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Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

We have apparently lived through some sort of mini-Golden Age of the Documentary Feature – don’t tell me you missed it! – with films like Searching for Sugar Man, Project Nim, Man on Wire, and The Imposter all drawing serious attention from audiences not usually noted for their interest in non-fictitious times. Given this embarrassment of riches, it’s not really surprising that the odd really interesting film managed to sneak through without getting the profile it possibly deserved.

I’m thinking at the moment of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, which came out in 2012. On reflection, perhaps it’s understandable that this is a film with more niche appeal – most of the ones mentioned at the top of the review were based around taking a fascinating but little-known true story and bringing it to life for a new audience. Room 237 is not this kind of film. This is a film for, let’s be honest, movie nerds, and people who are interested in movie nerdery.

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There have been lots of good movies made about the making of other movies, some semi-fictional, some not. Room 237 is about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining (in which Jack Nicholson moves himself and his family into an isolated hotel for the winter and comes down with the hammiest case of writer’s block in movie history). It is not, however, a film about the making of The Shining. It is a film in which various obscure movie nerds give their opinions as to what was going through Stanley Kubrick’s head when he was making The Shining.

Now, I have to be honest and admit the following: I’ve only ever seen The Shining once, over twenty years ago, and it’s one of those films I came away from wondering what all the fuss was about – it was curious, engaging, obviously made by someone with a very particular storytelling sensibility – but it wasn’t, you know, particularly frightening, which is surely the sine qua non of any self-respecting horror film (which, being based on an early Stephen King novel, this surely is).

Not knowing The Shining particularly well makes watching Room 237 (the title is drawn from a key location in the story) a rather curious experience. I have no particularly strongly-held beliefs about what this film is secretly about. I am not even sure I subscribe to the view that it even contains a secret message of any kind. However, Room 237 is populated by people who are absolutely certain that beneath its tale of psychological breakdown and (possibly) malevolent spectres, Kubrick had a very particular message that he wanted to send to the audience. The really weird thing is that none of them can agree on what it is.

One contributor is utterly convinced that the film is an allegory for the near-genocide of Native Americans by colonists to America (evidence: dialogue about the hotel being built on an Indian burial ground, the presence of Native American art throughout the film, a particular brand of tinned good being prominently featured). Then along comes someone else and reveals it is actually about the Nazi holocaust (evidence: Nicholson uses a certain brand of typewriter, a particular number is a motif in the script, and there is a suggestive dissolve between two scenes at one point). But it turns out they’re both wrong, because here comes a third commentator who reveals the whole story has some kind of connection of the legend of the Minotaur (evidence: a poster sort of looks a bit like a minotaur, there’s a couple of mazes in the story, and Nicholson looks a bit like a bull at one point).

Possibly the best-known thesis given an airing here is that of Jay Weidner, who argues that The Shining is Kubrick’s coded admission of his role in the faking of the Apollo moon landings (for which 2001: A Space Odyssey was basically the cover story). Like all his colleagues, Weidner is obviously sincere and obviously completely certain that what he is saying is true: the message is coded into almost every significant element of the movie, and also some things that are apparently insignificant (the pattern of the hotel carpet is apparently a dead giveaway). All the changes between the novel of The Shining and the film (which apparently ticked off author Stephen King so royally) are there solely to facilitate the film’s secret message.

The rabbit hole starts to yawn wide. It’s clear that Weidner not only thinks that the faked Apollo moon landings are connected to The Shining – he thinks that in a very crucial sense, it’s impossible to make sense of and really understand the film unless you approach it with this in mind. Which, of course, can’t be the case, because it is also obviously about the Holocaust, genocide, the legend of the Minotaur, and various other things.

At least these theories are based on a relatively conventional viewing of the movie. One person featured in Room 237 has gone to the trouble of carefully watching the movie and making maps of the hotel, in the process discovering that, architecturally, the place can’t exist – there are windows where no window can possibly be, for instance, and rooms overlap with each other. Was this a creative choice by Kubrick to indicate the Overlook somehow exists beyond conventional space? Or just dud continuity? Someone else has actually spent time watching two versions of The Shining playing simultaneously, one of them backwards, and discovered various apparently significant consonances. Does he honestly believe Kubrick did this intentionally, in the expectation anyone would watch the film this way?

