Miss Americana (2020)

Well we seem to be getting closer, here in London, to the inevitable lockdown (perhaps by the time this goes up, it will have been announced), so my week themed around Netflix films wraps up with the most recent release, and if it’s not perhaps the best it’s still well worth watching if you’re a pop music fan or interested in fandom. I am sure we will all pull through this current period of intensive homeboundness but who knows how long it will last for. At the very least we can catch up with films we can watch at home, and that will no doubt be a great boon to all the streaming services, at the very least. I suspect we’ll see more of them on the blog in the coming weeks.


I think it’s fair to say that this ostensibly behind-the-scenes documentary — like everything that Taylor Swift does — is very carefully calculated, and you wouldn’t expect anything else really. For all that it feels shaped by the relentless pressures that are placed on Swift to be some kind of generational spokesperson or lightning road for fickle tabloid concerns — and the meeting she has with her people to discuss coming out with her political opinions during the 2018 midterm elections feels particularly orchestrated in that regard — it does shed plenty of light on the ways in which she is constrained by her peculiar position. In this, she channels a lot of her own self-discovery and you can see the more mature person she has become since being thrust into a media frenzy at such a young age. The most fascinating and interesting sections of the film are when she’s composing music, and just to see her work on a song, hammering away at a piano or plucking a guitar while working up melodies, or working with her producers in the studio, has its own lovely rhythms and provides a small insight into what gets her excited about her work. The rest, sadly, is largely about the way her life needs to fits with public and media expectations, though I continue to want to like Taylor Swift, so I felt warmly disposed towards this film.

Miss Americana film posterCREDITS
Director Lana Wilson; Cinematographer Emily Topper; Starring Taylor Swift; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 3 February 2020.

Trys dienos (Three Days, 1991)

A filmmaker whose first films were made in the final dying days of the Soviet Union (I have a bonus review of one of them below), but who has since come to some prominence on the art film scene has been Šarūnas Bartas (often transcribed as Sharunas Bartas). I’ve so far only seen this, his debut feature film, but it has a beautiful slow cinema quality that definitely commends his work to me, and as a bonus comes in at a sprightly 75 minutes.


Strong echoes of Tarkovsky in this debut feature. It moves slowly, deliberately, without excessive talking. There are characters (two young men, and a young woman, primarily), who meet, then seem to be looking for a room, but for what reason (sex? shelter? some flicker of human connection?) is unclear. What is evident is that their town is bleak, apparently without comfort, filled with crumbling edifices, and that their lives have little future to commend them. Bartas, like Tarkovsky and Tarr, is great at capturing that feeling in landscapes, against which the characters seem suitably bowed. Fantastic stuff but I love this kind of thing.

Three Days French film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Šarūnas Bartas; Cinematographer Vladas Naudžius; Starring Katerina Golubeva Екатери́на Го́лубева, Rimma Latypova Римма Латыпова, Arūnas Sakalauskas, Audrius Stonys; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 30 December 2016.


Praejusios Dienos Atminimui (In Memory of the Day Passed By, 1990) [USSR, medium-length, black-and-white]

A beautiful quiet mid-length film which has a documentary way about capturing an unnamed city and its characters, its bleakness and its persistence, and the changing seasons.

In Memory of the Day Passed By film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Šarūnas Bartas; Cinematographer Vladas Naudžius; Length 40 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 30 December 2016.

In My Blood It Runs (2019)

It’s the end of my themed week of films by Australian women directors, so here’s a film I have seen while actually visiting Australia. I could have gone to see the Miss Fisher film (although strictly speaking it’s not directed by a woman), but instead I chose to see this one about Aboriginal people that touches on all kinds of issues that permeate many societies, my own included, but are specific perhaps in their details to this place.


