Over a month ago I saw American Animals at the cinema, having not seen The Imposter, I wanted to hold back my review of both until I’d seen them. There is over a months gap between seeing both films which will explain the introductions to both reviews. I felt I could go into more detail with Animals as there was more for me to consider, that’s not taking away from the brilliance of the earlier film.
I’ve just seen what could be easily seen as a game-changing documentary. The form’s tried and tested sometimes requiring reconstructions in part to illustrate and make certain points being explained more accessible to an audience. Director Bart Layton has taken the form in new direction, the combination of interviews and 3/4’s of the film being reconstruction. Admittedly I’ve not seen many feature-length documentaries to really to understand it fully, when I do it’s usually based on a musician, Supersonic (2016), Mavis! (2015), Senna (2010), all of which rely on archive footage and interviews to interrogate the subjects at the centre of the work. American Animals (2018) goes a few steps further, using one element of the genre and blending it to create something new. Dreams of a Life (2011) is the only piece that comes close to using the method to such lengths.
Focusing here on the 2004 Transylvania University rare book robbery from the institutions library, which honestly passed me buy, or was not reported over here in the UK. I was also 15 that year and had other things on my mind. For four first years/freshers their lives were about to change forever after undertaking a daring fascinating heist. The sheer audacity of the task is something that really has to be understood and in the processed taking for a through all the emotions that come with it. First meeting the originator Spencer Reinhard, an art student who appears to be very remorseful and reflective on his youth that has forever changed his life. The idea for the heist comes from a the library induction – not the most exciting part in early university of life, I skipped mine both times. Spencer’s took him to a special section, which I’m sure every institution has to a certain extent. This one however holds some of the rarest items in America, books so rare that an appointments. Spencer’s captivated with a rare book of ornithological paintings, the desire to handle these rare items is tangible. He tells us that famous artist have somehow how struggled during theirs in order to make great work. Is this his great act to have these priceless items his great struggle, is the effort he puts in all part of his artistic legend.
He can’t go into this day-dream alone, we meet Warren Lipka the live-wire and adventurous one who takes the risks that no one else will. We meet him first from being shown his tattoo of a dinosaur attempting to switch off a fan light. He doesn’t or didn’t take life too seriously. We can see that the attention to detail in the real-life thieves and the actors who played them in the reconstruction’s done with care. So far meeting Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters who we really get to know as what could easily be mistaken for characters in a standalone film. You can see a really strong male friendship with a mix of antics and semi serious planning into what at that stage they could still back out of.
Starting with some cinematic research; a collection of library rented heist films to get an understanding of the planning. I’m reminded of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema episode on the heist movie that breaks up how the films of the genre’s constructed. We have a clip from The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The only flaw with all this entertaining research being that it could have all ended there and then. Each film as it builds up through the planning, the recruiting of the team to the execution always ends in tears. The law of the land and social morals always win through, members of the team die or are lost along the way, or even worse give the game away. The romanticism of the genre only generates ideas and the passion in them, when all the while I was thinking, didn’t they see how they ended.
As the plan progresses they realise that the team needs to expand, we meet in turn Eric Borsuk the brains to get them in and out securely and the finance guy – Chas Allen who both initially think that these two guys are crazy to go through with this audacious plan. Yet they succumb to the thrill of what it’s all about, if it can be so carefully planned they can get away with the perfect crime, something that lies behind every premeditated act. Any sense of reality falls away until much later in the film. As the film progresses we spend more and more time in the reconstruction, very little with those being interviewed, only cutting back to particular points where their four men’s stories contradict do we get to see that conveyed visually, no two sides are the same, as with any number of accounts, each unique to the participants, as we go over what happened throughout its run-time.
