Sunday, June 28, 2015

SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY


The celebrated Hollywood director and raconteur Peter Bogdanovich returns to our screens after a 17 year hiatus with a romantic comedy that one can only generously describe as "inspired by" Woody Allen romantic comedies. It's set in New York. The opening credits feature an easy listening track from the 1950s.  The lead character is a young prostitute with a heart of gold and a over-egged Noo Yoick accent in the manner of Mira Sorvino.  She's forms a relationship with a much older successful married man.  People have irritable but witty conversations on side-walks and disparage the irritatingly perfect weather in Los Angeles. Psychoanalysis features. There's even a wise-ass voice-over and a knowing love of Hollywood convention.

Does this blatant channelling of Woody Allen make SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY a bad film?  No. It's not a bad film. It's a fairly dull film - contrived in its chamber comedy set-up - often mis-firing in its humour.  It goes a little something like this.

We meet a young Hollywood starlet called Isabella (Imogen Poots) in a framing device being interviewed by a cynical reporter called Judy (Ileanna Douglas) who doesn't buy Isabella's wide-eyed romanticism about Hollywood, and indeed, life.  Isabella then proceeds to unabashedly but delusionally narrate her life story - a girl who spreads happiness aka a hooker, she's paid by a soft-hearted married director called Arnold (Owen Wilson) to give up hooking. So the next day Isabella goes to her therapist, Jane, a hilariously judgmental indiscrete Jennifer Aniston, and then to an audition for a play about a hooker that just happens to be directed by Arnold and stars his wife Delta (Kathryn Hahn).  The plays also stars Debbie's ex (Rhys Ifans) who's still chasing her and knows Arnold slept with a hooker. Meanwhile, the playwright Joshua really likes Isabella, and used to date Jane. 

I think whether or not you go for this kind of film depends on whether you can bear the contrived set up.  Without a steady stream punch lines and laugh out loud moments the set up grated on me. Its only saving grace is a cameo from Lucy Punch as a hooker called Kandi.  It is the tragedy of Punch's career that she is routinely the best thing in any movie she stars in. 

SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY is rated R and has a running time of 93 minutes. The movie played Venice 2014 and was released earlier this year in France, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Estonia, Vietnam, Israel, Serbia, Slovenia, Italy, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland and Sweden. It opened this weekend in the UK and Ireland. It opens on July 9th in Greece, on July 15th in Belgium, on July 23rd in Denmark, the Netherlands and Spain; on July 31st in Finland; on August 14th in the USA; on August 20th in Germany; on August 27th in Australia and on September 17th in Chile. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

AMY

You can listen to a podcast review of this film here, or subscribe to Bina007 Movie Reviews in iTunes.

AMY is the controversial new documentary about the hyper-talented North London jazz and soul singer Amy Winehouse, who died at the age of 27 in 2010 from complications due to long-term bulimia, drug and alcohol abuse. The director, Asif Kapadia, opens the story with Amy as a 16 year old goofing around with her close friends on video, clearly talented, and quickly signed up by manager Nick Shyamsky.  She's evidently steeped in the jazz tradition and wants to make great music rather than achieve a fame that she knows she'll find hard to handle.  She's soon signed to Island Records, brings out her debut album "Frank" and uses the money to first move into a small flat and then into her house in Camden.  The freedom allows her pot smoking to morph into heavier drug use, and she's still bulimic but she's still not on crack cocaine or heroine when her manager and friend, Nick, tries to intervene. This is the first of two pivotal moments in the documentary - the moment where maybe early intervention might have led to the start of recovery because the paparazzi glare, and Blake Fielder-Civil, hadn't yet appeared.  But Amy wants her dad, Mitch, to make a decision, and he says she doesn't have to go, much to Nick's horror, and echoed in the lyrics of "Rehab".  This feels like an early chance foregone, and sets us up to explore Amy's trauma at her father leaving her mother when Amy was 9, and being an absent figure who's approval she still craved.

We then move into the truly dark times.  After "Back to Black" the money rolls in but so do the paparazzi and the enablers.  Amy falls wildly in love with Blake, an addict, and they enable each others addictions. She starts taking crack and heroine - her house becomes a kind of squat - the third album is nowhere in sight.  Eventually, Blake is put in prison, and escaping to St Lucia seems to steady Amy - she's still bulimic and drinking, but at least the hard drugs have gone.  She calls out her dad, now a more frequent presence in her life, but he turns up with a reality TV crew, invading her life after she tried to run away.

