Category Archives: Documentary

Amy (2015) – Brings a tragic star back to life…

Amy 2015 Pic 2

Amy is the best film I’ve almost walked out on at the cinema. Not because it is a bad movie, but because I knew how it was going to end.

I knew how it was going to end before it started, of course, having witnessed the tragedy of Amy Winehouse’s dramatic rise and fall from the rabid perspective of the media not so long ago.

What makes the opening hour of Asif Kapadia’s earnest and heartfelt documentary so unbearable is that it brings Winehouse back to life so vividly. She fills the screen as a smart, funny, vulnerable, brash, beautiful, sublimely talented young artist, and it dawns on you that you’ll have to watch her die again from a different perspective, with greater knowledge of her as a human being, rather than just the addled tabloid caricature she eventually became…” Click here to read the full review (opens in a new tab)


The Fog of War (2003) – Reason has its limits…

the fog of war poster

History was always dull at school. Boring men in brown suits in musty classrooms full of brown books that no-one ever read, droning on about the bloody Nazis. Now I look back at it, I think: how do you fuck up teaching something like World War II? With the right teacher, history could be the most exciting subject ever! When you synopsize WWII, it sounds like the most thrilling blockbuster imaginable, full of massive battles, daring escapes and featuring some of the worst bad guys in history. That stuff should just teach itself!

Now the great and terrible 20th Century recedes into history, and it’s left up to us to assess it  and try not to make the same mistakes. Luckily we have documentaries like The Fog of War to help us understand some of the key events, Errol Morris’ tricky, morally complex portrait of a man whose life was irrevocably entwined with war and death.

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Fuzzy on – Bowling for Columbine (2002)

bowling for columbine

If Bowling for Columbine was a combat sport, it would be unlicensed boxing. Brutal as hell, and no-holds barred. Moore certainly takes the gloves off towards the end.

Essentially, a documentary is an expression of opinion from whoever is behind it, and it is important to keep this in mind when approaching any film of this genre. In this case, the documentary in question is the brainchild of Michael Moore, the notorious left-wing American film-maker. In response to the massacre of thirteen students at Columbine High School in 1999, Moore sets out to question the gun laws in certain states of America; namely Michigan (Moore’s birthplace), and Denver (the state in which the massacre took place).

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Amateur Dramatics + Genocide = The Act of Killing (2012)


Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing The Act of Killing was voted many critic’s top film of 2013. It is a documentary quite unlike anything made before – the film maker tracked down surviving members of Indonesian death squads from the Sixties, and persuaded them to re-enact the murders they committed. Instead of the usual mixture of talking heads and archive footage, however, Oppenheimer encourages them to make their own film, and replay the crimes in the style of their favourite movies – gangster, cowboy, musical, etc.

Over the past year I’ve watched loads of documentaries, and have come to the conclusion that documentary film makers are among the most egotistical. I can handle a certain degree of arrogance, because I think if you are an artist, then how can you expect the audience to be interested in your work if you don’t believe in yourself and what you have to say?

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Encounters at the End of the World (2007) – I Sink Into Bliss…

I originally intended to do a double bill review, matching Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World with Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer.  Both films are about dreamers.  Brown’s chilled out travelogue accompanies two surfers around the globe as they chase the endless summer of the title.

Herzog’s documentary meets the oddballs that accumulate in the Antarctic – these dreamers follow their dreams to the bottom of the earth instead of round it.

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Do I Not Like That (1994) & Mike Bassett: England Manager (2001) – The Impossible Job…

Football caught me at an impressionable age – I was twelve when England lost on penalties to Germany at Italia ’90.  Before the tournament, I’d never kicked a ball or even thought about football.  I was into Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and writing – football existed on a different wavelength to me.

The moment that caught me forever was not the shootout defeat, or Paul Gascoigne’s famous tears, or arch-goalhanger Gary Lineker’s two nerveless penalties against Cameroon in the quarters.  It was David Platt’s late, late hooked volley in the last-minute against mighty Belgium that sold me on the nerve-shredding wonders of football.

