The Wolfpack  (2015)    60/100

Rating :   60/100                                                                       90 Min        15

A documentary that provides a snapshot of the lives of a somewhat ‘different’ American family – the Angulo’s, six brothers and one sister living with their U.S. Mother in a less than adequate apartment in New York City, and forbidden to leave said apartment by a domineering Peruvian father who has chosen to brood on his own personal nightmarish interpretation of Hindu scriptures and take on over-protecting his children to an extreme rather than any form of occupation. The titular ‘Wolfpack’ keep themselves sane by watching thousands of movies (kudos) and by then re-enacting their favourites and filming the results, often with quite impressive homemade props.

You can’t help but be endeared toward them, and indeed it is probably exactly what I’d do if housebound by some cruel autocrat (asides from dismembering him of course; I remember excitedly printing multiple scripts for the Lord of the Rings to act out with my mortal pals – alas they elected to watch TV all summer instead. Useless cunts). The movie is distinctly focused on one of the brothers, Mukunda, via his narrative of life in the flat (it was filmed over a period of several years) and we see an evolution occur as the eldest become teenagers and things begin to inevitably change, and as an insight into a completely unorthodox way of life happening slap bang in the middle of one of the most populous areas on Earth it is fascinating – but there’s no escaping the fact it is equally depressing. Indeed, the most memorable moment in the film is a brief scene featuring a blonde actress posing for the camera near the end – purely because her lightness and beauty stand in such contrast to the darkness, in terms of both lighting and theme, of the rest of the film.

There’s definitely something in the fairytale that the siblings suffered so much with film as their only outlet, only to eventually cross paths with a like-minded soul, director Crystal Moselle, who would inaugurate a documentary that would then become famous around the world. Indeed, some of the brothers have talked about starting their own production company, and with the success of the film they may be able to fund their own ventures on a significantly broader canvass than the previous confines of their apartment, although there do remain unanswered moral questions about the way it was all conducted – it’s unlikely, for example, the father would have consented to the filming if he knew what a monster he was going to be portrayed as, and there are always two sides to every story …

Precinct Seven Five  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     104 Min        15

Documentary that details the corruption proven to be endemic in New York City’s Precinct Seven Five in the eighties – as told via interviews from the actual officers involved as well as some of the drug runners they helped out and some actual footage from the events described. If someone told you this was a comedy spoof, a ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ (84) of policing, you would believe them, you can’t help but think throughout ‘what a bunch of absolute, complete idiots’, although the film itself feeds into the problem with a racy delivery, much like the multitude of cop-chase TV shows on both sides of the pond, and a severe lack of any real consequences for much of the film.

Eventually, the real world hits home for the characters in the narrative and the audience, but it still lacks a lot in terms of the silent voices of several decades worth of victims. Despite large chunks appearing as an opportunity for the corrupt to boast of their various misdeeds, the film does manage to be both depressing and carnally compelling at the same time, and given its access to primary source material and the perps themselves, this does, despite its faults, stand as a very useful record for insights into what turns officers to the other side of the law in the first place, as well as how they can infect others like a virus if allowed to go on unchecked.

Nostalgia for the Light / Nostalgia de la luz  (2010)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                       90 Min        12A

Documentary from genre veteran, director Patricio Guzmán, exploring, or rather interweaving, the desolate beauty of the Atacama desert in Chile, inclusive of some of the world’s most sophisticated telescopes and observatories (La Silla Observatory, Paranal Observatory, the immense ALMA radio telescope array), with the harrowing and continuous search of that area by the mothers of the Chilean disappeared, the victims of general Pinochet’s brutal regime who were buried in the desert: indeed they were dug up from their original points of execution and secreted in the desert specifically in the hope they would never be found.

The film is very successful in generating a haunting feel throughout. It’s calm, and slow-paced with some beautiful shots of landscape and the night sky, leaving plenty of room for contemplation as parallels are drawn between those looking to the Heavens, and thus looking back in time at light travelling toward us from the distant universe, and the archaeologists studying the area who are also looking to understand the past, whilst they mention a collective national attempt to do the opposite regarding Chile’s more modern history and its atrocities.

