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.

Film review – Elstree 1976 (Jon Spira, 2015)

Elstree 1976, the latest documentary from Jon Spira, explores the lives of ten people who were involved in the original Star Wars films as extras, supporting characters or inside costumes and thus were unseen. Catching up with them 38 years later, the film gives an insight into their respective positions in the wider Star Wars fandom universe, their take on one of the most bizarrely dedicated communities and their memories of their time on set.

The featured cast includes a mixture of actors and actresses who range from household names to people only die-hard fans will know. The ten are as follows:

Paul Blake (Greedo)
Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett)
Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter)
Anthony Forrest
David Prowse (Darth Vader)
Angus MacInnes (Gold Leader Rebel Pilot)
Pam Rose (Leesub Sirln)
Derek Lyons (Massassi Temple Guard)
Laurie Goode (the Stormtrooper who banged his head)
John Chapman (Red 12 Drifter Rebel Pilot)

For a film where it seems there is a huge difference in the interest in each of the stars, the narrative benefits by giving equal billing to each of them. But then that is the point of the film – it shows the human side of everyone involved and cross-examines the fact that the only reason they are anything more than actors is that they have been part of a great film and the fans have an unfaltering level of affection for everyone involved.

Justice for Greedo

They didn’t realise at the time but their involvement with the film would come to define their lives. It’s something that they have forever been associated with and can’t get away from, whether they like it or not.

The film opens with a humorous montage of each of their action figures, as they talk about how they feel about how they turned out (or didn’t!). There’s also a little controversy with what different interviewees believe is the right level of relevance to permit them to attend the conventions and be classed as an actor in Star Wars.

There are some moments of real emotion, just as there are moments of hilarity. Of course, they offer their own perspective on the film and provide some morsels of tales about the production, but Spira has instead made the decision to give the stories of their subsequent lives the space to breathe. This film gives them the chance to prove that they aren’t just the Stormtrooper who hit his head or the guy whose voice wasn’t quite right for Darth Vader. What makes this film work isn’t the immense details of how the most famous of sci-fi films was made. Instead it concentrates on the human side of each of the ten people we learn about.

It has been a long road to get here for the Kickstarter backers – almost two years in fact – and Jon Spira has been absolutely transparent in what must have lost him many nights of sleep through stress (the whole distribution farce is well documented on the Kickstarter campaign page). For everyone who is now able to watch it, it was well worth the wait.

Elstree 1976 is available now on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as on streaming services.

Film review – Sour Grapes (Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas, 2016)

Sour Grapes is a brilliant documentary film that makes it extremely difficult to think anything but support for its main star: Rudy Kurniawan.

Kurniawan is an Indonesian man currently serving a ten-year prison sentence for selling fraudulent wine to the aforementioned win enthusiasts at auction. To be precise, $35.3m of wine over two auctions.

All Kurniawan had was an expert memory for taste and a likeable personality, but this meant he was able to penetrate what was ostensibly an old boys’ club. This is a club that would meet on a regular basis to share wine with values totalling over $100,000 in a single night. It’s easy to not feel too much sympathy for the individuals that were hoodwinked by him.

Stop wining

There’s something ultimately deplorable about anyone that regularly spends so much on wine. Forking out what for many would be a life-changing amount of money on a drink, especially when the ultimate purpose is to prove your own status amongst a small and very exclusive group of peers, is never going to endear you to the masses.

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.

The people he has ripped off have mixed memories of their time with Kurniawan, with some hating being duped and others in denial that he could be capable of any wrongdoing. The fact that he had the printing facilities in his house to mass-produce wine labels, several unmarked wine bottles and rudimentary formulae to recreate the most sought-after wine ever produced didn’t seem to budge their opinion on him either. That is testimant to his charm.

The only thing that lets the film down is a lack of a revealing interview with Rudy himself. It instead relies on old home videos and undercover camera work. He’s the centrepiece of the film but I suppose a man in prison is a tricky interview to land.

This a film worthy of a watch if you happen to find it.

Film review – Dancer (Steven Cantor, 2016)

Documentary filmmaker Steven Cantor’s latest cross-examination comes in the form of Dancer, which tells the story of Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, who in 2010 became the youngest man to become the British Royal Ballet’s leading principal.

Sergei Polunin dances to Hozier

The film uses talking heads interviews blended with some exclusive home video footage to creature a portrait of a fragile artist. Polunin is shown as a man who knows little outside his art and is desperate to change the future for upcoming ballet dancers who he fears will make the same mistakes as he did. These mistakes led to him quitting the British Royal Ballet Feeling at the tender age of twenty-two, shocking the ballet world and disappointing his fans.

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.

The focal point of the film comes in the form of the Dave LaChapelle-directed video that went viral earlier this year. I urge you to stop reading and watch the video below on the largest screen you can find.

This video has, at last count, been viewed 16.3m times in the last eight months. That is an astonishing amount, but then it is an astonishing piece of art. It was choreographed by Jade Hale-Christophi, a ballet dancer with Polunin met at the British Royal Ballet and one of his closest friends. The purpose of the film was to announce his retirement and have that as his “final dance”, but the response was so great he decided to change tact, and instead wants to do guest appearances and one-off pieces of art.

This is a crucial thing for him. The reason he has struggled throughout his career is a lack of time to step back, ask himself what he really wants, and make an informed decision about the next career choice.

He also spoke after the screening about where ballet’s David Beckham is. I suspect after that video and this film, he need only look in the mirror to find him.

A fascinating examination of a tortured artist now seemingly on the straight and narrow.

Dancer will receive a DVD release in April via Dogwoof.