If you’re not familiar with the robbery there’s a lovely twist that’s spared from the trailer as the robbery’s played out twice (almost). When fully underway do we see that these young men are little more than children who are in over their heads. Starting to understand the consequences to their actions. Tensions ratcheted up as we understand the potential human cost. A robbery that sounds as audacious looks as it was made for the screen, not the inspiration for. Much like the more recent Hatton Garden diamond robbery during the 2015 Easter bank holiday which has since inspired at least 2 films in quick succession. The robbery here as slick as the films that inspired the students is not as reality would prove it to be. As the films that inspired them, the overlooked endings come back to bite them as their Consciences begin to eat away at the young men. Wrapping up the film on a sombre note, a number of hard lessons are learned, families are affected, lives altered forever or everyone involved. I’m left the film after being taken on a number of thrills before being brought back down to earth as traditional cinematic story telling cleverly blends with the facts of documentary that are understood to easily be contradicted, showing that the very nature of the truth is not as simple as it the definition tells you.
It’s been well over a month since I watched American Animals and now the time has come to digest The Imposter (2012). I can’t ignore the fact that I didn’t know of it’s impact, be that the content of the film or its critical appraisal at the time of release. Personally the impact on me is rather different from American Animals. Both however are shocking in the true stories which they are based upon. It’s the form they take that really define them.
Again I’m coming from a lack of experience when it comes to talking about documentaries. The form of The Imposter is far more convention, a combination of interviews and re-enactment, just not to the scale that has made Animals redefine what the genre can do. It’s the true-life story that has determined the journey we go on. Beginning with Frédéric Bourdin whom we immediately question his motives, why did he take advantage of a family that had lost their son and brother. Set up like a true crime piece with all the family discussing who Nicholas Barclay, a cheeky 13-year-old who knew how to get his own way, loved by all but could be a trouble maker, nothing really out of the ordinary for a young teen pushing the boundaries. Then going missing from his Texas home in 1994, before apparently being picked up in Spain by a stranger.
The version of events that we are first given seem very convincing, we’re sold this story, much like the family who are completely duped by this serial liar that takes everyone, as we later learn has carried out this countless times around the world. No average person can understand Bourdin’s motivations, even his pathetic explanation, we are left bewildered that even at the age of 22 he had caused so much distress. Leaving a wake of more distress for the Barclays by suggesting that the mother and her late son had killed and buried the younger boy.
The use of the private investigator Charlie Parker adds another layer, not just for allowing the story to blow wide open to the media. The director kept him on to investigate the possibility of a body being found, pushing the ethical boundaries of what is possible on film. I couldn’t believe that as we were seeing the family discuss the murder inquiry, the lie detector tests whilst in other scenes this determined man was out there with a pick-axe. Just mind-blowing to place the images together. I wonder of the families reaction to seeing the finished film. It shows that Layton’s prepared to take a risk, follow a line of inquiry and see where it leads. I wonder how his relationship with the family was affected after the films release, like they have been exploited towards the end to see if there’s truth in a rumour that could open up more than just old wounds.
Ultimately Layton allowed the facts drive the documentary, acting more as an investigator than a film-maker, allowing it to form out of his curiosity for the subject matter. Both a creepy individual and suspicious family are exposed, no-one comes out clean at the films close. Much like American Animals, they all get what was coming to them, in another unbelievably true story. I am left wondering where Layton will go next?
It’s been a long week at home and I needed either a comedy that I could lose myself in and not have to do much thinking. Or really treat myself with a dissection of film history, gain an even better understanding an appreciation never go a-miss. I settled for 78/52 (2017) a very obscure title that needs the prior in-depth or nerdy knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho (1960) which the second documentary in recent time to explore the director. Previously the taped conversations between Hitchcock and Truffuat in Hitchcock/Truffuat (2015) which were the basis for the bible as it known by famous film directors who have worn and tatty covers that they have in their possession.
The earlier piece was steering us towards the making and the influence of Vertigo and ultimately Psycho a film that has changed the medium of film making. It’s a natural progression to then make a documentary that builds on that discussion, focusing not just on the film, it’s that scene, the scene that has become part of popular culture to the point that you don’t even need to have previously seen the shower scene. A moment in film that has become ingrained into the language of film that it’s essential reading for all students and fans of the medium.
