Even if you’re not a fan of football, you cannot fail to have to heard of the Argentinian player that is Diego Maradona. If you don’t know him then he rose from the shantytowns of Buenos Aires to become one of the greatest footballers of all time. A wunderkind prodigy as a teenager, he became the most expensive footballer ever when he moved to Napoli from Barcelona. In Naples he would transform a club, normally in the shadows of giants from Milan and Rome, into a title winning team. Moreover, he famously led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, with one of the most scintillating individual footballing performances ever witnessed. I missed Asif Kapadia’s absorbing documentary when released at the cinema, however, with Maradona sadly passing away last week, I took the opportunity to watch it on Channel 4’s streaming platform.
Kapadia has shown himself as a master filmmaker in constructing narratives from archival footage. This engrossing style and expertly edited form is brilliantly demonstrated in Senna (2010) and Amy (2015), both winning several major awards. Once again Kapadia uses the same process. He combines interviews via voiceover with Maradona, his ex-wife Claudia, his trainer and many other people, with hundreds of hours of found film footage shot by Argentine cameramen in the 1980s. Moreover, further archival footage was discovered in the home of Maradona’s ex-wife in a trunk untouched for 30 years.
Kapadia and his editors weave such sources to create an absorbing portrait of an extremely complex personality. Indeed, many interviews comment on the football star having two distinct sides. One called Diego, a sweet-natured lad who became a phenomenon on the pitch and the other Maradona, a notorious, larger than life mega-star pursued by the media, football fans, women, gangsters and money people. Whether this schism contributed to Maradona’s battles with drug addiction and other controversies, it is difficult to say. What is clear though is, despite his flaws, love for partying, fiery temperament and questionable associations, the press in Italy and the rest of the world, were permanently in Maradona’s face, creating a pressure cooker atmosphere for him and his family.
Overall, I was totally transfixed by the documentary, Diego Maradona (2019). Having grown up as a teenager watching Maradona on the television, notably the infamous ‘Hand of God’ game against England at the 1986 World Cup, I was struck by huge waves of nostalgia. Even though Maradona’s Argentina defeated England, one could never fail to be in awe at his magical skills as a player. I love football and enjoyed many scenes showing the brutal and beautiful nature of the game. Lastly, Kapadia’s main narrative thrust involves Maradona’s rise and fall from grace during Napoli’s spectacular rise to the top of the Italian league. Yet, having scored the penalty that knocked Italy out of the 1990 World Cup, his once beloved Naples would turn on Maradona, leaving him friendless and without protection from the Italian law. Ultimately, the film stands as not only a complex tribute to a footballing genius, but also a cautionary tale of the trials and tribulations of worldwide fame and notoriety.
Featuring: Larry Cohen, J.J. Abrams, Rick Baker, Eric Bogosian, Richard J. Brewer, Jon Burlingame, Barbara Carrera, Joe Dante, James Dixon, F.X. Feeney, Robert Forster, Megan Gallagher, Mick Garris, Paul Glickman, Frederick King Keller, David Kern, Yaphet Kotto, Paul Kurta, John Landis, Laurene Landon, Traci Lords, Michael Moriarty, Daniel Pearl, Eric Roberts, Martin Scorsese, Nathaniel Thompson, Ryan Turek, Janelle Webb, Fred Williamson etc.
In England, where I grew up in the 1970’s, we used to used have only THREE television channels to choose from. Latterly in the 1980’s that increased to four. Now, we have what seems like millions of streaming and cable channels to choose from. They’re coming out of our ears and minds and from the skies and the darkened underground. Of course, we have the major channels such as Sky, Apple, BBC, ITV, Netflix, Disney + and Amazon, to but name a few, however, there are now specific streaming outlets geared toward whole genres.
One of these is Shudder – https://www.shudder.com/ – and they specialise in screening B-movies, video nasties, slasher, serial killer, monster, essential and non-essential horror films from past and present. Fellow blogger, Bobby Carroll, has recently been reviewing some of Shudder’s catalogue and I too will be doing the same. Check out his site here – it’s very good! So, over the last few weeks I have binged on so many horror films. Some are very good ones, some pretty bad ones and some just absolutely downright ugly releases. I guess one could consider me strange to immerse myself in so many horror films back-to-back; however, I love to be moved by fear and sickened with fright. Having said that the true terror on this Earth is happening out there in the real world. What occurs on the cinema or TV screen within the horror genre is actually an escape for me; albeit a gruesome, deathly and bloody one.
The first film I’d like to review is King Cohen (2018). It is a very lively jaunt through the career of independent filmmaker Larry Cohen. If you didn’t know Larry Cohen, he is one of the most prolific screenwriters ever. Born in 1941 in Washington Heights, New York, he began a stand-up career at the age of seventeen, before moving onto writing teleplays and TV scripts for CBS and NBC. Working within the TV and Hollywood system was creatively stifling for Cohen, so he decided to write, produce and direct his own films as a true independent. Examples of his directorial work include: Bone (1972), Black Caesar (1973), It’s Alive (1974), God Told Me To (1976), The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), Q-The Winged Serpent (1982), The Stuff (1985), plus he wrote the screenplays forBest Seller (1987), Maniac Cop (1988), Phone Booth (2002) andCellular (2004).
