Film review: The Big Melt (Martin Wallace, 2013)

For National Yorkshire Day, I opted to watch this documentary I impulse bought about half a decade ago in FOPP. It has been sat on my shelf since then, with a brief period inside a box, probably wondering if it would ever be unwrapped and why it was bought in the first place.

I was doubtless attracted to it due to Jarvis Cocker’s involvement, which to be honest was the rewarding side of it. I’ve been a fan of his music since my formative years – I was 11 when the seminal Different Class was released – and appreciate his intelligent take on life.

The Big Melt is essentially 70 minutes of carefully-selected archive footage of Sheffield, mainly involving the steel industry, backed by music performed live by a number of Sheffield-related musicians (and some of their friends).

It has the ability to impress but the overall impact is one you have to concentrate on and commit to if you want to get anything out of it. The music keeps on playing but there’s no narrative, so it’s easy to let your mind slip out of focus.

Often I realised I’d been watching the screen and listening to the music, but not actually absorbing what was going on. It had a meditative effect. Maybe that’s what they were going for.

There are interesting segments, including a young woman working in a bomb factory and a short animated film imagining a world without steel, but I’m struggling to deploy an alternative adjective to interesting, despite my misgivings of its use.

For a special occasion is was perfect, and it gave me the impetus to get my surround sound system fixed to enjoy the music properly.

It’s not without merit but only for people who have a genuine interest in the city.

Film review – The Great Hack (Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, 2019)

Unless you’re 100% informed about Cambridge Analytica, you really need to watch this film. It covers a lot of what is already known to those who followed the Facebook-Cambridge-Analytica scandal at the time, as covered in The Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr in her whistle-blowing article “The Great British Brexit Robbery”.

Cadwalladr is interviewed here, along with Cambridge Analytica’s ex-director Brittany Kaiser and ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica Christopher Wylie. Kaiser does her best to paint a sympathetic picture of herself, though I struggled to forget that she was at the heart of everything that happened (thanks to the reminders in the film). As a source, Wylie’s credibility is questioned, though he features lightly. It is an example of how well the film does at keeping the viewpoint as balanced as possible.

Importantly, the film doesn’t end trying to imply that the earth-shattering revelations brought about by the Cambridge Analytica scandal have been resolved. The implications of this scandal and the continued work that seems to be going on at so many of the large technology companies feels like it’s getting worse by the day.

It’s a slightly disjointed film that, at times, doesn’t know what it wants to do with the subject matter. It may have been better-served as a four-part series, focusing on each of the subjects for an hour. The story of the New York media professor David Carroll and his hunt for his own personal information is probably the most interesting but isn’t mentioned for a long portion of the film.

I’d also like to see more prodding of current or ex-Facebook employees, who are clearly implicated in the accusations but continue to avoid the spotlight.

Regardless of its shortcomings, this is an important film to watch. It’s also one you might need to see quickly in case it unexpectedly disappears from Netflix. It might well be the most disturbing horror film of the year.

 

Film review – Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2017)

‘Shirkers’ is a quite remarkable documentary film. Written and directed by Sandi Tan, it tells the story of a potentially groundbreaking film created in 1992 by a group of three teenage girls in Singapore, the reels of which went missing shortly after filming wrapped, disappearing along with the enigmatic director.

Tan was one of the three young aspiring filmmakers behind the film. Her interviews with fellow creators Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, both interviewed here and clearly heartbroken over their loss, reveal a truly enthralling mystery surrounding the film.

The director, Georges Cardona, is a name unfamiliar to most. It is unlikely that he was the man that inspired James Spader’s character in ‘Sex, Lies and Videotapes’, but Cardona wouldn’t let that get in the way of a good story. The picture painted of him here is one of a man full of lies. It’s a man desperate to succeed himself and not let anyone else around him get anywhere without him. There’s also a hint of inappropriate behaviour here – why was a married 40-something-year-old man going on a road trip across the USA with an 18-year-old girl?

As it all unfolds, it’s obvious how frustrating it is for all those involved. This was an exciting passion project that was already picking up a bit of buzz around the industry, which never saw the light of day. Had it been released, it could have had a huge impact on the Singapore film industry and the lives of those behind it.

Sadly, all we can see is the soundless footage and a remorseful memory of three young friends that lost a part of their youth, along with their friendship itself (in a recent interview with Vulture, Tan stated that the Sundance premiere was the first time her, Jasmine and Sophie were all in the same room together in over twenty years).

