Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “documentary”

The First Monday in May

M
91 mins
4.5 stars

I used to own a pair of sparkly pink uncomfortably high heels I wistfully called my “photoshoot shoes” – hoping, as you do, that one day Vanity Fair magazine might need me for its cover, and that I would look stylish in some outlandish outfit, without having to walk or move about.

If I had you at “uncomfortably high heels” then this latest fashion documentary (for there seems to be at least one a year nowadays) has you embroidered all over it. The First Monday in May follows the curation of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual costume exhibition, and the corresponding lead-up to the event’s annual fundraising shindig: the Met Gala. (It’s little wonder the intoxicating combination of Hollywood starlet and wrinkled camp designer can bring in $12.5 million to support the museum.)

There’s not a lot of drama plot-wise, but the behind-the-scenes footage of the exquisite ensembles and in particular the juicy almost-gossip of Who Can’t Sit With Whom on the celebrity tables is more than compelling.

And the clothes. Oh my. Not just “fashion” but “clothing as artworks” say the exhibition’s insiders and the documentary’s only downside is that the camera often glides too quickly for you to absorb the incredible detail and breath-taking beauty.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour has a starring role (she is surprisingly restrained when questioned about The Devil Wears Prada), and the interviews with famous designers, although fairly safe in their content, are fascinating purely as an opportunity to get so close as to admire the handiwork of the interviewee’s surgeon. Compulsive viewing for wannabe fashionistas.

A Flickering Truth

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, August 2016

Documentary
96 mins
4 stars

It’s fair to say we don’t hear a lot of positive news out of the Middle East nowadays, with Afghanistan long since the misconstrued poster boy for Terrorism and latterly taking up the mantle of Small Foreign Country Beleaguered by Bigger Foreign Military Intervention. One might assume, therefore, that a documentary would focus on the wars and inner turmoil, perhaps even glorifying Allied troops who remain there in a reconstruction or training capacity.

But not this one. Instead, A Flickering Truth takes a slightly gentler yet far more fascinating tack, following a native Afghan filmmaker (once exiled and now resident in Germany) as he goes to great lengths to restore previously hidden or damaged films which have been unearthed since the Taliban destroyed these crucial aspects of the country’s cultural history. (Cinephiles watching as they disinter ruined reels of goodness-knows-what will be appalled at the outrageous loss. “They killed the films,” one witness says helplessly of the Taliban’s ruthless art-burning. “The films bled into the ground.”) Discovering astonishing archive footage of presidential visits to the United States and early Afghan movies (complete with belly dancing beauties and distinctly non-Taliban-endorsed activity), these gems depict a very different side of Afghanistan than we’re used to.

Local director Pietra Brettkelly (the terrific Maori Boy Genius) delivers an original perspective of the horrors of war, and it is heart-warming to see remarkable footage of happier times and surprising historical moments. Stunningly sound-tracked and beautifully photographed, A Flickering Truth couldn’t be a more apt vessel for its subject matter.

Where to Invade Next

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2016

Michael Moore, that agent provocateur who stuck it to George W. Bush’s administration in the incisive, award-winning documentaries Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, sticks the knife into his own country at the beginning of his latest diatribe, itemising all the wars the USA has made itself party to and subsequently lost since WWII.

On the basis of its failings when it comes to “knowing what’s best” for other nations, Moore decides to “invade” predominantly European countries in order to appropriate their best ideas, instead. What follows is a fascinating jaunt around the world which will make your mouth water for many of the progressive practices demonstrated.

Moore (now 62 and not looking well at all) shambles his way into Prime Ministers’ offices and school canteens, but while he’s not the most charismatic interviewer on the block, he is sufficiently warm and encouraging towards his subjects to garner some fantastic observations. Our ideal world, it would seem, should adopt Finland’s education system (where homework is outlawed and children are encouraged to play), Italy’s 8-weeks’ paid annual holiday, and France’s 4-course lunches provided to primary school students no matter their socio-economic status.