As a tribute to Larry Cohen, who passed away last year, this is a tremendously lively and positive documentary about a true maverick filmmaker. Larry Cohen indeed features heavily in the interviews. He comes across as energetic, intelligent, funny and ballsy. Testimonies from Fred Williamson, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Rick Baker, Eric Roberts and many, many more people who worked with Cohen bear witness to his prolific output and unorthodox ways of shooting films. Because he wanted control over his writing, many of his directorial releases were very low budget and he would often film in a guerrilla style on the streets of New York or even in his own house. He became famous for “stealing” scenes which included, unbeknown to them, the general public and NO film or work permits. I admired both his hubris and determination to tell his cinematic stories, and despite the lack of money his scripts were full of ingenuity, humour and much intelligence. Thus, if you love films about filmmaking and exploitation movies in general, then you should definitely check out King Cohen (2019) and Larry Cohen’s back catalogue of horrors too.
Directors: Alex Gibney, Jesse Moss, Erin Lee Carr, Kristi Jacobson, Brian McGinn, Fisher Stevens, Dan Krauss, Zachary Heinzerling, Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme, Stephen Maing, Kyoko Miyake, Margaret Brown
Executive producer(s): Adam Del Deo, Yon Motskin, Lisa Nishimura, Stacey Offman, Jason Spingarn-Koff, Alex Gibney
Production company(s) Jigsaw Productions
Do you remember that scene in The Matrix (1999)? Not the famous one where Neo (Keanu Reeves) is given the choice of taking the red pill or blue pill. Not the scene where he is told the blue pill will allow him to remain in the fabricated reality of the ‘Matrix’; whereas the red pill will let him locate his body in the real world to be “unplugged” from the ‘Matrix.’ No, I’m talking about the scene where Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) asks specifically to be sent back into the ‘Matrix’, so he can forget about the horrific nature of his reality. He’s so sick of feeling powerless and fighting against a system he cannot beat, he is prepared to sell out his comrades and go back to blissful ignorance of the alien control machine. I call this unenviable and traitorous decision, “Cypher’s Choice.” I mean, he’d taken the red pill, but the truth was so unpalatable he wanted to reverse it and live in an artifical fiction.
‘Cypher’s Choice’ is one that can face many of us who have a modicum of thought, sensitivity and understanding of the world we live in. It’s also something which struck me when watching both seasons of the superior Netflix documentary, Dirty Money (2019 – 2020). Here is a very well produced, researched and edited set of films which really make one question the very core of human behaviour. This capitalist system which we live in just continues to produce unbelievable greed, corruption and questionable, almost psychopathic, acts of abuse. More often than not the individuals, corporations and governments perpetrating these morally repugnant acts are even acting within the law, or some twisted version of it. So, does one just accept that we are living in a cesspool of greed, hypocrisy and sociopathic moneymen? Further, does one accept one is powerless to stop it? Does one take ‘Cypher’s Choice’ and head back into the ‘Matrix’? Or fight the machine? It’s an incredibly difficult decision to make.
One way of fighting back or, at the very least holding a mirror up to the corruption in the world, is a trial by media. Conversely, Dirty Money (2019 – 2020), presents a frightening, but compelling series of documentaries featuring some illuminating exposes into negative, and illegal, corporate and government practices. Netflix, to their credit, have banded together a whole host of determined documentary filmmakers including: Alex Gibney, Jesse Moss, Dan Krauss, Fisher Stevens, Erin Lee Carr, and Margaret Brown, to name a few. These twelve documentary films are carefully presented and are hugely serious programmes. While they posit a certain journalistic objectivity, and lack the personal style of say Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield and Louis Theroux, they certainly cut their targets down to size from a left-of-centre standpoint.
Personally, I believe we need to transcend agendas and opposing political viewpoints and move toward a collective humanist goal where everyone treats everyone equally. That is clearly an ideological non-starter though. However, whatever your political standpoint may be, whether you’re a gun-carrying right-winger or Marxist pinkie or libertarian Darwinist, you have to agree that the current financial systems we have are busted. They must be or we would not get documentaries alleging: criminal pay-day loan scams; the Volkswagen emission scam; a Malaysian President siphoning off tax-payer money to fund an extravagant lifestyle; HSBC money-laundering for Mexican drug cartels; nefarious landlords screwing tenants for all the money they have; price-gouging Pharmaceutical firms; and the likes of Wells Fargo Bank aggressively cross-selling and inventing customers to boost their share price.
These and many more legal and moral crimes are represented in Dirty Money (2019 – 2020) and they shock one to the core. How can people be so greedy? How can companies lie so much? Why isn’t enough ever enough? Are they sadists or even psychopaths? Why can’t they share or redistribute their wealth? Why are they hellbent on destroying the Earth we live in? Why do some people constantly lie and steal from others? Why do they deny they have done anything wrong? And am I part of the problem living in this world and doing nothing to change it? Finally, these documentaries truly make you question whether you want to be part of this world. Does one look away though; swallow that blue pill again and take ‘Cypher’s Choice’? It’s probably way easier to do exactly that. Thankfully, though there are many out their battling the system and seeking justice for the wrongs that have been done. Long may the fight continue. It’s not ending anytime soon.
Produced by: Kitty Green, James Schamus, Scott Macauley, P. Jennifer Dana, Ross Jacobson
Cinematography: Michael Latham
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Mackenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Noah Robbins etc.
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Having worked initially in the documentary genre, Kitty Green now presents her first fictional film, The Assistant (2019), with the ever-impressive Julia Garner in the lead. Garner portrays the titular assistant, Jane, a PA in an unnamed New York based film production company. However, while the characters may be fictional, the events reflected are very much based in reality, as the film explores endemic sexism within the film industry and office workplaces more generally. This isn’t a sensationalist #MeToo expose or revenge story, but rather a subtle narrative which conveys it’s criticisms with hushed and damning power.
