Everything or Nothing (2012) February 14, 2013Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, James Bond, 4 stars, British films, films about films, 2010s, 2013 , add a comment
Celebrate 50 years of James Bond movies with this feature-length documentary, on Sky Movies from tomorrow.
#81: Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project (2011) November 24, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, 4 stars, films about films, Biography, 2010s, 2012 , add a comment
The documentary that Weinstein reportedly tried to stop existing, including discouraging people from participating in interviews. Either he needn’t have worried or really is a complete megalomaniac, because while there is a certain warts-and-all aspect to Barry Avrich’s cinematic biography, it can’t help but admire all that Weinstein has achieved.
Click through for the full review:
#84: Bill Cunningham New York (2010) November 18, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, 5 stars, Biography, 2010s, 2012 , add a comment
Excellent documentary, which is on Sky Arts 1 at 8pm and 1:50am today, and 2:30pm tomorrow.
#7: With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story (2010) May 9, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, 5 stars, Biography, superhero films, 2010s, 2012 , 3 comments
Stan “The Man” Lee is indeed The Man when it comes to the world of comic books. In the 1960s he revolutionised the medium in the US, introducing complex and realistic characters to a world that had previously focused on perfect super-humans like Superman, Batman and Captain America. In a period of just two years he co-created the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men, and after that rejuvenated Captain America (cancelled a decade earlier) for a modern audience. If there’s anyone in the comic world deserving of a dedicated feature-length documentary, it’s Stan Lee.
Fortunately, co-directors Dougas, Frakes and Hess have crafted a brilliant documentary, both about the man and his works. It’s packed with big-name interviewees, both comic-book-world-famous and genuinely famous: Avi Arad, Kenneth Branagh, Nic Cage, MIchael Chiklis, Roger Corman, Kirsten Dunst, Danny Elfman, Harlan Ellison, Jon Favreau, Kevin Feige, James Franco, Samual L. Jackson, Jim Lee, Tobey Maguire, Todd McFarlane, Frank Miller, Joe Quesada, Seth Rogen, Bryan Singer, Kevin Smith, Ringo Starr, Patrick Stewart… even Paris Hilton. And that’s just some of them. They leave you in doubt of Lee’s impact and importance.
Even better are the many interviews with Lee himself, plus his associates and his family, which form the backbone of the film to tell the story — the wheres, whens, whos, hows and whys of all he’s done, both in his Marvel heyday in the ’60s as well as before and since. It also really digs in to his personal life at time, getting very emotional. That Lee and his family appear and tell these tales mean it doesn’t feel intrusive.
All of this is illustrated with a mass of archive footage, photos, art and letters. It’s actually quite stunning. The research must have been enormous, but it really pays off, making the film richly detailed both in terms of the facts it imparts and the visuals it employs.
At just 80 minutes it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome; indeed I, and I’m sure many other fans, could’ve taken a whole lot more. The big question, though, is does it have that crossover appeal to ‘Not-We’s that (arguably) the best documentaries should have? Truthfully, I don’t know. But I imagine it would be difficult to watch without gaining an appreciation for how significant Lee is, and how genuinely brilliant he is too. Highly recommended.
#45: Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff (2010) October 13, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, 4 stars, British films, films about films, Biography, 2010s, 2011 , add a comment
Documentary telling the story of the career of cinematographer and director Jack Cardiff.
As the title implies, it focuses mainly on the former — despite the fact he directed 13 features, this part of his career is largely glossed over with a bit of discussion of one film, Sons and Lovers, which earnt some Oscar nominations (including one, slightly ironic, win). But that’s probably fine, because it’s for his work with the camera on films like A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The African Queen that Cardiff is best known.
As a film, it doesn’t do anything fancy: talking heads, clips, photographs. There’s nothing wrong with that when you’re topic is engrossing and your content stands on its own. It’s a biography of Cardiff’s work, moving chronologically through his major contributions to cinema. The insights are numerous thanks to the number of films covered and a lot of footage from an interview with Cardiff himself. Though there are other interviewees, including some big names (just look at the list on IMDb), what Cardiff has to say of his own works dominates, which seems only proper.
My overriding memory of the documentary is of a slew of beautiful-looking films, some well known and others not, but every one jumping onto want-to-see lists thanks to what’s shown here. Which just demonstrates how deserving Cardiff and his work are of a dedicated feature film of this quality.
Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff is on Film4 and Film4 HD tonight at 1:20am, and Film4 +1 at 2:20am (of course).