It’s fair to say that Australia certainly has its problems, none more vexed than around the treatment of Aboriginal Australians. The legacy of colonialism, brought by the British, means that many are more or less confined to rural areas where inadequate support is provided for education and employment, and it’s through the case of one child (Dujuan) that this documentary focuses itself, and it credits Dujuan and his family as co-directors of the piece (some of his video footage is seen during the film too, meaning he’s an assistant cinematographer too). Dujuan is being brought up by his family to know about his own culture and language, while also being given an education by a Northern Territories school that seems to little understand or care for his cultural background (a schoolteacher absentmindedly laughing off her lack of understanding of Aboriginal beliefs is pure condescension). As a result he is unhappy and finds himself at odds with the state, which is increasingly under pressure for its violent and repressive treatment of young ‘delinquents’ who fall through the gaps (and as one on-screen statistic points out, 100% of NT youth being held in detention are Aboriginals). But while the film itself is never strident, it makes clear the need for changes and for better understanding and empathy towards the young kids being left behind.

In My Blood It Runs film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Maya Newell; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Wednesday 4 March 2020.

Some Aro Valley Digital Films of the 2000s

I grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, and during university I lived in a flat perched just above the Aro Valley, which at that time in the early-2000s was an area of economic desuetude, as the threat of a motorway bypass that might cut through the area depressed property prices and generally caused a certain level of stagnation — ideal for a thriving community of students and bohemians. In fact, since this is just a personal blog and I’m hardly a professional film writer or noted expert, I might as well say that for those first few years after I finished university I was sharing a flat with the filmmaker in the title of the 2010 documentary reviewed below, which would probably disqualify me from ‘reviewing’ any of these films, but let’s look at this as sort of a personal journey shall we? More of a nostalgic trip down memory lane perhaps.

Campbell Walker, a filmmaker who also at that time worked in the Aro Street Video Shop, was somewhat the epicentre of a filmmaking scene that grew up in the Aro Valley in the late-1990s, though he was by no means the only practitioner. After all, the two feature films I’ve reviewed below are co-directed by Alexander Greenhough and Elric Kane, both expatriate Americans who grew up and studied in Wellington, and who had made one previous film, I Think I’m Going (2003), which was at least partially filmed in that very flat. One of Walker’s actors in his debut feature Uncomfortable Comfortable (1999), Colin Hodson, went on to make a few of his own films (Shifter and OFF. are the two I remember seeing, both mining some of the same emotional terrain, though in a different style), and I’d tangentially include Gregory King’s Christmas (2003) as at least adjacent filmically, if not geographically. What all of them shared was a commitment to the aesthetics of digital filmmaking, being the available source of affordable technology, and a complete lack of any kind of budget whatsoever. This means these were made with friends and favours, and while Walker’s style tended towards the improvisational — as if channelling the Jacques Rivette of Out 1 via the leafy suburbs of Wellington — other filmmakers within the scene (like Greenhough and Kane below) preferred a tightly-controlled and well-scripted approach to their drama.

Anyway, I moved away in 2003 and lost track of some of these guys, as well as the films they were making. In time, that bypass got built and Aro Valley has gentrified, meaning that most of them relocated, anyway, and now live in Australia or the United States, and while I know all of them still work in various tangents of the film world, none are actively directing films, which is a shame. Still, this little moment stands in time, supported by the New Zealand International Film Festival (which screened a few of the films), the Victoria University film department, and a certain spirit of resistance. You can track down a few of these films (and others by related directors) on various Vimeo accounts, and I think there was a link to Uncomfortable Comfortable at the NZ Film Archives, so some may require dedication to find (the two features below had a tiny release on a NZ DVD label, hence how I saw them), but all are worth seeking out I think, if you like slow, observational films about students and twenty-somethings falling apart.

Continue reading “Some Aro Valley Digital Films of the 2000s”

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps (2019)

Casting my eye over the new releases in Britain this week I can’t see much that thrills me particularly. However, I will not be in the UK this Friday, but instead will be winging my way to New Zealand. Therefore, in honour of that, I am doing a week themed around New Zealand films (or films made there, depending on how I go for titles). I’m going to start with this engaging documentary about a seminal NZ indie band of the 1980s and on, The Chills, and its charismatic frontman.


