Into the Abyss (2011)

Into the Abyss theatrical

He looked just like a little boy lying on the gurney. Werner Herzog goes to Conroe, Texas to examine the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both convicted of a triple murder in 2001. He interviews the men, both of whom blame the other and proclaim their innocence from behind bars. Perry is 14 days from execution and appears to have made his peace with God. Burkett can look forward to eventually getting out. Hence the film’s subtitle:  A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death.  Burkett has married a prison groupie who somehow became inseminated despite there being no situation in which they could have had intercourse.  Herzog is walked around the crime scene by an investigating police officer and part of the film contains the police video of the aftermath. Widowed nurse Sandra Stolter was shot in her house in an expensive gated community as she baked cookies at Halloween. She was dumped in a lake.  Her 17-year old son (actually her older daughter’s illegitimate son, therefore her grandson) was hunted down and killed along with his friend. All of this was because Perry and Burkett wanted the woman’s red Camaro. They were chased for three days until they were caught. The car is in a pound, having been moved from its previous location where a tree grew through the floor. Herzog remains behind the camera and there is minimal voiceover but his solemn, methodical approach and his choice of interviewees buttresses his view that the death penalty is wrong although the film is so carefully constructed there is no real attempt to figure out what happened and who did what. The film is divided into a prologue and six sections. It begins with the prison chaplain whose job it is to comfort men about to be put to death. We see the cemetery where they are buried in their hundreds without their names, just their prison numbers. The former captain of death row Fred Allen finally gave up his job when he had to put a woman to death (Karla Faye Tucker in 1998) and sacrificed his pension:  he talks about living ‘in the dash’ ie the time between life and death as signified on the grave markers. Burkett’s father is himself serving 40 years and is interviewed behind bars, his fifth time inside. He blames his almost permanent absence from home for his son’s actions:  his testimony at sentencing saved Jason from lethal injection. Stolter’s daughter Lisa attended the execution and lets us know that Perry ‘forgave me.’ She laughs through her tears. On the one hand this is a careful indictment of a system of criminal justice which results in capital punishment. On the other, it’s a terrifying examination of broken families and dysfunction and the effects of drink and drugs. The big question here is why anyone kills in the first place – the individual or the State. But it’s still a small story. It’s an utterly tragic account of many lives destroyed in a small Texas town – all because two nasty teenagers coveted a car.

Advertisements

Agnelli (2017)

Agnelli documentary.jpg

He was a prince. A dazzling account of Gianni Agnelli, Italy’s titan of industry, the glamorous, drug-taking, womanizing, stylish, physically courageous playboy who survived a dreadful (cocaine-induced) car crash and a relationship with man-eating Pamela Churchill to take on the Communists, the Leftists and the Red Brigades who nearly destroyed Italy in the 70s. The film traces his early life with a risk-taking father who wound up decapitated whilst flying and a promiscuous and unstable mother, thence to a place on the board of Fiat where his grandfather held court, while leading a wild private life and eventually succumbing to a marriage (to the weird Neapolitan aristocrat Marella) engineered by his sisters, two of whom are interviewed here, among many friends, associates and colleagues who recall a man who was at once at ease and yet constantly alert (‘he knew what you were thinking,’ declares Henry Kissinger). From the economic miracle, the depression of the Seventies when decent men were taken out on the street and shot like dogs, as one man tearfully recalls (we are shown the awful picture of Aldo Moro’s body in the boot of a car), to the resurgence in the Eighties, this is as much a portrait of a country rising from post-WW2 torpor and twisting in political torment, as it is of a man whose private tragedies eventually led to a sad end. He despised his son and heir Edoardo and three days after Agnelli humiliated him at a board meeting the thirty-two year old threw himself off a 100 meter bridge – a perverse act of courage which finally elicited Agnelli’s admiration in a family where succession was always an issue.  Sometimes having it all is never enough. Vain?  He invented vanity!  Directed by Nick Hooker with a wonderful score by Paul Cantelon. Produced by Graydon Carter.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015)