#76: The House on 92nd Street (1945) September 28, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, Thriller, Film Noir: Classic, Crime, 4 stars, 1940s, true stories, 2011 , 2 comments
Here’s an unusual one from the pantheon of film noir. These days we’d probably call it a docu-drama, though thankfully there are no talking heads, but there is a factual voiceover narration. The story, we’re told, comes from the FBI’s files and is based on a real case — IMDb tells me the original title was Now It Can Be Told and it’s “loosely based on the case of Duquesne Spy Ring headed by Frederick Joubert Duquesne and the work of real life double agent William G. Sebold.” So there you go.
The story we actually see centres on Bill Dietrich, an American student of Germanic descent who’s approached by someone with an offer to train in Germany. This being set in a period when Hitler was on the rise, Bill toddles off to the FBI, who inform him that he’s being recruited to be a Germany spy… and so they encourage him to go and become a double agent. On his return to America, he infiltrates a group who are stealing weapons secrets and things progress from there. And they’re based in a house on New York’s 92nd Street, hence the title.
What this all really allows for is a film of two halves, though thankfully it’s not obviously divided up that way. On the one hand we have a double-agent spy thriller, which has a noir-ish tinge but isn’t the most representative film of the genre; on the other, a fairly factual look at the contemporary workings of the FBI. Many of the smaller parts were played by real FBI agents and a lot of time is put into showing how they really work and investigate a case. At the time I imagine this was a fascinating procedural; now, we’re all a bit more familiar with how such things go, but it still works as an historical document.
The tone is very reverent toward the Bureau, but as it was made while the US was still at war with Japan (it was released a week after their surrender; we’ll come back to that in a moment) that’s understandable. I don’t think it goes too far — they’re certainly shown to be faultless good guys, but at the same time they’re not superheroes. Plus none of this really gets in the way of the more straightforwardly thriller-ish side of the story, which has suitable amounts of tension and an all-action climax, plus a decent twist/reveal for who The Man Behind It All is.
Two final things, then: first, another bit of trivia from IMDb that I found interesting and so will quote more-or-less in full:
The movie deals with the theft by German spies of the fictional “Process 97,” a secret formula which, the narrator tells us, “was crucial to the development of the atomic bomb.” The movie was released on September 10, 1945, only a month after the atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan, and barely a week after Japan’s formal surrender. While making the film, the actors and director Henry Hathaway did not know that the atomic bomb existed, or that it would be incorporated as a story element in the movie. (None of the actors in the film mentions the atomic bomb.) However, co-director/producer Louis De Rochemont and narrator Reed Hadley were both involved in producing government films on the development of the atomic bomb. After the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Hadley and screenwriter John Monks Jr. hastily wrote some additional voice-over narration linking “Process 97″ to the atomic bomb, and Rochemont inserted it into the picture in time for the film’s quick release.
Well there you go, eh? Don’t get much more timely than that.
Secondly, from Wikipedia: “Although praised when released in 1945, the film when released on DVD in 2005 received mostly mixed reviews. Christopher Null writes, “today it comes across as a bit goody-goody, pandering to the FBI, pedantic, and not noirish at all.”" I think I’ve addressed most of these points already, but it’s the last one that gets me. Essentially he seems to be moaning that “they didn’t make a good enough film noir!” Might be because no one ever knew they were making a film noir, eh? How can you expect something to conform to a set of rules that were only defined after the fact? Hathaway and co didn’t fail at making a noir, they just made a film that doesn’t fit the later-defined template as well as the films used to define said template. I know, four words from some other online critic hardly merit a whole paragraph, but it does bug me when people write daft things like that.
Anyway, back to the point: The House on 92nd Street is not the best example of film noir one could find, certainly, but it is an entertaining and informative documentary-ish spy-thriller.
The House on 92nd Street is on More4 tomorrow, Thursday 29th September, at 10:30am (and, naturally, on More4 +1 one hour later).
#49: Catfish (2010) July 25, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, Drama, Thriller, 4 stars, true stories, 2010s, 2011 , add a comment
Catfish is a documentary (probably — we’ll come to that) in which 20-something Nev falls in love with a girl somewhere else in America over the Internet. He and his friends become suspicious that she’s not who she claims and set off to find out The Truth.
Some have said that Catfish reflects our current relationship with social networking technology more than the highly-acclaimed-for-reflecting-our-current-relationship-with-social-networking-technology The Social Network did. They’re right. That’s no criticism of Fincher and Sorkin’s work, though, because I’ve never really held with the notion that their film was a generation-defining tale — it’s about the birth of the largest social networking tool yet seen, but it’s only about that in part; it’s more about relationships between people in business. Catfish, however, is about how said tool (and others) are and can be used, and what effects this can have on human relations.