‘Shirkers’ is a must-see for any young aspiring filmmakers. Actually, it’s a must-see for everyone at all interested in films.

Film review – Letters from Baghdad (Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, 2017)

Synopsis (taken from the official website)

Letters from Baghdad tells the extraordinary and dramatic story of Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day. She shaped the modern Middle East after World War I in ways that still reverberate today. More influential than her friend and colleague Lawrence of Arabia, Bell helped draw the borders of Iraq and established the Iraq Museum. Why has she been written out of history?


Review

First-time directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have chosen an interesting topic for their debut feature. Gertrude Bell may not be a household name to most, but based on the evidence here she should be. Mixing archive video footage and voice-overs from Tilda Swinton and a host of other character actors, the film brings to life her letters from an important time during Iraq’s formative years.

Bell lived from 1868 to 1926 and was a truly independent woman, defining her life with a series of firsts. She was the first woman to receive a First Class Honours degree from Oxford University in Modern History, the first woman to journey solo into the Arabian desert (1500 miles on a camel across Central Arabia), was the only female diplomat at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the only woman at the Cairo Conference in 1921.

This film concentrates more on her time in Baghdad, critical to the formation of what we now know as Iraq. Her involvement came in the final for years of her life, but in that time she managed to define the borders out of the then-named Mesopotamia, before helping in the formative administration of the country and the controversial installation of their first monarch ruler: King Faisal bin Hussein. She was a good choice to spearhead the tasks due to her knowledge of the area after her extensive travels and relationships and understanding of local knowledge.

To appreciate the film fully it’s probably worth knowing what to expect. It is very much a narrative in the form of a book. It may have taken a considerable amount of time to research and compile the video footage from stock libraries around the world, but the visual result is only minimally engaging. There are many photographs from Bell’s personal collection but no video footage of her directly. This is neither good nor bad, just a matter of fact.

The letters and statements from other people associated to her – relatives, friends and colleagues – aren’t simply narrated. Instead, they are delivered in a talking head style to the camera. It may sound unusual, but it does work and there’s no better way to achieve an entertaining result.

This is a great resource for anyone who wants a penetrable route into the life and achievements of one of the greatest women of her time. It may have its flaws but as a ninety minute film it should reach a wider audience than if they published her letters in book form.

A solid documentary.

Short film review – Donald in Mathmagic Land (Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark, Joshua Meador)

As educational short films go, Disney’s animation about their ever-stressed duck taking a trip through a land filled with mathematical tales, quips and facts is pretty darn entertaining.

Released in 1959 alongside a poorly-remembered live action film called Darby O’Gill and the Little People, the film went on to receive a nomination in the Best Documentary – Short Subject category at the Academy Awards. [1] [2]

It charts Donald’s journey through Mathmagic Land, as guided by the voice of a spirit (Paul Frees). He learns about the origins of maths, starting with Pythagoras in Greece, then the pentogram and the golden section, the appearances of the golden section in nature, architecture and art, the application of maths in music and its relevance to games (especially chess, which features a nice reference to Alice Through The Looking Glass).

That the film covers a relatively thorough history of one of the most important and fundamental basic principals of life and remains interesting is somewhat of a miracle, so much so that the film went on to be used as an educational tool in schools across America. It’s easy to see why. Its relevance endures and it would still be useful in the modern education system.

Admittedly, the style is now somewhat dated but it has a classic feel of 1950s era Disney about it. This is hardly surprising. Two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” worked as directors on the film. [3]

It is a great shame that so many of these old Disney shorts are hard to locate in a good quality transfer and few are held in high regard, largely due to the lack of knowledge of their existence. Anyone who enjoys watching the early Disney animation films is doing themselves a disservice if they are yet to discover the shorts being released around the same time. These are the same animators, story writers and directors, throwing together ideas and experimenting with animation, perhaps to try something out for a future release, or maybe just finishing ideas that were started with a plan for a full release before ending up as a short instead.

There are so many to choose from, many of which were released in the UK on the Disney Fables series of DVDs. Owning all six of them is a great start – you will have in your possession six hours of short animated films, covering 25 animated films, several of which were Academy Awards nominees and winners. It’s about time that Disney worked out a way to get these out there again so yet another generation can enjoy them.

[1] I can’t imagine people were overly-fond of the film at the cinema.Having paid to see a film that’s 93 minutes long, imagine the dismay when you sat down and realised it had a 26-minute short film about maths tagged at the beginning of it.