Ingrid Bergman_In_Her_Own_Words.jpg

She would rather live with a producer than her children. The great Swedish actress is recalled through her diaries and letters (voiced by Alicia Vikander), photographs and any amount of home movies which she shot compulsively.  She believed she was only truly alive when she was being photographed and described her home life away from the studio in Hollywood as ‘being locked in a suitcase suffocating.’ Following the early death of her mother this was a little girl cosseted by her father who documented her on camera and even Alfred Hitchcock (‘he brought out the best in me’) declared she took film more seriously than real life. Her father died young too and this leaves something of a Freudian association trailing throughout the film with her evident need to be constantly photographed and speaking other people’s lines.  Following drama school and early success in Swedish cinema she was discovered by Hollywood and arrived there to work with David O. Selznick whose colleague Kay Brown became her agent and lifelong friend. She abandoned her little girl and doctor husband for various lovers including Robert Capa (who wouldn’t sacrifice his short-lived career for her) and then Roberto Rossellini whom she pursued until he hired her for a film and she had his illegitimate child. She couldn’t adjust to his filmmaking style – she was no improviser and writing dialogue was contrary to her training. Her husband divorced her and got custody of Pia, while, after having more children by Rossellini,  the director abandoned Bergman for another woman (in India) who had yet another of his illegitimate children and Bergman then took off for Paris with a lover of her own. She saw her children in Italy once a month, more often when daughter Isabella (who became an actress) developed scoliosis. Daughter Pia discusses her mother’s obsession with Joan of Arc from an early age as being evidence that she wanted to make her name. There are many newsreel excerpts and interviews about her chaotic intercontinental life, pursued by paparazzi and condemned by various authorities until director Anatole Litvak declared in the mid-50s that she was the only actress he could consider for the role of Anastasia and an Academy Award for her performance smoothed her way back into the Hollywood fold. Despite her shortcomings and basically abandoning her young, her adult children (presumably with the benefit of relatively old age) describe her in contemporary interviews  as being totally charming with eldest daughter Pia even declaring, I craved having more of her. Stig Björkman’s film is a stunning evocation of a unique, peripatetic life which despite the rather unsettling morality of its fame-seeking subject simply exudes joy and contains many insights into the acting mind. Written by the director with Stina Gardell and Dominika Daubenbuchel with a great score by Michael Nyman, topped with a song by Eva Dahlgren in the closing credits.

Jane (2017)

Jane 2017_film).png

I thought they were like us but nicer than us. I had no idea of the brutality they could show. The true story of Jane Goodall, the English woman who was secretary to biologist Louis Leakey and who went to live among chimpanzees in the Gombe of Tanzania, becoming an expert on the habitat in the world’s longest-running primatological study. I was the Geographic cover girl, she laughs, in a biographical work anchored in her narration and some contemporary interviews but brought to life by the archive footage shot by the man who became her husband, Baron Hugo van Lawick with a typically compelling score by Philip Glass. While she was studying chimp behaviour and learning how to rear their son from her subjects, she was finding that chimps could be as aggressive and war-like as humans and just how distressing the results could be. If you have read her work then you will be familiar with David Greybeard and the colour film of this magnificent animal will be truly heartwarming even if his bitter end is hard to bear. This also offers insights into Goodall’s background, the effect of separation from her husband and the difficulties in bringing up their boy Grub in the Gombe while van Lawick wanted to remain working in the Serengeti. Trips to raise money to keep the eventual research base going are treated with mordant humour. This is a wonderful piece of work with Brett Morgen’s assemblage of van Lawick’s 16mm films (thought lost until 2014) creating a painstaking record of the most important such study we have but also including much home movie footage which clearly demonstrate van Lawick’s growing infatuation with his other subject – Goodall herself. Adapted from Goodall’s books and notes by director Morgen, who also produced and edited this beautiful film. Utterly captivating.

78/52 Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017)

7852 Hitchcocks Shower Scene.jpg

The movie is about fragmentation. It IS fragmentation.  Seventy-eight camera setups and fifty-two cuts. Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary about the most famous scene of all time in movies is a crowdpleaser – its subject is familiar to everyone. Starting with a ‘remake’ of Janet Leigh’s rainy drive to the infamous Bates Motel it settles into a series of interviews with a diverse range of commentators – from Eli Wood to Eli Roth, Walter Murch to Peter Bogdanovich, Danny Elfman to Guillermo del Toro, Stephen Rebello to Marli Renfro, Leigh’s body double, who offers intriguing insights into the week-long filming process.  The archive footage includes other Hitchcock films as well as TV interviews and excerpts from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  The contemporary interviews place the film in the vanguard of the culture and as part of a lifelong battle Hitchcock had with the censors – it’s pointed out that his previous film, North By Northwest, concludes in a phallic train entering a tunnel;  Psycho commences with a post-coital look between Leigh and John Gavin. It is also part of a disorienting cinematic process about space invasion and lack of safety, a film that literally changed how we watched films, and not just because by showing a toilet flush for the first time on the Hollywood screen Hitchcock wanted to remind us how our lives can just randomly go down the drain. Providing deft visual analysis (with great insights into the use of the jump cut), production information and ideas about the score, this is intensely interesting for the buff, the geek, the movie freak and even the seven year old daughter of one of the interviewees who has never seen the film but likes to make the knife action while imitating Bernard Hermann’s shrieking violins. That’s how influential this is. It’s obvious that Janet Leigh has to survive!