Sometimes there really is an intentional subtext to a movie that can be uncovered by looking at it a little more closely: to choose a very obvious example, the original Dawn of the Dead works on two levels, as a brilliantly-accomplished action-horror movie and as a darkly funny satire on consumerism. But if you look too closely at a movie, there’s a danger you start to see things that just aren’t intentional. Not every prop and piece of set dressing is intended to send a message to the canny viewer. The fact that so many people have spent so many hours examining The Shining and come away with such widely disparate conclusions is surely proof that there can’t be one correct interpretation of the film. Their beliefs tell us little about Kubrick or his film, but a lot about them.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Most of Room 237 is composed of extracts from The Shining (some scenes are repeated multiple times), along with clips from other Kubrick movies and a few others (Capricorn One makes a not entirely surprising appearance, for example, as does An American Werewolf in London), and you do come away with a fuller appreciation of Kubrick’s visual sense, if nothing else. The man made very beautiful, occasionally very enigmatic films. Room 237 is about obsession, but it’s also about loving movies – even if it is just a bit too much. A curious but very engaging film.

 

 

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It has been somewhat slim pickings this week, as we are currently suspended between tentpole releases in an odd sort of cinematic dead zone, especially if heart-warming family entertainments about CGI bears are not the kind of thing that oscillates your coracle. Still, there’s nothing wrong with looking a little further afield than normal, and so while awaiting the doubtless unique results of Zach Snyder and Joss Whedon’s directorial collaboration, I thought it might be nice to check out a low-budget movie about the private school system in the Republic of Ireland. Rock ‘n’ roll!

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The film in question is Neasa Ní Chianáin’s School Life (aka, apparently, In Loco Parentis) from last year, an observational documentary recording a year in the life of the students and staff at Headfort, a boarding school for children between three and thirteen located in Kells, about an hour outside Dublin (it says here). A fairly unusual school, then: the student body is multinational, containing kids from as far afield as Tanzania and South Korea, and the curriculum seems a little eccentric, too.

Over the course of the film we see various small moments from the year – the school Olympics (some nations are rather better represented than others), the development of the school band, the school production of Hamlet being thrown into jeopardy when the actor playing the Ghost turns out to be having First Communion on the day of the performance, and so on. No-one seems to pay the cameras very much attention, and the events shown in the film are clearly quite unforced, consistently warm, and often very funny – the school band’s assault on Teenage Kicks turns out to be one of the unexpected comedy highlights of the year.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the stars of the film turn out to be John and Amanda Leyden, two of the teachers who have spent virtually their entire careers at Headfort: John teaches Latin, but also apparently metaphysics and applied rock and roll. A man with apparently infinite resources of sarcastic curmudgeonry and almost indescribable hair, John comes out of the film as a deeply endearing figure, which would probably really annoy him. He certainly provides many of the film’s best lines – ‘Don’t like the sound of that. Sounds like children,’ he mutters, as his rest is disturbed by the sound of his charges approaching. ‘Well, that wasn’t entirely awful,’ is his idea of glowing praise, while he also hits upon an innovative solution to handing out prizes at the end of a class quiz: ‘I have decided to give a cream egg to the children who I like,’ he announces. He sounds, and probably looks, like a figure from some lost age of boarding-school nightmares – or possibly the teacher from Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall video, but what’s immediately apparent in the film is his utter dedication to his work and his students. He has, after all, spent 46 years at this school.

The same is true for Amanda, who teaches English and is also in charge of the school play. She is a rather more maternal and approachable personality, but once again you never for a moment doubt that her work is the absolute centre of her life. Amanda and John are not particularly expressive, either towards each other or their pupils, but in both cases their devotion is clear. They don’t appear to have grown particularly rich in monetary terms, and indeed their home is chaotically shabby, but you are still left with the overwhelming impression who have managed to find the sweet spot of life.

The same could also be said of Headfort’s headmaster, Dermot Dix. Dix is a former Headfort pupil himself, apparently (not to mention a former pupil of the Leydens) and his own reputation from his time at the school is well-known amongst the pupils. I know I run the risk of repeating myself when I say that he seems equally dedicated to getting the children off to the best start in life, but it’s true (even if his lessons in ethical thinking appear to go off at some odd tangents – one scene showing discussion on gay marriage concludes with a pupil  deciding that ‘sometimes it’s better to be gay than single’).

Of course, if you are the cynical type, you might well conclude that all this really is is a massive commercial for what is, essentially, an extremely exclusive private school. Sure, the kids get a marvellous, nurturing education from superb teachers, but this is predicated on the fact that their parents are paying up to around €18,000 per school year for the privilege. Tedious old lefty that I am, as a rule I object to the fact that the quality of a child’s education should depend on their parents’ income, and so there’s a sense in which Headfort represents many things which I don’t believe should have a place in a modern, civilised society. And yet looking at the place, I can’t help but agree that the world is better for having schools like Headfort in it.