At two hours, Moore’s island-hopping does start to feel long-winded, but he packs in as many revelations as he can from Tunisia to Slovenia, interposing the earnest but engrossing talking heads interviews with apposite (usually humorous) clips. And while he directs his criticisms homeward, local viewers will find them uncomfortably relevant.

The title Where to Invade Next may feel trivial or provocative, but in fact Moore opens our eyes to many wonders of the modern world.

Tickled

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2016

You’ve probably already heard and read a lot about David Farrier’s documentary on “competitive endurance tickling” (who knew?…) which began as a proposed 3-minute segment in the Kiwi journalist’s “it’s a crazy old world” section of Newsworthy and rapidly blossomed into a full-blown, feature-length indictment of bullying and deceit.

But what you won’t know until you watch it, is how deeply troubling the story turns out, and how heart-pounding and stomach-clenching it is for the enthralled viewer.

The notion of grown men being paid to tickle one another, on camera, to satisfy the fetish of I’m-not-sure-who may be enticing enough, and the film (co-directed with Dylan Reeve, a jack of myriad filmmaking trades) begins lightheartedly with Farrier’s warmly familiar voiceover before the rabbit hole rapidly gets deeper and darker. Soon he and Reeve are travelling to the United States on the hunt for an online bully, a homophobic PR company and “victims” of this seemingly bizarre sport.

Quite aside from the gripping narrative, having Farrier himself at the helm is doubtless one of the film’s trump cards – never have I met a media personality with more sincere warmth and interest in those he encounters, and throughout some torturously awkward scenes he is never less than relentless, professional and courteous. But the film isn’t just about threats and cruelty visited upon hapless interviewees: Farrier himself becomes the hunted as the scent gets stronger and the mysterious characters (for, as so often in documentaries, these people come off more as caricatures than real humans) grow more defensive.

There are moments when, from my cosy cinema seat, my heart thudded at least as heavily as Farrier’s and Reeve’s must have while filming, and the insights garnered will make your blood boil before leaving you with pause for thought. This completely unexpected journey is a miracle of documentary filmmaking (rave reviews around the world have already acknowledged the “So bizarre you couldn’t make it up” truism) but more importantly it’s a brave and crucial investigation into an insidious attempt to ruin people’s lives.

Mavis!

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 1st May 2016

Mavis! is a warm-hearted documentary about the shining star of the Staples Singers, the family troupe who delivered gospel music out from its niche in the churches and into mainstream pop culture during the 1960s and 1970s. The group’s leading lady at a young age, today the soul legend continues to forge a solo career in her mid-70s.

Principally, Mavis! is a solid aural history of gospel-soul music and its significance to the Civil Rights movement – Mavis’ father got involved with Dr King’s world-changing message, and the seemingly eternally cheery quartet (comprising father, brother and two sisters) played concerts, TV appearances and produced records as if it were a bonafide calling. But Mavis Staples herself has proved to be inspirational to countless musicians over the past several decades, and talking heads interviews with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and anecdotes about her involvement with Bob Dylan and Prince go some way to fleshing out the down-to-earth star’s biography.

Interspersed with extended concert footage of 75-year old Mavis which initially thrills but soon feels repetitive, the film doesn’t push any boundaries in terms of either personal content (an ill-fated marriage is covered in one throwaway comment) or professional insights. Mavis! may not inspire many new listeners, but it should satisfy the adoring fans and musicologists.

25 April

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 24th April 2016

I thought I knew all about Gallipoli, and in the opening moments of this beautifully animated documentary it felt like we might be about to cover old – albeit eternally relevant – ground.

But as the stories unfold – tales in the first-person voice of those soldiers and nurses who experienced the horror and devastation first hand – you realise there is so much more to hear, learn and appreciate about that fateful military campaign one hundred and one years ago.

Local director Leanne Pooley (whose Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls documentary was a highlight of 2009) has crafted an innovative new telling of the timeless story, animating words taken directly from memoirs, diaries and letters of the men and women who sacrificed months (and in some cases, their lives) spent in squalor on those distant shores in Turkey. We get to know real personalities by their back-home professions, and this makes the contemporaneous description all the more compelling. “It was a cruel sport,” says the lad from Wellington College Rifle Club whose contribution to the effort was as a sniper; “a life for a life.” Another evokes sharing a cigarette with one of the enemy during the ceasefire that was negotiated so that fallen comrades could be cleared from the battlefield. And how many of us knew that nurses would stand on the decks of the hospital ships, watching the battles take place on shore?