78/52 is very much a labour of love, the aesthetic of the film’s built around the film, there’s no contributor sat in-front of a green-screened image or a hotel room. Instead a faithful recreation of the Psycho motel sets has been built to sit the contributors both famous, obscure and really unknown if you don’t have a love of horror films. Writer/director Alexandre O. Philippe has really done his research in pulling this documentary together. Drawing us into the world of the America that has become cut-off from civilisation to find the motel that Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) found that led to her bloody demise, all filmed in black and white, even our contributors are brought into this world. The only jarring break to colour is for colour film clips which you get used to, once you except that its a back and white world we are in it’s excepted.
The first 3rd of the film is pure build up, as we learn – again the context behind the film, the behinds the scenes that is even left out of the fun film depiction of the making of the film Hitchcock (2012) that focuses more of the directors psyche rather than the minute detail of what is essentially 78 shots of film and 52 cuts in the editing room that ends all that build up. Exploring that drives that lead Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) to dress as his dead mother and kill what could easily be his latest victim. Looking at the state of films in the late 1950’s all that were begin to bubble over from innocence to a burst of sex of violence in the following decade, breaking free of the Hays code that had restrained them to conform to the strict moral virtues of the country and “Mothers knows best” that Hitchcock exploits to shock his audience who had seen nothing like it in America in mainstream cinemas around the world. We can see this all in Hitchock’s earlier films, the role of the mother, waking up America from it’s nieveity to the war in his native Europe. The drives in his works, the symbolism that was building up his thrillers before delivering his first horror, a film that he would never top. Leaving me wondering how the rest of the classic really can work or live up to all the build up to that scene. Leaving Marion’s sister and lover to workout what happened, the result of the shower scene and that comes after pales in comparison. Yet without that lesser part of the film we wouldn’t have understood the motivations and get the conclusion that we leave with.
What could have been a replay of the shower scene, including the undressing, stepping into the shower to the eventual and famous climatic murder and the disposing of the body. Every frame and cut’s dissected with equal measure. Getting insights from everyone from editors, directors and even Jamie Lee Curtis. Instead of the classic fun of stills we have an in-depth discussion of the scene. At times light whilst at others very insightful, putting Hitch on the couch for some psychoanalysis through various film clips. We can see his had been building up to this film for over thirty years, finally breaking free of the holds of his childhood, expressed through his films.
Lastly we see the cinematic influences of the shower scene of slasher horror and main-stream film, how much of an impact that the scene has had on the medium. Even with the utterly pointless Gus Van Sant remake that I have so far avoided. Just proving that remakes can be completely pointless. Mere exercises in replication in shot for shot films hold no interest for me, there’s no point, however its inclusion in the film makes that very point, without even saying much about it. All part of the relationship between the original and the development of film since it’s release.
Ultimately it’s a very well researched documentary that is at times light whilst at other moments deadly serious. Full of clips that are needed to build up a compelling argument that unpicks the shower scene that forever changed the face of film, without ignoring its own and the directors influences. I know I made the right choice night, enough to make me write this review so it must have been.
I had no idea that I would be driven (pardon the pun) to review a film so early into the new year. More so by a foreign documentary, focusing more on the subtitles to stay up to speed. However when it came to Taxi Tehran (2015) watched at a time when protests in Iran have gone on for nearly a week now after promises of reform have not gone away in the memories of the voters who brought Supreme leader Khamenei, who will do anything to suppress the public from having a voice. It was the voice of a single director in 2010 was given a 6 year jail sentence and a 20 year film-making ban that includes distribution, promotion even a travel ban unless of religious grounds. In the eyes of the West this was against all that it means to be a filmmaker, the agency to express oneself creatively, in the case of Jafar Panahi cinematically. He has since made a few films under the ban that have been made in very unorthodox yet still very creative, first releasing This is Not a Film (2011) on a memory stick to Cannes before making, an extended home video of him under house arrest, at times jumpy and confusing, Panahi is owning the camera on this film set and prison. Before moving onto Closed Curtain (2013) a brief return to conventional film.