Where the film does let itself down though is with the details, which it is very light on. We never see any maps of the desert, nor do we get much about Pinochet and his regime within a historical context for those not in the know, and there is a moment where we watch astronomers as they look for calcium spectral lines from distant stars to make the quite profound connection between that and the bones being searched for in the desert around them, but they don’t explicitly explain that calcium is one of many primary elements forged by nuclear processes at the heart of stars and then disseminated throughout the universe when those stars eventually go supernova. The observatories featured were founded there of course because of the lack of light pollution and atmospheric interference in the area, but to be fair a lot of the stills of galaxies and the night sky used to exhibit the wonder of the cosmos are amongst the most famous of images, and indeed some of the interlinking effects used seem perhaps a little overtly basic.

Nevertheless, a film that is successful in its primary goal of putting our lives and existence a little under the microscope and making us reflect purposefully on the value of not only remembering the past, but also understanding and coming to terms with it – all driven home with deeply emotional interviews from survivors of brutality and people who have been relentlessly searching for the remains of their loved ones for many, many years.

Amy  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     128 Min        15

The latest documentary from director Asif Kapadia follows in the footsteps of ‘Senna‘ with another collage of primary source material, this time used to portray the life and tragic death of jazz singer Amy Winehouse. There is a stylistic difference between the two films in that with Senna the majority of the material was filmed whilst Ayrton Senna was already in the spotlight and aware cameras were rolling, whereas here a lot of the footage used was filmed among Amy and her friends before she hit the big time, no one presumably imagining many people, if anyone at all, was ever going to view it, so in a sense you are getting a snapshot of what someone might be like, but you’re also at times seeing someone doing the kind of random things anyone might do if a camera was suddenly thrust in front of their face.

Despite being about a completely different personality, this is thematically quite similar to Senna in that there’s an underpinning narrative of destruction with a heavy dosage of blame lain at the feet of the industry and a world that she was propelled into by the popularity of her music. Arguably, there is an unavoidable dismissive initial reaction to the scenario from a neutral perspective, given the well publicised story of another young musician whose life is dragged ever downward by drugs and fame until an all but inevitable early death. Tragic, but also a cliché and with a strong element of self annihilation. The film does successfully allay some of this by showing a tortured and talented soul with some fairly villainous influences on her life, indeed one of said villains gets arrested at one point for perverting the course of justice but we never find out what they actually did, which stands as a curious oversight.

Similarly, there is a degree of ambiguity over the role of Amy’s father, both in her life and in the film. He has appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire show on the BBC denouncing the film, and indeed he brought in transcripts to show that where the film has his voiceover saying Amy didn’t need rehab, it actually cuts out before he goes on to stipulate he meant at that point and that later on she absolutely did. We don’t get to see these transcripts in detail of course and I’m not sure it ultimately makes too much difference, although he shouldn’t have been cut off like that, as it does become quite difficult to sympathise with someone who invites a reality TV crew to film themselves with their daughter in St Lucia, against her wishes, whilst he is supposed to be there helping her to recover.

Neither is there any mention of the two year relationship she’d been in with film director Reg Traviss before she passed away, but the pivotal role her marriage played in events is shown in great detail and just as Senna ended with a line meant to give you something to take away from the film, so too do we here learn from her bodyguard that right before her death she’d admitted if she could sacrifice all her singing ability in order to simply be able to walk down the street without being harassed by the paparazzi, then she would. Indeed, we see multiple scenes where she is severely hounded by the press and it’s no surprise at all it took its toll on her.

I never really got into her music, partly because I found it really difficult to make out the lyrics – and the film seems to at least partly acknowledge this problem by showing us subtitles every time she sings, which was a great idea as it’s a prime opportunity to showcase the poetry of her work, and the songs play alongside the chapters of her life in the film that they relate to. We also see a number of illuminations as to her no nonsense approach to interviews which often proves quite endearing – perhaps chiefly when onstage at the Grammys and she hears the album titles of her competitors read out, disdainfully remarking ” ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’? Did he really call his album that?” in reference to Justin Timberlake. Most amusing.

There is a suggestion that chunks of important material and information are missing, but the film nevertheless rehumanises a person that the media too often milked as a cash cow and Kapadia is once again successful in delivering his intentional exposé of the sort of dangerous and destructive world that the modern public eye can be.