I’d never watched football, I’d never been abroad before, and those glowing images coming out of Turin on that fateful night against Germany looked so romantic, with a soundtrack of Pavarotti, that they looked like signals from a distant planet.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010): Everyone’s An Artist Nowadays…

Here’s a curious piece for you.  Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about street art, supposedly directed by ultra-anonymous and ultra-famous graffiti artist Banksy.  It starts as a Banksy doc by an obsessive frenchman Thierry Guetta; but turns into a documentary about Guetta by Banksy, using Guetta’s own footage.

Confused? You won’t be. You may have your own opinions on Banksy, good or bad, but it’s hard to deny that the man has made an extremely assured and thoughtful film debut with Exit Through the Gift Shop.

I went into this documentary expecting a straightforward and self-aggrandising film about Banksy.  Banksy is ubiquitous these days, and I’ve always had a strong ambiguity towards his work.

On one hand, I’m suspicious of his arch sloganeering and his occasional pandering to trendy political views, which can encompass anything in the scope of Banksy’s anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anarchy with a very small “a”  worldview.

But then – there are moments when I can’t help but delight at some of his images, and I prefer his less overtly political stencils, and prefer the ones where he uses the environment around him to make a visual pun.  I liked the maid lifting up the wall to sweep dust underneath like a curtain; or the double yellow lines that veer off the road, across the pavement and up a wall to form a flower.

So, a Banksy film. After a nice opening montage of graffiti artists doing their thing, we are introduced to “Banksy” – a guy with his face hidden in the shadow of his hoody, and a digitally altered voice.  Banksy, with some degree of modesty, claims the man the film eventually turns out to be about is more interesting than him…

Thierry Guetta is a French immigrant living in LA with his wife and kids, where he makes a comfortable living running a vintage second hand clothes store.

Thierry seems an amiable, friendly type, and instantly seems comical, with his gigantic sideburns, tubby frame and silly little hat.  But there is something blank about his eyes, and we soon learn Thierry has an obsession.  He films his whole life with his camcorder, and stores the tapes in a haphazard collection which he never labels, let alone watches.

Thierry’s life takes a new course when he visits family in France and finds out his cousin is the street artist Invader, who’s shtick is placing mosaic aliens from the ancient Space Invaders video game in locations around the world.

He accompanies his cousin as he goes about his nocturnal work, and is later introduced to Shepard Fairey, another street artist famous for his mock-totalitarian Obey campaign, featuring wrestler Andre the Giant, and the Hope poster for Obama.

Fairey is a little puzzled by Thierry’s enthusiasm and relentless filming, but finds the Frenchman a willing assistant and lookout as he goes about his work on the city’s walls and rooftops.  Thierry also films a number of other street artists, and announces his intention to make a documentary about Street Art. But he is missing one famous British street artist in particular…Banksy.

The two eventually meet, and the film gets stranger from there, as Thierry first completes his documentary, and then becomes a street artist himself.

By the end, the big question  is – what is art? Banksy and Shepard Fairey are  bitter about their contribution in Thierry’s eventual success as “Mr Brainwash”.  They’ve devoted years honing their craft while Thierry just flung a load of cash at a Warhol-like studio.  But does that make Mr Brainwash’s “art” any less legitimate than Fairey’s or Banksy’s?

The latter in particular has been provoking the “But is it art?” question for years.  Banksy says at one point: “Warhol took cultural icons and repeated them until they became meaningless, but in an iconic way. Thierry made them really meaningless.”

True, there is a complete witlessness to Mr Brainwash’s images compared to Banksy, but both wouldn’t exist without Warhol. For anyone to “get” pop art, they need to have some awareness of the culture around them, and their appreciation of the painting or image is informed by what they already know about the world.

Take for example Banksy’s image of a policeman searching Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”, reaching for her picnic hamper.  The look on Judy Garland’s face is suitably worried about what he might find.

The initial juxtaposition of riot helmeted copper with an innocent young girl from an old family movie is humorous enough; but then we also know of Judy Garland’s unfortunate trouble with drugs throughout her life, which hints at what the policeman might be looking for.