The film is structured over one day. I’m a big fan of such a convention and wrote about the positives of single day narratives here. Anyway, The Assistant (2019), begins with Jane first in the office, and ends with her being one of the last there at night. In the middle we get a succession of expertly composed scenes which find Jane working for a big-shot movie producer. The fact that we never see him, but hear him and experience the aftermath of his behaviour through Jane is an ingenious concept. By showing rather telling us directly about his covert sexist exploitation, one is truly brought into Jane’s painful situation. She is told she is lucky to have this job and it presents a great opportunity to eventually become a film producer. Yet, to do so requires her to turn a blind eye to events which other employees horrifically consider to be the norm in a media company.
Weinstein’s name is never mentioned. It doesn’t have to be. He is the sexual predator in the room and probably among many film producers who have utilised the casting couch to have their disgusting way with budding actors and actresses. That is why Kitty Green deserves so much praise because she chose a directorial style that really works for the story. Green and her cinematographer suck all of the colour out of the film industry, making it grey and beige and stark and unglamorous. Via the character of Jane, and Garner’s exquisitely reserved performance, we learn that such bullying cultures exist, and the character must choose to accept it or move on. Garner’s scene with the HR Executive, played by Matthew Macfadyen, is superb in conveying the difficult choice Jane faces.
Lastly, as well as making important points about the patriarchal corruption within the film industry, I enjoyed that it also captured the repetitive nature of administration work. Photocopiers hum, phones ring, paper flaps, printers and faxes whir, while florescent strip lights glow amidst the drudge of the daily office grind. Jane is a prisoner within a myriad of shadowy walls and filing cabinets. Further, Jane is also torn between being a just person and following her dream of working in the movies. But, at the end of another exceptionally exhausting day, that dream is soured by the insidious lust of human behaviour. Thus, The Assistant (2019) asks, will things ever change? Go watch it and decide if you think they will.
NETFLIX REVIEW – TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM AND MADNESS (2020)
Directed by: Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin
Executive Producers: Chris Smith, Fisher Stevens, Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin
Cinematography: Damien Drake
Edited by: Doug Abel, Nicholas Biagetti, Dylan Hansen-Fliedner, Daniel Koehler, Geoffrey Richmond
Original Network: Netflix
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Mark Twain
Personally, I love nothing more than to immerse myself in fictional worlds created by writers, showrunners and filmmakers, but sometimes it’s important to face the “truth” in storytelling. Thus, documentary filmmaking has always been a popular genre too. Having said that are documentaries actually reflecting the truth? Because the documentary genre over the years has become ultra-sophisticated and many “true” stories are not just simply filmed documents or events or interviews. Now, documentaries are often carefully constructed and mediated narratives with as much, if not more, drama and turns in their tales than fictional works. Conversely, some stories and characters are so incredible they are indeed stranger than fiction.
Netflix churns out a lot of quality and not-so high-quality content. There is an arguably scattergun approach with subscribers paying their money and taking their chances. They have of course had some big hits. The documentary Making a Murderer (2015), prestige Royalty drama, The Crown (2016 – ) and 1980’s sci-fi show Stranger Things (2016 – ) are three such shows that have become cultural phenomenon. The latest one is the docuseries Tiger King (2020); a true crime documentary centred around eccentric, to say the least, zookeeper, Joe Exotic (not his real name). Filmed in a “fly-on-the-wall” form it covers a six-year period from 2014 to 2020. The setting is a number of zoos and animal “sanctuaries” in Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina respectively. These zoos contain some of the most dangerous animals in the world, namely humans. They also contain tigers, lions, leopards, panthers, chimpanzees, lemurs, snakes and all manner of other exotic animals. So, with larger than life people and animals on show, what could possibly go wrong?
This series presents the very worst examples of human madness, cruelty and behaviour. Firstly, I must say that there are some decent people in the show. Some of the zookeepers do display care for the animals and make it their living to protect them, however, the documentary illustrates powerfully the institutional cruelty of those individuals who breed and keep animals in cages for money. Even Carole Baskin, Joe’s bitter rival, who runs the Big Cat Rescue zoo in Tampa, Florida, and an advocate for saving these animals, did seem to make a lot of money out of it. I guess we’re all to blame in society though as we have all visited zoos and safari parks in our day. But this is not an advocate documentary for an organisation like PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), although they certainly were able to use the footage as evidence for their cause. This, ultimately, is a tabloid expose of a world containing some of the most narcissistic and insane people you could encounter. It’s car-crash-freak-show-television and I feel ashamed to say I was gripped by this zoological soap opera from start to finish.
The leading lunatic is aforementioned Joe Exotic. He is a gay, mullet-haired, gun-toting, self-promoting, country-and-western “singing”, rage-addicted polygamist. Even the greatest Hollywood screenwriter could not invent such a character. Over seven startling episodes the series charts his rise and fall from successful zookeeper to failed politician to eventually, well, I won’t give away the ending. The other characters of the series are just as dodgy. While she does seem to be doing some good, Carole Baskin, was presented as some weird ‘Mother Earth’ type who may or may not have killed her husband. Joe Exotic’s hatred of her drives the narrative and his words and actions toward her are pure malevolence. Other big cat owners such as, Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, and Joe’s former business partner, Jeff Lowe, feature prominently throughout. Doc Antle seemed the sanest of the lot and had provided animals for big Hollywood productions, however, even his lifestyle, according to the documentary, seemed to involve grooming younger women and examples of animal cruelty.
