Review: McCullin

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McCullinThe Pitch: Photography: a window to the soul?

The Review: The 20th century brought us cinema, the collective experience of watching moving images and sound projected onto a large screen. Creative minds have used this innovation to dazzle and to amaze with works of improbable fiction, but also to attempt to understand and document the human condition. This particular documentary looks at another form of documentation of the world, but by the use of a single frame rather than a collection of 24 per second. Donald McCullin has been at the forefront of his art for most of the fifty years he’s been pointing his camera at not always willing subjects, and Jacqui and David Morris’s documentary attempts to get to the heart both of what made his work so compelling, but also what drove someone to want to take such images, and to make a career out of it.

The film consists predominantly of interviews with McCullin himself, including an extensive face-to-face interview where McCullin recounts his live story, interspersed with other clips of him being interviewed, including a Seventies interview on Michael Parkinson’s chat show. This recounting of his life story starts with his upbringing in and around east London where he first trained his camera on the other inhabitants, from the destitute to the more unsavoury. This soon got him work with the Observer newspaper, before eventually moving to the Sunday Times where he established his reputation as a supreme photojournalist. In the space of an eighteen year career, he covered many of the world’s major conflicts, from Cyprus to the Congo and Biafra, and from Vietnam to Northern Ireland, and his images sought to uncover the true nature and effects of those conflicts.

Interspersed with the interviews are a selection of McCullin’s images from each period, and what immediately becomes clear is McCullin’s gift for being able to find the perfect moment within each shot. While we only ever see the choicest images from the reels of film taken, without his innate sense of composition and his flair for drama, he’d never be in a position to capture the powerful images shared with us on screen. McCullin looks at both sides of conflict, trying to understand what motivates men to keep fighting – although more interested in the effect than the cause, as witnessed by the image of the shell-shocked soldier seen in the photo above – but he also captured devastating images of suffering, often of children caught up unknowingly in these conflicts. His candour is refreshing but also allows for some alarming insights into how far he’s been willing to go in the name of his art, getting caught up with mercenaries and being shot at regularly enough for the occasional bullet to have found both him and his camera.

If you’ve ever wondered how those taking such images manage to remain passive in the face of such suffering, then the documentary also makes it clear how this worked for Donald McCullin; it didn’t, and often a moving picture would have seen him interceding on behalf of his unfortunate subjects. Some of the images captured are by their very nature brutal, but thanks to McCullin’s need for compassion from the viewer they never feel exploitative, and taken as a whole they form a remarkable body of work of one man keen to expose the true horrors of this world and in some small way hope that the next generation sees this and tries not to repeat the mistakes. Two tiny quibbles: many of the conflicts (such as the Biafran secession from Nigeria in the late Sixties) are explained by means of black and white title cards which barely leave enough time to digest their contents, but this can be forgiven if you overlook them completely and focus on the content of the interviews and the selected photographs. As with any documentary, or indeed photograph, we are forced to accept an element of the truth portrayed to us, and certain occasional facts (such as the reasons why McCullin didn’t travel to the Falklands) may have other interpretations. This also results in a portrayal of McCullin almost as seen through his own eyes, but when they work as well as Donald McCullin’s do, that can be no bad thing.

Why see it at the cinema: Compelling black and white photography, blown up to the size of a cinema screen, is just one reason to catch this in a cinema if you get the chance.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong images of injury and real death. There are some image of death I wouldn’t say were out of place in a horror movie, but the black and white photography softens the blow somewhat. But that rating is spot on in my book.

My cinema experience: Arrived at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse cinema exactly on the advertised start time, which normally allows me to grab my ticket while the adverts are still playing. I’d reckoned without the immense queues for Les Mis, which had caused all three performances to sell out for Saturday. Thankfully you can pick up tickets at the bar, so I took the chance to grab a hot chocolate and my ticket together. The weight of numbers was even causing the coffee machine to groan under the strain, but it just about gurgled me out enough hot milk for a hot chocolate. Screening was half full, pretty impressive for a Saturday lunchtime doc screening, although that may have had to do with the limited number of screening opportunities during the week. Apart from one pair of noisy latecomers, a very civilised audience.