This is one of those observational documentaries that appears deceptively artless: there are no captions as such, no voice-over, no interviews as such with the principles. It doesn’t appear to be making a case or arguing a point of any kind, it just seems to be presenting an honest picture of a very nice place.

Nevertheless, questions inevitably arise as you watch it: shouldn’t all schools be like this one? What does it say about our society that education often seems to be less than a priority? Isn’t the education of children one of the most important jobs in any society?

More personally, the film seems to be more widely about life in general. I don’t tend to go on about it much hereabouts, but I am a teacher of sorts, although in my case I generally stick to working with people in their late teens and early adulthood. Watching School Life made me think that I might be in the wrong game, though, and that it’s with the younger children that you can really make a difference. I don’t know.  I do know that seeing John Leyden almost felt like looking at a vision of the future – I do enjoy a bit of dark sarcasm in the classroom, though I draw the line at buying cream eggs for anyone. Unspoken in the film are John and Amanda’s feelings as they contemplate their looming retirement, and what they will do next: it’s clear that this is something they approach with some reluctance.

Again, I sympathise (though in my case the crisis point is still hopefully many years away). But I imagine most people would – this is such a humane film, that it will surely evoke that same humanity in a viewer. Is it about the Irish private education system? No, not really. Of course, it’s about one very unusual school, but it also does that weird thing of not being about anything, and yet at the same being about absolutely everything. But none the worse for that, of course.

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You would have to have a heart made of solid bakelite, I suspect, not to be profoundly and repeatedly moved by Roger Ross Williams’ documentary Life, Animated. I must confess to having been a bit wary going in to this one, despite being aware of the glowing buzz surrounding it, as I do like to maintain a proper air of reserve and detachment (except when watching Jason Statham movies, obviously), and also because I suspected the subject matter might strike a bit too close to home for absolute comfort. But turn up I did and within the first few minutes found myself at severe risk of having an emotional episode.

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This is the story of Owen Suskind, a young man in his early twenties, who as the film starts is on the verge of graduating, moving into his own place, and starting to look for a job. What makes this slightly unusual is the fact that at the age of three, Owen began to suffer a marked deterioration in his motor skills and speech, and was diagnosed with regressive autism. The doctors informed his parents (his father is a Pulitzer-winning journalist, which may have something to do with why this film got made) that some children with this condition never speak again.

And yet Owen has grown up to be an engaging, lively, outgoing young man, aware of the special challenges he faces, realistic, but also hopeful. How has this happened? The answer seems to lie with his love of Disney animations: he has a deep and abiding love for all things of the Mouse, and has apparently memorised the complete scripts of every single full-length cartoon. They are his means of rendering the world intelligible and forming a significant connection with it.

The film has the advantage of incorporating numerous clips from the various movies in question, which you might expect to have presented some interesting issues of licensing – apparent what happened was that they showed the movie to Disney’s terrifying legal team, who all promptly started weeping while watching the film, at which point the negotiations became considerably simpler. That said, it is not quite the exercise in grisly advertisement and promotion for the Disney machine that you might be expecting and/or dreading – the clips are there to service Owen’s story, not promote the brand.

And it is the story of how one lives with an autistic-spectrum disorder. I find myself a little hesitant at this point, mainly because I’m worried about crossing the line and starting to talk more about myself than the movie, but in the spirit of the courage shown by the Suskind family in this film, I will chance it. Possibly the most significant change in my own life in the past year has been my realisation that I am further along the autistic spectrum myself than I previously thought might be the case. I mean, as soon as I heard of Asperger’s syndrome and read a list of typical features of the condition, I was struck by a definite sense of personal recognition. I am strongly attracted to routine, habit, and continuity; I often have significant difficulty in processing change. When something interests me, it consumes my attention entirely and I find it difficult to devote any real time to anything else. Many social situations are challenging and uncomfortable for me – maintaining relationships can also be difficult. I find myself strangely drawn to Saga from The Bridge (although, to be honest, I suspect the same is equally true of many men with standard brain function). When it comes to Owen’s way of using reference points from Disney movies to connect with the people around him, the parallel that instantly leapt to my mind was an episode of Star Trek concerning an alien culture which functions in a roughly analogous fashion, and if I tell you that the episode in question is called Darmok, aired as part of (I think) the fifth season, guest stars Paul Winfield, that Russell T Davies has never seen it because he likes the purity of the concept too much, and that I can tell you all of this without recourse to the internet despite not really considering myself that big a fan of The Next Generation, you may perhaps begin to get a glimmering of just how oddly my own circuits are wired up.