Overall, this short review merely skims the surface of what goes on in this explosive TV show. There are big cat attacks, lawsuits, deaths, murder plots, suspected suicides, drug abuse, arson, constant threats, political campaigns, federal investigations and court indictments. It is both an intense viewing spectacle and also a tragic one. The animals kept in cages are so beautiful and majestic, it is sad that their lives are one of incarceration. The crazy thing is that they were bred in captivity for profit by the likes of Joe Exotic and then sadly discarded when of no use. Tiger King (2020) presents a truth that people do not deserve this Earth and I’m ashamed to be part of the human race. On the other hand, this string of crazy characters and events make absolutely sensational television. The biggest tragedy is the animals will continue to be prisoners, while attention-seeking people profit from such cruelty.
Based on: Tell Me Who I Am by Joanna Hodgkin, Alex Lewis and Marcus Lewis
Cinematography: Erik Alexander Wilson
I recently reviewed a number of documentaries here, but it was only during a catch-up of Netflix films did I watch the harrowing family drama, Tell Me Who I Am (2019). Now, in my younger days I was naive enough to think documentaries were a representation of the whole truth and not a mediated version of events. There was fiction on one side and documentaries on the other. It’s a documentary so it must be true and must not be questioned.
That isn’t to say that the events of this incredible story are not true. No, my point is that Tell Me Who I Am (2019) is, while based on a true story, structured like a classic Hollywood thriller akin to something Hitchcock may have produced. Conversely, I was gripped throughout by the mystery, suspense and a gut-kicking reveal halfway through. Do not read anything about this moving family story beforehand, as going in with NO knowledge will make it all the more powerful.
The film is structured in the classic three act fashion. Firstly, we find Alex Lewis describing events of an accident he had when 18. The incident led to him totally losing his memory. The only thing he remembered was he had a twin brother, Marcus. His mother, father, friends, their farmhouse, the privileged background and their dogs were all forgotten. Like a film noir protagonist he was left in the dark as to his whole history. With the help of Marcus, he slowly begins to learn about his past and rehabilitate for the future. Thus, at first one feels this is a story of an individual overcoming near-tragedy and rebuilding their life moment by moment. However, it becomes something much more than that. I shall say no more.
Shot through talking heads, photo montage and reconstruction, this is an exquisitely edited and filmed documentary. The twins, Alex and Marcus are framed in close-ups, with pale backgrounds and shadowed foregrounds. As we move back and forth between their respective sides of the story, one is slowly pulled into the incredible events that confirm truth is more horrifying than fiction. By the resolution I was shook and deeply affected by the film, with still some questions left unanswered. Ultimately though, Tell Me Who I Am (2019) is a satisfying and very emotionally charged story about searching for truth amidst familial conflict, betrayal and a longing for redemption.
I haven’t done one of these articles for a while, but in light of the Conservative Party victory in the General Election the other day, I thought it interesting to lean toward a more political filmmaker for my latest post. Thus, I once again pick five highly recommended films by one of my favourite cinema creatives. Today, I look at the work of Ken Loach.
Loach is now, at time of writing, eighty-three year’s old, and has just released a new film called Sorry We Missed You (2019). At the cinema alone he has singularly directed twenty-five films, plus been involved with many television productions too. His ‘Wednesday Play’ Cathy Come Home (1966), was voted in the top ten best British television programmes of all time at the turn of the millennium. It was so powerful in its depiction of a struggling homeless character, the issues were raised in Parliament at the time. His work continues to address socio-political issues even now and has often provoked controversy.
Loach works generally in the dramatic or social realist genre. However, his raw, almost documentary style, which centres on working or characters from the under-classes, does have much comedy going through it too. Structurally his films build empathy with his characters in a generally linear fashion; slices of life which more often than not result in tragedy. While the landscapes he displays are quite depressing, his characters aren’t victims though. They are always strong and passionate and striving for the best outcome. However, poor life choices, poverty, bureaucracy, gangsters, criminality, addiction, military, and unfair government laws and procedures provide fierce obstacles.
Some have accused Loach of, over the years, being a ‘Champagne Socialist’, comfortably attacking the ruling classes from a position of privilege. He’s also been accused of vicariously holidaying in the land of the under-privileged, for what gain I’m unsure of. Personally, I am always compelled by Loach’s cinema, the issues raised and the characters he presents. He is a true humanist director and storyteller, who has made some consistently brilliant films. Whether you agree with his politics or views, he is at least attempting to reflect the injustices in the world and the underdogs within in it. Here are five films which capture this perfectly.
Based on Barry Hines’ novel, Kesis one of the finest British films ever. It concerns the everyday existence of Billy Casper (David Bradley) and his attempts to survive the harsh realities of Northern life in Barnsley. Billy struggles at school, but finds salvation when he adopts and trains a young kestrel. Kes represents a microcosm of working-class life where the kids are either damned or sent down the pit to work. Simultaneously warm, harsh, bitter, funny and tragic, Kes is a memorable early work from Ken Loach and deserves revisiting over and over again.
MY NAME IS JOE (1998)
Anchored by an incredible leading performance from Peter Mullen, My Name is Joe, centres on Joe Kavanagh and his attempts to stay sober. Joe has been a destructive alcoholic for some years and uses AA to control his drinking. The narrative drive comes from Joe’s attempt to assist recovering drug addict, Liam (David McKay), plus Joe’s blossoming romance with a local health worker, Sarah (Louise Goodall). It’s a raw rendition of Scottish working-class life with romance and tragedy lying side-by-side in a moving portrait of addiction, love and life’s everyday struggles.