The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Around 15 minutes. Thanks to the queues I arrived around the time of the BBFC title card, so missed the trailers this time round.

The Score: 9/10

Review: The Imposter

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The Pitch: All in the family.

The Review: Who am I? You’re somewhere, reading this review and  this blog, and will likely fall into one of two groups. You may have somehow come to this site via the wonder of the internet, somehow curious as to the thoughts of a random stranger on blockbusters and documentaries, possibly one with similar tastes. You may have wandered over via Twitter, read a few reviews and begun to form a picture in your mind. An over-zealous student looking to make his way in the film world, perhaps? Or a grumpy old man with a love of both films and the sound of his own voice. Already those two sentences have limited your options by 50% – if, of course, you believe a single word I say. And why should you? You don’t know me from Adam. Indeed, maybe I could even be Adam – maybe attempts to name myself to the contrary are just an idle attempt at misdirection. I could be a five foot tall coal miner or a greying Cabinet minister, and unless you met me, you just wouldn’t know. But surely if you’d met me, you’d know who I was. Wouldn’t you?

Identity and integrity are the common themes of Bart Layton’s documentary, which attempts to lay out the curious tale of Nicholas Barclay, a thirteen year old American boy who simply goes missing one day in 1994, to the complete horror of his family. Three years later, they get a phone call from Spain, where the boy has been reported found. Time changes all of us, especially at that age, but Nicholas seems to have undergone a transformation that even Edmund Blackadder would find hard to pull off. Three years in Spain, poorly treated by his abductors, have left him unable to speak without an accent, and thanks to his mistreatment his hair colour has also gone much darker. As have his eyes. But his family know immediately that they’ve found their long lost son, so why is the only person seemingly doubting this a private investigator who comes upon the case almost by accident?

The Imposter plays out with a combination of styles, mixing the standard talking heads approach of the majority of the main players with dramatic reconstructions set at the time of the disappearance and reappearance. Initially the talking heads don’t do the family any favours (Spain, for example, is “all the way across the other side of the country”), but it would be hard to fault their willingness to accept such a miracle if presented to them. But that, in and of itself, wouldn’t make for much of a remarkable story. What does set the story apart are the narrative twists and turns, piling implausibility on top of disbelief which would be impossible to credit if the movie hadn’t credibly presented the evidence, even to the extent of archive TV news footage at the time. The Imposter manages to cram in as many twists as a classic noir, but never loses its through line or its intent.

Much of this is the other half of the film, as in addition to those talking heads the recreations of the events as they unfold help to truly bring the drama alive. To say that the early scenes are a little reminiscent of The Usual Suspects is intended as a favourable comparison, even evoking such direct comparisons as the teenager sat in a police station, casting his eyes over the bulletin board. But it’s also the storytelling rhythm of Suspects and its kin that The Imposter feeds off, with the recreations feeling more at home in the thriller genre than the documentary. Layton tightens the tension like a screw, never allowing it to dissipate for a minute, and by the time the later revelations come The Imposter exerts a vice like grip which it never relinquishes.

Back to that Usual Suspects comparison. While many such films have a slow reveal, The Imposter plays its first trump card immediately; imagine Keyser Soze staring down the barrel of the camera with dead-eyed certainty, wearing a T-shirt saying “I’m Not To Be Trusted!” Layton never attempts to portray his subjects as anything other than the classic unreliable narrator’s extended family, but still it’s to his credit that the techniques he employs will not only help you to empathise, but by the end be as desperate to find the truth as that dogged private investigator. Who am I? That question isn’t actually important, it’s a red herring, as long as you believe me when I say that The Imposter is one of the finest documentaries in years and hopefully not the last we’ll see of Bart Layton. And you know me; I wouldn’t lie to you, would I?