A Dangerous Game  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     102 Min        PG

A documentary from filmmaker Anthony Baxter and essentially a follow up to his hit 2011 film ‘You’ve Been Trumped’, which showed the effects of Donald Trump’s exclusive multi-million dollar golf course built in the rural landscape of the Northeast of Scotland, Balmedie in Aberdeenshire to be precise, and here we continue that story (he finally even manages to bag an interview with Trump himself after the shock waves the first film caused) whilst it is expanded to look at the environmental and economic impact of building courses in other areas of the world, in particular the historic seaside town of Dubrovnik where one is planned for the summit of the hill overlooking the town and would require syphoning off huge amounts of the town’s water supply, and indeed the issue sparks the first local referendum in Croatia’s modern day history.

Golf is a hideous game for the rich as far as The Red Dragon is concerned, in theory I have nothing against it and the activity should be a nice enterprise for those who would like some moderate exercise outdoors, in practise it is dominated by snobs and we have, in Scotland, golf courses all over the place – Edinburgh alone seems to have about five or six of them, all areas that could be public parks for general use. When I was young I was told I wouldn’t be allowed onto my local course as, despite turning up with my friends and having saved enough money to play, I apparently did not own enough clubs. I had a driver, a putter and maybe four or five irons – basically they were saying I was too poor to play as, after all, what would it look like if they let local kids that couldn’t afford a full golf set onto their greens? I mean, they can’t be seen to be encouraging young commoners to play, right? We might even beat them, imagine! We got our own back by sneaking onto the course at night for free anyway.

In short, fuck golf.

The game has also recently become one of the new sports added to the Olympic Games, and it beat squash to claim the place, which is just about the most ridiculous thing ever and of course has everything to do with the money that the ‘sport’ will bring to the games. Sad to say golf was invented in Scotland, although it is amazing the number of outdoor activities Britain in general has given the world given our somewhat inclement weather.

The documentary invites poignant discussion on the sheer amount of precious water that is used and wasted to keep the greens green in places where grass does not naturally grow – like the desert in Nevada where we see an exclusive retreat going out of business, or in the Middle East where a Tiger Woods designed course has had to be put on hold indefinitely because IT’S STUPID. We hear an interview with Alec Baldwin who has fought against a new golf enterprise in his native Long Island amid legitimate fears that the chemicals used on the grass can and will sink into the water supply for the area, and back in Scotland we see the effects on the local people of the building of Trump’s monstrosity, as one elderly woman in her nineties is left permanently without any running water and walls of earth are deliberately erected around other homes – and all of these people are constituents of Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond, who appears to have fobbed off the beleaguered locals and done absolutely nothing to help them. Not content with this destruction, we learn Trump plans a second course beside the first and has the audacity to complain, legally, about the building of an offshore wind farm as he reckons it might ruin the view of the pigs he’ll have over for dinner. Unbelievable.

The Dubrovnik course is another very interesting major part of the film. However, criticism has to be levelled at the documentary as to how balanced a view we are receiving. Here, for example, an important vote is ruled invalid by the mayor of the town as, according to him, not enough people turned up to vote. Baxter tells us that the vote was carried by eighty percent of the ballot voting against the new construction, but the film never actually tells us what percentage of the town’s populace did come out to vote, so we are given the distinct impression that the mayor is corrupt but if ultimately only, say, ten percent of the township bothered to vote then the mayor would be quite right in considering it insubstantial constitutionally. It’s a little subtle with the momentum of the film strongly in opposition to all of the golf courses featured, but it’s important to consider how balanced a story we are being told – we also briefly hear from some people in Scotland who are happy that Trump has arrived to build an extension of his empire, but we don’t really hear why they think that, we are not given access to their insights on the matter. Similarly in the interview with the man himself, Trump repeatedly says the director will probably edit whatever he says in his favour, and no doubt in response to this the interview plays out in a fairly uninterrupted manner – but the same cannot be said of all the other interviews in the film.

Overall though, I think this is a well balanced, passionate and eye opening documentary, and the few areas of uncertainty are ironed over by numerous clips of real reactions to Baxter’s probing questions, as well as copious interviews with the people most affected by the issues at hand and a mind toward the politics of each situation as well, all edited and paced with enough skill that the audience’s appetites are kept suitably wetted throughout, for a subject that initially sounds a little too dry to be especially engaging.