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (2006)
Incredibly controversial when released, Loach’s war drama is set in 1920’s, Cork, Ireland. It centres on the conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British army, as civil war broke out prior to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The lead protagonists are two brothers portrayed by Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney. As the war and violence heightens the two brothers, their families and their compatriots are devastated by harsh British rule. Loach was described as “anti-English and traitorous” by the English press and Conservative politicians, when the film was released. However, irrespective of your politics, it is a stunningly human work of cinema; both shocking and heart-wrenching in equal measures.
LOOKING FOR ERIC (2009)
Films about football (soccer in the U.S.A) and footballers can be very tricky to get right as the game itself arguably works better as a live spectacle, rather than at the cinema. However, Loach scored a big win with this really moving story about a lowly postman, Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), who is struggling with family, love and work pressures. Depressed and almost suicidal, Eric finds unlikely help in the magical appearance of Manchester United football legend, Eric Cantona. Sprinkling the kitchen sink realism with fantasy is a departure for Loach, and Paul Laverty’s wonderful script brilliantly espouses the need for teamwork, fraternity and community within its touching narrative.
I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016)
Having worked for the Benefits Agency a few decades ago, I have some understanding of social security and government assistance schemes. Via the titular character of Daniel Blake (the brilliant Davey Johns), Loach savagely criticises Conservative austerity measures. The systematic turning of the screw has seen many British people have their benefits stopped because of somewhat Kafkaesque measures. Of course, the system should work to stop people abusing it, but many deserving people suffered too. This is demonstrated here in this heartfelt drama of one man, who having suffered a heart attack, battles for his pride and future.
Stanley Kubrick is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. That is a fact. He made films in all genres but indelibly stamped his own genius on the war, comedy, thriller, horror, satire, crime, science-fiction, historical and drama films he adapted and created for the big screen. His work contains a litany of iconic images, searing soundtracks, stupendous performances, great intelligence and provocative thought which ensures his films linger in the memory of those who have witnessed them. All hail a true cinematic master.
But, while Kubrick is famous – or infamous depending on your point-of-view – for his meticulous perfection and incredible cinematic vision he did not work alone. He had an array of film technicians, cinematographers, designers, researchers, editors and assistants who slaved for him on his various projects. One such individual was self-confessed ‘filmworker’ Leon Vitali. He was a rising star in the acting profession and subsequently cast in Kubrick’s classic period drama Barry Lyndon (1975). Yet, having seemingly fallen under the spell of Kubrick’s omnipotent charisma and incredible vision he offered his assistance on Kubrick’s next production. So taken was he with the great man he was prepared to take any role available. Turning his back on acting – save for the occasional supporting role in the director’s work – Leon would become a faithful servant to the all-powerful Master.
Director, Tony Zierra, has crafted a very insightful, informative and touching documentary about both Leon Vitali and the filmmaking process. It reaches beyond the lights, camera and action of movie-making to dig deep into the dark recesses of Kubrick’s creative work which involved, for many: long sleepless nights, obsessive attention to detail, Sisyphean research and the occasional nervous breakdown. Vitali, himself, lived on the edge of insomnia while contributing to such film classics as: The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
Vitali proves a fascinating character who, during his interviews, reveals a dedication, poignancy, love and sense of grief in regard to his working relationship with Kubrick. Indeed, Vitali seems to not have recovered from Kubrick’s passing following the completion of Eyes Wide Shut (1999); due to a seeming lack of recognition for Vitali’s contribution from Warner Brothers and the Kubrick Estate. Overall, I was completely drawn into this sensitive soul’s story of a man who seemed lost without his Master.
But this is not a negative or tragic documentary. It is instead a celebration of creative arts and the Vitali’s contribution to Kubrick’s life-work. His tasks were legion and included assisting with: casting, print transference, overseeing artwork, Film Festival releases, pre-production, stills photography; and acting as Kubrick’s studio conduit when he wanted to lambast someone. The film features many interviews, notably from Vitali but also: Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Phil Rosenthal, Pernilla August, Stellan Skarsgard, Danny Lloyd (all grown-up) and many, many more interesting people. They provide rounded commentary to Vitali’s contribution and their experience within the film industry; and more importantly the working process of Stanley Kubrick. Indeed, many of these anecdotes were very humorous and provided a real insight into the director’s way of working.
Filmworker’sdirector Tony Zierra spoke eruditely after the screening too revealing his desire to represent the unheralded under-dogs within the film industry. He is very successful in doing so as he presents a touching tribute to one such under-dog in Leon Vitali. Ultimately, Filmworker is a documentary about filmmaking, obsession and the lesser known people working behind the camera. It is highly recommended for fans of Stanley Kubrick and people who are intrigued by the filmmaking process. Most of all it stands as a fine tribute to the dedication of Leon Vitali; bringing him out of the shadows and into the light, giving him the credit he deserves for his excellent film work.
“After the Lord Mayor’s show comes the shit-cart”, is a phrase I heard a lot in my childhood and following the golden month of January, where I watched a plethora of incredible films, February has dropped off slightly in terms of quality. Indeed, I have watched some right rubbish but there have been some diamonds in the rough. So, as per last month I’ve reviewed in depth my favourite films, mentioned some other stuff worth watching and derided the rest I didn’t think much of. As usual all films and shows marked out of eleven.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
FILMS OF THE MONTH!