Why see it at the cinema: With the cinematic qualities of a great thriller, coupled with the knowledge that it’s based on fact, you’ll not only enjoy the visuals but also possibly be more drawn in by the sound of gasping all around you. Layton works the cinema screen like an established master and The Imposter is not to be missed.

The Score: 10/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Bombay Beach

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The Pitch: The Beach Boys: The Lost Generations.

The Review: There are plenty of stereotypes that come to mind when one thinks of America; from the brash New Yorker to the ultra-hip Californian, American ways of life vary more often than time zones as you move from east to west. Attempting to define an American way of life isn’t easy, but Bombay Beach is a unique documentary which attempts to give insight into the lives of average Americans who have one thing in common – they are living in a run-down, almost forgotten backwater (pop. 260) where the American dream seems to be closer to a nightmare.

The 1% of the Beach’s inhabitants that we do follow each have their own problems. The youngest, Benny, comes from a family who’ve had more than the odd run-in with the law and Benny’s mother is doing her best to balance the medications prescribed to moderate his youthful recklessness. CeeJay is a school student hoping to be the first in his family to make it to college, after being sent away from the violence surrounding his Los Angeles home. The eldest of the three, Red, is eking out his final years in the crumbling surroundings with the support of others but  still has the odd indulgence to make his later life enjoyable.

The stories of these three and their friends and families reflect a lot of what we think we know about America – as well as the mundanity of middle America being taken to extremes, the stories give insight into the everything from the prescription drug culture to the gun culture which blights the US, but attempts to put it into the context of the regular lives of these small-town folk. Director Alma Har’el spent a year chronicling the lives of the residents of this failed resort and is never afraid to get up close and personal with her subjects, getting the camera right into people’s faces and eavesdropping on fights and tantrums in an attempt to understand what makes them tick. Despite the shabby surroundings, all three subjects seem keen to make the best of their lot in life  and their story is one as much of hope as it is of destitution.

Emphasising that hope, Har’el has each of her subjects take part in a choreographed dance routine. Using the music of Zach Condon and Bob Dylan and the various dance routines, Bombay Beach is transformed from measured to magical, as if Har’el has managed to capture the very essence or soul of her subjects. Har’el doesn’t attempt to draw too many conclusions, instead allowing the viewer to make up their own mind, and that allows the more extravagent touches to be at their most effective. The setting might be bleak, but somehow it serves to inspire both its residents and the filmmaker and Bombay Beach is a moving, thought-provoking and uplifting snapshot of life on the poverty line in the American heartland.

Why see it in the cinema: Not only for the fantastic use of the desolate landscapes, but also the intimate character work which makes great use of the wide screen, and plenty of humour to share in the mix as well.

The Score: 8/10

Review: Benda Bilili!

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The Pitch: You apparently can get the Staff these days – you just have to be patient.

The Review: We think of the documentarian as our eyes and ears into a different world, giving us the chance to witness events first hand or to gain an insight into an as yet untold story. But what if that story wouldn’t have been told without that insight? Benda Bilili! is somehow more than a documentary, it’s an active witness of the evolution over half a decade of a group of street musicians from the streets of Kinshasa in the Congo into a band whose music, and musicians, have travelled the world. But it’s a journey guided by unseen hands, as documentary makers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye track the efforts to get the band heard by a wider audience.

When we first meet Staff Benda Bilili, it’s 2005 and Barret and de la Tullaye have been documenting the lives street musicians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the process discovered the fantastic sound made by the Staff, but now begins the long struggle to get their music heard. The group, led by ‘Papa’ Ricky and Coco, use their music to express the frustration at life in the slums of one of Africa’s poorer countries and their hopes and dreams of a better life, or at least a simpler one. Despite the fact that all are confined to tricycles after suffering, as many have in that area, from the effects of polio, this rarely rates high enough up the list of life’s hardships to get a mention. The music has struck a chord within the film-makers, but it’s a long journey to get them recorded and there are deeper hardships to come before they get their big chance.

