Amber and Me 2020 ****


In an alternate universe 2020, perhaps a lot more attention would have been given to  World Down Syndrome day (March 21st), and to the release of Ian Davies’ documentary Amber and Me; events worldwide may mute the media attention garnered, but that’s not to say that the film’s impact will be negated in the long-term. Like children, films grow and thrive, often against adversity; Amber and Me will hopefully be around long after the current crisis has been averted.

A note accompanying the film highlights that at least 15 per cent of children have special needs or a disability; Amber is growing up with Down’s, but she also has an advantage that many children do not, a loving twin sister called Olivia, who takes part in her games, chums her along the road to school, and generally looks out for her sister. Being different from her peers is sometimes a heavy burden for Amber to bear, but Olivia does her best to make sure that Amber’s experience does not cause her to withdraw from a world she finds difficult to understand.

Amber and Me is not the kind of documentary that relies on talking heads or statistic-spouting experts; instead it offers the kind of tender, gently fragmented experience of growing up, filmed over a four year period. Admirers of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, or Nicholas Philibert’s Etre et Avoir, may find something they recognise in the lack of contrivance shown here, with Amber allowed to express herself to camera, overcharging customers in her shop, not always able to articulate her feelings directly. Over time, Amber and Olivia begin to realise their potential; at 59 minutes, there’s room for the film to be expanded on, but it’s an effective primer in what it might feel like to grow up with Down’s, or to care for someone who does.

Amber and Me makes a strong case for the need for inclusiveness in how children are taught; as we watch Amber and Olivia play out the special moments of their childhood, the film should spark memories of our own development, and remind us, as the current virus outbreak does, that the mark of a caring society is how we treat those who need our attention the most.

UK release from March 2020


QT8: The First Eight 2019 ****


Any critic worth their salt should always be asking; why this? And why now? A documentary about Quentin Tarantino is a great idea since there’s plenty to unpack on someone who has been a hugely significant film-maker for several decades now. But there’s also a backlash against Tarantino that’s partly due to his now-ended collaborations with publically-disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein; this latter issue is what Tara Wood’s documentary partly addresses, since it’s less that a complete picture of the subject. If you want to hear what Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Leonard DiCaprio and other stars feel about working with Tarantino, then look elsewhere, because none of them seem to have been prepared to go to get out of bed and go to bat for the great man here.

QT8: The First Eight amounts to special pleading on behalf of a film-maker whose body of work does not require apology. It may not be fashionable to say it, but Quentin Tarantino is probably the most exciting film-maker working today, and the eight films he’s made so far are unique in being consistently original, sparky, thoughtful and riddled with moments of kinetic magic. He’s also prone to over-writing, excessive-length, self-indulgence and casting himself in his own movies in a detrimental way, but it’s easy to forgive such idiosyncratic garnish when the main meals he provides are so substantial. Tarantino promised that anything could happen at any time in his movies, and he’s delivered on that promise. He’s the kind of film-maker who is envied by everyone in the industry, and there’s also plenty who would love to see him knocked off his perch, so it feels like he’s been given the chance get his bona-fide character-witnesses in before any accusations start flying.

Wood’s film features the likes of Zoe Bell, Diane Kruger and Jennifer Jason Leigh attesting to Tarantino’s genius with all aspects of film-making, while sounding the death-knell endorsement that’s spelled curtains for everyone from Luc Besson to Weinstein ; ‘he really loves women’. Loving women is no excuse for hurting women, but as far as this critic knows, there’s absolutely no case for Tarantino to refute aside from an on-set accident during the filming of Kill Bill, documented here by Uma Thurman’s own video of the incident. A quick consideration of the number of people killed making James Bond films might be a useful point of perspective here. In terms of MeToo, Wood’s film recognises that Tarantino knew of his producer’s crimes, but then again, every man and his dog in the street knew about Weinstein, and that kind of behaviour has been part of the industry since movies began. If every actor, writer, director or star who worked with Weinstein is going to have to lodge a special defence in documentary form, our cinema’s will be overrun with contrite apologists.

