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

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Home Video Round-Up: 7/11/2018

The Cloverfield Paradox (2/28/2017)

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

*1/2 out of Five

Andre the Giant (4/13/2017)

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

**1/2 out of Five

Red Sparrow (6/7/2017)

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

** out of Five

The Tale (6/14/2017)

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

*** out of Five

Game Night (7/11/2017)

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

***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 2/20/2018

Faces Places (2/10/2018)

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

**** out of Five

Nocturama (2/10/2018)

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

***1/2 out of Five

Loving Vincent (2/15/2018)

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

***1/2 out of Five

Unrest (2/19/2018)

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

*** out of Five

Last Man in Aleppo (2/20/2018)

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

**1/2 out of Five

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