That unseen guiding hand also has another influence: as talent scouts. In covering the rest of the city in a search for other musicians, the one who immediately stands out is Roger, a young boy who has developed his own instrument from little more than a tin can, a stick and a piece of string. The group can also see his potential, and take him under their wing – the passage of time being most reflected in his evolution from boy to young man and the group’s soloist during the documentary. His story alone would be both inspiring and uplifting, but given that it’s just a small piece of a much larger story, which feels almost too good to be true, means there’s plenty of narrative to fill the running time over the five years that passes.

During that time we get a mixture of insight into the family lives of the various members, and to some extent the pressure that the band is under to succeed  and give back the benefit to their families, and there’s a feelgood vibe to proceedings. Most of the footage is low quality, grainy handheld footage, but that of course is driven by the situation; what does come over loud and clear is the music, which from the first recording sessions in Kinshasa zoo to their budding concert performances captures the infectious blend of reggae and blues that brings their music alive and has rightly won them acclaim the world over. It’s a tremendous story, efficiently told with just enough powerful moments to keep their story on the right side of interesting the whole time. As Staff Benda Bilili would say, very very strong.

Why see it at the cinema: If we’re being completely honest, it’s not for the picture, which is of consistently low quality. But if your cinema has a good sound system, then a good time should be had by all.

The Score: 8/10


Review: Cave Of Forgotten Dreams 3D

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The Pitch: Lions and tigers and bears… in a 30,000 year old cave painting? Oh my.

The Review: It would be fair to say that Werner Herzog has always operated a little off the beaten track as far as the mainstream is concerned, although with films including Grizzly Man and his Bad Lieutenant remake in recent years his output is as high a quality now as it’s ever been. True to form, his latest effort is a documentary on a cave system in southern France, discovered less than 20 years ago and home to what are the oldest known cave paintings in the world; not only the oldest, in fact, but pre-dating all other known artworks of a similar nature by the order of millennia.

At face value it sounds fascinating, but the first challenge is how to translate a set of essentially static artworks in a static environment into a living, breathing film. Herzog has made a choice which may not have been available to him even a few years ago, to film in 3D, but this of course presents its own logistical challenges. The fact that Herzog also had barely twenty hours, over the course of a week, due to the need to maintain the delicate climate also added its own layer of challenge, and the director makes a virtue of these obstacles, breaking down the fourth wall and using the challenges to help structure much of the narrative.

More of that structure is given by the context of the images. Using interviews with the scientists who have spent much of the last two decades attempting to unlock the secrets of the cave, the film explores the historical context of the images and tries to understand the mindset of the artists who took to painting the cave. This is also a leaping off point to explore other aspects of the cave, from the fate of its various users and inhabitants (as indicated by their scattered and calcified remains) to the other cultural forces, including music, which were part of the various time periods. This succeeds in painting a rich tapestry, if you’ll pardon the pun, and gives so much more context to the images. Herzog is not averse to a little philosophical musing, either, and the eerie and very vocal soundtrack to much of the film helps to give mood to what could have been a very stilted topic.

Of course, where Werner Herzog is concerned, nothing is as simple as just showing some images and adding some context, so whether it be an “experimental archaeologist” playing a national anthem on an old bone, a man attempting to kill an imaginary horse or a surreal postscript in the shadow of a nearby nuclear reactor, there’s always a bit of oddness around the next corner if things become a little too predictable. But the star of the documentary is undoubtedly the caves, and despite the cramped surroundings and restricted filming techniques, the caves are given enough time to speak for themselves, and never once is any depiction of what’s in the cave anything less than fascinating.

Why see it at the cinema: Herzog makes the most of the open spaces outside as well as inside the cave, giving a real sense of scale and depth, and the gentle humour that Herzog draws out at certain points will work best seen with plenty of company.

Why see it in 3D: By Herzog’s own admission, 3D felt the only way to sensibly convey the textures and the atmosphere of the caves to the viewer. It works spectacularly well, and I’d go as far as to say it’s the best use of the 3D medium I’ve seen yet. James Cameron, eat your heart out.