BARRY LYNDON (1975) – CINEMA
Due to his incredible filmic CV, this stunning Oscar-winning period film from Stanley Kubrik is often overlooked as a classic. However, it is a terrific romp through the life and times of our anti-hero portrayed by the bland yet watchable movie star Ryan O’Neal. Adapted from Thackeray’s 19th century novel it concerns Redmond Barry and his rather haphazard misadventures as he leaves his Irish village and falls both fair and foul to fate’s twisted plan.
Every single frame of this film is a joy to behold and the cinematography deservedly won an Oscar. Thematically the film is very strong too as Kubrik uses Barry as a cipher to highlight the horrors of war and to also critique the ostentatious behaviour of the upper classes. Structurally and tonally spilt in two the film begins as a set of humorous sketches before giving way to a darker and tragic feel in the second half. The film is a thing of beauty to watch as Kubrik once again raises filmmaking to the echelons of high art. (Mark: 10 out of 11)
DEADPOOL (2016) – CINEMA
DEADPOOL’s a funny, sexy, irreverent, violent, meta-textual Marvel adaptation which differentiates from the standard comic-book movies in many ways while reinforcing the usual hero-saves-damsel-in-distress-Phantom-of-the-Opera-origins-story. A witty script and Ryan Reynolds stand out amidst the carnage and finally we have a Marvel film with a bit of blood and guts. Reminded me slightly of a funnier DARK MAN; a film which remains one of my favourite anti/super-hero films.
I’d say the box office success is deserved while the hype is probably a bit over-the-top as the politically incorrect film does go out of its way to keep you on Wade Wilson’s side and not make him totally unlikeable. Moreover, the script, while traditional in structure and Reynolds delivery are just sparkling as we get gag after gag after gag at the expense of everyone and everything, most notably the Marvel universe itself. Like Netflix’s Daredevil it breathes new life into the saturated superhero market.(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
FARGO (1996) – NETFLIX
The Coen Brothers take on the kidnapping-police-procedural thriller film is memorable because it turns the genre on its head with a dark, funny and human story both stylish and gut-wrenching in equal measures. I mean, the killers are revealed immediately and Police Chief Marge Gunderson (wonderful Frances McDormand) solves the case quickly too. This allows the Coens to concentrate on off-beat characterisations and twist the narrative in any direction they so desire. It’s bloody, funny and moral with memorable characters that stick in the heart and mind. Seen this film so many times and it improves like a fine wine; a true classic.(Mark: 11 out of 11)
MAKING A MURDERER (2015) – NETFLIX
I watched Netflix’s Making a Murderer and throughout I was hoping it was a brilliantly written courtroom drama series directed in the documentary style. But IT’S actually REAL LIFE EVENTS! It’s a ten-part documentary which concerns a number of high-profile court cases which took place in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. The filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos deserve incredible praise for their painstaking work in bringing the cases of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey to the screen because based on their film an incredible miscarriage of justice may have occurred.
It is as thrilling and suspenseful as anything Hitchcock created as the trials and tribulations of these men and their families are thrust before us. The behaviour of law enforcement is called into question time and time again and the documentary stands as both an indictment on the United States legal system as well as being a gripping thriller. I won’t say anymore for fear of spoilers but WATCH THIS SHOW for an incredibly designed “TRUE” story. It has to be seen to be believed, and whether the defendants are guilty or not, this saga re-writes the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt!”(Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
PREDESTINATION (2014) – NOW TV
One of my films of 2015 I have now seen it twice and it is like a snake-charmer; I just cannot help but fall for its twisted, hypnotic and serpentine narrative. In my original review a year ago I wrote:
“It may completely fall apart on subsequent viewings but for the running time it offered a lot more than many other star-driven, big-budget movies. . .”
However, I can safely say this brilliant cult time-travel movie based on a classic Heinlein short story called All You Zombies gets better with further viewing and stands up on further inspection. I’m still scratching my head at how it all fits together, but that is part of the pleasure too.(Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
WORTH A WATCH!