In short, it’s a constant fact of life, and I must confess that I do feel rather more comfortable in my own skin now I’ve actually figured out what’s going on with me. I wonder whether it’s the sense of recognition I got from watching Owen deal with his own issues that made me respond so strongly to the film; I doubt it, though, for this is surely a captivating story no matter what your own background.

This is partly down to Owen and partly down to his family, who are often wrenchingly honest when it comes to talking about their own feelings. Do not make the assumption that this is a heavy or depressing film – it is always down to earth and often very funny – there’s a wonderful sequence where Owen’s elder brother Walt muses on the difficulty of teaching him about some of the elements of, erm, adult relationships, given that these same elements do not generally feature in Disney cartoons.

Looking back it seems rather like I’ve devoted more words to talking about myself than the actual film, which was the last thing that I wanted to do: this is supposed to be a review, not a plea for attention, and it doesn’t do justice to a film which is in many ways one of the most exceptional of the year – it has a warmth and emotional charge to it which very few dramatic films I’ve seen can match. You feel a real connection to the people in the film, and yet it never feels intrusive or exploitative, which can often be a problem with this kind of documentary. The documentary footage is accompanied both by the Disney clips already mentioned and by some new animation, which is actually quite lovely in its own right and suits the tone of the film perfectly.

Documentaries about autistic-spectrum disorders do not tend to be major box office hits, especially at a time when the latest stellar conflict brand extension exercise is due to swamp cinemas everywhere (ironically, itself another Disney subsidiary). I can’t really be completely objective about Life, Animated, but it did seem to me to be a great documentary telling a very accessible and uplifting story. Recommended.

 

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Like many other people, I have been keeping half an eye on the BBC’s latest wildlife extravaganza, Beneath the Planet of the Earth, and the privations of the people who spend six months up trees waiting for sloths to get jiggy never fail to impress me. And, also like many other people, I suspect, I do occasionally find myself wondering: do they ever get the urge to, you know, assist real life a bit? Tell the lions where the baby giraffes are? Or, conversely, give the poor dying-of-thirst-in-the-desert hippo a crafty trough of lemonade between takes? Documentarians are only human, after all.

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This was brought rather forcibly home to me by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s Sonita, undoubtedly this year’s leading documentary about the Afghan hip-hop scene. Centre stage throughout is Sonita Alizadeh, who as things get underway is an Afghan refugee living in Tehran, dreaming of her future as a musical superstar. This consists of her sellotaping pictures of her own face onto magazine photos of Rihanna and rapping to her schoolmates at the refugee centre she attends. (She appears to be rapping about scratchcards, but it’s still one of the top ten best Afghan-language hip-hop numbers I’ve ever heard.)

Sonita and her mate Ahmad are doggedly attempting to launch some sort of musical career in Tehran despite the lukewarm response of the industry professionals they meet and the numerous problems facing a young female refugee wanting to record American-style music in Iran. Things do not look rosy. However, they get even worse when news arrives from the rest of the family back in Afghanistan: her elder brother wants to get married, for which he will need $9000 to pay the bride-price on his intended. To raise the money, Sonita’s mum has decided to realise one of the family’s assets: by marrying Sonita off to a stranger, and receiving a hefty financial sum in return.

This is, if you will, the film’s hippo in the desert moment, summed up by a moment in which Sonita looks forlornly at the camera and asks Ghaemmaghami if she can’t stump up some cash of her own, effectively buying Sonita’s freedom from the demands of her family. There is a long pause and the director gently tries to explain that it is not her role to involve herself in Sonita’s life that way.

Many discussions ensue between the refugee centre boss and Sonita’s alarming mother, followed by an extraordinary sequence in which Ghaemmaghami, the centre boss, the cameraman, and the boom operator heatedly discuss exactly what their responsibilities are towards Sonita and whether they should pony up for what is effectively blackmail by her mother: two grand will buy Sonita another six months of life in Tehran.

In the end a caption reveals that the film-makers decided to pay the $2000. From this point on the film is effectively dead in the water as a conventional documentary, but remains weirdly compelling viewing anyway: Sonita persuades the crew to film a pop video of her performing a number about bride-selling, which they then put on YouTube. As a result, she gets offered a scholarship to a school in Utah, but this involves a frankly hair-raising gamble: Sonita has to return to Afghanistan, from where she may not be able to leave again, and secure the necessary travel documents without her family finding out. It’s very clear throughout that the director is basically egging Sonita on, utterly disregarding the concerns of her family, and possibly even Sonita’s safety. The code of ethics of (utterly non-)professional film critics prevents me from revealing how it all turns out (look on Wikipedia if you really must know), but many members of the audience at the screening I attended – primarily the young, American ones – were literally weeping as the film ended. Hmmm.