Banksy, if his work isn’t art, then at least it’s great pop art, and falls into the same category as Chuck Jones and Terry Gilliam.

Like some of Jones’ more experimental and post-modern Looney Tunes, Banksy is aware his audience is aware of the “frame” or “canvas” he’s using, which allows him to turn the meaningless (derelict buildings, shabby, peeling walls) into something meaningful.

And, like Gilliam’s surreal, free association animations in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. there is a kind of nostalgic, retro conformity to the images Banksy uses for his stencils.

Exit Through the Gift Shop features some fine footage of street artists at work, often by dangerously climbing out of windows and over rooftops, and avoiding the police as they go.

It also turns into a very interesting character study of Thierry Guetta. Here’s a man who films his whole life, but never watches it back.  He has a normal looking wife and kids, so he can’t be that crazy, but it’s clear his obsessions run deep.

By the time he gambles everything he has on staging an elaborate LA exhibition, he has learned all the techniques of street art, and can produce copious amounts of images without actually having any talent or feel for the medium.

In some ways, he reminds me of Raymond Babbitt, Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character in Rain Man – who can recite Abbott & Costello’s Who’s on First? routine perfectly, but without realizing it’s actually supposed to be funny.

And the final irony of Exit Through the Gift Shop is people show up and pay tens of thousands of dollars for Mr Brainwash’s crass, stream-of-consciousness artwork.  It seems these days all you have to do is tell people they’re looking at art for them to believe it.

Into the Abyss (2011): Live Your Dash…


Squirrels, alligators, monkeys and rainbows – Werner Herzog has always been fascinated by mankind’s relationship with nature, and in his deathrow doc Into the Abyss, nature bizarrely bursts into the testimonies of his subjects.

Although the Director declares his objection to the death penalty early on, he is less interested in creating a polemic against capital punishment, and more concentrated on seeing how ordinary people live with broken lives in extreme circumstances.

In 2010, Herzog interviewed Michael Perry, a 28 year old Texan convict, eight days before he received a lethal injection. Perry and his accomplice, Jason Burkett were convicted for gunning down a 55 year old widow, Sandra Stotler, in her home to steal her car. Later, they also murdered her son and his friend, thieving his motor.

Perry received the death sentence, but Burkett narrowly avoided the same penalty when his jailbird father appeared in court to plead for his son’s life. His testimony swung two jurors, and Burkett Jr received forty years behind bars instead.

Herzog strips things right back with Into the Abyss, favoring long, talking head interviews with not only the condemned and the bereaved, but people involved in the “process” of capital punishment. Every one of them is broken, haunted or doomed. Luckily, Herzog’s idiosyncratic interview technique often takes his subjects on surreal tangents, breaking the unremitting catalog of failure and despair.

It’s a disarming technique, and one suspects Herzog uses it to find what he is really after – evidence of life in the abyss. He is respectful but fearless in his interviews; “I don’t have to like you.” He frankly explains to a man about to die, but then leads Perry to happier memories of seeing a bunch of monkeys in the Everglades.  He also recognizes the importance of humor in dire circumstances, and shares a joke with him about the absurdity of a medical check up before an execution.

A sincere prison chaplain, clearly troubled spiritually by his role in the system, is filmed in front of rows of headstones – it’s the prison cemetery, and there are no names, only numbers. He takes comfort in offering spiritual guidance to these lost men, but Herzog wants to talk about the squirrels the chaplain saw on the golf course.

The Chaplain’s face lights up as he describes how he almost ran over two of the little fellas in his golf cart, hitting the brakes just in time – then his face clouds over again, as he seems to see some metaphor he can’t quite grasp.

These peculiar tales and moments of absurd humour seem to be what Herzog is digging for – trying to mine the basic nuggets of hope that keep life burning, no matter how dimly.

Herzog avoids using too much grisly footage from the police archive, instead selecting clips which highlight a life rudely and brutally interrupted – the TV plays eerily in the background as the police camera investigates the Stotler home. The victim was baking at the time of her fateful callers, and egg shells remain on the worktop, a tray of cookies ready to go in the oven.