Senna  (2010)    81/100

Rating :   81/100                       Treasure Chest                     106 Min        12A

An absolutely seminal moment in documentary filmmaking and indeed easily one of the best films of 2010. This masterful film follows the rise to fame of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, focusing on his time with the sport and, unusually, it only uses footage from the time rather than filming interviews now and cutting back and forth, feeling much more like an unfolding drama than a conventional documentary. Personally, I’m not in the least bit interested in F1, so the fact I loved this already speaks volumes. The story it tells has all of the best ingredients that true legends are made from, with high drama that you couldn’t artificially create and a very, very human element at its heart.

In essence the film asks two questions, what to do when you find yourself in a corrupt environment (as Senna does with the FI setup), whether that be a social group or a place of work, and what does it take to be happy, something which is hammered home by Senna telling us he enjoyed himself the most when he was racing for pleasure, with no money or politics attached to it, and we see him constantly chasing the next title never really seeming completely fulfilled – something which is common in many walks of life, certainly to the average person winning even one world title is enough to be pretty satisfied with and yet the reality for the individual can be quite different. Similarly, we watch him fight against the system, but it invites discussion about how to do that effectively without perhaps it getting to you more than you it – is it better simply to leave and walk away?

Not knowing the details of the story makes this all the more compelling so I won’t say anything more, other than give it a go and let its significance play out for yourself …

Next Goal Wins  (2014)    77/100

Rating :   77/100                                                                       97 Min        15

Documentary following the exploits of the American Samoa national football team, against the beautiful backdrop of their capital Pago Pago, as they attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. America Samoa is a part of the Samoan archipelago which also includes the independent nation of Samoa in the Pacific Ocean and, unsurprisingly given its name, it is one of the foreign territories that are a part of the United States, much like Guam and the American Virgin Islands. With a population of just around 56, 000 we learn the nation’s team are currently residing at the bottom of the FIFA international rankings, and they also have the dubious honour of having suffered the greatest ever defeat in the history of international football – 31 nil by Australia in 2001.

Action, it seems, must be taken, and so the powers that be hire Dutch coach Thomas Rongen to try and lift the team from the doldrums, but will his expertise be enough and how will he react to a different culture at the other side of the world?

The film is divided in good measure between following the action in the games and following the reaction from the players and the coach, and we feel like we are getting to know a few of them quite well, which is of course necessary for the human element to work. We learn, for instance, that Rongen’s daughter tragically died in a car accident and that he and his wife are able to find a degree of spiritual healing in a sense from the island community, the same community that fully embraces Jaiyah Saelua, the transgender player on the team, who also proves gutsy and, ahem, ballsy enough to become one of the team’s greatest assets.

It’s a really wonderful film that perfectly sums up just what sport can mean to people and how much it can move everyone involved with it, from the players and their families to the supporters they are representing. There were more than one or two people sniffling in the audience before the end. Highly recommended.

20 Feet From Stardom  (2013)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                       91 Min        12A

I find it difficult to believe this was the best documentary of 2013, winning as it did the Oscar for that year. This delivers very little in the way of emotional connection or any especially revelatory or indeed relevant discussion of the material, and it couldn’t be more consciously biased when it comes to the ethnicity of the people involved. It deals with the story of back up singers trying to make it big by themselves as solo artists, but we only really hear from black singers, in fact despite comparing them to white girls at the beginning of their career near the start of the film one could certainly be forgiven for thinking there weren’t any white back up singers for decades, and indeed this is the only time the film touches on the issue of race within the industry – it seems to be suggesting its importance and then ignoring it, whilst underpinning it with its limited spread of interviewees, and since it’s purportedly about the facet of the business in general it feels slightly off. We hear from one white girl who mostly talks about how great the others are and toward the end we finally see her singing and the camera keeps jerking back to her as it inevitably pans to the black women beside her, as if someone was saying to the cameraman ‘whoops, no, better get some more shots of the token white girl in there!’. I can only suppose that white guilt after watching ’12 Years a Slave’ played a part in guiding this to success. There is also a suggestion of inherent differences in talent – are black women universally more powerful than white women? I shall have to investigate …

