The Square

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You know that feeling you get when you watch a movie for the first time and the phone gets put down, you get tunnel-vision and it feels like you’re floating? The Square did that to me.

Documenting two years in Cairo, from the beginning of the revolution against Hosni Mubarak until the last year’s troubles with Mohamed Morsi and The Muslim Brotherhood, The Square was a very powerful and moving piece of documentary filmmaking.

One of the great things about this film was how it balanced seemingly truthful objectivity, all while presenting a very cinematic arc for the story. We are introduced to the main protagonists, which the film followed from January 2011 until August 2013; Magdy, Ahmed, Khalid (who is a British-Egyptian actor), Ramy and Ragia. They were a small part of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who peacefully protested at Tahir Square in Cairo in early 2011 – this was the epicentre of the Revolution to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, a dictator that ruled Egypt with a tyranny unfortunately common-place across North Africa and the Middle East at the time.

To say that The Square was harrowing, powerful and deeply moving is an understatement; this film barreled along at an amazing pace, but still managed to touch on both the hope of the revolutionaries, as well as the heinous crimes committed by the army and gangs of thugs against peaceful protestors, with enough maturity and candidness for it to be very effective; there was nothing cloying about what was seen and heard, it’s just raw emotions that really jump out of the screen.

The revolution in Egypt, and the whole Arab Spring in general, was a defining moment in the history of North Africa and the Middle East, as well as being one of the most important socio-political events of this millennium. What really shone through here was how the camaraderie between the revolutionaries rapidly descended into rival factions, all with different ideologies, fighting each other; the people united against one tyrant and ended up with a situation in which the country felt a violent power vacuum. All of this – all of the horrific imagery of brutality and death – was captured by a camera crew on the frontline; nothing was censored, and it was painful seeing how the Army swore they wouldn’t use violence against the peaceful protestors yet ended up doing exactly that, and with deadly results. Furthermore, what is seen proves that the daily news outlets we read and watch everyday are sterile, agenda-ridden mouthpieces that avoid the finding the truth; it’s testament to the filmmakers that they present the real story of Tahir Square, the revolution and the real people and what drove them to fight; they just wanted democracy and were willing to die for it.

The Square was a fantastic, emotive experience, is fully deserving of its Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, and is streaming for free on Netflix.

 

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140 words: Somm

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Four American sommeliers attempt to pass one of the hardest entry exams in the world; the Master Sommelier.

Before I watched Somm I thought sommeliers were guys/girls that knew more than most about wine and who got pissed at work. Oh, how I was wrong.

This documentary paints a picture of dedication at the cost of everything in the lives of the examinee. These guys spend HOURS a day revising, and until the early hours of the morning. The information they have to know about wine, grapes and regions verges on the absolutely bizarre. One thing that wasn’t mentioned was the fact they were drinking alcohol; obviously there are dangers with that, which I felt was a big thing to miss out.

Somm was definitely worth the rental, and I’m about to pop a New Zealand sauvignon blanc in honour!

Ernie’s 10 overlooked genre picks

Lauren is away enjoying her honeymoon (wooo), which means I’m holding fort for the week! So, without further ado…

10 overlooked films. 10 genres. None of these movies are mentioned in previous lists (but two I have reviewed: cheating, right?)!

1) Action: Tropa de Elite

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City of God is often lauded as the greatest Brazilian film of recent years, and deservedly so. That said, Tropa de Elite pushes it a close second, in my opinion. The sweaty, vibrant Rio is once again under the spotlight, but this time the focus is a team of expert urban police named the BOPE: Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais. It’s violent, funny, poignant and just fucking great. The sequel is as good as the original, and the final film in the trilogy is rumoured to be in production! Excelente!

2) Animation: Sword in the Stone

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As a child, there were few things as exciting and magical as watching the song Higitus Figitus (all the shrinking household objects!) in Sword in the Stone. Merlin was my favourite Disney character after Genie from Aladdin, and if you haven’t seen this 1963 classic then where have you been?

3) Comedy: Kenny

The proper use of sanitation equipment, as explained by Kenny (Shane Jacobson).
“There’s a smell in there that will out-last religion.”

A charming, sincere and heartwarming mockumentary about an Australian shit-shoveller called Kenny. The writing, although being very culturally-specific to Australia, delivers a universally-relevant protagonist; Kenny has a slight speech impediment but a huge heart. Much like Homer Simpson, Kenny is one of those characters you wish was a real person. It’s an utter success as a comedy, too, with some laugh-out-loud scenes milestoning the few touching moments throughout the narrative. You must see this movie; it doesn’t have 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for nothing.