He also manages to find dignity and heroism in unlikely places. He talks to a young man, Jared Talbert, who once ran with Perry and Burkett, and shrugged off a stabbing so he wouldn’t be late for work. Talbert spent some time inside, and used it as an opportunity to learn to read and write, and go straight – Herzog takes a shine to the shy, droll mechanic, giving him ample screen time to display some disarmingly dry humor.

At the other end of the scale is Burkett Senior, a serial offender who has spent most of his life behind bars, and will probably die there. The old man’s story is a tale of poor choices, failure, drug and alcohol abuse, and crime to support his habit. He is open about his failure in life and as a father, and thanks God for the help he received getting his boy off the death sentence – although he should probably take the credit for that, as his repentance appears sincere.

Most disturbing is Burkett’s wife, Melyssa, who worked on his appeal and first met the convict when he was in jail. While they’ve only ever held hands, she happens to be pregnant with his child.  Herzog chases her down on this subject quite ruthlessly, suggesting “Contraband” coming out of the prison.

While she denies being a “Death Row Groupie”, there’s a disturbing glint of insanity in her eyes, and is the most deluded person involved.  At one point she describes seeing a rainbow on the day she met him, arching from inside the prison to the free world, and saw it as a sign. This is clearly bullshit, but she seems to believe it.

When the documentary takes a break from the talking heads, the images are heavy with stillness – Herzog visits the car four people died for, and finds it rusting away in a police compound, with a tree growing inside; Peter Zeitlinger’s camera stalks around the gurney where convicts are executed, and silence vibrates from it.

Herzog is guilty of a few cheap shots. I was disturbed by the insistence of grieving relatives holding up pictures of their murdered loved ones – I’d be interested to know how much of that was their decision, and how much the Director’s.

In such a hardcore Christian stronghold as Texas, he also has a cheap shot at the expense of Sandra Stotler’s daughter. She attended Perry’s execution and Herzog slyly suggests it was more Old Testament-style retribution, and that Jesus probably wouldn’t like it much.  She deflects the question admirably.

Into the Abyss is a grueling, challenging documentary.  Herzog keeps himself off camera, and for once there is none of his pretentious navel-gazing in voice over.  The chapter titles are a rather grandiose, but for the most part Herzog lets the ordinary people do the talking – and they are grimly, vividly alive.

For a film that spends most of the running time in the shadow of death, it is curiously life-affirming. The film concludes with the thoughts of a former captain of the death house – this man was responsible for making sure over 120 death row inmates got their last meal, but were also strapped down good and tight to receive their final injection.

Now retired, he is solemn and eloquent about the death penalty, and on the importance of “living your dash”. I’d never heard that phrase before, referring to the hyphen between your date of birth and death on your headstone. I found it extremely moving, but then he was off talking about watching the hummingbirds…Herzog loves his nature.


Full Tilt Boogie (1997): Backstage at the Titty Twister, with QT & Clooney…

A movie about the making of the movie “From Dusk Till Dawn”, a movie made by people whose movies are about movies – you don’t get much more “Movie” than “Full Tilt Boogie”. Sarah Kelly’s on the fly making-of doc is a refreshing glimpse behind the scenes of Robert Rodriguez’s trashy, naughty splatterfest, a Tex-Mex vampire western with a sum of parts considerably greater than the whole.

“From Dusk Till Dawn” featured a triumverate guaranteed to get film geeks drooling. Robert Rodriguez was the darling of indie cinema after his El Cheapo one-man-band debut “El Mariachi”, and its bigger budget remake/sequel “Desperado”. George Clooney chipped in with an assured, attention-grabbing first lead role as the slightly less psychotic elder Gecko brother, Seth. And Quentin Tarantino, shit hot after “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”, dusted off an old script and got himself cast in a major role, safe in the knowledge that an adaptation of his shopping list would make money and could survive his cringe-worthy acting.

