Blu-Ray/DVD Review: Endless Summer & On Any Sunday

I’ve never been a surfer (I never lived near the sea, which didn’t help), but I’ve always had a thing for surfing films and surfing culture. I love the excitement of seeing people riding the waves, always on the brink of being wiped out. I also love the laid-back attitude usually demonstrated out of the water and the music synonymous with the sport/pastime. The most famous surfing movie is probably The Endless Summer, which has somehow passed me by all these years, despite my interest in the subject matter. So you can imagine my excitement when Second Sight announced they’d be re-releasing the classic documentary on Blu-Ray with all the spit and polish and special features you expect from their releases. Added to this, they have released director Bruce Brown’s later documentary, On Any Sunday, this time focussing on motor biking. I must admit I hadn’t heard of this before reading the press release, but it sounded good, so I thought I’d make my Endless Summer review a double bill. My thoughts on the two films are below.

The Endless Summer

Director: Bruce Brown
Screenplay: Bruce Brown
Starring: Robert August, Michael Hynson, Lord James Blears, Bruce Brown (narrator)
Country: USA
Running Time: 91 min
Year: 1966
BBFC Certificate: E


Bruce Brown had been making surfing documentaries since the late 50s, but it wasn’t until The Endless Summer in 1966 that his films, or any surfing films for that matter, hit the mainstream (the film was actually finished in 1964, but it didn’t get a worldwide release until 2 years later). After showing the skills of some Californian and Hawaiian surfers in the first 10 minutes or so, The Endless Summer shifts focus to follow Mike Hynson and Robert August as they embark on a year long tour of beaches around the world, in a bid to experience the titular ‘endless summer’ (i.e. being on a beach during summer time all year round by travelling across several continents). Along the way they bring surfing to people who have never experienced it before and try to find the ‘perfect wave’.

The film managed to live up to my expectations thankfully, although I was a little put off at first by the film’s presentation. By that, I don’t mean the surfing footage, which is as great as I’d hoped and I’ll talk about later, but I mean in how the film is constructed. I expected interviews with surfers and more of a modern style of documentary, but it actually follows a more classic format where footage is supported by only voice-over narration and music. This simple approach took a short while to get used to, but luckily Brown (who provides the narration himself) is a great speaker. He’s very good at explaining the skill involved in what we’re watching on screen as well as filling us in on the surfers’ backgrounds, particular styles and the current locations. He also injects a great deal of humour into the film, which I wasn’t expecting. This, when added to some pre-planned goofing around by the surfers or sped-up footage, can be a bit silly at times, but it keeps the tone light and prevents the film from getting dry.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Sorrow and the Pity

Director: Marcel Ophüls
Screenplay: André Harris, Marcel Ophüls
Starring: Georges Bidault, Matthäus Bleibinger, Charles Braun, Maurice Buckmaster, Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie
Country: France, Switzerland, West Germany
Running Time: 249 min
Year: 1969
BBFC Certificate: E


Choosing to request a copy of the documentary The Sorrow and the Pity to review was a case of feeling I should watch the film rather than me wanting to watch it. The title for starters doesn’t suggest you’re in for an easy night in front of the TV. Then you’ve got the length. At a little over four hours, it’s a hefty slab of documentary and not easy to get through in one go (I watched it over 3 nights, but only because I was far too tired to concentrate the first night – 2 would have been fine and the film is split in 2 parts to accommodate this). Nonetheless, I’d heard it often called one of the greatest documentaries ever made so, being a fan of the genre, I felt I ought to have seen the film, so I semi-reluctantly asked for a copy.

What also didn’t help my low level of enthusiasm was that I thought the film was about the Holocaust, which doesn’t make for easy viewing and is a subject that has been well covered elsewhere (particularly in the even lengthier Shoah). However, I was misinformed (or rather hadn’t read into it properly). The film is about France during WWII, so the Holocaust does feature and much time is spent on the subject of the Nazi’s anti-semitism. The core subject matter however, is the examination of Germany’s occupation of France between 1940 and 1944. Once I realised this was the case (shortly before finally putting the film on), I became less reluctant to watch it. A lot of films and documentaries have covered WWII and various aspects of the war over the decades that followed. However, other than Casablanca and the TV series ‘Allo ‘Allo, which are hardly documentaries or even ‘based on true events’ for that matter, I’ve personally never seen the occupation covered in much detail on film.