4) Documentary: Restrepo

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We love documentaries here on Frame Rates (Blackfish, McCullin, The Summit, Searching for Sugar Man, The Cove), and Restrepo is no exception to this rule. Focused on a platoon of US soldiers, Restrepo is a visceral study on the effects of modern warfare; losing friends, winning battles and leaving loved ones are elements put under the microscope here. It’s harrowing, hard to watch but also exhilarating (if a bit “‘Murica, baby”, and is one of the more honest documents about the War on Terror.

5) Drama: The Hunt

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6) Horror: Excision

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7) Sci-Fi: Westworld

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Click click click click click. That is the sound of the killer cowboy hunting you. This is not a case of mistaken identity, but rather a case of machines going wrong. Westworld is a dystopian take on future theme parks, in which you can take vacations in bygone day; drinking in saloon bars, shagging disease-ridden hookers and gallivanting around the Wild West. That is until the wiring in one of the machines goes wrong and you are left fighting for your life! 1970s sci-fi at its depressing, paranoid best.

8) Thriller: Leon

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I don’t think this is that overlooked, however it is one of my all-time genre favourites. What starts life as a lone wolf thriller quickly falls into buddy territory, however the buddies are a middle-aged Jean Reno and a young Natalie Portman. Luc Besson’s best movie, alongside The Fifth Element, is a joy to watch, has some laughs juxtaposed with some epic violence and a turn from Gary Oldman that will require you make change of underwear upon finishing the movie.

9) War: Brotherhood

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It’s not cool to cry at movies, right? Well, regardless of the fact I don’t think that’s true at all, fifteen year old me was extremely shocked when salty stuff started coming out of his eye sockets after watching Brotherhood. A story about two brothers that find themselves on opposite sides of the Korean conflict, Taegukgi is hearthbreaking. I haven’t actually seen this in years, but I remember being absolutely astounded by the movie, and this is a reminder to myself to hunt this down and have a second viewing.

10) Western: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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Gotta be honest; I haven’t seen too many Westerns. Rango, 3:10 to Yuma, The Searchers, TGTBATU and True Grit come to mind, however what Andrew Dominik has achieved in Jessie James is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s like watching a series of perfectly-framed photographs, and the script is alright as well! Sam Rockwell, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck are brilliant, and even the often monotone Jeremy Renner pulls out all the stocks for this movie! It’s very slow and requires your undivided attention, but if you are in the right mood this will wash over you wonderfully.

My Father Pablo Escobar (Sins of My Father)

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My Father Pablo Escobar (Sins of My Father) is the 2009 documentary from Nicholas Entel about the life of Columbian drug lord, terrorist and doting father Pablo Escobar. The film is told from the point of view of his only son, Sebastian Marroquín, and is a phenomenal piece of story telling about a fascinating man, even if the execution is somewhat clunky at times.

Using never seen before home videos, archive footage and voice recordings, Nicholas Entel charters into unknown waters with this frank, and at times heartbreaking, look into the life of Pablo Escobar and his family. The intimate interviews with Escobar’s son Sebastian, born Juan Pablo Escobar, provide a personal insight, gravitas and new rhetoric, on a man loathed and loved by a nation, that has previously gone unheard.

From the numerous interviews, with Sebastian and Escobar’s wife, to the orchestration of a meeting between Sebastian and the sons of Escobar’s victims, there is a true sense of significance and history that engulfs this documentary, and Entel’s awareness and light touch means this is pulled off brilliantly. Narration is kept to a minimum enabling his interviewees dictate the tone and pace of the film. This stylistic pitch results in moments that are simply incredible to watch as a viewer. Entel masterfully weaves between a chronological retelling of the demise of Pablo Escobar and the reconciliation of Sebastian with the sons of Escobar’s victims; presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán and Minister for Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Although the Execution wasn’t perfect; the lighting, angles and camera shots seemed secondary, almost rushed together at times, yet this endeared you to the realism instead of distancing the audience.

Entel’s documentary is a resounding triumph.The content, archive footage and interviews on film here are unique and nothing short of astounding. Entel does a truly remarkable job in breaking down the man, the myth but ultimately the father that was Pablo Escobar.

LJ

The Summit

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The Summit is the second feature length documentary we saw at Sundance, and was quite a different experience to Blackfish. Before attacking the plot, lets prologue this review by saying The Summit looks absolutely beautiful. Being able to see the K2 mountain on a cinema screen is so much more satisfying than on a TV and the general landscapes and vistas of the movie are stunning; they lend themselves perfectly to the cinematic medium.