I mean, it’s not as if Sonita Alizadeh isn’t a winning screen presence: she’s as engagingly stroppy and self-obsessed as any western teenage girl, and, as far as I can tell, which is obviously not very far at all, she does have some genuine talent as a writer and performer – but the problem is that the film’s openness about how involved the crew were in shaping its events really makes you doubt and question the whole thing.

Even before the bit with the cash, I was slightly unsure this wasn’t some bizarre Chris Morris-esque spoof of right-on documentaries, played absolutely deadpan: there’s a scene in which a pair of stony-faced social workers get Sonita to use her classmates to recreate scenes of her family’s escape from the Taliban. Other bits just feel staged: at one point Sonita has to pop off down the benefits office to ask for an advance on that month’s money, and the scene is filmed from within the office itself, indicating the people there are complicit in having the documentary crew around. The same is true of a discussion of Sonita’s fate between her mum and the refugee centre boss – if this is a genuine conversation of such import, what the hell is a camera crew doing there? Even the subtitles to Sonita’s lyrics rhyme suspiciously well, given she’s supposedly singing in a foreign language.

In short, the impartiality of this documentary felt deeply suspect from very early on, and the questionable element is by no means limited to the director’s involvement in shaping the subject’s future. The axe that the film is grinding is a noble axe, a justified axe, an axe that I am broadly very sympathetic to myself. But that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a film with an axe to grind, and the clear intention of presenting Sonita as a sort of hip-hop version of Malala Yousafzai (or possibly Ms Dynamite, albeit with a background containing genuine explosives).

This probably isn’t the place to rake over my own first-hand experiences with the partly quaint but mostly just brutal match-making practices of central Asia – suffice to say that the traditions which the film (and Sonita) rail against so effectively are certainly not fictitious and still have the capacity to ruin the lives of young women. But how we deal with this subject is a complex and difficult topic which is not especially well-served by a film which is so obviously partisan on the issues involved (one completely unconnected scene, early on, has a young woman with a black eye being assured that ‘your brother says it won’t happen again’ – we are left to draw our own conclusions as to what’s been going on). Are we so utterly self-assured when it comes to the righteousness of our own principles that we are prepared to casually disregard and obliterate the traditions of Afghan culture? Isn’t the film basically presenting a very particular form of Americanism as the one true way forward? There is some troubling stuff here.

That said, what were they supposed to do? Let Sonita be dragged off to – essentially – domestic slavery as a drudge for a total stranger? I suspect I probably would have done the same in the film-makers’ position. I can’t argue with their choices, but they do colour the film and get in the way of it having the effect they no doubt intended. As a result, while Sonita is mesmerising to watch, it isn’t always for the best of reasons, and – in a very rare occurence – I am somewhat at a loss to say what actual merit it has as a film. It’s agitprop more than genuine documentary, and embedded agitprop at that. But at least it’s honest about its intentions, and constantly watchable as a result. Interesting soundtrack, too, obviously.

 

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Well, I’ve been a bit poorly recently, and – as you would – I took to my bed with Netflix and ended up watching a bunch of William Shatner movies. Not the Trek ones from the 80s and early 90s, as you might expect, but rather more diverse fare. A friend of mine recommended I try to get hold of White Comanche, a 1968 paella western in which the great man plays good-and-evil twins, but for some inexplicable reason Netflix has decided not to lay out on the rights to this movie (and it’s not on YouTube either). But you can’t have everything.

What Netflix does have is a couple of documentaries Shat (as I fondly think of him) wrote and directed, The Captains (from 2011) and Chaos on the Bridge (from 2015). You may be able to discern a bit of a common theme here, for it appears that Shat, like his castmates, has come to terms with the fact that – regardless of his achievements as a singer, novelist, horse breeder, and guest murderer on Columbo – it is Star Trek for which he will inevitably be remembered.

There is perhaps a certain oddity to Chaos on the Bridge, in that it largely concerns an iteration of Star Trek with which Shatner himself was not directly involved: the formative years of Star Trek: The Next Generation (henceforth Next Gen, to save my aching fingers). This was the first of the comeback TV shows, starting in 1987, also known to the general population as ‘the one with that bald English guy’.