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Hot Docs 2017 Review: PACmen


 

How many people have selfies taken with Dr. Ben Carson on their phones that they will probably never look at again? For a few shining moments, the former neurosurgeon whose stab-to-scalpel story was adapted into a television movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr., was an outsider-candidate for the U.S. Republican presidential ticket in 2015.

This stemmed from a promising keynote speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, where Carson brazenly lectured President Obama on the moral decay of America, as Obama sat ten feet away. It is fitting that his political potential started with prayer, as PACMen shares the story ‘Run Ben Run’ from the inside.

As Donald Trump often blathers, “America does not like losers,” And while the orange authoritarian bafflingly blazed his way through the primaries and election cycle to the highest political office in the world, he was right in this case — outside of a small political bubble, Dr. Carson was exactly and going to be always that, one of politics’ many losers.

Aussie director Luke Walker has unprecedented access to Carson’s Political Action Committee, “Extraordinary America,” (in common parlance, a super-PAC), the body of wealthy evangelical Christians and Tea Party-ers who are responsible, in a large way, for getting Carson to run for the Republican nomination, and also handled the logistical and financial details of his ‘ground game’ in the early state primaries. Walker structures his film between the nuts and bolts of running a behind the scenes political leadership race with Dr. Carson’s ill-informed, often outright goofy series of blunders in front of the news cameras on the national stage.

Your ability to catch the vibe that Walker seems to be laying out with PACmen — decidedly Christopher Guest but for real this time — might depend on your penchant for schadenfreude. At the beginning of the many conference calls and hotel-ballroom meetings, there is a collective prayer for success that often gets hyper-specific: “Let us pray that the liberal biased media stop attacking Ben.” This is amusing in and of itself, if not for the dramatic irony that they are being filmed by a director who has structured a vision of their worst fears into a divine comedy. For PACmen is a story of faith and hubris and unintended hilarity, writ large.

As the numbers of the campaign, both the fundraising, and the chances of securing the number of delegates required to win primaries, approach ‘mathematical zero,’ Carson fails to concede to reality and keeps running. Behind the scenes, the prayers are amplified. The old white guys with bluetooth headsets and ornately carved wooden desks, including Jeff D. Reeter (owner of said desk), Terry Giles and John Philip Souza IV increasingly grasp at a miracle. A volunteer helpfully offers, “God is in the business of miracles.” Meanwhile, the media is in the business of calling out ridiculousness for what it is. To be fair, it seems increasingly to be the late night talk shows shouldering this responsibility over the cable news networks.

The will to laugh at shenanigans and cluelessness, however, may be tested as you see the on-the-ground staffers, volunteers and believers slowly get fired as the Carson campaign wheezes to an ignoble end and the Super-PAC might secretly realize that backing a certain horse after really only one convincing speech might have been a bit presumptuous, although I am unsure if presumptuous is a word in the vocabulary of people who exist in the extreme subsets of American politics. (Notably, Carson ended up in government after all, bizarrely; he endorsed the candidate far outside his values, and was made Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for his political endorsement, praise be to God!)

PACmen espouses the truism that someone cannot pray their way into power — especially if they pontificate on national television that the Egyptian pyramids were built by the Jews for grain storage. Carson had a penchant for demonstrating a woeful lack of foreign policy knowledge, and he combined it with a quiet perplexity, most tellingly demonstrated when he missed his queue to take the stage at a national debate, and looked the nonplussed fool in doing so. Trump managed to make a greater share of policy and political gaffes and scandals (minus the pyramids), but it was his brand, and by owning it, he waltzed straight into office to the profound disappointment of the evangelical Right.

Reality management, a time honoured political endeavour, and faith (also) collapse under the hard light of scrutiny, and the sharp blade of comedy and wit, the very Judas that the Carson campaign labelled as Ted Cruz, was actually the Australian filmmaker hanging about and quietly capturing comedy gold.

Hot Docs 2017 Review: The Road Movie

If you have spent any time lost in the YouTube wormhole, and we all have, you have probably seen some of the car accident footage that has been uploaded and archived by witnesses, usually from cheap cameras mounted at the front windshield of their cars. It might surprise you (or maybe not, if you are a Reddit regular) that the vast majority of these clips come from Eastern Europe, mainly Russia. Why?