Narrative-wise, The Summit deals with the true story of a large number of expeditions from many countries that descended on K2, the second largest peak on Earth, to ascend to its summit. The first title card tells us, of the 25 mountaineers that tried to summit the mountain on 2nd August 2008, 11 died. The suspense of the narrative is explained within 30 seconds of the movie, so naturally you would expect quick gratification of the story, or at least an understandable, coherent set of imagery and character development. This movie won Best Editing at Sundance Documentary Festival in January, and while it was fantastically executed from a technical standpoint, we quickly found ourselves lost within the reconstructions [which were shot in 2:35:1], archive footage [which was whatever ratio of the climbers’ cameras] and documented photos. The story is not told in a linear way; we are repeatedly seeing a series of the same shots, and before the peak of the narrative it was difficult to decipher whether some of the shots were from the actual event or reconstructions. The existence of archive footage is a gift to a documentary, it should be clearly definable to the viewer, not lost. Making a documentary with cinematic stylistics is sometimes the perfect way to tell a story (Touching The Void is the key example), but there is a fine line a film-maker has to tread between narrative development and narrative contrivance, and there were points in The Summit when unfortunately it was the latter.

The human tragedy suffered by the families and friends of the dead climbers is a clear focus of the documentary. The talking head interviews help us develop a deeper understanding of some of the key protagonists and their motivations, and the Walter Bonatti segments describing a previous failed Italian expedition in 1954 are beautifully poetic, however the ending is somewhat confused. Rhetorically, are we supposed to be annoyed at the Korean expedition, as they seem to be painted as having an archaic climbing style? Is the thrill of mountaineering described by the characters supposed to make us overtly sympathetic to their sport?  It’s a detriment to the film-makers that these questions are lingering.  The Summit would have benefited with a bolder argument or even a hypothesis into how events unfolded on the K2, instead the ambiguous nature of the story has transferred into its telling. 

The Summit looks absolutely stunning and tells a fantastic story; one that shocked the wider climbing world and general public back in 2008, but ultimately it suffers from its own ambition. Sometimes the facts speak for themselves, and even more so when they are presented in a coherent manner.

Blackfish

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Blackfish, the feature-length documentary from Gabriela Cowperthwaite, investigates the 2010 tragic death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau by a 12,000 pound male orca whale, Tilikum, at Seaworld Orlando. Using archive news footage inter-cut with interviews with former Seaworld trainers, Blackfish examines the chequered history of keeping orca whales in captivity, from its grim beginnings to its tragic current state. Beginning with the capture of Tilikum in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, using deeply saddening archive footage, Cowperthwaite draws the audience in with what is ultimately an objective, fact-driven love story to these majestic, almost spiritual, creatures.

Blackfish truly is a lesson in engaging, intelligent documentary making. No single point was laboured, and the sheer volume of content in Blackfish, before even adding merit for cinematic style, is commendable alone; like with any accomplished film maker, Cowperthwaite’s argument  manages to be balanced with a varying range of testimonials to both support and challenge her message. This alone would have been enough to separate Blackfish from the mundane but, Cowperthwaite brings a plethora of cinematic goodies to delight the viewer. The film is visceral; with an impressive, highly researched and at times ethereally edited collection of archive footage, it is both powerful and dynamic to watch. The juxtaposition of the shocking stock footage against the retro, shiny Seaworld adverts worked fantastically to highlight the falsity of the image over the real. Both of us went into this documentary thinking that we wanted to see real footage of the attack, but by the halfway point we both flip-flopped and were hiding behind gasps and shocked head-rubs, actively willing the documentary not to show us anymore graphic footage; to clarify, we do not see Dawn’s death, but a series of previous attacks on trainers and other orcas that become increasingly difficult to watch.

Cowperthwaite has really achieved something special here with Blackfish; it’s gripping, emotional, truthful and beautiful all in equal measures. This film is stunning and raises questions that, as conscious and responsible consumers, we should all be thinking about completely. The relationship between man and animal is the constant theme throughout, and Blackfish raises questions of the wider issue of animals in captivity, but does it in such a way as to make we, the audience, complicit in finding the answers rather than presenting them to us.

Blackfish has been picked up for theatre distribution in the UK and US, with a July 26th release date. If there is one documentary you watch at the cinema this summer, make it Blackfish.

Searching for Sugar Man

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Magical.

In a random act of tiredness I decided to rent Searching for Sugar Man from iTunes. This was last night, and I’m still smiling about the movie.

Searching for Sugar Man might be one of the most inspiring, emotive and damn-right awesome documentaries released in recent times. It’s the story of a real-life search for a musical reject-turned-musical superstar. Rodriguez, a solo musician (think Bob Dylan), failed to break out of his hometown of Detroit, MI, despite being one of the most talented artists of the 70s. In an incongruous turn of events, his first album, Solid Facts, ended up finding its way to South Africa and the rest is history.

