This Week on Demand: 29/09/2013

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Editor’s Note: reviews this week are by Ronan Doyle and Jaime Burchardt

Shoved aside to make way for a massive influx of miniseries content, movies get the short end of the stick on Netflix this week; luckily, though, they’re all at least a little interesting, this being one of those rare batches lacking entirely in even a single dud. That’s not to say they’re universally wonderful, and most of these milquetoast movies will be of mild intrigue to say the least. Still, from one of the year’s most acclaimed documentaries to an immense Indonesian offering nobody saw coming, this is a fine little film selection for those uninterested in the endless slew of TV content they’re hidden amidst.


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Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm

It’s funny just how the mighty can fall; we tend to look on idols, perhaps necessarily, as immortal, where that’s of course anything but the truth. Levon Helm, drummer for The Band and the source of much of its Southern influence, comes across in Jacob Hatley’s documentary portrait as anything but immortal, coughing and choking his way through the process of creating his latest—and likely last—solo album. Fatigued as much by battles with his former band mates as those with cancer, he’s a visibly worn figure and yet almost an indomitable one still; Hatley captures his capacious charisma with an admiration that attests the infectiousness of this personality. Ain’t in It for My Health is a film unafraid to look at the darker side of things, and it’s all the stronger for it: Helm’s candid recollections of the good times and the bad make for a fascinating look at the real man behind the curtain. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Family Affair

When he was ten years old, Chico Colvard had a gun and accidentally shot his sister in the leg. Now while there is an emphasis on “accident”, the event that day set off a reaction that uncovered something much deeper, and much darker. All of a sudden a hidden truth was revealed, a truth involving abuse, anger, and the strong impossibility of forgiveness. Now that he’s all grown up, Colvard decided to tell the story through his eyes while covering everyone’s role at the same time. While it might be much to say that he’s a naturally born documentarian, it could be close. Choosing one’s own childhood story right out the gate is risky, but it pays off beautifully. It’s a strong debut for Colvard. Family Affair isn’t afraid to show its past, but it also does it with a sensitive touch that makes the events easier to handle. I hope he comes out with more material. RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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Love Free or Die

Religion is no prerequisite for engagement with Love Free or Die, Macky Alston’s deceptively funny and decidedly essential documentary following the campaign of Gene Robinson, the first openly-gay Christian bishop, to have homosexuality accepted in the clergy and congregation of his church. What fortune that he should be so fun: this story would be interesting regardless of who sat at its centre, but Robinson—whether addressing an audience or trading barbs with Jon Stewart—makes it invigorating too. How anyone could watch this film and not feel sympathy for Robinson’s case is one of those great mysteries of humanity; to see him, at one point, break down in tears after a fundamentalist interrupts his sermon is to see directly the painful impact of Christendom’s cruel legacy. What a wonderful work is Love Free or Die, what a joyous experience in the face of such senseless hatred. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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No Place on Earth

It’s incredible how many stories continue to emerge from the Holocaust; it sounds callous, perhaps, to suggest we’ve heard it all, yet that’s exactly what it’s easy to think of an event that occurred some six decades ago. But still these stories come out anew, offering odd new perspectives on one of the most important instances in human history that allow us, in necessary new ways, to come to terms with the past. Bolstered by interviews with the still-living survivors, No Place on Earth tells the fascinating tale of Ukranian Jews who hid from Hitler in rural cave systems, spending months at a time without so much as a second of sunshine. Directing her reconstructions with a level of craft that elevates them far above so many such efforts, Janet Tobias does a terrific job of making this as visually interesting a film as it is emotionally, as involving to look at as it is to listen to. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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On Death Row

Billed as a companion piece to Into the Abyss, the harrowing death row documentary feature that explored capital punishment by way of a horrifying crime, Werner Herzog’s four-part miniseries On Death Row expands upon that portrait with more crimes of equal morbid fascination. Immaculately crafted, of course, it’s a series that shows just how bland the majority of such TV documentaries can be; Herzog’s typically invaluable voiceover and extraordinary interviewing style elevates this beyond the status of mere human interest. Here is a portrayal of the dark heart of man, a glimpse—as the feature’s title suggests—into the abysmal evil we can embody. Even with its flow dampened by aggravating explanatory inserts—added by Discovery as a post-commercial recap—On Death Row is a haunting work, its eerily sombre music and Herzog’s existential musings not half as horrifying as the frank glimpse they accompany at the banality of evil.HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Ritual