Director Dimitrii Kalashnikov opined at the Q&A of the film that trust is not a big thing in Russian public life, and more than half of Russian drivers have dash mounted cameras to avoid situations of other drivers lying about what happened, and also rampant police corruption.

The tagline for The Road Movie, a sumptuously curated and exquisitely edited collection of dash camera footage is “Everything can happen on Russian Roads,” and for 67 white knuckle minutes, he more than makes the case that the Russian (and surrounding regions of Belarus, Serbia and Bosnia) sense of humour about such absurdity is a remarkable one. In spite of all the crazy ass driving, coldly observed in wide-angle static single takes (the nature of the medium) — high speed roll-overs, road rage fist fights, head on collisions and several very likely fatal situations — the Slavic sensibility towards all this adrenaline pumping madness, is that of casual nonchalance. Shock is one thing, this is something else entirely: a cultural touchstone.

We rarely see the passengers in the cars, but we hear their reactions, and we see other witnesses in other cars or pedestrians on the street. Take an incident where a five tonne dump-truck goes up on two wheels and capsizes over a city curb. All the while, a posh woman in a white parka sporting a designer purse takes notes of this incredibly vivid occurrence, but then casually crosses the intersection on the walk signal (two crossings) and goes on with her life.

In another clip, we hear two men question what is the cause of thunderous rumbling before we see a tank roll out from behind a building. The reaction is the equivalent to ‘you have got to be shitting me…is it ours?’ When the see the tank is in fact rolling up to the public carwash for a power-scrub, it is ‘fuck this country.’ Laid-back Russian pop music grooves in the background.

What sets The Road Movie from just a simple YouTube super-cut is that Kalashnikov has a sense of timing, and a bigger story than just action and mayhem (although there is plenty of both). He has a way of trimming the found footage to precisely calibrated lengths and in effect, to have a conversation with the audience.

Each ‘single take scenario’ has a set-up, an incident, and a resolution, but the way they are assembled (like a good album) set a rhythm that keeps the audience on their toes, seek and searching around the frame at the beginning, will this be a fist fight story or a spectacular car crash? Just when you have a handle on things, he will hit you with a rapid montage, a flurry of stuff, and transition to a wedding gone wrong, a mentally unstable person jumping on the hood of the car, or a litany of other ‘stranger than fiction moments.’ The often incongruous audio, be it song or conversation, sets its own comedic soundtrack.

While the assembly is not quite as ambitious or ambiguous as last year’s other YouTube found footage psychology experiment, Fraud, it is far more hella-entertaining. Where else would you have up-close video of the massive meteorite that rocked Chelyabinsk in 2013 bumping up against a man pulling a sledge hammer out of his trunk to get another driver to move his car, or an epic boreal forest fire filmed from the inside?

I learned the wide variety of situations Russians can mould the word “BITCH” to suit, and that in spite of all the violence that happens on the byways of Russian life, the people have a no-fuss way to recover and move on, that is utterly at odds with the West. But I would certainly think twice about renting a car and hitting the open road in the world’s largest country, at least not unless I was hoping to be in the sequel.

One final note, I am sure that the collective effect of The Road Movie is amplified by seeing it on the big screen, where one’s eyes (and head) have to more actively scan the screen. Oscilloscope Pictures has picked up the 67 minute film, and hopefully will put it out in limited release. If you are not of the faint of heart, you had best seek this one out at a festival or moviehouse for the maximum experience.

Blu-Ray Review: The Creeping Garden

Directors: Tim Grabham, Jasper Sharp
Starring: Mark Pagnell, Heather Barnett, Bryn Dentinger
Country: UK
Running Time: 84 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: E


Although they’re both documentaries, I couldn’t have picked a more different film than The Creeping Garden to follow up Gleeson to watch and review. Where the latter was a moving, very human film made up from raw, home movie style footage, The Creeping Garden is an unusual, cerebral and stylish affair. As such it was a bit of a shock to the system, and I still haven’t quite settled my thoughts on it in my mind. I’ll give it a go here though as I write my review.

Co-directed by Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp (who I’ve met a couple of times through a festival I help organise), The Creeping Garden is a documentary that explores the study of plasmodial slime mould. It sounds like an unusual and dull subject for a feature length documentary, but although I’d agree that it’s unusual, there’s more to slime moulds than you might imagine. Although they look like and were originally classified as fungi, they are in fact organisms which can move, eat and have a surprising level of intelligence for their appearance.