It’s hard to meaningfully discuss Catfish without looking at what happens towards the end of it, which is obviously spoiler territory, a no-no for any half-decent review aimed at viewers who’ve not viewed the viewing in question. The film’s ‘big reveals’, which everyone talks about coming at the end, actually begin to stack up from about halfway through; there’s no last-minute twist here — the answers are a huge part of the whole film. And so they should be, I think; but it also means if you don’t want to reveal them you have to not discuss a good chunk of the film — the most important chunk, to my mind, because it is after the reveals that Catfish finds its greatest weight and importance.
Before I get spoilersome, then, let me say this: you will probably guess where it’s going. Even if you’ve not had it in some way revealed (however little of it) before you watch, early scenes will lead to the obvious conclusion: why am I being shown this if it doesn’t go somewhere? And what’s the obvious place it’s going to go? I think most viewers must guess. But I think many — probably even most — will not guess precisely where it ends up; the exact nature of the truth it finds. So this is not as much of a Thriller as it’s been sold in some quarters. It has suspense, certainly, and it has mysteries that have answers… but there’s not some dark secret at the heart of it all; instead, there’s a painful emotional situation. Already I’m saying too much.
And now I shall go on to discuss things that might get spoilery, including the much-debated topic of whether the film is real or a hoax. If you’ve not seen it, I encourage you to skip to my final two paragraphs.
All documentary is constructed in some way — it is, at best, an edited account of real filmed events. As a society/culture we’ve been taught to assume it’s edited in such a way as to present a true-to-life-(but-abbreviated) account of what Really Happened, but that’s not necessarily the case. When you throw in an authorial voice — an onscreen presence or a voice over — it becomes if anything less truthful, especially if the filmmaker has a particular message they want to convey. Sadly, despite the masses of “don’t trust what you read”/”don’t trust what you see” comments that come from more responsible sources and/or satire, I still think most people fundamentally believe what they see in a documentary (or they read in a newspaper) to be the truth.
So whatever the reality behind it, Catfish is unquestionably a construct — it has been edited (like all documentaries), so it automatically is; it can’t be anything else. The filmmakers have chosen what they want us to see, whether that be real or staged. The questions of veracity, then, are: did these events really happen, and/or did they happen as the film depicts them?
Some have noted the makers got lucky to be filming when all the major points of the story happened. Rubbish. Poppycock. Stronger words with swearing in them. If they were making a documentary, surely they’d be filming a lot? Especially whenever they knew Nev would be having a phone call with Angela/Megan/etc. There’s nothing in the film to suggest they didn’t shoot dozens or hundreds of hours of footage of Nev reading out Facebook messages and text messages, or dozens of phone calls, then trimmed them right back to the most interesting or relevant (in their eyes, naturally). If they were committed to making a documentary, the likelihood is they would have shot almost all the time, recorded him reading out every message (or as much as they could), then selected the most relevant or revealing bits in the edit. That’s how documentary filmmaking works. And when it gets to the point, surprisingly early on, where they suspect something’s amiss, of course they’re filming all the time: they’re on an investigation and they’re filming that investigation! The allegation that it can’t be real because they happened to film everything that happened is nonsense.
That said, there is a theory that some of the earlier scenes were shot later; that they realised they were on to something around the time it started to go awry, then went back and staged earlier events for the sake of storytelling. That explanation I can buy.
In some respects, I find the reaction of viewers more interesting than whether the film is wholly truthful or not. Some people seem to hate and despise Angela for what she did. Really? How heartless a human being are you? What she did was wrong, to a degree (it’s hardly robbery, or murder, or worse, is it?), but she is clearly a woman stuck in a life she’s not happy with and looking for a means of escape; but she’s a fundamentally good person, who won’t abandon the people she cares for and cares about. How people can reach the end of Catfish and still be condemning her I don’t know. She earns our sympathy. If anything, the filmmakers look bad — at times, it looks very much as if they’re about to exploit her or use the film to attack her. They don’t, because they see the truth and they sympathise too. If anything, they use it to try to help her.
If you have any interest in the Internet and the way so many people now live their lives through it, with all the social networking it offers, and how that impacts back on their ‘real’ lives, then Catfish demands to be seen. I don’t want to suggest you’ll definitely like or even appreciate it, but I do think you need to see it for yourself. As much as I loved The Social Network (it’s still on track as the best film I’ve seen in 2011), Catfish probably has more to say about the actual impact of Facebook on our lives than Fincher/Sorkin’s biopic does.
And for those wondering about the unusual title, it’s eventually explained in the film itself. The anecdote that inspired it is interesting, memorable, and quite possibly fictional — how appropriate.
Catfish is on More4 tomorrow, Tuesday 26th July, at 10pm, and again at 1am.