December 15, 2010


"I'm a good person, but at that moment I was insane"
- Mike Tyson
Picture this:  82 minutes of Tyson's talking head, with some archival footage and photographs.

Boring, right?  According to commissioners, an audience is not going to watch a documentary where nothing happens.  But more a monologue than a documentary, this insight into boxing legend Mike Tyson moved me in ways I didn't expect.

How can a man famous for boxing, rape, and biting (off?) people's ears possibly say he's a good person?  As Tyson recounts events from his crazy life he reflects upon his character with a nakedness that is instantly disarming.  He has no problem analysing himself, and speaks about his early days as a fat, bullied child, the fear of humiliation this instilled in him, and how this fear became the fuel for his ferocious fighting spirit.  His meteoric rise to glory, his steady descent, his messy divorce, his rape conviction, his managers stealing his money, and the Hollyfield fight where he bit the man's ear  (twice) are all candidly addressed.

If I was a jury and this film was Tyson pleading his case, I'd be pretty tempted to let him walk free.  The man makes quite a convincing argument for everything that he's done.  And Hollyfield had it coming, right?  Definitely worth watching.

Watch it here

November 28, 2010


"Tactlessly morbid or remarkably sensitive? Deeply disturbing or viscerally fascinating? Critics are divided on Eric Steel’s unique documentary on the Golden Gate Bridge, wonder of the modern world and notorious suicide destination." 
-Critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes 

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is one of the most popular places on earth to commit suicide.  In 2004 director Eric Steele filmed the bridge all day, every day, for the whole year.  He captured 23 suicides on camera.  He then tracked down the families of some of the people he had filmed jumping, and found out about their lives, and their motivations for killing themselves.  What follows is a difficult, moving, and controversial film about the darkest places the human mind can go.

In terms of it being a documentary about suicide, it is very well done.  I don't know any other film on the subject that creates as much empathy, or gives as much insight into the desire to take your own life.  The subjects range from the clinically depressed, to the mentally ill.  One of the interviewees is a jumper who survived the fall, and he reveals that as soon as he jumped, he realised he wanted to live.  It poses a very interesting question - is suicide preventable?

Which makes it difficult for me to write a critique of the film without considering how the footage was acquired. 

When people think of film making, they think of glamour, and excitement.  But actually, many film makers are motivated because they want to create something meaningful that will help others.  Because of this noble intention, a film maker will sometimes act against their own humanitarianism, believing the film's impact will justify the means.  I've kept the camera rolling in situations where people have broken down in tears.  My human instinct is to cut, but my film making instinct overrides that.

In this documentary, Eric Steele has taken things one step further, walking a fine line between observational film maker and... well... cold-blooded human (a man who could have done something).  'The Bridge' is a powerful film, but I honestly don't know if it was worth it.

No rating... How can you rate something like this?!  All I can say is that since it's been already made I would definitely recommend seeing it.


November 19, 2010


"This film is the story of what happened when this guy tried to make a documentary about me.... but he was actually a lot more interesting than I am.  So... now the film's about him!  It's not 'Gone with the Wind', but there's probably a moral in there somewhere."  - Banksy

So begins the first film to star the world's most commercially-successful enigma. 

Street Art has a cornerstone in my heart (my first film was a documentary on the Irish graffiti scene), so I've been eagerly anticipating a documentary about the Street Art movement.  And in spite of my own vague bias that Banksy "isn't as good as he used to be", 'Exit Through the Gift Shop' did not disappoint me.

Shop owner Thierry, is a French man living in L.A with his family.  He has one unusual habit - he films absolutely everything that happens to him and around him.  This obsession proves useful when Thierry discovers that his cousin is the world-famous French Street Artist 'Space Invader'.  He begins filming him, and his journey takes us on a street art tour of L.A.  Along the way we meet some of the giants in the Street Art scene - particularly Banksy and Shepard Fairy.  However, after some time, the excitement of hanging out with these talented, and commerically successful artists, begins to go to Thierry's head...

'Exit Through the Gift Shop' is fantastic for several reasons.  It's fun to watch, has a good story, and gives a consolidated overview of the Street Art movement (which is by no means an exhaustive overview, but it covers certain aspects very well).  On top of that, it poses interesting questions about the legitimacy of Art and the Art World (which graffiti writers and street artists tend to ridicule).