The film interviews and looks at the work of a number of scientists, amateur enthusiasts, musicians and artists who all deal with or take inspiration from slime moulds. As such, the film is almost about them as much as it is about slime moulds. A little like Room 237, part of the hook of the film is how unusual the work is from this incredibly niche group of people and how deeply they delve into it. The studies here are less crackpot than those of Room 237 though of course, so the filmmakers are in no way poking fun at or exploiting the strange habits of these slime mould experts. In fact Grabham and Sharp seem as interested and obsessed as they are, as the camera thrives on shots of the organisms.

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Review: Gleason

Director: J. Clay Tweel
Screenplay: J. Clay Tweel
Starring: Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco-Gleason, Mike Gleason, Scott Fujita
Country: USA
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 15


About a year ago I guested on the LAMBcast for one of their Roll Your Own Top 5 episodes and I presented my list of the ‘Top 5 Films to Make a Grown Man Cry’. It consisted of five films I found particularly emotional, spurred on by the fact that since becoming a father three years ago I’ve found myself crying during films a lot more than I used to. Since making that list I haven’t got any less soft, but I have seen a couple of films that would easily muscle their way onto it. One was A Monster Calls, which had the whole cinema sniffling away from start to finish, and the other was this, J. Clay Tweel’s documentary Gleason.

Gleason tells the story of Steve Gleason, a former professional American football player who found fame for blocking a punt in the team’s first home game after Hurricane Katrina, a game that became a symbol of recovery in New Orleans. In 2011, a couple of years after he retired from playing professionally, Steve was diagnosed with having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a brutal disease that causes the death of neurons which control voluntary muscles. This results in difficulty in speaking, swallowing, and eventually breathing, meaning that sufferers’ life expectancy is usually around only 2-5 years.

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Trailer: Beauty & The Beast

Disney is hard at work grinding out live action version of all their animated features. Emma Watson, Luke Evans and Dan Stevens do exactly what you expect them to do with lots of CGI and flowery movie sets, in this very familiar looking 2017 Beauty & The Beast directed by Bill “Kinsey” Condon. While I have certainly enjoyed Branagh’s Cinderella and Burton’s Alice In Wonderland (I missed Favreau’s Jungle Book, but by all accounts it is serviceable), fair warning that Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid are all on the assembly line for handsome-but-forgettable consumption.

Trailer: Fraud

This trailer is for a curious film-object I managed to catch during its World Premiere at Hot Docs in May. Kind of a found footage film, kind of a ‘constructed collage,’ and very much a fake narrative. Filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp took hours and hours of public uploaded You Tube video from an American family, and re-edited as a feature film, Fraud which considers the dark, disturbing side of credit, consumerism, and the American Dream. The execution is not without its flaws, but it deserves a serious consideration because of the way that it further pushes out the documentary-form, and even more significantly, the experience of watching Fraud is beyond fascinating. Check out the trailer below.

Blu-Ray Review: Don’t Look Back – Criterion Collection

Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Screenplay: D.A. Pennebaker
Starring: Bob Dylan, Albert Grossman, Bob Neuwirth
Country: USA
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1967
BBFC Certificate: 15


The phrase ‘don’t meet your heroes’ might go somewhere to explain my approach to the musicians I admire. Although I consume music to an exhaustive degree, listening to it whenever I have chance and spending far too much time reading reviews, compiling playlists and shopping for CD’s/downloads. However, I’ve never been one to read/watch many interviews with musicians. I do occasionally, but don’t make a habit of it like I do checking their latest reviews. I think I prefer to let their work do the talking as I often find if their natural personality rubs me up the wrong way it casts a shadow over my opinion of what they do.

For that reason, I’m occasionally dubious about watching documentaries about artists I love as I don’t want to spoil my enjoyment of their work. Some Kind of Monster for instance is a great documentary about Metallica, but makes them look like pricks (pardon my French) and has made me a little more hesitant over checking out their latest albums.

One film I’ve never seen until now, a good twenty years since falling in love with Bob Dylan’s work, is the most famous documentary surrounding the musician, D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. It might simply be chance that I haven’t got around to seeing it, but I think a worry that I’d find the famously elusive artist a pretentious wanker had always loomed in the back of my mind. Thankfully The Criterion Collection is re-releasing the classic film on Blu-Ray in the UK with a phenomenal amount of extra features, so I couldn’t resist finally giving it a chance after all these years.