 With the centenary of the first Anzac Day looming, 25 April makes a timely companion piece to the Weta Workshop-created exhibition “Gallipoli: The Scale of our War” at the museum of Te Papa, and a re-watch of Peter Weir’s 1981 movie (Mel Gibson looks unbelievably young in it, but the film has not dated so much as to make you immune to its impact).

Where 25 April goes further is in illustrating the type of reflections on war that generally live in the private conscious of those who were involved. Enhanced by powerful imagery through clever illustration, these personal stories make for fascinating, affecting and necessary viewing.

The Art of Recovery

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th November 2015

Kiwi cinematographer Peter Young’s heart-warming documentary takes us around the carcass of Christchurch’s CBD where out-of-towners may be amazed to see that locals have taken it upon themselves to embrace “rebuilding the spirit” as an artistic rather than architectural enterprise.

While faceless houses and sideless buildings still scar the urban environment, myriad creative examples of pop-up optimism dot the spaces in between – the “gaps” that are being filled by the Gap Fillers collective.

Whether you fancy a spot of outdoors swing dancing at the coin-operated dance-o-mat or are committed to utilising abandoned lots for “take what you need” community gardens, Christchurch’s creative souls have been busy in recent years, ignoring the Government arrogance that has marginalised the local voice about how the city should be rebuilt, and simply getting on with making their city liveable again. Cycle power runs outdoor cinemas, while a temporary art installation of 185 white chairs (memorialising those who perished in the 2011 quake) has been in situ longer than originally envisaged. Street artists make full use of their huge new canvasses, while dedicated actors create theatre without a theatre.

Passionate, articulate interviewees note that the earthquake’s silver lining has been the breaking down of barriers – both literal and metaphorical – between people in the Garden City’s communities. It’s truly inspirational stuff, and an object lesson in spiritual restoration needing to come from the people and not those supposedly in power.

Amy – the film review

The devastatingly short-lived existence of the singer Amy Winehouse is deeply troubling to watch – or rather, witness – with the tone of this excellent documentary set in an early scene where she explains she didn’t think she’d be famous because she “wouldn’t be able to handle it”.

It’s not just the fact we know that ultimately, she couldn’t, which makes this so sobering. Whether you were a fan beforehand or not, you will leave the cinema weighted down by the realisation that Winehouse was an enormous talent, and a life tragically taken too soon.

Director Asif Kapadia produced a masterful portrait of the late Formula One racing legend in the eponymous Senna, a film that was remarkably gripping and moving, despite relying completely on archive footage with not a single contemporary interview. He’s taken a similar tack with Amy, presenting something akin to a disconcertingly uncensored, unedited home video which includes endless shots of the singer moving in slow-motion from restaurant to limo balanced by her innocent, pre-celebrity self singing her lungs out at a school friend’s birthday.

Kapadia typically eschews the narratorial leanings of voiceover or audible interviewer questionning, leaving us to just watch and listen. It’s occasionally grim hearing friends, family and Winehouse herself talk us through to the inevitable climax – particularly when some of them start to sound like accessories to the fact (you’ll want to give her parasitical ex-husband a clip round the ear) – but the film is never less than fascinating. If some of the extended shots of Winehouse lying coquettishly on the floor start to feel gratuitous, there is an exquisite pleasure in watching her record “Back to Black” and lose her nerve when duetting with her idol Tony Bennett.

Amy doesn’t ask you to judge the behaviour, nor scoff at the cliché of a young ingénue dead at 27. Instead, it allows you soak up the brilliance and the tragedy borne, perhaps unwillingly, by “an old soul in a young body”. While not a perfect documentary, it stayed with me for days after.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

When you realise that Kurt Cobain left us 21 years ago this month, at age 27, it’s bound to make you feel old. It also makes me feel a bit sad – conjuring up the same feelings from that fateful day in 1994 when we were told his stomach problems had gotten too much for him, and he’d shot himself to ease the pain. My mind’s eye still recalls the distinctly paparazzi-esque “police photograph” of his body which was printed in whichever magazine deemed such a thing appropriate at the time (the Internet may have existed in those days but I wasn’t on it. Needless to say those pictures now are).