The Score: 8/10

Review: Ride, Rise, Roar

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The Pitch: Byrne’s night… of interpretive dance! (Don’t sound so excited, will you?)

The Review: Concert movies and musical documentaries are a genre all of their own, with their own unique challenges. One of the standout films of the genre, dating back over twenty-five years, is the documentary Stop Making Sense, featuring concert footage from Talking Heads. Their lead singer, David Byrne, has continued to work regularly over the intervening years and in 2008 was working on another collaboration with famed producer Brian Eno. Then, in a moment of inspiration (or madness), he decided not only to take the resulting album on tour, but that the stage for the tour would feature the band, the backing singers and a group of modern dancers.

Modern dance is a very polarising concept at the best of times, and even if you fall into the love category rather than the hate, there’s no guarantee you’ll then also be a fan of the particular style of music, in this case David Byrne’s funked-up versions of his Talking Heads classics as well as his own material, both new and old. What the documentary sets out to do is to explain the process behind putting the show together in what’s a fairly conventional, linear narrative. It’s interspersed between the dozen tracks that make up the core of the film, and features behind the scenes material and interviews with many of the major players. The effect, at times, is akin to watching five minutes of a film then two or three minutes of the special features, but taken as a whole the making of segments do add valuable context to much of the material.

Director Hillman Curtis uses a fairly standard effect of black and white for the documentary segments and then colour for the music segments; the reddish hues of the stage lights and the all white costumes give the stage a distinctive look. The stage segments do show off the dancing to its best effect, being used to complement the music rather than distract from it, and a number of different devices (getting the musicians involved in the dancing as well, the use of props including office furniture and electric guitars) all make the show an event, rather than two disconnected pieces of entertainment sharing a stage. Thankfully, Byrne and his team know when to pump up the energy and when to scale things back, a couple of the tracks featuring little or no dancing, while others, such as Once In A Lifetime, drop in motifs from the music videos to give things a familiar feel when required.

Speaking of energy, Byrne has it in spades. It was evident in Stop Making Sense and the passing of time may have greyed his hair, but it hasn’t slowed his enthusiasm. His high tenor voice, where others may have to rely on Bee Gees-style falsetto, takes more energy and that seems to translate into both the music and the stage presence, and when you see the complete package it all starts making sense. (Sorry.) The music is fantastic if you’re a Byrne fan, with the up-tempo arrangements and the lively performances bringing new life to old classics, but the new material is also pretty good and even if you’re not a fan, you may be won over by the end.

Why see it at the cinema: Now this is a tricky one. The cinema absolutely works in enhancing the sound and vision of the concert footage, and the documentary segments also have scope, such as a dancer rehearsing alone on an empty stage, the big screen emphasising the size of the space. But the cinema screen does, on this occasion, create a problem, but not one that can’t be solved.

If you see one of these new-fangled live streams of opera or theatre at the cinema, then you’re getting pretty much the same experience, just flattened to two dimensions. However, you can see the crowd at the live shows getting up, and even getting close to the stage, but at the screening I attended that energy just wasn’t there, mainly because people stayed resolutely fixed to their seats. But I was jiggling along to the music in my seat, and could, after a while, feel others on my row doing the same.

So whether you see this in a cinema, or even at home with a few friends, engage with the music. Byrne is full of energy, and that translates to his audience in a live setting – if you’re with a group of people, get in early, persuade them to let their hair down, and you’ll all have a better time for it. You can thank me afterwards.

The Score: 8/10

Review: Restrepo

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The Pitch: The real Hurt Locker.

The Review: We live in an age when rolling news channels give us constant, and sometimes live, feeds of footage from the front lines of conflict across the world, and where it’s possible for movies to have made their way into cinemas while those conflicts are still taking place. We can be lulled into believing that we truly understand what it must be like to be on those front lines, but of course what we get are the heavily edited highlights. Restrepo follows the members of a platoon as they embark on a fifteen month deployment in Afghanistan’s Korengal valley.