[2] Quite why this wasn’t nominated as an animated short is beyond me. I incorrectly assumed that the category didn’t exist at the time but this proved to be an incorrect assumption, having been around for over 25 years in 1959.

[3] Wolfgang Reitherman and Les Clark were two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, a group of nine original animators that worked at the Disney company. Many of them went on to direct feature films themselves and every Walt Disney Animation film featured at least one of the nine until 1985’s The Black Cauldron.

Best Documentary Films 2016

There were so many great documentary films unleashed on the world in 2016 that I felt it was worth pulling them out of my main list. 

The best of the bunch is Weiner, the completely bizarre fly-on-the-wall documentary of Anthony Weiner as he repeatedly details his own political career. The rest are more than worthy of a viewing.

Weiner


What I said:

“As a documentary, Weiner is about as good as it gets. It isn’t putting the pieces together after an event, instead getting lucky and being able to present a truly spectacular political scandal from the inside of the bubble. The characters are their interactions are as captivating as any fictional story.”

Read the original review here.

A Hard Days Night: The Beatles, The Touring Years


What I said:

“It is a truly brilliant piece of documentary film-making, managing to tell the familiar story with a flurry of individual memories that bring to life again a rise to stardom that has not and will not ever be replicated.”

Read the original review here.

Life, Animated


What I said:

“The film may take a look at only one man’s struggles with autism, but the focus shifts from him to those around him: his parents, his brother, his girlfriend, the professionals helping him through his condition. In this way, we see how his autism affects those around him. The result is arguably one of the most important films about autism ever made.”

Read the original review here.

Dancer

What I said:

“Most insightful are the interviews with his mother and father. Clearly huge sacrifices were made throughout his life to get him to where he is now. The film leaves it open as to whether either of them regret putting him through it, and it’s not something that ever really needs an answer. He certainly has a different life to the one he would have had if he’d stayed in Khersan, Ukraine.”

Read the original review here.

Sour Grapes


What I said:

“The film builds up a balanced picture of Kurniawan and the people he had been associating with in these wine tasting circles. It follows him as he befriends the self-professed ‘Angry Men’ group in LA over a period of several years, buying up key vintage wines, developing his palette to unrivalled levels and becoming a key player in the wine buying and selling scene. The results are nothing short of fascinating.”

Read the original review here.

The Hard Stop


What I said:

“‘The Hard Stop’ is one of the most important documentary films to hit the big screens this year. Out of necessity, it is rough around the edges. It has, at the heart of it, some of the greatest social themes facing Britain today. A riveting watch.”

Read the original review here.

Film review – Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams, 2016)

‘Life, Animated’ explores the life of Owen Suskind, an American man who, at the age of just three, became unable to speak and interact with those around him. This was a complete mystery for his parents who were desperate to rescue their son from the depths of silence. As he grew older his parents realised that he could communicate through his love of Disney animated films such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King. Finally they were able to understand his reasoning through the films he began to quote verbatim.

This is a balanced cross-examination. To watch Owen when he’s on his own is a fascinating study for those interested in the condition of autism. He has learnt most of the lines from his beloved films, including facial expressions and accents. Yes, he is nothing short of animated when he’s lost in his world.

There is some beautifully animated moments as we are guided through his inner thoughts in the form of his younger self and his band of Disney sidekicks, including Iago, Baloo, Abu, Rabbit, Sebastian the Crab and Rafiki. These short animated sequences were supplied by company Mac Guff (Despicable Me, The Lorax) and are equally evocative and breathtaking.

But the standout moment of the film is when his father, Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Suskind, recalls a moment when he first reconnected with Owen via an Iago hand puppet. It’s a must-see moment.

The film may take a look at only one man’s struggles with autism, but the focus shifts from him to those around him: his parents, his brother, his girlfriend, the professionals helping him through his condition. In this way, we see how his autism affects those around him. The result is arguably one of the most important films about autism ever made.

Life, Animated is available to download on iTunes and is also at select theatres throughout Britain.

Note: Roger Ross Williams’s last documentary film was the short subject piece ‘Blackface’ for CNN, which explored the unbelievable holiday tradition still at large in the Netherlands called Sinterklaas. It may be rooted in tradition (as the Dutch argue), but it is also rooted in racism and white supremacy and has no place in a modern and progressive society. 

The film is fortunately available in full on YouTube as below.