And thank God I did, because I loved it.

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Blu-Ray Review: From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years

Director: Anthony Caulfield, Nicola Caulfield
Writers: Anthony Caulfield, Nicola Caulfield
Starring: Shahid Ahmed, Rich Alpin, Brian Bagnall
Country: UK
Running Time: 152 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: E

A year or so ago I reviewed a crowd-funded documentary about the birth and growth of the British video games industry, called From Bedrooms to Billions. I was impressed by the film, which was much more than the fluffy nostalgia piece I expected. So when I heard they were releasing a follow up, focussing on the Commodore Amiga, I was eager to get a copy to review. It wasn’t only the quality of the previous film that attracted me to From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years though. Like a lot of Brits around my age, my introduction to video games didn’t come in the form of the Nintendo or Sega consoles. These tended to come out a lot later in the UK and weren’t the be all and end all that they were in the US. We had an alternative, and that was the Commodore Amiga. I had an Acorn Electron computer first, but the games on this were very basic and I was very young. Our family replacement to this was the Amiga 500 though and it opened the floodgates to video gaming for me. The graphics were great, many of the games fantastic and it was modelled on a PC in design, so was more flexible than a pure games console in terms of offering word processor or paint programs etc. I loved it and the computer/console has long held a special place in my heart.

The documentary opens by describing the early history of home video game consoles, particularly those offered by Atari and Commodore (with some mention of what Apple were doing on the home computing front). Some designers working with these companies at the time grew unhappy with the way things were moving and decided to branch out on their own to form a new company, called Amiga. They had plans for a console/computer that would blow their competitors out of the water in terms of power and capabilities, yet cost a fraction of the price of the expensive PC’s available at the time. They struggled for a time, coming up with brilliant ideas, but not having the backing to pull it off. After a successful demonstration at an important trade show however, Amiga got thrown in the middle of a bidding war between Atari and Commodore. This war was made even more messy by the fact that Atari had been taken over by Jack Tramiel, formerly one of the bosses at Commodore.

After the dust had settled and Commodore became the company to release the first Amiga, the computer was launched. The initial system, the Amiga 1000, came out in 1985 (though not widely released until 1986) and struggled to find a market. 1987’s cheaper model, the Amiga 500, was a huge success though (in Europe at least). The graphics and sound capabilities were groundbreaking, allowing for near arcade-quality games at a fraction of the price. The documentary goes on to praise the importance of some of the machine’s innovations and how they helped shape today’s video games industry.

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Review: The Closer We Get

Director: Karen Guthrie
Screenplay by: Karen Guthrie
Starring: Ann Guthrie, Ian Guthrie, Karen Guthrie
Country: UK, Ethiopia
Running Time: 87 min
Year: 2015
BBFC Certificate: PG


I‘m very much a family man at heart. I obviously care greatly for my wife and kids (although I spend far too much time watching, reading and writing about films when I could be spending more time with them), but I’m also quite close to my extended family. I see my parents regularly and although my wife’s family and the rest of mine live further afield (mostly in different countries), we find time to visit them whenever possible and are always more than happy to see them. This may sound common and I’m sure it is, but many people grow distant from their family and know little about their aunts, uncles and cousins as they grow older. These days, more and more families are broken up too, fractured or made more complicated at least by divorce. Director Karen Guthrie’s family have an unusual history in which they seem to be simultaneously distant and close and she explores this in her documentary The Closer We Get.

Karen’s parents, Ann and Ian, fell in love, got married and rushed out four children in five years. Family life seemed pretty normal at first, but when the children were still young, Ian began to travel to Ethiopia to work (or volunteer, I missed that detail). This seemed admirable as the country needed support, but he would spend very long periods of time there, only returning once or twice a year for holidays, when he would often just take Ann away somewhere exotic. He just couldn’t seem to settle at home. This seeming lack of interest in family life, on top of a shocking revelation that I won’t reveal here, caused the couple to split, leaving the children with Ann.

In more recent years however, Ann suffered a devastating stroke which left her unable to care for herself. So her grown up children came back home to look after her. In an unexpected twist though, Ian also returned, after 15 years of divorce, to lend his support. Karen, who had been documenting aspects of her family life before the stroke, uses her probably vast amount of footage to craft a film that tries to find out just what happened between her parents and explore the unique dynamic now present in their family home.

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