But for me, the best thing was the realisation afterwards that the whole thing was a hoax!  In a subversion of the mockumentary genre, the events in the film really happened (with one or two exceptions orchestrated especially for the film), but the protagonist (Thierry) is a fictitious character.  Street Art by its nature, pokes fun at anything that encourages people to be mindless - whether these are institutions or trends.  Banksy takes Street Art one step further, creating a film about duping that dupes us!  He even had the premiere in a tunnel near Waterloo Station (referred to as "London's darkest and dirtiest cinema") and I can just picture him laughing his head off at all the trendies who were paying money to sit in the cold and filth because they were thought it was cool (I would have sat there!). If only he hadn't done that terrible Simpson's intro, I would be tempted to call the man a genius.  Well done sir!

October 15, 2010


Peter Jackson undertakes another literary adaptation, this time morphing Alice Sebold's 2002 novel "The Lovely Bones" into a visual symphony of heaven, and hell on earth.

The film's protagonist is Susie Salmon: a 14 year old who has been murdered, and now speaks to the viewer from beyond the grave. The film details her brief life, her blossoming personality, and her family's struggle to cope with her death. As Susie watches over them from a place called "her heaven", concepts of the afterlife are explored, and themes of violence, retribution, loss, and love are touched upon.

I watched this film on plane, hours after I got the news that my grandfather had died. There was a certain poetry to the timing, so I decided to read the book, and did this during the week of his funeral. But even in my weakened emotional state I wasn't convinced by these mediocre works dressed in epic clothing.

I found both works somewhat hyperbolic. They dealt with hard-hitting themes, and interesting philosphical and spiritual concepts, but somehow fell short of offering an original perspective on life.

Jackson doesn't bring much to the translation. His obvious excitement at creating a CG heaven leads to some very cheesy musical montages that don't really support the story. I enjoyed the acting of Saoirse Ronan, and Stanley Tucci, but Susan Saradon was an embarrassment as a carbon-copy eccentric, alcoholic grandmother. Of course I did have moments of empathy, but it's hard not to when you see people dying (emotionally, physically) on screen. By the time I was two thirds of the way through the book I just wanted it to be over. Not because it was depressing - but because I didn't care.

Actually, this was one rare moment in literature to film translation where I felt the book and the film were equal. Equally average.


March 18, 2010

'BORN INTO BROTHELS' (Documentary)

In the aftermath of Oscar fever (and in lieu of my upcoming shoot in India), I took the time yesterday to watch 'Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids', winner of the 77th annual Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The film takes place in the Red Light district of Calcutta, India, where photographer Zana Briski has spent several years living with prostitutes in an attempt to document them. Over time, she got to know the children of these women, and her focus shifted. She began an initiative to teach these young people photography, which she hoped would empower them, and ultimately help to get them out of the brothels. The film documents her attempts to do so.

The content is amazing. Children in films are generally a winning formula (that why we call them "the money shots"), but because of their backgrounds these kids are particularly special to watch. They have the energy and fun that we associate with children, but lack any sense of childish naivety. For some of them this has developed into a worldy-wisdom that is at once touching and fascinating to behold. Watching them start to discuss the subtle aspects of photography is nothing short of revolutionary.

However, this film is a great example of how story and storytelling are often at odds with each other. In spite of the fantastic content, the directors choose to weave the story around Zana's crusade to help these kids. While there's no denying that her actions are noble and commendable, Zana herself remains a carbon copy, one-dimensional character. (I would like to say she was uninteresting, but I would be lying, because I was interested in her. I would love to have known what inspired a Western woman to devote several years of her life to living with Indian prostitutes and their children. As a film maker I can relate to the need to get to know your subjects intimately, but I sensed from Zana that there was an untold story.)

The kids in contrast, were full of personality, and I would have loved to have gotten to know them better. It would have been fascinating to have witnessed how they developed as people, and how their art progressed. The only child that we get more than a superficial insight into is Avijit, who gets more screen time than the rest. I can't help but feel that their portrayal suffered because of the focus on Zana. The road movie montages instilled a sense of "feel good" into the film, but it's a pretty trite formula.