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As all but Next Gen‘s most rabid fans will admit, the first couple of seasons are tough viewing (‘almost unwatchable’ in the words of Ronald Moore, a later participant in the franchise and also the creator of New BSG and Outlander). I myself stuck with it when it eventually turned up on the BBC in 1990 because, well, it was Star Trek, wasn’t it, and there wasn’t any other new SF being made at the time. (I do think the total lack of any competition was a significant factor in Next Gen‘s survival and eventual success. Given that TV is hardly short of SF and fantasy shows nowadays, expectations for Star Trek: Discovery – coming next year – will obviously be significantly higher, and that show may well be in for a rough ride on all fronts.)

Watching Chaos on the Bridge I was kind of struck by the odd notion that while Star Trek may have been created by Gene Roddenberry, its ultimate success was in many ways despite him. A possibly heretical idea in Trekkie circles, but if you look at the dodgiest, stodgiest, least sexy bits of Trek made in Roddenberry’s lifetime, many of them occurred when the Great Bird was at his most hands-on as a producer. There’s an argument to be made that by the time of the late 80s, Roddenberry was more interested in being recognised as a humanist visionary than in actually making good TV, but there are enough horror stories in circulation about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans on Next Gen to suggest that there was a definitely clay-like texture to the great man’s feet.

In terms of actual Roddenberry-bashing, the documentary’s contributors are relatively circumspect – no sign of the ‘goddamned lying, hypocritical, deceiving, thieving, son of a bitch… bullying bastard’ which was writer David Gerrold’s considered opinion in a recent book on Trek‘s production history. Most of the opprobrium is instead directed at the shadowy figure of one Leonard Maizlish, Roddenberry’s lawyer, who took up residence on the show and actually started rewriting the scripts despite having zero experience (this contributed significantly to Dorothy Fontana’s decision to leave the show). Interviewees fondly recall imagining pushing Maizlish out of second storey windows, and so on.

The decision just to cover the early, troubled years of the production is a curious one, mainly because it deprives the narrative of a proper conclusion. Doing the full seven years, over the course of which Next Gen found its identity as a much more consistent and impressive show, would have made for a rather different (and longer) film. It couldn’t just be that Shat only wanted to shine a light on a troubled version of Star Trek in which he had no personal involvement or responsibility? Surely not. Anyway, the film has enough life and inventiveness about it to make up for the fact that there’s probably not much here its target audience doesn’t already know about.

And so to The Captains, an arguably poorly-titled documentary from 2011 in which Shat tracks down his successors as lead actors on Trek and interviews them mano a mano (or mano a womano in the case of Kate Mulgrew from Voyager) about their lives and experiences. I say ‘poorly-titled’ as it is not really about the captains as a group, or indeed as individuals, but mainly creates a suitable venue for everyone involved to talk about Shat, whether directly or indirectly. Shat himself (note to self: awkward phrasing, think about possible alternative) is clearly in his element, and one is ineluctably reminded of Nick Meyer’s assessment of him as ‘all vanity, no ego’.

Various lesser stars from the Trek constellation make appearances – Nana Visitor, Robert Picardo, Jonathan Frakes – along with a fairly substantial interview with Christopher Plummer, there because a) he was the Shakespeare-loving Klingon villain of Star Trek VI and b) he was a mate of Shat’s way back. But the most arresting stuff is the set-piece interviews with the other actors. (The Netflix version of the film, by the way, appears to have been edited down a bit, removing the unauthorised footage of Leonard Nimoy which was the cause of the final estrangement between him and Shatner.)

Shat buzzes around between the different coasts of the US and even over to Oxford to talk to Sir Patrick (apparently ignoring the Keep Off The Grass signs at Christchurch College in one shocking sequence), and it’s fair to say that some of these discussions are more interesting than others. Patrick Stewart is always good value, but some of the other chats can get a bit earnest and are really memorable only for the little stunts Shat contrives: hiding in a cardboard box while waiting for Kate Mulgrew, singing show-tunes on horseback with Scott Bakula, arm-wrestling Chris Pine on the sidewalk outside Paramount Studios, and so on. Most of them are pretty much as you’d expect, with the real exception being Avery Brooks, whose consciousness still appears to be spending some of its time in the Gamma Quadrant. There’s some singing here, too, and at one point Shat asks Brooks if he’s ever thought about life after death, with the one-time Emissary responding by playing the piano and laughing to himself. It is quite magnetic to watch, somehow.

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In a way you can’t help thinking that this would have been a more revealing film if it had been directed by somebody else. Some of the most interesting footage is of Shat appearing at a Trek convention in Vegas and interacting with the fans – ‘a rapturous reception’ and ‘eating out of the palm of his hand’ don’t begin to do justice to how this goes down – and very briefly we see a glimpse of a Shatner who isn’t a tongue-in-cheek self-promoter, but someone rather more thoughtful and human. But then it inevitably occurs to one that we’re just seeing this because Shat let it go past in the editing process, so is it the ‘real’ him?