As far as music from NZ’s jangly indie 1980s underground goes, The Chills were probably the biggest name, though they were never my favourites. Still, they gained the greatest success through a handful of major label records by the end of that decade, and their leader, Martin Phillipps, had an undeniable sense of pop hooks and sweet harmonies reminiscent of Brian Wilson, all imbued with a thematic darkness — which probably explains why Neil Finn pops up early on as a talking head commenting on Phillipp’s artistry. However, for the most part this documentary eschews celebrity commentators in favour of Martin himself and his former bandmates and managers speaking about the chronological development of the music, for The Chills were probably second only to The Fall in having a huge rotating cast of musicians all unified under Phillipps as lead singer and songwriter. What gives it that lift beyond the familiar topics of the rise-and-fall of egos and ambitions, of a man almost destroyed by drug and alcohol-related excess of the pop star lifestyle, is Phillipps himself and his self-deprecating humour as he reflects back on some bad decisions in his past, or sorts through his toy collections, or gets excited about some mummified animal-based art he’s working on (those are some of the biggest laughs but laughter with an unmistakable tinge of sadness and maybe even horror). That’s the tone of the film ultimately, and it’s rather beautiful too, though you feel there’s so much more they could have covered (so I’m hoping for DVD extras).

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps film posterCREDITS
Directors Julia Parnell and Rob Curry; Cinematographer Tim Flower; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Criterion Sunday 289: Hoop Dreams (1994)

I’m not exactly a big sports fan (and I know nothing about basketball), but it seems to me that when your team wins, you get happy not just for the drama of the contest but the hope that this win will lead to bigger and better things, and eventually your team will be the champions. We watch a fair few clips of basketball games in Hoop Dreams, but it’s not the teams’ wins that matter, but those of the two boys whom the film is following, and the hope — which sometimes seems as distant as the idea of a championship win to some of these teams — that their lives can be better.

After all, this ultimately is a film about what it takes to make something of yourself in America, specifically when you’re born poor and Black and live in an area of a big city (Chicago in this case) where there’s little enough money to be made honestly, and only crime and drugs seem to be good options. I think that’s a story that became particularly familiar during the 1990s in cinema — when making cinema about the African-American experience seemed to be all about ghettos and crime. But if that’s a background that has dogged Arthur Agee’s dad (as only the most notable example within the film), what’s excellent about is that he’s never just those things in the film. Indeed, like all the characters, he has many levels, and most of all we remember him as a dad (and a particularly effusive and supportive one), which by the end of the film both Arthur and William also are.

This film follows both of these guys over a period of about five years, as they go from promising 14-year-old kids scouted by a high school recruiter on the poorly-maintained courts of the Chicago suburbs where they live, through a peculiarly American high school system, where kids with sporting talent get scholarships and money and chances, as long as they perform. Of course, they have to travel for hours to get to these nice schools in predominantly white neighbourhoods, to play ball and win leagues. But Arthur doesn’t quite make the grade for that school, so finds himself busted down to a less wealthy local school.

You end up caring about it all, because it’s not about the Game but about the people just trying to make a chance in life, doing their best not to be worn down or overtaken by the Game, though it’s always looking for new talent and the chances move by all too quickly at times. It’s also about families and community, and that’s probably what lingers the longest for both these players, and whatever their own personal successes and failures (both within this film and since it was released), it’s the time with the families that sticks around.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the film’s big champions from its very first appearance at Sundance Film Festival in January 1994 was the Siskel and Ebert film review show, and we see clips of Gene and Robert talking about the film on their TV shows, from Jan 1994, through its wider American release, as well as in episodes leading up to and after the Oscar nominations, and then an end-of-year best of list (in which both named it as their favourite film) and finally at the end of the decade, after Gene’s passing the previous year, when Roger named it his favourite film of the 1990s and talks briefly to Martin Scorsese about the film.
  • In the clips of Roger Ebert, we see him imagining a return to the same characters after a number of years have passed, and as if in answer to that is Life After Hoop Dreams (2015), a 40 minute follow-up directed by Steve James and Abbey Lustgarten (a Criterion producer). It is primarily filmed ten years after the original film, but then picks up with some interviews a further 10 years on from that (like a very abbreviated 7 Up). Obviously it can’t stand up to the original, but it’s interesting to see how the boys we saw in the first film have grown up, putting into perspective their childhood dreams and the great maturity they’ve gained through life experience and — to an extent — tragedy, as both have lost people close to them. What is clear that the love and dream of basketball hasn’t died in either, though we see that like the parents in the original documentary, it’s their children who are now more of the focus for each.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve James; Writers James and Frederick Marx; Cinematographer Peter Gilbert; Length 170 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 288: F for Fake (aka ?, aka Vérités et mensonges, 1973)

