/2 out of Five

1922 (10/31/2017)

This year Netflix decided to step up their original film production arm and to do it they decided to purchase a pair of heretofore un-adapted Stephen King works and adapt them themselves and release both in October.  1922 is the second of these and unlike Gerald’s Game I actually have read the novella that this one was based on and quite liked it.  The story and film examines a Nebraska farmer who comes into bitter conflict with his wife when she proposes selling their farm and moving to the city with their son.  Not liking this option the farmer proceeds to kill her.  The rest of the story deals with the fallout of this both emotionally and otherwise and the various horrific manifestations of the farmer’s guilt.  Given a choice between this and Netflix’s other King adaptation I think I like Gerald’s Game slightly more.  That movie is a bit more unique and has more in the way of memorable imagry and is just generally a little better made.  However, I think 1922 has source material to work with that fits a bit more naturally to the format of film even if it has to use a voice-over in a slightly clunky way.  The film needs to stretch things a little to hit feature length, which may have been a bit of a mistake as the final film actually feels like it could benefit from a trim or two.  Ultimately I think the bigger problem is the film’s star, Thomas Jane, who I don’t really fits this rural character too well and adopts a rather silly voice throughout.  Had this movie gotten a theatrical release I feel like its shortcomings would have been even more clear, but I wouldn’t dismiss it as glorified straight-to-video trash either as it has scope and doesn’t necessarily feel cheap.  It’s ultimately just a pretty decent above average horror movie.

**1/2 out of Five