In the end this is probably more of interest to Shat-watchers than Trekkies generally, but such is its occasional weirdness I can imagine it finding something of an audience amongst people who enjoy watching really, really odd vanity projects, as well. What I suppose it comes down to, ultimately, is that there are two kinds of people in the world – people who can’t get enough of William Shatner and all his works, and the sane ones. The former group at least are well served here.

 

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The notable lack of a critical consensus continues to grow, everyone is still talking about that scene with the cat, and the jury is out as to whether that ending works or not. In short, we still find ourselves in fertile territory for counter-programming, which this week takes the form of Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala.

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I have to be honest and say that at any other time of year this isn’t be a film I would be itching to check out, preferring as I do a half-decent (or even one-sixteenth-decent) Jason Statham vehicle to a high-minded documentary about a teenage Nobel peace prize winner – not least because, in this particular case, it’s virtually impossible to do any gags. But there you go, this week it was a choice of this film or something about Bradley Cooper making a mess of running a kitchen. So off I went to see He Named Me Malala, inappropriate comment detector and self-censoring software set to maximum.

So who is this ‘He’ guy and who is he naming Malala? And why is it significant? Hmmm, this could get confusing. ‘He’ is Malala’s dad, Ziauddin Yousafzai, a Pakistani educator and diplomat but best known as, um, Malala’s dad. Malala herself is – as you are probably aware – a teenage advocate for education, noted for almost dying after an attempt on her life by the Taliban, and for being the youngest person ever to win a Nobel prize.

It turns out that the name Malala is of some significance in the Yousafzai’s home culture, as it was the name of another inspirational young woman who did her best to inspire the Afghan people to acts of courage and conviction back (one presumes) in the 19th century. (The awkwardly ironic fact that the historical Malala was encouraging Afghans to engage in armed resistance against an occupying British army is skipped over tactfully.) This is explained at the top of the movie, thus quietly asking the question which seems to hang in the air throughout, and which we shall return to.

Guggenheim’s film isn’t afraid to pursue a number of different threads and proceeds in a fairly non-linear manner throughout. Malala’s work as a global advocate for education is covered, with various trips off to Africa, the Middle East, and so on, but there is also a lot of fairly intimate material depicting everyday life in the Yousafzai household (unable to return to Pakistan, they seem fairly well-settled in Birmingham). A fair bit of family history is also touched upon, as well as the story of how the Taliban came to ascendancy in the Swat valley where they originally lived.

The net result of all this is that Malala comes across as much more of a rounded human being than the iconic figure who’s somewhat familiar from book covers and TV news bulletins. Scenes of her arm-wrestling her brother or doing card tricks are undeniably charming, but in the interviews which dot the film she is astonishingly self-possessed and undeniably comes across as a very tough and very smart cookie – as one might expect, given what I suppose we could call the authorised version of her story.

However, and rather surprisingly, this movie isn’t just a hagiographical advert for Malala and the various enterprises with which she is connected: at one point vox pops from Pakistan feature, in which various people decry the family for leaving the country, claim she is irrelevant, and even suggest that the Malala who has risen to such prominence is essentially a fictional character, that she is basically just playing a role created for her by her father.

It’s an accusation the film repeatedly touches upon in a number of ways – the closeness of Malala to her father is one of themes most emphasised, and he always seems to be around when she’s making a public appearance. It was he who was responsible for her first becoming a BBC news blogger, for instance. Clearly a formidable orator himself, is it really credible to suggest that Malala made her own life choices completely independently of him? A repeated moment has Ziauddin Yousafzai reflecting on the time after he was shot, and considering his own responsibility and perhaps culpability.

To be fair, Malala herself completely denies any suggestion she’s just some sort of a puppet, and she comes across in such a way that this is entirely credible. Listening to her answer the question of whether she harbours any anger towards the men and ideology that tried to kill her, and indeed left her with permanent health problems, I couldn’t help but be completely convinced by her sincerity: it is one of many profoundly moving moments in the film.

The film’s impact is probably helped a lot by the fact it has clearly been directed by someone who understands what it means to make something genuinely cinematic: I think there is an element to this film that would be lost were one to watch it on the small screen, no matter how much like a TV documentary it looks. Certainly much of it is shot and edited like a ‘proper’ movie (this may explain why JJ Abrams gets a credit at the end: no doubt he was the movie’s lens flare consultant, or something), and the decision to include some rather charming animation to accompany the sequences for which actual film is not available only adds to this.