Finally, after a period of sobriety in the run up to the Grammys, we reach our final moment of crisis and the second pivotal moment of the documentary. Amy's manager and father set up an extensive European tour that Amy just doesn't want to go on and she self-sabotages, culminating in that infamous footage of the concert in Belgrade where she simply refuses to sing. There's a crucial moment where in advance of that she goes on a binge so the tour will be cancelled.  Her father and manager don't check her into rehab but into a flash hotel filled with the press. The tour goes ahead.  Soon, she's dead. 

Director Asif Kapadia has made a remarkably even-handed documentary and has resisted laying blame on any one person.  Mitch Winehouse is not portrayed as a villain in the way that Alain Prost was in SENNA.  But there are clearly a number of disturbing things going on here.  Amy was evidently deeply traumatised by the breakdown of her parents' marriage and her bulimia, pot-smoking and depression started way before she reached any kind of fame. Her parents seeming inability to recognise this, or if acknowledged, the to deal with it and lay down clear boundaries, is more tragic than blameworthy. Once the money starts rolling in, there are clear imperatives that contradict Amy's health.  You get the impression that her close business circle, which Mitch becomes a part of, need her on the road. But to be honest, I felt the documentary was leaving us to draw our own conclusions (good) but also perhaps pulling its punches.

What I love about AMY is that by unearthing and using lots of informal video footage of Amy, she becomes a visceral and vital presence. Her talent, wit, and vulnerability shine through.  In a sense she is the most vital thing about this documentary and that's a rare achievement. I really came out of it feeling that I understood her struggles better and sympathised with them more.  Two criticisms.  First, the director chooses not to tell us why Amy was so steeped in jazz - that her extended family were jazz musicians and that she was actually in a number of stage schools.  Rather he leaves us with the impression that she is something of a one-off random prodigy sprouted in North London.   A stage school girl clearly had more awareness and drive for the fame the interviews played in the film make out she was rejecting.  Second, the movie ends when Amy dies, and that's also probably right, but by not showing us how Mitch Winehouse has created a career as a crooner on the back of his daughter's fame, it definitely paints him in a better light.

AMY is rated R and has a running time of 128 minutes. AMY played Cannes 2015, and is currently on release in the Netherlands. It will be released on July 3rd in the UK, Ireland and USA; on July 8th in France; on July 9th in Greece and Hungary; on July 10th in Finland; on July 16th in Germany; and on July 17th in Sweden.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 - THE LOOK OF SILENCE


Joshua Oppenheimer is a documentarian of rare patience, empathy and wisdom. He has spent much of the past fifteen years exploring and documenting the aftermath of the military coup in Indonesia in the mid 1960s that resulted in a totalitarian regime coming to power and remaining the source of power to this day. In the months immediately following the coup the military encouraged the ordinary people of Indonesia to create mobs and summarily execute actual and alleged Communists. The numbers are staggering. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered. And what amazes me, as someone who thinks of herself as fairly well read, is that these events are virtually undiscussed in the West as well as in Indonesia. Those killers returned back to live in their communities alongside the families of their victims. One might wonder how this situation didn’t explode in recrimination and violence but is it any wonder given the combination of a repressive government, an almost pathological desire to forget, and a highly selective narrative taught in schools. And then, into this situation steps Joshua Oppenheimer, and with his films he has forced not just the world to acknowledge this horror, but the people he comes across too. The result - two remarkable, tough, and at times surreal films - THE ACT OF KILLING and THE LOOK OF SILENCE. Both were filmed as part of a single project but the results are very different. THE ACT OF KILLING, released in 2012, interviewed men who had killed their neighbours and looked on in horror as they boastfully re-enacted those crimes. The boastfulness was provocative. Is this how all murderers would act if their regime were still in power? Or did it actually represent the fashioning of a narrative of normalcy to describe guilt and fear? Either way, the resulting film was one of the toughest watches of that year and remains a masterpiece. This is what documentary film-making does best opening up a previously hidden narrative and rather than giving us the answers, forcing us to deal with painful questions.