Through the Repellent Fence (2017)

Through the Repellent Fence.jpg

A metaphor that acts as a suture.  Three Native American artists known as the collective Post-commodity create a 28-balloon installation across 2 miles of US/Mexico border land in a tribal context. Sam Wainwright Douglas’ film takes a political issue and turns it into a fascinating entertainment in this tract about land art which takes no prisoners.  It follows the evolution of the project interspersing some very pointed discussions about race and borders and featuring interviews with authors Lucy Lippard and Chris Taylor, who escorts students on his Texas Tech Land Arts of the American West course on an annual two-month pilgrimage around 6,000 miles of desert. The beautiful photography by David Layton emphasises the historical aspect of the late 60s/early 70s Land Art movement with coverage of Spiral Jetty and Double Negative – phenomenal works of monumentality which Post-commodity nonetheless term destructive acts similar to the actions of the Department of the Interior. The wound of geography is straddled with a line of indigenous predator eyes emblazoned on ephemeral inflatable spheres originally intended for pest control in a searing statement about society, politics, race and community. It’s quite a sight.

 

Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn (2016)

Leslie Howard The Man Who Gave a Damn.jpg

He was so important for somebody who never made himself noticed. The mystery behind actor/director Leslie Howard’s death on Flight 777 out of Lisbon in 1943 is the framing story for this highly personal documentary. Far from being an English gentleman, he was the son of Anglicised Jew Lilian Blumenberg and her Hungarian Jewish husband Ferdinand Steiner. Her family so disapproved of the match that he was reared in Vienna speaking German before they were accepted and returned to London. Early success on the London stage made him turn to cinema, which he preferred, setting up his own production company which lost money on four comedies, leading him to Broadway where he became an instant success and the matinee idol du jour. He took roles in Hollywood including in Clarence Brown’s A Free Soul opposite a young Clark Gable whom he didn’t think much of – and nine years later, during which he became a superstar back in British films, they were reunited on the set of Gone With the Wind when Gable was the King of Hollywood and Howard felt he was miscast as Ashley Wilkes, the English gentleman as the Southern gentleman. His backing of Humphrey Bogart in the role of Duke Mantee which he played on Broadway for the adaptation of The Petrified Forest led to a long friendship and Bogart named his daughter in Howard’s honour. The start of WW2 exercised his conscience greatly and he not only made films dedicated to the war effort (because Britain was in it alone for the first couple of years by and large) he spoke out on radio and started directing himself. This is an enormously intimate piece of work – it features several excerpts from interviews with his daughter Leslie Ruth whom he adored and gave up his proposed marriage to Merle Oberon when the actress disliked the little girl. He had a string of affairs but a steady homelife with his wife and children kept him stable. This is simply overflowing with amazing archive footage including home movies and there are telling interviews with colleagues such as Michael Powell and Norman Spencer, his assistant director.  It is narrated by an extraordinary individual, Derek Partridge, the little boy (and son of a Government agent), now a presenter, who gave up his seat for Howard on that fateful flight when at least four other passengers were valuable targets for the Germans. This is a compelling film, written and directed by Thomas Hamilton with a beautiful score by Maria Antal.