I am proud as heck to have been in the audience at Nirvana’s only New Zealand show (February 1992). For a paltry $25, we were treated to an hour of the 3Ds, an hour of Second Child and an hour of Nirvana (who, if I recall correctly, only had the albums Bleach and Nevermind under their belts by that stage). We all thought it was Christmas, though we had no idea just how important that gig would turn out to be. While the band went on to even greater acclaim with the release of In Utero, two years later Cobain was gone and with him any chance of seeing them play live again.

21 years later, with his daughter Frances Bean Cobain as executive producer, a new documentary threatens to resurrect Cobain to the status he abhorred so strongly, even though the film eschews hero worship and instead offers one of the most detailed and intimate portraits of the troubled soul you’re likely to see.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is directed by Brett Morgen (who co-directed the Hollywood doco The Kid Stays in the Picture back in 2002) and, to his credit, there is nothing fanboy about it – instead, it’s a sad, fascinating, sometimes exhilarating window into Cobain’s inner beauty and torment, from childhood through to music superstardom. We learn about the family problems that led to his feeling rejection very sharply throughout his life; we read his often brilliant scribblings, view his frequently disturbing etchings. And we hear his music, powerful and evocative as it blasts through the silver screen, which will inevitably send the viewer scuttling home to fish their old CDs out from the box under the bed.

Having been granted access to Cobain’s archives (a mere 18 boxes, it turned out, although there was absolute gold within), Morgen has pieced together an incredibly balanced and yet still benevolent depiction of the reluctant God of Grunge. Sensibly, he ignores the music industry execs and pundits, and instead provides a mouthpiece to Cobain’s parents, sister, wife (present day Courtney Love is surprisingly reasonable and offers some touching insights) and his fellow band members (the thrill of being reminded of just how young Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl once looked is a whole other reason to see the film).

And then there’s the archive footage. Turns out Kurt & Courtney were regular home video makers, which lends its own special resonance to proceedings when you consider his daughter never really knew him in person – we see him as a doting father (albeit sometimes strung out on heroin, which is a whole other level of heart-breaking) and there’s no disputing the love between Cobain and his high maintenance bride.

Montage of Heck is obviously a must-see for fans, but it is also a riveting record of one of rock music’s fallen icons. Sure, we can speculate about how we might not have cared about Cobain had he lived on – whether the band would have sunk into obscurity or might now be reforming for one of those damn reunion/retirement-plan world tours so many of their counterparts are undertaking.

But the reality is, Cobain simply lived up to that cliché of a maxim: he lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful legacy.

Dior and I

Back from the film festival so that those who missed it needn’t make the same mistake twice, this fascinating documentary takes us behind the scenes in the lead-up to the launch of Christian Dior’s new haute couture collection.

With the fashion house’s new artistic director, Raf Simons, stamping his inaugural mark, the stakes are genuinely high as fabric is delayed at the screen-printers and clothiers work late into the evenings to meet their deadline. Bolstering our empathy for the bright young designer, the edgy, nervy score causes our own hearts to pump a little faster – an indulgent creative choice by filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng, but one that renders the film pleasingly exhilarating.

Perhaps the thrill also comes from our being plunged into a life in Paris that few will ever experience. From the seamstresses who have worked under the eaves in the House of Dior since they were 18 years old, to the ingénue models preparing for their first catwalk, interviews with the insiders disprove any accusations of snobbery and exploitation, and instead reveal ordinary people with a passion for their craft.

Dior and I joins a runway of superb fashion films, including Tcheng’s first feature Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel which delivered riveting insights into the life of that fashionista. Here he crafts a voiceover from Mr Dior’s memoirs, interposing archive footage with the contemporary story. Those who love a sumptuous tale of art, beauty and style will luxuriate in its telling.

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