That same year Taxi Tehran was released, filmed from a number of camera positioned in a taxi he drove around. Documenting the passengers and the lives that they bring with them to the car. The aim to help expose the suppression of Iranian film censorship tries to cover up the realities of life in the country. I could give an overview of the film but I feel that would not really do it justice at all. Even at its short length we seem to spend at lot of time some passengers. We’re thrown in the deep in with two very different passengers, a man and a woman from different parts of society, the man very vocal on capital punishment for most offences whilst the teachers in the back is willing to listen to the criminal in order to understand them, looking at the root causes. Coming from a profession that nurtures and listens before passing judgement. Whilst the man, who we learn is a mugger – or so he says, sees that as fair and just to kill thieves. These two passengers set up the clear differences that are in Iran, opening out eyes to those living in the country, who aren’t representative of the oppressive government.
With the arrival of a smaller passenger, a DVD bootlegger who in the West we wouldn’t think about encouraging his crimes of piracy. However Panahi has another take on it all. The bootlegger doesn’t take before he blows the drivers cover, talking opening about his “business” to the director who does nothing to stop him. What he sees and we learn is that the bootlegger is bringing in culture, films that are otherwise banned, ideas and images that would have to be censored if they came in through official channels. For a while the two “work” together to help the distribution of Western culture reach the masses. Interrupted by the wife who hopes that her injured husband doesn’t die. In tears he records his last will and testament to ensure his wife gets everything, not left homeless. For a few moments I wonder if the gentlemen has died in that backseat, has he ensured his wife security. I have to reminded myself none of this is scripted, only the end credits come close to that.
Things lighten up with in the form of two elderly ladies and a bowl of goldfish. They must reach their destination of a spring before noon, they lives literally depend on the fish making it to the water. They are delightful to listen to as they bicker and worry over a superstition. Even in Iran you can find dotty old ladies, showing wherever you are in the world, somethings are universal. They soon leave us to spend time with the drivers niece, a very precocious young lady who knows her own mind and is not afraid to tell everyone. She wants to talk to her uncle, who she clearly admires, yet doesn’t understand his situation. Her class has been given a month to make a movie. I thought he was going to give the same advice he gave to the bootleggers film student customer – not much except to find his own material. Instead we have this wonderful perception of what film is, the film censorship that she clearly doesn’t understand (blames it on her teacher). Wanting not to end up like her uncle her direction with the camera is more inline with government policy, without understand it’s origins or meanings. We learn how contradictory they are, ties for bad men, not depicting reality, it’s all about smoke and mirrors, depicting a fantasy that escapes everyday life, instead of responding to it. Now I know why Panahi was banned.
He takes time out to talk to a man whom he grew up with, who hopes will be able to assist him. It’s disturbing how close people are in this part of Iran. It’s not so easy to send people you know to a possible death sentence. It reminded me of how quick justice can be dealt with as we saw in A Separation (2011) that sees a man almost wrongly convicted of murder, when all the facts are stacked against him. All he wants to do is look out for his family. His next passenger is a flower-lady, a soon to be disbarred lawyer, whose as open-minded as our driver, they share each others pain. Both know what is going on the country, they are more than aware of what goes on behind closed doors. I wish we could’ve spend more time with her. Instead picking with the niece whose eyes are slowly opening to the complexities of life in her country.
We see that even in the space of just over an hour, life in Iran is rich and diverse. Filled with laughter, joy, great pain and sorrow, as it is in any other part of the world. Panahi is shining a light on that world that his country would otherwise not like us to see. It’s an eye-opener, yet at times not surprising. After seeing Ai Weiwei’s show at the Royal Academy a few years ago I was left speechless at times. Himself fighting the suppression of his own government that wont allow him to speak. Both artists are fighting their own wars on the different fronts. Maybe the protests might one day lead to the directors ban being overturned. He’s clearly loved by all that know him as he once against risks it all for his passion and believe in breaking with censorship that only inhibits him to make films. It’s a refreshing film that doesn’t shy away for a minute from the truth, something his government shy’s away from.