Joko Anwar’s exquisitely evasive thriller interrupts a beautifully-shot opening sequence of natural beauty with the frantic gasps of a man who suddenly emerges from a shallow grave. The sequence of events that thereafter unfolds in this ingeniously inventive offering are best left to the film itself to describe; suffice it to say that Ritual only gets weirder the longer it goes on. Anwar has crafted a terrifically self-contained concept here: engaging the viewer with the simplest of mysteries, he gives himself free reign to play with horror tropes as his protagonist and movie both run round in circles desperately looking for answers. The final act—the reveal. As it were—sacrifices erstwhile emotional depth for a satisfying summation of events, and while few will be entirely convinced come time for the closing credits, there’s no denying that Anwar’s is a breathlessly entertaining effort, an odd and involving and utterly incomparable romp. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Room 237 (Read our full review)

Ironic ingenuity pervades Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s wickedly entertaining documentary on the extremities of film fandom and the absurdly analytical mindset into which the greatest art has the capacity to catapult us. Centred on The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s elusive, ethereal horror, Ascher’s film allows each of its five off-camera interviewees the opportunity to espouse, with the aid of an endless supply of stock footage from a huge variety of sources, their various theories as to the meaning of the movie. It’s funny, given the subject, that so many seem to have missed the meaning of this movie: Ascher juxtaposes the oft-absurd voiceover conjecture with the images at his disposal to point out the inherent absurdities of these theories, yet all the while he illustrates them faithfully, often even convincingly. Room 237 is an ode to obsession, inviting us to chuckle at these characters while all the while admitting they’re ciphers for ourselves. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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The Lost Medallion

The Lost Medallion, the debut from writer/director Billy Muir, centers on a kid named Billy Stone—told by a man visiting an orphanage, which is a sort-of weird set up—who one day, with his best friend, encounters a medallion with magical powers. It can transport them to other worlds, and help them go on grand adventures. But there’s an evil presence in the land they visit. They too know of the medallion and will do anything to obtain it. It’s up to Billy to restore peace, defeat the bad guy, save his friend, and make his way back home. Or Billy could start up a business helping insomniacs fall asleep through his bad storytelling and acting, that might work out more. Either Billy, really. The flick means well, but being low budget isn’t an excuse for being boring (and let’s not forget its moments of awkwardness). But hey… Mark Dacascos and James Wong. Is that enough for you? AVOID IT. ~JB


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The Secret Disco Revolution

It’s almost unfathomable what Jamie Kastner intended when opting to include in his history-of-disco documentary a framing device that reconstructs the—fictional, of course—clandestine “engineers” of the phenomenon going about their business to ensure its takeover of popular culture. Amusing at a stretch as a quirky kitsch intro, in its extended and recurring presence here it serves only to aggravate and interrupt, never amusing enough to overcome its own needlessness. How fortunate, then, that the less silly side of the movie is so interesting: compiling the concise contributions of cultural commentators and the anecdotal offerings of the movement’s big stars, Kastner gives a fine crash course in the disco days that doubles as an overview of the vast social changes with which it overlapped, and indeed often invoked. As annoying as the funky fictional inserts may be, this is a documentary that demands you dance, and dance you will. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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Upside Down (Read our full review)

There’s much to dislike in Upside Down, Juan Solanos’ tale of two star-cross’d lovers living in opposite societies of two tethered plants, from the indistinct arc of this romantic coupling to the simplistic social commentary the basic concept concocts. It’s indicative of the conviction of Solanos’ vision and the dedication with which he brings it to life, then, that the movie manages nonetheless to be really quite good. Yes, it’s a disappointment to see so unique and visually striking a sci-fi concept met with so staid a romance, but Solanos finds in Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst likeable enough leads that their courtship—trite though it may be—remains an efficient anchor to the movie’s world-building efforts. And oh what a wonder they are: from the Tati-esque interiors of the office building that bridges the planets to the floral dual-landscape of the mutual mountain ranges at which they almost touch, Upside Down is a joy to behold. RECOMMENDED. ~RD

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.