I doubt whether the makers of He Named Me Malala were primarily motivated by the belief that they were going to make a ton of money, even more than I doubt that they will. Nevertheless, this is a powerful and engaging film about someone who, however you cut it, represents an important issue in the world today. Worth checking out.

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One of the consequences of Commander Bond taking up one of his extended residences in cinemas up and down the land is that it leaves the field wide open for any sort of counter-programming you care to mention. (This may be why a number of films about the everyday lives of older people appear to be incoming.) Still, as far as this sort of thing goes, you can’t beat a good documentary, and currently making the most of a fairly limited release is Stevan Riley’s Listen To Me Marlon.

listen marlon

Marlon! Do we even need to mention a surname? (Or, alternatively: Brando! Is the first name remotely in doubt?) It’s this kind of instant recognition which tells us what a massive, iconic figure Marlon Brando was and remains (or, possibly, what a distinctively unusual pair of monickers he ended up lumbered with). Still, Brando’s reclusiveness in the second half of his life means that while he is still well-known, he is little-understood. Riley’s documentary sets out to rectify this, a bit.

The most immediately striking thing about this film is that it is the work of a lone voice – with the exception of a limited amount of archival soundtrack, the narration is almost wholly provided by Brando himself, drawn from the extensive audio tapes he recorded throughout his life. Most of the time this plays over film clips or publicity material, with a little specially-recorded footage, but occasionally a very primitive-looking CGI version of Brando’s head manifests to lip-synch to whatever he’s saying. This is a slightly creepy and unsettling choice, but not entirely inappropriate for what is by no means the happiest of stories.

Riley sets the scene with some references to the tragedies that blighted Brando’s final years, before skipping back to see how the great man arrived in such sorry straits. His early life is skipped over to some extent, with the story beginning in earnest with his arrival in New York in the mid-1940s, his becoming an actor almost by accident, his studies under Stella Adler, and then his rise to acclaim and popular success, at first on stage and later in the cinema.

Hearing Brando himself talk about the power and value of great movie acting, over a montage of some of his greatest scenes, is terrific, but of course the film has a lot more material concerning his gradual disillusionment with the film industry and reputation for being impossible to work with. (Brando’s fondness for having his lines given to him either by cue cards or via an earpiece is mentioned, though some of the more ludicrous anecdotes are not recycled.)

With most of the film being told in Brando’s own words, the director can’t directly come out and suggest what he thinks made Brando such a troubled individual – but he still does a pretty good job of putting Brando’s difficult childhood in the frame, drawing attention to both his alcoholic mother and emotionally distant father. The end result of this seems to have been a deep-rooted sense of self-loathing in Brando himself – perhaps not just self-loathing, but also a deep disquiet with his own origins. The film spends some time exploring Brando’s love of Tahiti and its people, and his espousal of Native American rights (footage of the Oscars ceremony to which he dispatched a Native American representative to confuse Roger Moore and refuse his award appears), and personally I couldn’t help thinking that he was idealising these cultures, as they offered him a chance to completely remove himself from his own background.

While the film is not entirely without moments of levity – scenes of a publicity tour from the 50s, with Brando cheerfully hitting on every female journalist he encounters, have a definite if unreconstructed charm – this is ultimately really quite a bleak film. The film does not dwell overly on some of the professional indignities and embarrassments from the final years of Brando’s career, when he showed so little respect for his own talent, nor are the family tragedies he had to endure explored in too much detail – but one is left in little doubt as to the general tenor of his final years. (The film concludes with a clip from Brando’s death scene from The Godfather, which struck me as a slightly less subtle choice than was perhaps ideal.)

Then again, one has to wonder, given the film-makers are setting out to tell a particular story, and are necessarily limited by their choice to rely almost exclusively on Brando’s own testimony for their narration – this isn’t by any means an objective account of his life. But, on the other hand, that same choice gives the film an undeniably intimate and personal quality – also, to be perfectly honest, a slightly dreamlike and oppressive quality, almost as if you’re spending 95 minutes inside Brando’s own psyche.

This movie is partly being marketed on the strength of its connections with Searching for Sugar Man, with which it shares a producer, but I have to say I found it rather less engaging and enjoyable. Nevertheless, it gives a considerable insight into a figure who still casts a long shadow, despite his later career arguably being a huge waste of potential. Probably worth seeing as a curio if you are interested in Brando and acting generally; the film-making talent on display is also pretty impressive, too.

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