If I’m honest I had mixed thoughts when it came to Elstree 1976 (2015) a little known documentary about some of the extra’s from Star Wars (1977). Instead of all the docs that had gone before focusing on the stars, the director and the origins of the film that in themselves have all taken on legendary status. But what about those bit parts which in the Star Wars universe have all become remembered, anything that’s vaguely relates to the franchise is worth sharing, selling or talking about. My reservations for this doc I think came from what could really be discovered that hadn’t already been said or discussed about the history of the film.
As soon as I got started I knew this was going to be different, unique even. Thankfully made in cooperation with Lucas Film that gave this doc more authority allowing it to be more credible, instead of just talking to the extra’s, we have recreations of the film sets, the costumes are brought out if only briefly. All these elements are important in telling the Star Wars story, without them it wouldn’t be authentic to the audience, false and not worth telling. You could say the untold story is more exciting as we have only had glimpses, If you look away from the hard-core fan-base your knowledge is not so sharp beyond the credited actors in the film.
Beginning with introductions that link the extras directly to their action figures, a strong link to the film that no average person can claim to having. Through the figures that helped to provide George Lucas with his fortune and ensuring the next two installments would be possible. The idea of action figures being tied into a film had tried and failed in the past, as history of the film tells us, for Lucas holding onto the rights to the toys was a very clever move. Becoming collectibles over time, practically anything that appeared in the three films has great value (if in great condition and in the original packaging). Ten figures to ten actors faces, all playing varying parts in the franchise’s first film.
Beyond opening comments of having their own action figures they talk very little about Star Wars. We learn of their childhoods, youth and early acting careers none of them as spectacular as Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher who all had more success. These 10 actors have stayed in obscurity more or less. David Prowse the actor behind the helmet of Darth Vader has one of the more familiar stories, an ex body builder who turned to acting after being told he’d never be successful – because of his feet. I forgot he had a small part in A Clockwork Orange (1971). To lesser known actors such as Pam Rose who was in the Cantina as Leesub Sirlin before going onto other extra parts late 1970s and early 1980’s. Whilst others have made a career out of being an extra like Derek Lyons with more than 80 credits to his name, that’s a lot for an extra.
During the main body of the film – the making of Star Wars we gained an insight to what film was like. From the tacky costumes, the 100’s of storm troopers to prosethetics and meeting the quietly spoken George Lucas who got one of them a cup of tea. How some of them ate lunch with Hamill. I learned how some of these extras took on speaking roles such as the storm trooper who waved Obi Wan, Luke Skywalker and co through, with “the droids they were looking for”. All these and more moments that are looked over in favor of the Fisher/Harrson affair, or the quotes about the awful script. What also makes this film stand apart is the gifs, that show us those blink and you’ll miss them moments in the films where the extra’s can be found. Weird at first, you soon get used to what it going on. Really bringing to life those moments that we in the audience wouldn’t care about.
All this before moving onto post Star Wars life, some it opened the doors to steady work as an extra, for others little came of it. Yet the power of that film alone, ignoring Empire and Jedi we have a film that changed so many lives for those who worked on it. Leading to the present the culture that has been created by this little b-movie science fiction film of good vs. evil- the convention circuit that some warming to it, whilst others have shied away from it. Prowse talking about honestly how he has made a career out of Star Wars and fair play to him, there’s money to be made.
I see this short documentary as a nice little insight into those much forgotten actors who brought to life the characters who are just as celebrated, Greedo, Boba Fett and all the X-Wing fighters, the list is endless really. To see the faces behind the make-up and costumes, and their lives which brought all of that to the screen. It won’t be as exciting without an all star documentary, however its something more special, shinning a light on the overlooked actors who did gave their time and effort to bring Star Wars to life.