Without being too crude about it, I felt that the film was a bit of a zoo. The audience is given incredible access to this other world, but there's an emotional detachment from the animals because the zoo keeper keeps talking about them, and saying what's right for them.

I support the initiative that they undertook, and I admire Zana for her commitment to the kids, but as a piece of film making I question their judgment. However, as the success of the film shows - 'content is king'.

In spite of my criticism, it was an engaging film, and an amazing journalistic feat if nothing else. 7 out of 10.

March 7, 2010


'Star Wars' for the next generation? Hmm.

It's Oscar night, and I'm doing what any self-respecting indie director would: denying that I care ;) I thought now would be a good time to review 'Avatar' - nominated for nine of those golden statues, and arguably the most talked about film of last year.

The film takes place in 2154. A multinational corporation has established a mining colony on the moon "Pandora", and has installed a group of Scientists to study it. The environment is toxic to humans, so the scientists have created bodies, called "avatars", that they inhabit mentally. Through these, they explore luscious Pandora and attempt to interact with its native population, the Na'vi: a race of warriors who live in spiritual intimacy with their world.

Jake Sully, a disabled former Marine, takes the place of his late twin brother in the Avatar program. To everyone's surprise, the Na'vi choose him to live with them and study their ways.

But nothing is clear-cut, and soon Jake's mission to Pandora is being compromised is more ways than one.

Let's just get this straight: I liked 'Avatar'. It was entertaining, it was beautiful visually, and being a sentimental sort, I loved the Na'vi's spiritual concepts (like saying "I see you" ie. "I see into your heart and soul", as a way of greeting). Plain and simple, I cannot deny that there were loads of fantastic things about this film.

So why did it leave me feeling cold? The more time that goes by since I have seen 'Avatar', the more it regresses to a shadowy part of my mind called 'meh'.

As beautiful as the film was: visually and thematically, it didn't convince me. Jake was so normal that it was hard to believe he was 'the chosen one'. I'm assuming that this was the whole point: he was special because he was so normal, but I didn't buy it. He had no spark or charisma or intelligence that set him apart as a great leader - apart from the fact that he had "no fear" (yeah right). Plunging this normal bloke into an alien life was an opportunity to create a very interesting character struggle, but this wasn't developed, and the chance was missed.

Apart from the lame protagonist (no pun intended), 'Avatar' was progressing quite nicely, until it became a gung-ho action movie. True, the Na'vi are a warrior tribe, but this change in tone felt inconsistent with the message of the film ("live in harmony with your environment"). If we're supposed to live in harmony with our environment, then why did I feel happy and excited whenever an army man was blasted to hell?

The film was anti-American, but pro-war, which contradicts its supposed themes. The lines between good and evil were unambiguously drawn, in true Hollywood style. Is this really supposed to change people's minds about the way we are living? All it does is find another entity to call evil.

Nonetheless, I can't deny that 'Avatar' cements James Cameron as one of the kings of the Hollywood blockbuster. As the highest grossing film of all time, people's feet have done the talking.

Confused rating: Visually: 8/10; thematically: 6/10.

March 5, 2010

'AFGHAN STAR' (documentary)

A sweet film with a strong message.

For a culture that has reacted saturation-point with accursed reality-talent shows (thank you Simon Cowell), comes a singing competition with a difference.

Winner of the 2009 Sundance World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary, 'Afghan Star' is a feature-documentary about the Afghan answer to "Pop Idol". The film follows four characters as they compete in this competition, watched by approximately 11 million people.

The film borrows many of the tools used by the established TV show formats. It shows some of the terrible auditions, and gives us intimate access to the finalists. But that's where the similarity ends. The film explores the hopes, joys, and disappointments of two men and two women, but also gives a rich insight into Afghanistan's cultural and political history.

In Afghanistan, this simple singing competition means something. For many young people, it is the first time they have ever experienced democracy. They are allowed to vote. The finalists are from different ethnic groups, and two women are even in the competition. There is a feeling that for once, Afghan people are free, and anything is possible. However, not everything is rosy, and as the competition progresses, the women in particular express concerns for their safety.