THE LOOK OF SILENCE is a quieter, less surreal documentary but in some ways it’s a tougher watch and desperately moving. We focus on the victims this time, with a 44 year old optometrist called Adi still dealing with the murder of his brother Ramli. He fears for his adorable children, taught that the victims were evil Communists and tarnished by association decades later. He fears for his father, going senile with old age, who will never have the closure he needs. His mother is a beacon of honesty in a country seemingly self-condemnded to untruth. She knows that when her son, stabbed and gutted, crawled back to her house, and the local thugs came to “take him to hospital” what really happened. And while nervous for Adi, she wants the truth. This simple bravery is startling when set in contrast with most people who just want Adi to shut up and let it go - not least his Uncle who was himself a Guard. Adi attended the screening at Sheffield and says he is not particularly brave. But I think he is the bravest person I have ever seen. His insistent, unrelenting, quiet questioning gives this movie its heart and finally a sadness beyond anything in THE ACT OF KILLING. One wonders if Adi feels some kind of peace from having confronted the very men who killed his brother. They seem to have constructed such walls of boastfulness around themselves that it really is shocking to see them rattled. But maybe peace isn’t finally the point. Maybe we should feel angry and unsettled?

THE LOOK OF SILENCE has a running time of 103 minutes and is rated PG-13.  The film played Venice, Telluride & Toronto 2014 and was released last year in Italy and Denmark. It was released earlier this year in the Netherlands and Slovenia. It is playing Sheffield Doc/Fest and will open in the UK and Portugal on June 11th and in the USA on July 17th.

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 - THE GREATEST SHOWS ON EARTH

THE GREATEST SHOWS ON EARTH was programmed alongside Joshua Oppenheimer's stunning but tough THE LOOK OF SILENCE for the opening night of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015.  For most of us wondering up from The Showroom to Sheffield's magnificent City Hall, we were expecting something of a light-hearted palate cleanser.  But we were wrong.  While there is a lot to excite and entertain in THE GREATEST SHOWS ON EARTH, this skilfully edited film of the history of vaudeville and circuses over time and geography was actually quite a provocative and depressing watch. Because in amongst the clown-acts and acrobats was exploitation - of women, children, animals, black people.  And the repetition of these acts, wonderfully highlighted by director Benedikt Elringsson's mash-up of acts over generations, is in itself depressing.  Rather than being an act of unity among cultures it felt like we had discovered the lowest common denominator of humanity.  What is it about us as humans that when we see a lion, we want to prise its jaws open as far as possible and stick our head between them, not only to sure our courage, but actually our mastery over nature?  What is it that makes us want to humiliate a great beast of an elephant and make it stand on a stool?   The whole thing made for rightfully uncomfortable viewing.

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 - PLANETARY

We here at the blog formerly known as Movie Reviews for Greedy Capitalist Bastards don’t take kindly to being forced to sit through an hour of pro-environmentalist propaganda having been lured into the screening room under the false promise of a film about space travel. But let’s be generous, even if the marketing department got this film room, and it wasn’t our fault for misreading the content of the documentary, the completely heavy-handed, unbalanced and dull presentation of the environmental message was reason enough to hate this film.

So here’s what the deal is. We start off PLANETARY with some cool footage of space shuttle launches and interviews with awe-inspired astronauts talking about the beauty of planet earth and how the perspective of seeing it from space forces you to see our presence on it as part of a holistic organic process. Fair enough. There’s a wonderful Ron Howard documentary called IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON which features extensive interviews with Buzz Aldrin and it really does inspire you with a similar feeling of awe and wonder but also of custody and conservatorship.

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 - THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION


The celebrated documentarian Stanley Nelson has, in THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION, created what must surely be the definitive history of the Black Panthers in America. That is not to say that there aren’t other complementary and more focussed documentaries out there. I have profoundly enjoyed films like THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE, FREE ANGELA DAVIS AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS, as well as CHICAGO 8. But with the latter two in particular, we are focusing in on particular episodes. I can’t think of another documentary that has the editorial mastery to really try to contain the sweep of the movement.

The film starts in Oakland in the late 1960s when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale read up on the law and realise that they have the right to bear arms so long as they are carried in public, and form a kind of self-defense league that is by its very nature far more than a defense but a provocation. The iconic fashions, bold rhetoric and threat of violence proves an attractive mix for everyone from Hollywood backers to young African-Americans who join chapters faster than the leadership can induct them. And so you get a movement propelled by its own youthful energy and momentum, part of a wider counter-cultural moment in American history.