BANANAS (1971) – NETFLIX
Early Woody Allen film which pokes fun at his nebbish persona, failure with women, Marxist revolutions and United States foreign policy, all in a brisk eight-four minute machine-gun-sketch style. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP (2014) – AMAZON PRIME
Moody amnesiac chamber thriller with Nicole Kidman, Mark Strong and Colin Firth delivering an initially intriguing suspense-filled piece but lacks a killer punch ultimately. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
CHEF (2014) – NETFLIX
This is a proper feel-good film about a shit-hot chef who attempts to reignite a once-hot career gone cold. Jon Favreau writes and directs and casts his mates like Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jnr and others in a fun, tasty, attractive, mouth-watering treat. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
DAWG FIGHT (2015) (NETFLIX)
Set in Perrine, Florida, this is a bloody slice-of-life documentary about backyard, bare-knuckle fighting between underclass males looking to get into the UFC big leagues. Featuring some brutal fights it’s a sad indictment of humanity and not for the faint-hearted. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
DEFIANCE (2008) – NETFLIX
Excellent wartime drama inspired by the true story of the Belarussian Jewish brothers called the Bieskis, who fought back against the Nazis while saving thousands of lives too. Gripping and suspenseful it’s anchored by the excellent Daniel Craig and well-orchestrated battle scenes. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
LIFE ON MARS – SEASON 1 (2006) – NETFLIX
I missed this cracking time-warped TV show the first time round as Sam Tyler (John Simm) is thrown back to the 1970s and faced with a battle to get back to “reality”. Temporal, cultural and socio-political clashes are abound between Tyler and his new boss Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) as Sam solves cases in the past while trying to stay alive in the present. Cracking cop show! (Mark: 9 out of 11)
MUNICH (2005) – NETFLIX
I appreciated this superlative Spielberg revenge thriller more the second time round as it really questions the nature of vengeance and the damaging impact on all those involved. The story focusses on Mossad’s hit squad and its mission to wipe out Palestinian “generals” responsible for planning the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972. Eric Bana, Ciaran Hinds and Daniel Craig are impressive in their respective roles and arguably this is Spielberg’s most complex and ambiguous directorial effort. It’s a must-see political thriller with many heart-pounding urban battle scenes. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
ROME – SEASON 2 (2007) – NETFLIX
After the bloody denouement of Season 1, Rome provided once again some gripping and devious drama following the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s backstabbing murder. Fantastic cast including Kevin McKidd, Polly Walker and James Purefoy tear up the scenery in a most entertaining history lesson. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
TRUMBO (2015) – CINEMA
Bryan Cranston is brilliant as black-listed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who having served time for being a Communist found himself unable to work in Hollywood during the 50s and 60s. Ingeniously he worked under the radar gaining notoriety and secret acclaim and this film, while dramatically undercooked in places, stands as a fine tribute to a superb writer. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE!
EXIST (2014) – NOW TV
Dreadful “found footage” film about some American morons being tracked and killed by a sasquatch. The monsters are pretty decent when you finally see them but the script and direction are awful. (Mark: 2 out of 11)
THE LAST FLIGHT (2009) – NETFLIX
This jumbled period drama set in between the 1st and 2nd World Wars finds Marion Cotillard’s pilot searching the desert for her lost love. Insipid and lacking focus, I was bored throughout in a film which pretty much crashes on take-off. (Mark: 2 out of 11)
LAST KNIGHTS (2015) – NOW TV
Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman cannot save this below average medieval jaunt which has some okay violence and dramatic moments but is far too serious and dull. (Mark: 3.5 out of 11)
LONG WAY DOWN (2014) – NETFLIX
So-so soapy suicide comedy-drama that is ultimately undemanding and under-nourished, but saved by an attractive cast including: Aaron Paul, Pierce Brosnan and Toni Collette. (Mark: 4 out of 11)
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2014) – AMAZON PRIME
Ben Stiller stars in this insult to the original literary classic which reduces the fantasy elements to a mid-life-crisis-romance story involving the pursuit of a photograph and the meaning of life. It looks wonderful but is hollow and makes noises like a broken drum. (Mark: 4 out of 11)
REGRESSION (2015) – SKY MOVIES
Incredible to think Alejandro Amenabar directed this terrible horror/thriller which criminally wastes the talents of Ethan Hawke and David Thewlis in horribly under-baked occult story. (Mark: 3 out of 11)
WOMAN IN BLACK 2 (2014) – AMAZON PRIME
I thought the original was a nifty little horror film made with imagination, scares and respect for the horror genre. This WWII set film was a complete waste of time with weak story and scares. Avoid! (Mark: 3 out of 11)
In the month of August I themed my viewing down a couple of varied avenues. Firstly, watch a few more documentaries or non-fiction programmes. Secondly, get even MORE value out of my NETFLIX subscription!
There are some great shows on Netflix and if I had to recommend ONE then it would be It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia which is arguably one of the greatest comedies I have ever seen. Netflix UK is also full to the brim of docs, stand-up, films and drama series to watch. Here are some of the shows I caught up with during August.
COMMUNITY (2009 – ) – SEASON ONE
Featuring a diverse set of archetypes within a US Community College this is good quality character comedy. Great cast, witty scripts and lots of self-reflexive parodies for film and TV fans to take in. Clearly influenced by The Office I’m pleased it doesn’t have the direct address mockumentary style and while only nine episodes in but I’m really enjoying this sharp comedy.
DAREDEVIL (2015) – SEASON ONE
This is an absolutely brilliant TV show! It’s actually better than many of the Marvel films that have been knocking about recently; certainly some of the superhero sequels. It concerns Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) as blind lawyer by day and blind “super-hero” by night fighting to clean up Hell’s Kitchen in New York. It’s early in his crime-fighting career and is a brilliant origins story well written and developed.
It has a gritty noir feeling and style and is terrifically shot in the shadows, bouncing off the feel Nolan’s Dark Knight series established. The action, fighting and most importantly character development of both Murdoch and Wilson ‘Kingpin’ Fisk (played deliciously by Vincent D’Onofrio) is exceptional as we receive a slow bleed and blending of their stories until they meet near the end. You get the standard stereotypes often found in Superhero and Gangster films such as: the perky, plucky female assistant; cheeky, funny sidekick; Chinese, Japanese and Russian mobsters; uncompromising investigative journalist and more but it does it with such style that it transcends its generic components to become compelling viewing. Highly recommended!
HOUSE OF CARDS (2015) – SEASON THREE
The first two seasons of the US drama adapted from classic 80s TV programme were sensational as they used the backdrop of American political chicanery and conspiratorial ambition to propel Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) from Chief Whip to the Presidency itself. Ably abetted by Lady “Robin Wright” Macbeth his plotting of revenge and avaricious pursuit of power was fantastic to watch.