It’s also easy to imagine how this is going to play out. We start with talking heads from the platoon members reflecting on their thoughts before they head out, but it’s clear that there’s a dose of reality already permeating among the members of the platoon. Directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington keep close to the platoon at all times, and an attack on the convoy early on immediately sets the stakes for both them and the platoon they’re following. The fact that the name of the outpost they establish, Outpost Restrepo, is named for a fallen colleague also serves to underline the immediacy of the threat facing them.

What follows has a slightly conventional feel to it at times, with footage of the talking heads of the platoon, mostly taken after the fact, interspersed with the footage of them building and then defending their outpost, attempting to manage the locals and out on patrol. There are also occasions when the members of Second Platoon come over as slightly sterotypical, no doubt thanks to the heavy diet of war films that both they and we have consumed over the years, but that also serves to help familiarise and humanise them, and their plight becomes that much more immediate.

Restrepo is not an attempt to judge the rights or wrongs of the Afghan conflict, more to understand what compels men to fight for their country and to put themselves in a situation like this for fifteen months. Although there’s no real sense of innovation in the presentation, the quality of the material speaks for itself, and both the frustrations and the terror are writ large across the screen. In particular, the last third of the movie sees the platoon deep in the action and the reality of their situation hits home hard. An undeniably moving and deliberately unglamorous documentary that captures both the best and worst of army life in Afghanistan.

Why see it at the cinema: Allowing yourself to be immersed in the footage helps to understand quite what these soldiers have gone through, and hopefully to make you more than a little relieved that you don’t actually have to go through it.

The Score: 8/10

Review: The Last Exorcism

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The Pitch: The Exorcist Witch Project.

The Review: Horror is a predominant genre of cinema, thanks to classic horror movies such as The Exorcist. There have also been a number of sub-genres of horror over the years, and probably the most prevalent of the last decade is the “found footage” genre, where either a documentary or home video feel is applied to footage, such as The Blair Witch Project and [REC]. So it was surely only a matter of time before someone decided to splice the two together. Taking a break from another sub-genre, torture porn stalwart Eli Roth takes a producer credit on this “documentary” of the less than reverend Cotton Marcus and his faking of an exorcism to expose the issues with the wider trade.

The first act of the movie is set-up for the later events, and consequently is more focused on the religious aspects, reflecting on Cotton’s increasing lack of faith, but the journey that’s actually taken him on and how he’s arrived at this point. His cynicism and brashness is only vaguely challenged as he heads out to the home of Nell, where he’s chosen at random to conduct his last exorcism. Through this section of the movie, there’s plenty to reflect on, especially around the nature of faith and aspects of belief.

Then the second act shows Nell start to show the effects that have led her father to call on Cotton’s services in the first place. By setting up the fact that the demon only presents itself at night, there’s an underlying tension built in as we approach darkness each time over the course of the next few days. There’s a couple of very effective shots using the camera to grisly or suspenseful ends, and as we’re led to question characters’ motives and back stories the tension starts to come from without as well as within, and in general the middle stretch is by far the most compelling section.

In the final stretch, there’s a deliberate set-up for what is to come, and expectations are set, only for those expectations to be subverted a couple of times. Unfortunately, this is where The Last Exorcism starts to lose points; the first of those subversions culminates in a decision taken by characters who’ve obviously never watched Scream or any other self-mocking horror (don’t do that – no sensible person would do what you lot are doing!), which leads them to the final twist, and a riff on another very famous Sixties horror, which while making sense of all the characters’ arcs denies us the gory catharsis promised by that earlier set-up, and feels horribly anti-climactic. If you like a more tense and cerebral horror, then this could be for you, but it may be best to leave just before the end, and see if you can come up with a better ending than the moviemakers.

Why see it at the cinema: Some early and mid-movie creepiness always works well in a large, darkened cinema. You can also get to enjoy the tutting and disbelief of your fellow moviegoers on your way out.

The Score: 6/10