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 - CONTAINMENT

Any of you old enough to have read this blog when it began will know that look before I started caring about stuff like press accreditation, this site was known as Movie Reviews for Greedy Capitalist Bastards. And so, it’s fair to say that I am about as far as it’s possible to get from a liberal hippie concerned about the environment and fluffy bunny rabbits. More than my political prejudice, I am also sceptical about earnest agit-docs on the grounds that I don’t think that they do any good. After all, who is going to pay to see a documentary made by tree-huggers if they don’t already agree with it, or at the very least, have a pre-existing interest in it.

Now, CONTAINMENT is a fantastic documentary because it doesn’t come across as propaganda, or an attempt to proselytise in an obvious and heavy handed way. Rather, it is an intelligent, insightful and above all complex discussion about what do with all the nuclear waste we have already created. By narrowing the focus of the film down to this one narrow but profound issue, the film-makers avoid getting caught up in the polemics of whether using nuclear energy is right or wrong, although there is a clear take-away from the material on show. This is exactly what I want a good documentary to do. I want it to make imaginative use of source material, archives and interviews to show me a complex argument and to lead me toward a more informed situation from where I can make up my own mind. And I did, and I’m guessing the film-makers would be pleased with the result. The point is that the film empowered me to do so, rather than banging me over the head with a text-book.

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 - GENERATION RIGHT



GENERATION RIGHT is a 40 minute long documentary funded by Sheffield University as part of its research into changing generational social attitudes. In this case, the film examines the radical nature of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and its impact on pulling the centre ground to the right. It argues that her legacy was to redefine the boundaries between state and citizen, so that where her privatisation programme was seen as radical, Tony Blair could then only be elected by moving Labour to the right, and continuing her legacy with regard to parts of the National Health Service and student loans, as just some examples. One could read this message onto the latest UK General Election results which resulted in a higher proportion of voters voting for right wing parties that at any times since 1900. In other words, far from dying, Thatcher’s legacy lives on with an arguably bigger mandate in David Cameron’s majority government.

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 - BRITAIN'S FORGOTTEN SLAVE OWNERS


BRITAIN'S FORGOTTEN SLAVE OWNERS is a series of two one-hour documentaries that will be shown on the BBC. It is based on some pioneering research done at University College London that does micro research on the archive ledgers showing who was compensated for the abolition of slavery in 1830s Britain.  The tragedy is that, of course, it wasn't the slaves or their descendants who benefited from a government handout worth £17bn in today's money, but the slave owners themselves.  As might have been expected, the documentary shows is that here are many large scale slaveowners whose rapid financial success was soon transformed into entry into Britain's elite.  In an admirably balanced interview with the 8th Earl of Harewood, the presenter David Olusoga sees the palatial wealth that slave-owning brought to the man who is now fifty-something'th in line to the throne.  But what is far more surprising is just how widespread slave ownership was in nineteenth century England, with the middle classes owning perhaps just a handful of slaves, some through inheritance, all bringing in a modest income and thereafter compensation. In other words, slavery wasn't just the tool of the oligarchs but a systemic and endemic system that created the wealth that founded Britain's industrial revolution.  

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 - KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK


You could ask why I went to see KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK at the Sheffield Doc Fest. After all, the movie has already been shown on HBO and is widely available on DVD. But there's something about cramming into a packed screening room of fans, seeing this amazing collage of home video, diary entries, audio recordings and family photos, and hearing that amazing music turned up to 11. (Well technically 7.2).  You need to see this documentary somewhere where the sound system is worthy of it, and given the sheer visual inventiveness that director Brett Morgen (THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE) brings to the archive material, unlike most docs, this movie really benefits from a big screen too.

So the story is that Courtney Love gave Brett Morgan unrestricted access to all her archive materials, and while Morgan has created an intimate portrait of a troubled kid and a loving father, this movie is not hagiography but nor is it a hate-filled accusation.  Love doesn't come out of it too well, which gives me faith that Morgan really did have full editorial control.  It feels balanced, sensitive and fair. The other thing worth mentioning is that although this movie runs for well over an hour, I didn't look at my watch once.  The way in which Morgan continually mixes up animated versions of Cobain's art and notes, new orchestrations of Nirvana's songs, old video and talking heads, keeps up engaged. I'm not even a Nirvana super-fan but this movie had me riveted. And if anything, I came out with even greater respect for Cobain as an artist and even more sympathy for his messed up childhood and the tragedy that both his depression and his stomach problems didn't receive the medical attention they deserved.