Spielberg (2017)

Spielberg documentary poster.jpg

His strength is really his ability to tell a story in pictures instinctively. What makes Steven Spielberg tick? Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary commences with on-set filming of Bridge of Spies and then materialises into a meticulously constructed mosaic of interviews, excerpts and archive footage beginning with footage shot by the film’s subject as a child when he used home movies to escape his loneliness and his parents’ disintegrating marriage. As Martin Scorsese states, Spielberg has always been a personal filmmaker, utilising movie themes to articulate his own experiences. And perhaps the one shocking revelation here is that Spielberg didn’t speak to his own father for 15 years, mistakenly believing that he had split the family. The truth was that his mother was having an affair with his father’s best friend, whom she eventually married. His father and his older sisters spared the boy the truth. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school so he conned his way into Universal Pictures by getting off the tour bus and putting his name on the door of an office (maybe…) and impressed Sid Sheinberg enough to get him to underwrite his TV work there for 7 years, making his debut directing  movie queen Joan Crawford in an episode of Rod Serling’s show Night Gallery. Getting involved with that group of fellow wannabe filmmakers who came to be christened The Movie Brats, he had a support system of guys (they were all guys!) who would eventually become the most successful directors in the business. They all talk here – Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma and it’s nice to hear them speaking directly rather than through the medium of the third party commentators in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls. The culture was converging, the older directors were on their way out, they were on their way in. Amongst that crowd Spielberg was a nerd who wasn’t into sports or drugs or rock ‘n’ roll, as De Palma observes. Reworking his family difficulties into his films Spielberg created a modern point of view and an immediacy that plugged into the zeitgeist like no other filmmaker:  he knew what we wanted before we did. His one big budget failure was 1941 and it was George Lucas who got him back on track making a film that he promised him would be better than James Bond after he spent a year in a hole ruminating his misstep. So it was that after Jaws and CE3K he then entered into the world of franchises with Lucas making Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lacy is careful to permit Spielberg to critique his own failures or damp squibs even while his contemporaries and stars and co-workers are heaping praise on his energy, his techniques and the panic he manages to hide when he doesn’t know what to do next:  his reaction to the set being placed in the wrong situation on the beach for Saving Private Ryan being a case in point. It’s as though his eye bypasses his brain and goes straight to the camera. He himself states that from his earliest days he felt he was writing with the camera (he probably wasn’t what the Cahiers critics had in mind). A happy second marriage to actress Kate Capshaw and the addition of children made him confront more difficult topics after getting critically burned with The Colour Purple, a film that exercised many when the popcorn king dared take on the black experience and from a matriarchal perspective at that. He wasn’t exactly drowning in awards with the fantastic WW2 epic Empire of the Sun either and screenwriter Tom Stoppard questions his resorting to sentiment. But it was another instance of his desire to empower a child and to take control of  the story of their life. Making Schindler’s List made him confront his Jewishness. He admits he dumped his bag of tricks and utilised a handheld camera bringing an immediacy to the terror in monochrome. At the same time that he was shooting the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto on location he was editing Jurassic Park in the evenings: when everyone in the edit suite saw the astonishing leap in computerised dinosaurs created by Dennis Muren they knew it was something special. As Lucas appositely states, it was the end of one era, the beginning of a new one. Saving Private Ryan was also a war film like no other and the shock of the shooting experience is vividly conveyed by Tom Hanks.  Lacy is canny in deploying some of the best US critics to venture their reading of the director, after setting up the Pauline Kael prediction about how Spielberg’s career would pan out – not as a screen artist –  while the UK’s Dilys Powell isn’t mentioned:  Janet Maslin, J. Hoberman and AO Scott all have their say and it makes for a very thoughtful chorus of opinions given their sometime antipathy to his work (and some of the more problematic films like The Terminal or Hook are basically ignored).  Latterly his films have taken a prescient turn, from the scenes in Minority Report and War of the Worlds that vividly reference the shock of 9/11 and the surveillance society, to the Middle East issues that are tackled in Munich: any equivocation in these stories can be calibrated with the explanation that the man himself is torn about how to deal with the perpetrators of terror. So, for Hoberman,  He’s the Hollywood equivalent of a public intellectual. The loosely connected Amistad, Bridge of Spies and Lincoln deal with democracy and the law and the origins and problems of America itself. Despite his success, Dustin Hoffman says Steven’s like a guy who works for Steven Spielberg. The director himself is quick to point out that he has worked with a large team of the same people for decades and calls editor Michael Kahn his blood brother; John Williams he says rewrites his films with music. In the end, all his films he says are father and son stories about separation and reunification – even Lincoln!  And there’s an unpredicted coda to his parents’ bitter divorce (what you might call a twist ending). This is very long at 147 minutes but there isn’t any gristle in an absorbing and fluid chronicle bringing together the many influences around the most important filmmaker of our time. It’s an authorised film but doesn’t suffer for that – he is very open about what drives him and how he works.  He declares happily that he has never had therapy:  Movies are my therapy. Hallelujah – for that we are all truly grateful.