“Full Tilt Boogie” opens with a sequence that Tarantino probably would have opened with if he was making it – QT and Clooney, decked out in their seedy Gecko Brothers outfits, leave their dressing room and swagger down endless corridors to set accompanied by the BeeGee’s “Stayin’ Alive”. The crew anxiously await their arrival while the duo shove fanboys away by the face and stop to sign autographs for hot chicks. The scene is obviously staged, but is pacey, fun, and in keeping with Tarantino’s self-fulfilling Geek’s-Own fantasy, and sets the audience up nicely for the rest of the feature.

For much of the documentary, Kelly chooses to focus on the crew’s lesser lights, from the Grips to the Caterer, from the Electricians to the Drivers. Most are endearingly down-to-earth characters, relishing a few moments in the spotlight, and it is intriguing to hear their motives for being in the movie business in the first place. Some are disenchantingly hard-nosed and cynical, seeing it as just a job, and a way to pay the bills; others are more romantic about the film-making process and love the idea of commiting something to celluloid.

They fantasize about the bathfuls of ice cold beers awaiting them at the end of a long, hard day on location, bitch about the lunches, vote on who’s got the best butt, and gossip about who’s shagging who. It creates the impression of the crew as a living, breathing micro-culture behind the camera, and is a far cry from those repellent talking heads “Making Of” docs where the stars just gush on about how thrilled they are about the project, and what an honour it is to be working with so-and-so.

Nobody appears to be labouring under the illusion they’re making a classic, though, least of all Rodriguez, who appears lazy and complacent after his flash-fame rise to prominence in the 90’s. Here he seems happy to sit around playing his guitar between takes, and let his Assistant Directors do all the hard work.

The documentary often wanders off into self-indulgence, especially when Kelly senses the opportunity to thrust herself centre stage.  She attempts to turn the film into an expose of Lyle Trachtenberg, the mastermind behind IATSE’s proposed strike action on the non-union production, hunting him down to explain himself on film. I expect all this union stuff will be of little interest to anyone outside the business, and Kelly flunks anyway when her sub-Michael Moore invasion of a conference results in Trachtenberg’s ant-climactic refusal to talk on camera. This whole segment is a flop and seriously disrupts the flow of the film.

“Full Tilt Boogie” works best when keeping it simple and focusing on the highs and lows of the production itself, and some of the actual “Making Of” stuff is quite fascinating. The motley crew have fun with the stunts and gross special effects; a controlled explosion goes out of control and sets light to the Titty Twister set, and a sandstorm causes havoc on the desert location. Another highlight is Clooney and Tarantino larking around between takes, and the two stars share genuine chemistry.

Of the major players, Clooney comes across as the most interesting, a lean, mean, charismatic leading man, who is funny and flirtatious; a superstar in waiting with a hungry gleam in his eye, who’s not above boozing it up with fans…while still wearing his Seth Gecko gear.

Tarantino is as sharp, over-enthusiastic, smug and irritating as you might remember. However, despite his motormouth shtick and strangely endearing bad acting, it’s hard not to admire and even like the guy – after all, he’s the film geek living the dream for all the film geeks out there.

Unlike Rodriguez, who just turned into a shite version of Tarantino, QT actually makes movies that get critics moist and moviegoers dancing in the aisles, He brings out memorable performances in his actors and makes movies about the enjoyment of watching movies, and in two decades he’s yet to make a dud. What will he be like when he grows up?

Early in the film, a caption explains Harvey Keitel refused to appear in the documentary because he was too busy making “From Dusk Till Dawn”. When he belatedly makes an appearance in a short interview granted to Tarantino, it’s hard to imagine how he could be anymore out to lunch. His lofty, existential ruminations on the nature of acting are in hilarious contrast to the schlocky movie he’s appearing in. It’s good to see someone taking their work seriously but this is a vampire stripper movie, not “On The Waterfront”.

Salma Hayek in conspicuous by her absence, but Juliette Lewis comes across well and not nearly as nuts as you might imagine, a hip young woman with an edge and a suspicion of a warm heart; B Movie icons Fred Williamson, Danny Trejo and Michael Parks all make an appearance to round out the cult appeal.