Sometimes you’ll discover a story that fully restores your faith in the human spirit, and this definitely falls into this category. The movie is broken up into three acts; the myth, the search and the last one (left vague to leave you with the suspense). It’s really interesting how Rodriguez’s fans mythicise the musician, with word of mouth having spread about his demise; some believe he shot himself on stage, others think it was him setting himself on fire. Either way, they gave him a rockstar death. In reality, it’s all very different.

Like all good documentaries, Searching For Sugar Man contains some socio-political contextualisation. Apartheid was at its strongest point during Rodriguez’s rise to fame in the 80s. The disaffected youth discovered music was a great form of protest, and their idol and influence was Rodriguez. This narrative prologues the main story behind the search for Rodriguez, but it really enhances the audiences’ understanding of how the people of South Africa relate to Sugar Man and his music.

Searching For Sugar Man is a breath of fresh air and delivers a truly inspirational story. It’s adeptly constructed, contains elements of fantastic movie making and storytelling and will definitely put a smile on your face. That’s a solid fact.

Senna

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Sometimes you’ll see a movie and you’re left wondering “where have those 100 minutes have just gone?”. This was certainly the case with Senna, the archive footage documentary charting the meteoric rise and eventual tragic death of the legendary Formula 1 racing driver, Aryton Senna.

In a stroke of genius from the filmmakers, the fabric of this movie relies solely on archive footage; interviews, racing footage, helmet-cams, home videos, etc, which are all stitched together with an occasional voice over from his family, friends and colleagues. This technique is a fantastic way to take focus away from the sport of Formula 1 racing, and rather create a filmic obituary that celebrates Senna’s achievements as a man as well as a sports icon.

One of the greatest aspects of this documentary is that it is such an engaging story. We see the constant battle for supremacy between Senna and his teammate, Alain Prost; the relationship Senna has with his fans, especially in Brazil; the faith Senna puts in God to protect him from danger; and the touching moments between his family, and the F1 doctor, Sid Watkins. Each of these little narratives features throughout the movie, and there is a finite character arc for Senna; you see him develop from a talented but raw teenager to a 3-time World Champion genius of the sport, yet the movie never resorts to how fast the cars are going or how much money is involved.

There are so many films released each year that try to create a world in which we are supposed to believe a character, their motivations, and suspend our disbelief only to be let down by cloying resolutions or farcical narrative tributaries. Here, we have a documentary about a man that rose to the top of his game and was tragically struck down far before his time. It’s honest, funny at times, tragic at others, and shows that there are some stories about which you many think you have no interest, but that can teach you more about what it is to be human than you’ll ever have believed.

I’m old enough to remember watching the race in which Senna died, but I was young enough to not understand the impact he had on the sport of F1, as well as the world around him. If you don’t know the story, don’t go to Wikipedia, watch this movie. If you’re in the UK and have a LoveFilm account, it’s just been added to Instant.

McCullin

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McCullin, released last year, is a candid and often shocking documentary charting the life of legendary photographer Donald McCullin. It starts with his big break; photographing inner-city life, the rough parts of north London and his friends and relatives, and quickly describes his rise as a newspaper photographer starting in Germany at the rise of the Berlin Wall.

Some of the archive footage shown, as well as McCullin’s photographs, are a deeply shocking document on the human psyche. It’s amazing how peoples’ attitudes to war are warped when they get enveloped in strife. Everything becomes normal. In his own words, ‘he was learning about the price of humanity and its sufferings’, and relates this with his own experiences of not just being a voyeur of the suffering, but actively helping in situations when he could.

The perfect word to describe this documentary is morbid, as it really makes you contemplate the fragility of life. These images don’t get less shocking; the audience aren’t supposed to feel desensitised to the imagery, and McCullin’s voice over helps. He relates all of his tales to his emotions, which are all underscored by emotive music, resulting in some genuinely upsetting scenes. That said, the movie does have some light-hearted moments, but they are few and far between.

It is very interesting getting the photographers take on the horrific situations. He had no political affiliation, ideological stand point, he just wanted to document the madness and insanity of war. Nothing else. He put himself through not just physical danger, but the emotional stress of his job is obvious on a number of occasions in the runtime, and it’s quite upsetting.

McCullin is a very eye-opening documentary. It doesn’t have an agenda, a la Michael Moore. In fact is quite the opposite; it’s an honest, deep and haunting account of one man’s life, during which he took himself deep into the abyss just to try and show the truth.

Photography is the truth if it is being told by a truthful person.