Wood also doesn’t address a more potent accusation; that Tarantino’s films have a disproportionate level of violence towards women. On balance, it’s probably more accurate to say that Tarantino is an equal opportunities maniac who sadistically turns the screw on both men and women in his narratives; it would take a deliberate mis-reading to suggest that he targets only one sex for his nastier demises. Without much reference to his most personal film, Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, Wood’s film settles for cheery talking heads, well-chosen clips and the general warm-and-fuzzy feel of an enjoyable DVD extra. It’s compulsive and entertaining, but it’s anything but definitive; most directors have to pop their clogs before such a reverent obituary is offered up, and few directors are as alive as Tarantino is today.

Signature Entertainment presents QT8 in Cinemas, on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD from 13th December, 2019

Best Before Death 2019 *****


Anyone who has been following the continuing adventures of Bill Drummond will keenly anticipate Best Before Death, a new documentary which finds the artist, retiring pop star, art terrorist and general free thinker in fine fettle. The standard-issue information on Drummond is that he was a driving force in the KLF, with a slew of number one singles and a notoriety gained by burning a million pounds as a performance art event. Since that event, which Drummond says he now regrets, he’s ploughed a fascinating furrow as a creative force, but not a creative force interested in making work for New York art dealers to sell ; he’s not seeking validation from the elite. In short, Drummond is an ideal subject for a documentary, and Paul Duane’s film, a co-production between Rook Films, Media Ranch and the Scottish Documentary Institute, doesn’t let him down.

The film-makers share space with the artist on two legs of an ongoing global event, the 25 Paintings world tour which is scheduled to take Drummond to various locations from 2014 to 2025. We catch up with him circa 2016 in Kolkata, India and Lexington, North Carolina where he busies himself with tasks; getting a haircut, making soup, building a bed, banging a drum as he crosses a bridge, shining shoes. The public encountered are bemused, but also interested; part of the appeal of what Drummond is doing is not only what these actions might mean to him, but what they might mean to those who happen upon his art by chance. Some are happy to accept his simple gift of a cake; others, notably a driver, can’t get over Drummond’s previous pop career, and eagerly ask if he’s ever worked with Will Smith. It’s clear Drummond is unimpressed with such questioning, but also to his credit that such awkward moments are left in the film to created a rounded picture of what he does.

There’s an element of penance about the behaviour captured here. I interviewed Drummond for a national newspaper a few years back, and he offered to visit readers in their houses and make soup for them; he’s not building walls of mystique but breaking them, although he also voices fears about what that deconstruction might bring. He alludes to personal reasons for his actions; ‘addressing my relationship with women’ is how he terms it, and there’s mention of seven children with four partners.

But such clues are not prescriptive; there’s any number of potential meanings for Drummond’s actions, and Best Before Death is more than the sum of it’s parts. If you question what Drummond is doing, and why, you might as well question your own daily activities and ask if they have more or less meaning. Drummond is a teacher of sorts, a man who leads by example, but doesn’t attempt to be a role model. He pays attention to the signs he sees as he visits a shopping centre café, he experiments with life by listening to music in alphabetical order. Drummond is a fascinating figure, and spending 100 minutes in his company is a refreshing, revitalising experience that’s essential viewing for those familiar with his explorations of spaceship earth, and an ideal introduction to his wonderful world and how he sees it.

Bill Drummond will be touring the UK with Best Before Death, and performing a play, White Saviour Complex, with Tam Dean Burn, alongside each screening.