There’s something seemingly inexhaustible about this (essentially final) film by Orson Welles, an essay film in the form of a documentary about fakery whose on-screen title is “?” and has Welles basically wonder aloud for 90 minutes what exactly defines art. In this sense, it’s his film about his own creative practice, which by this point in his career was largely smoke and mirrors anyway, given how few projects he managed to see to completion. Welles appears as the narrator, wandering around these various European locales in his heavy black cape, posing questions and telling tall tales, which even in the hour of film he claims is true, probably aren’t, or at least touch on people whose work has been all about elaborately lying. And then there are minutes-long stretches of the film where he just has guys staring at the semi-clothed body of his partner and muse Oja Kodar, which I suppose implicates the audiences’ desires somewhat in the production of these fictions, although she too is intriguingly a fiction of sorts (using a name Welles gave her). It’s all very clever, and I don’t doubt the care taken in its composition, but it also feels very spontaneous and even a little bit like something tossed off quickly, such that perhaps it’s impossible to know where the boundaries between truth and fiction lie, and whether they even really matter when it comes to art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Probably the most interesting of the extras on the disc is the feature-length documentary co-directed by Welles’s former partner Oja Kodar, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995), in which all the unfinished projects he was working on are presented as part of a wander through his life, as related by Kodar herself (and a German narrator). At least one of the projects covered in this documentary may have actually reached fruition in the 25 years since it was made — The Other Side of the Wind (finally completed and released last year) — but this assemblage of bits of Orson Welles’s unfinished projects still has a lot to fascinate. Kodar is seen reflecting a bit on their time together in some of the linking footage between the scraps of Welles’ own filmmaking, though more amusing is the footage of an onstage masterclass Welles seems to be leading, as he takes questions from the audience. The film footage itself runs the gamut from lost Shakespeare adaptations (him doing Shylock in a TV version of The Merchant of Venice) to a weird London-set comedy thing where Welles is the one-man street performer of the title (along with a guy getting fitted for a suit, and a cheerful copper), to his film of The Deep, an ill-advised Chinese character for… something, a cherished adaptation of Don Quixote, and then there are just the bits of him reciting random chapters from Moby Dick. All are infused with Welles’s own sense of impish delight at the pleasure of acting: for all his directing talent, he remained an exuberant performer above all else and that much is showcased here.
  • The nine-minute trailer (presented here in a black-and-white version) is essentially a separate short film that Welles made to support the American release of the film in 1976. (Incidentally, the film’s year of production varies somewhat, as it’s listed as 1975 on this disc, which is the year it premiered at the NY Film Festival, but it had been screened earlier in 1973 and 1974 at other European festivals, and is given as 1973 in most places.)
  • Peter Bogdanovich provides a filmed introduction, as he does for a number of Welles projects, and speaks a little about the background to the production and some of the trickery that Welles gets up to in the film.
  • Welles is interviewed by Tom Snyder in 1975 for his TV show Tomorrow, in which Snyder proves himself to be a fairly good interviewer, clutching a cigarette as seems to have been the way back then, and occasionally throwing out rather oddball questions, presumably designed to elicit something from Welles. Still, it nicely covers a lot of his more recent work and Welles remains as always an engaging presence.
  • One of the participants in F for Fake, journalist Clifford Irving, is interviewed by 60 Minutes in 2000, revisiting an earlier story about his Howard Hawks biography hoax, in which Irving fully admits to his fakery and talks about how it came about. There’s also an audio recording from 1972 of Howard Hughes speaking by phone to reporters, a fascinating part of the Hughes mythos if you are into that kind of thing, though he just seems like a slightly befuddled older man (and nowhere near as bonkers as half the things regularly said by the current US President).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Orson Welles; Writers Welles and Oja Kodar; Cinematographers François Reichenbach and Gary Graver; Starring Orson Welles, Oja Kodar; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999).