“Full Tilt Boogie” won’t be for everyone, but it provides a vital snapshot to an era when the Indies were king; one minute you’re losing count of how many Oscars “Dancing With Wolves” is hoovering up, the next someone’s sticking a fucking gun in your face…

Deep Water (2006) – One Middle Aged Chancer Against the Sea…

“God and his Son played at the heart of the Cosmos.. they played a lovely game that consisted of transforming apes into gods. It was a fun game, and all the while they played, they followed a simple rule: the apes were not allowed to know about the existence of the gods…”Donald Crowhurst

The old one about truth being stranger than fiction is rarely more applicable than in the story of Donald Crowhurst, a bumbling English businessman who decided to enter a non-stop round the world boat race, only to find disaster, disgrace and insanity.

It is the Sixties, and sailor Francis Chichester has just completed the first single-handed journey around the world, and returns to a hero’s welcome. The Sunday Times, who had sponsored Chichester’s endeavour, decide the next step is to organise a non-stop race, offering a 5000 pound reward.

The prestigious event and tidy prize fund attracted a number of experienced adventurers and sailors – and Donald Crowhurst. We are introduced to Crowhurst early as he makes his preparations to depart on the journey from Teignmouth, Devon.

The film makes excellent use of documentary footage, and although these early moments are in black and white, vividly capture the slipshod and comically disorganised nature of Crowhurst’s departure. He is clearly a worried man – he gambled everything he had on building his boat, a trimiran called “Teignmouth Electron”, and time was running out. Contestants needed to leave between June 1st and 31st October, in order to pass the dangerous Southern Ocean in summer.

Crowhurst left on last day, in a boat he’d never sailed before, packed with gadgets designed to make his journey safer, but weren’t hooked up properly because of his rushed preparations. A weekend sailor at best, his journey would take him through the Atlantic, around the Cape of Africa, across the Southern Ocean, rounding the horn of South America, before heading back up the Atlantic and home.

Interviews with Crowhurst’s widow and son are eerily intercut with footage of them watching him making his last minute preparations and his departure; she tells of her misgivings about the adventure, and that concern is all too evident in her eyes on the old news reel.

Crowhurst and his Teignmouth Electron got into trouble almost as soon as he left the harbour; the reported positions of the other competitors were way ahead of him, and he soon realised that his options were dire – he could return home to disgrace and financial ruin, or press on and probably drown in the fierce Southern Ocean in a boat that was barely seaworthy.

However, Crowhurst was an inventive man, and soon came up with third option – I won’t go into too much detail, because it turns into one of the most unusual stories I’ve heard – but suffice to say it starts with a decision to keep a second fake log book, and by the end, it is not surprising that Crowhurst felt the cosmos was conspiring against him.

There was also a camera onboard Crowhurst’s trimiran, and with some of the other competitors, and the images captured are beautiful, haunting echoes from the past, showing men in complete isolation against heavy seas. The documentary as a whole successfully distills an atmosphere of high adventure, in an era where man had visited the moon, and there was little else to explore – yet these men at sea were virtually untraceable apart from their radio signals, long before satellites and GPS.

The film spends some time telling the stories of the other competitors, in particular Bernard Moitessier, an enigmatic frenchman who finds himself out on the ocean. The main focus of the documentary is Crowhurst, and delves into his dwindling psychological state, assisted by his own despairing diary entries and spooky film footage of a man clearly losing his mind.

“Deep Water” moves at the narrative pace of a feature film, and the real-life twists will be best appreciated by those with little or no knowledge of the story; however, it seems as though it suffered the same fate as Crowhurst’s real life adventure – up until I saw it on Channel 4, I’d never heard about it, and thought it the strangest tale never told, and this film seems to have disappeared from people’s radar amid more celebrated feature length docs such as “Touching the Void” and “Grizzly Man”.

Fully decked out for a re-discovery, then – just be warned, it’s probably best not to watch it late at night by yourself, because the film is strange, creepy and rather unsettling.

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