This race issue is kind of a sidenote though – the real problem is that it feels like we’re watching a bunch of people bemoan their ill fortunes (some of them are quite content with their lives and the successes they had though) because it was tough for them and they didn’t make it to the top despite being really talented (they are all amazing singers), but you find yourself thinking ‘what did you expect’? They were going into the music industry for goodness sake, and in no way does their experiences make them unique or indeed differentiate their path from anyone else going into any creative profession, success is never guaranteed for anyone going down that road, often regardless of talent, one absolutely needs a strategy and the music industry perhaps more than any other is full of talentless success stories that just played the game well. The women who are interviewed seem united by an inherent lack of any kind of stratagem, they either relied solely on their vocal skill or on labels, and one of them seems particularly aggressive in her approach to dealing with other people in the industry, it would be surprising if that wasn’t a contributory factor to not hitting the big time.

The central aspect of the film doesn’t work and it’s impossible to feel much for the women who’s stories we hear, or perhaps even really believe them – they start moaning about their bodies being objectified (once again, music industry, hello), which is very much jumping on a modern day band wagon, when one of the interviewers, the only time they interject to pick them up on something, says ‘But didn’t you do Playboy?’, to which the answer is ‘Oh yeah, there was that.’ Ha! In the background though, we do find more interesting material, smaller discoveries about the world of backup singing lying by the wayside of the main narrative, and there is a lot of good music in there too, but it’s so limited – I don’t recall there being any mention of Tina Turner, for example, who famously started out singing backup for her husband to be Ike Turner, and then who did make it big as a solo artist, which is a fairly unforgivable omission.

One of the best moments is Merry Clayton talking about her role singing for ‘Gimme Shelter’, one of the Stones’ most iconic tracks …

My Perestroika  (2010)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                                        88 Min

A documentary focusing on several Muscovites that lived through the dissolution of the Soviet Union and asking them to compare living now in modern day Russia, with living and going to school under communism. They were all classmates and all experienced the attempted coup in 1991 by party hardliners, with some of them taking part in the demonstrations against it. It’s really interesting listening to their comments on the before and after, with some of them laughing in almost disbelief at some of the things they used to take for granted under the heavy Soviet indoctrination, and yet others pointing out that so long as you turned up for work and were not an alcoholic then you had a job for life and didn’t have to worry about being fired, and so on. The discussion is fascinating, but apart from interviews with the same handful of people and the mixing in of archival footage (a lot of which contains the interviewees, possibly why they were chosen for the project) the film doesn’t really do much else, so it remains nothing more than a social snapshot, albeit still a worthwhile one.

(The title translates as ‘My Reconstruction’ or ‘My Rebuilding’)

Mission to Lars  (2012)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                               74 Min    Exempt from classification

As a Metallica fan I thought I’d give this a whirl. It’s a documentary following brother and sister Will and Kate Spicer’s attempt to facilitate the meeting of middle sibling in the family, Fragile X syndrome sufferer Tom, with the person he admires the most in the whole world – Lars Ulrich, drummer and co-founder, along with James Hetfield, of hard rock band Metallica. We get some insights about Fragile X from the parents, Tom’s carer and an expert in the field that they interview, and we learn that some of the things that people with the condition find difficult are changes to their normal routine and loud noises. So, as the siblings conclude half way through, dragging him half way across the world to Metallica concerts in Vegas, Sacramento and Anaheim on the last leg of their world tour, was perhaps not the most ideal way to spend more time with him. Especially not when they add filming him constantly into the mix.

Up until this point, it is very difficult to come close to understanding the other siblings let alone like them (Tom is much more agreeable), and it does beg the question of ‘Ok so you’ve decided to give this a try, but why make it into a documentary?’. We learn that Will is an amateur filmmaker, does this justify the project? Or just make it all the more exploitative? I suppose having cameras around may help sell their idea on the road …

Without giving away what happens, although I did want to see the film through to the end it just really isn’t altogether that interesting. In fact, it’s been filmed in a very cold, clinical manner that detaches the audience to a degree and not enough effort has been made to be either original nor to incorporate much in the way of music or information about Metallica (or indeed terrifically much about Tom and his condition) . Perhaps they were a little miserly when it came to the rights to use their tunes …