I was aware that Afghan society was more liberal before '96 (when the Taliban took over, and brought in extremely repressive new laws*), but the reality of this knowledge doesn't hit until you see video footage of a student concert in Kabul in the 80's. A band are playing synthesised music, dressed in shiney 80's garb, and are headed by a female vocalist. Wow.

Without giving too much away, 'Afghan Star' is a little gem of a film. The finalists are interesting characters, and the simple joy that this singing competition brings viewers and fans is sensitive and funny. But underneath this there is a strong political and social message. It certainly made me rethink what the introduction of democracy there means.

9 out of 10, and a well-deserved Sundance award.

Watch it here on Youtube 4OD
* By these, girls schools were closed, women were banned from working and forced to stay indoors unless accompanied by a close relative; and music, television and sport were banned.

February 24, 2010


A shocking story, poorly told.

Set in Harlem in 1987, the central character is an obese 16-year-old black girl known as "Precious". She is illiterate, a victim of constant physical and verbal abuse, and has just been kicked out of school for being pregnant with her second child.

Not many films dealing with abuse and incest have made it into the mainstream. And yet, it's an epidemic in our world - with one in four people suffering from sexual abuse at some stage of their lives. For this reason, I commend 'Precious', because it's important that stories like this are told. As a piece of film making however, I was disappointed.

It was a mish-mash of tones, and ultimately didn't seem to know what kind of film it was. At times it felt like a 'Dangerous Minds'-esque story about disadvantaged teens on the path to redemption, at others there was a Lars von Tiers emotional distance from horrific events. Then at times there were comedic moments that were used to alleviate tension form uncomfortable scenes. This sounds great - Shakespeare was a master of blending tones and genres in order to reach the widest audiences, but 'Precious' didn't blend. It relies on "fade-to-black"s to advance the narrative, and this is sloppy film making.

The acting was incredible (particularly from Mo'Nique, who plays the mother), but for some reason I didn't fully engage with any of the characters. Apart from an entertaining Jamaican classmate, they were hackneyed stereotypes, not particularly well-developed. The horrific scenes were heavy and uncomfortable, but dumping them on a screen is kind of a cop-out to me. Shock-tactics are an easy way to get an audience's attention. It's like gratuitous violence in films - often people are so effected by the action that they don't stop to question whether it was necessary.

I know that many people have been deeply effected by 'Precious', so maybe I'm being a bit harsh on the film. The poster advertising the film is fantastic, and it set my expectations high. Maybe if I hadn't see the art work, I wouldn't have been so disappointed in the moive. What's more likely though, is that I wouldn't have gone to see it.

Actually, that wouldn't have been a great loss.

5 / 10.

February 22, 2010


This story unfolds in the desertlands of the Southern States, when a cold blooded murderer, a hunter who has stumbled upon $2 million in drug money, and an aging sheriff become embroiled in the same crime. A game of cat and mouse ensues, and there's no telling who will triumph or be sacrificed.

The simple plot is typical to the Western genre, but in the hands of the Coen brothers it becomes a gripping journey into the depths of the human psyche. Blending their characteristic darkness with an unmistakable Hitchcockian unpredictability, the viewer is left feeling like this is a world where anything could happen.

The film echoes Dante's 'Inferno', and their other hellish thriller "Barton Fink". The three protagonists seem to represent universal archetypes that stand apart from the average human. Anton Chigurh, the murderer: ruthless, supremely powerful, and disgusted by the stupidity, weakness and lack of dignity he perceives in people. Llewelyn Moss, the hunter: a brave and independent spirit, rebelling against the forces that Chigurh has imposed. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell - a man who is searching for what's good.

The world the brothers create in "No Country" could be perceived as a symbol for the world at large: inhabited by simple, guileless people, who have very little control of their destiny, and rampaged by the force of evil. Those with intellect and heart earn a begrudging respect but ultimately can hope to find solace only in the fold of death. Outside it, evil, even when faced with its own mortality, will always triumph. A pretty bleak look at the world, even by the Coen Brothers' standards!

This is an evocative, beautifully shot piece of film making. Although I wonder if 8 Oscar Nominations wasn't a bit of an exaggeration?

8 out of 10.

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