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014)

This documentary work is a co-production between USA and a number of Eastern European countries, Poland among them, so it only tangentially fits into my themed week. However, it touches on a common figure in the folk mythologies of all these countries.


A beautiful film, strange and haunting, which fits into the poetic documentary category, for if it doesn’t have a clear ostensible subject, it nevertheless touches on many things in an oblique and allusive way. It’s centred in Eastern Europe and Russia, blending in the fairy tale of the title (told via animation) with images illustrating the continuation of customs in rural and city living in this part of the world, and the tension that exists between them. If I found myself sleepy during the film I was perhaps lulled by the strong sense of calm suffusing the film’s telling. I would want to revisit this though, and other films by the director, because it seems to be doing something more than just documenting the world, reaching to something even rather profound about human existence and the need for fear as a basis for humanity’s place within the world.

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Oreck; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 3 October 2016.

Criterion Sunday 287: Burden of Dreams (1982)

Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo isn’t in the Criterion Collection and honestly, I’m not sure it should be; it’s fine and well-made as far it goes, but the story of its making — the story told in this documentary — is far more interesting. In a sense, there’s as much colonialist privilege being exerted in the actual making of this Amazonian epic as there is in the text of the film itself, and you can see that coming through, the maniacal drive of Herzog to make his film, to honour his grand and foolish metaphor despite all the destruction it wreaks, and the troubles it causes amongst the tribes people he is using as extras and for labour. Indeed, the film touches briefly on but never gets into the human toll of the filming, though we see him and Kinski, amongst others, slipping and sliding about in the mud. And then of course there are those great Herzogian flourishes of aggrandising whimsy (“the birds here are in misery; I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain”) as he addresses his evolving situation. It is, and it surely looks like, the very model of the ‘troubled shoot’, and it’s a vastly entertaining documentary, but it’s also a bleak and concerning portrait of a filmmaker gone awry, a man too much in service to his central metaphor to consider whether it’s all worth it.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the 1980 short film Les Blank made — the project on which he met Herzog and decided to follow him in making Fitzcarraldo. It documents a promise Herzog made to fellow (aspiring) documentary filmmaker Errol Morris that he’d eat his shoe if Morris was able to make his debut (Gates of Heaven, which will show up later on the Criterion Collection). There are, I suppose, two things going on in this short film, and one of them of course is the German film director eating his shoe. Which is to say, we see him preparing it (stuffing it with bulbs of garlic and onion and spices), cooking it, and then — onstage before a screening of Gates of Heaven and then apparently afterwards in the bar — slicing up little pieces and eating it, with a little bit of help from those who wish to interview him. But the other thing going on here is that it’s a public show of support for a small independent filmmaker who has, with Herzog’s encouragement, been able to make his own film. That film is a great work, but this is all about Herzog honouring his own loud mouthed promises, and supporting filmmaking.
  • There’s are some outtakes from Burden of Dreams, via Herzog’s own documentary about Kinski My Best Fiend (1999) showing Kinski ranting and raving on set.
  • Herzog does a long interview 25 years later for the release of the Criterion disc, reflecting back on how he was back then, what was omitted, and how it’s impossible to really capture the making of a film as enormous and foolhardy as Fitzcarraldo. He also draws attention to Blank’s own interests that went beyond the production itself, vignettes of the locals and the rainforest and the wildlife, that somehow make the documentary greater than it would otherwise have been.
  • There’s a gallery of some rather stunning and evocative photos taken during the production, primarily by Blank’s editor Maureen Gosling.
  • Finally, there’s a short trailer for the documentary.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematographer Les Blank; Starring Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 September 2001 (and before that on VHS at the university library, Wellington, June 1996, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Friday 24 January 2020).

Two Civil Rights-Era Films by Madeline Anderson

The now veteran television documentary producer Madeline Anderson got her start in filmmaking in the 1950s, after studying at NYU and falling in with vérité filmmakers like Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. She made a number of compelling early short documentary subjects focusing on Civil Rights at this time, which were shown in the UK by the Cinema Rediscovered Film Festival a couple of years back.

Continue reading “Two Civil Rights-Era Films by Madeline Anderson”