The 3rd season has not reached the dizzy heights of the earlier seasons in my view. That could be because I have been watching it on the “drip” week by week or there is more emphasis on political shenanigans and conflict arising from Underwood’s attempts to get America Works off the ground, plus his ongoing feud with Vladimir Putin. Not the real Putin obviously but the show’s thinly veiled version of him. Still, while I enjoyed the more noir and thriller aspects of the first two seasons this remains high quality drama with great direction, style and fine performances.
PEAKY BLINDERS (2013 – ) – SEASON ONE
I missed this gritty and violent period drama first time round on BBC but was grateful to catch up with it on Netflix. It’s a terrific post 1st World War story with a grand lead performance from Cillian Murphy plus awesome supporting cast including Sam Neill, Helen McCrory, Charlie Creed Miles and Paul Anderson. Murphy portrays the leader of a Birmingham gang who fight and scrap and slice their way from the dirty streets in an attempt to become legitimate bookmakers. Steven Knight, who wrote Eastern Promises (2007) and directed the superb Locke (2014), carves out a cracking tale involving coppers, whores, gypsies, bookies, the IRA, Communists and ex-soldiers fighting against a backdrop of political revolution and class warfare.
BIGGIE AND TUPAC (2002)
While the theories on the deaths of Biggie and Tupac presented within this documentary may no longer hold up it’s still a fascinating film from unassuming master of the passive aggressive: Nick Broomfield. His persistence in tracking down and interviewing various elements potentially involved in the murder of these hip-hop legends really drew me in. Plus, the final interview with shadowy rap boss/gangster Suge Knight was both chilling and illuminating.
THE BRIDGE (2006)
You need a strong stomach to watch this documentary film. During 2004 the filmmaking team shot the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and captured many suicide attempts; some where people succeeded in killing themselves and the occasional one who was saved. It’s a dark and upsetting look at depression and those who it affects plus reveals some of the reasons why people choose the Bridge as their intended final departure point. It’s an elegant film: poignant but a tough watch.
What begins as a dig around the history of “the bogeyman” and other mythical baddies soon becomes a feature on Staten Island and the children that went missing from there in the 1970s and ‘80s. The film looks mainly at the prime suspect Andre Rand and whether he was guilty or not of murdering the kids and the media’s response to his case. It’s a bit slow overall without much in the way of revelation. Plus, there’s some dark matter which felt under-examined such as the abuse at the mental institution for kids where Rand worked. Overall though a slow yet thoughtful watch.
DARK DAYS (2000)
Marc Singer’s fascinating documentary from the late 1990s was an incredible look at the people who lived under the subway system of New York City and how they survived. Shot in grainy black and white it captures the hopelessness yet camaraderie amongst the homeless souls. It also demonstrates their desire to survive and build a home despite the grim conditions. The film would become a useful tool to put before City Hall in order to re-house the unfortunates, addicts and lost down there in the recesses of the underground.
MIND OF A RAMPAGE KILLER (2013)
Is a human being born evil or turned deadly by life events? The perennial nature versus nurture debate is looked at scientifically and psychologically in this pretty unsensational analysis of rampage killers. Of course there is no hard answers as there are a myriad of varying reasons why people go on killing sprees. While the psychology is murky as depression and bullying can play a part in equal measures, the main reason these individuals murder is because they have guns. Take away the access to weapons and you may at least prevent some of the senseless murders which occur Stateside.
LOST SOUL: DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR MOREAU (2014)
This was probably the best documentary I saw; mainly because I love films about filmmaking and I also love films about filmmaking which go spectacularly wrong. It charts the journey of director Richard Stanley and his attempts to bring classic novel The Island of Dr Moreau to the silver screen. With a massive budget and filming taking place in Australia it all starts to go wrong for Stanley as tropical storms hit the set and the money men at the studio lose confidence. Add the crazy Marlon Brando, difficult Val Kilmer, hedonistic extras and tropical storms to the mix and you get a box office turkey blowing up in front of your eyes. Both funny and tragic it reveals the folly of filmmaking yet sadly also seemed to finish Stanley’s promising directorial career.
Top documentary filmmaker Errol Morris points his camera at Southern Belle and crackpot Joyce McKinney and her various run-ins with the press over the years. Aside from cloning her dog in Korea in the noughties, McKinney was infamous for the “Manacled Mormon” story which delighted the lurid British red-tops in the ‘70s. McKinney is a lively interviewee as she recounts the tale of how she “rescued” the love of her life from the Mormon cult and attempted to turn him back in love with her through sexual programming. Yeah, chaining a bloke to a bed and screwing him will make him turn his back on God. Well, so SHE thought. McKinney did all that she did for love and cannot be faulted for that but came off as a delusional woman who just has to be heard to be believed.
VIDEOGAMES: THE MOVIE (2014)
Dry run through of the Video Games industry from its humble beginnings to the multi-billionaire cultural behemoth it’s become today. I love video-games but this was pretty boring and although there was certainly some nostalgia to be had from looking back to my youth I wanted more controversy and dirt rather than the bland run-through of the history and uninteresting “talking heads” we got here.
WHEN JEWS WERE FUNNY (2013)
Some great comedians from the now and yesteryear discuss the nature of Jewish comedy and whether it is an actual “thing” and whether it still exists today. I enjoyed watching the old clips of greats such as Lenny Bruce, Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield and many of the contributors are funny too. However, the filmmaker himself seemed to be working through some angst and guilt which at times detracted from the loose but amusing documentary nonetheless.