Memory: The Origins of Alien 2019 ****

Anyone who saw the recent documentary about the much vaunted failure of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to make Dune will have been struck by the contribution of the late Dan O’Bannon; his vision of the director sparking lightning bolts from his eyes suggested something more than the usual gushing EPK quotes. Fresh from his dissection of Alfred Hitchcock’s shower scene from Psycho, Alexandre O. Phillippe turns his attention to Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 shocker; hardened veterans and Space Marines alike will find something new in this considerations of the myriad elements that gave Alien such a rich and striking look.  Critics in 1979 complained about the derivative nature of Alien, but O’Bannon’s claim was that he stole from everyone. So while fans will know the debt Alien owes to It! The Terror From Beyond Space, Planet of the Vampires and Dark Star, the allusions to various comic books are less familiar, and the Memory title relates to a script by O’Bannon where the crew are picked off, not by a creature, but by their own failing memories, something of a Tarkovsky nod. There’s a focus on HR Giger, original crew members discussing how the chest-buster scene felt when filming, and Scott’s own classical influences are nailed down to specifics. A picture emerges of a fortuitous film that pulled together a number of varied talents; Scott handing a book by Francis Bacon to Giger on-set explains a lot about the serendipity involved. Memory: The Origins of Alien has such a wealth of strong visual material to consider that it’s worth a trip to the big screen to fully immerse oneself in, although streaming will allow fans to freeze frame pictures and documents; even if the final conclusions aren’t quite as compelling as might be expected, Memory is an essential document for all who respond to the primal call of the Xenomorph.


Memory: The Origins of Alien will be released in UK cinemas from Aug 30 2019 and on streaming, DVD and Blu Ray on September 2 2019. Thanks to @scifibulletin @AimPublicity and @Dogwoof  for supplying access and for sending me a disc!

Click the link below to check when the film is viewable in your country.

Bludgeon: Orcas of the Land 2019 ****


Bludgeon: Orcas of the Land is the somewhat lugubrious title for this highly-accessible New Zealand documentary which deals with the much misunderstood subject of medieval combat. Renaissance fairs has been the butt of jokes for decades now; we’re conditioned to laugh at men fighting in costume, although given that they’re physically active, they’re competitive, they’re creative, they’re motivated and getting exercise out in the open air, there’s probably a lot worse that a jock or a geek could do with his time. This is not live-action role-playing with elves and mages, but a physical content involving weapons, armoury and real risks; Andy Deere and Ryan Heron’s film shows armour unceremoniously cut off by medics as participants are whisked to A and E.

Audiences may come to scoff, but while the film-makers accept that there’s humour involved here, Bludgeon wisely doesn’t go down that road. Evoking a medieval quest with animated chapter headings, Bludgeon kicks off with Nick Waiariki, a Kiwi who is trying out for the Steel Thorns group of fighters. With infectious enthusiasm, Waiariki serves as a guide for the novice as to the rules and ethos of the sport. He clearly loves loves talking about it, and it would be churlish to deny the sincerity of his glee in getting close to the New Zealand team, who are limbering up for a world-wide competition in Denmark.

Deere and Heron cleverly disguise some of the details, keeping us keen to find out exactly what the various trials and competitions will look like. And there are visual flourishes, sight-gags naturally generated by the nature of the activity; a knight in armour running on a treadmill, another emerges from a medieval tent pulling a suitcase on wheels. The film-makers chose to frame some of the action with modern elements like parked cars in the background, but as the film goes on and the size of the events increases, the intrusive elements are side-lined and a more immersive environment is detailed. As the veterans gather to look back on a battle, we cut to a wonderful view over a tented village at sunset that appears to be torn from a medieval manuscript; the film suggests the spiritual Valhalla that the men seek, and rewards their quest.

The many who enjoy the comic stylings of Taika Waititi will find amusements here; the Steel Thorns accidentally lock themselves out of their Air B and B, and talk of ‘wench fights’ and ‘international knight marshals’ can’t help but raise a smile. But Bludgeon manages to rehabilitate the public image of a genuine sport that seems to have been unfairly maligned; this likable documentary should appears to sports fans and Game of Thrones aficionados alike, and cuts through prejudices like a flaming sword.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love 2019 ****


Nick Broomfield has made plenty of socially-conscious documentaries, but he was obviously posh enough to be hanging out on the Greek island of Hydra back in the 1970’s where an artistic community were engaged in the process of getting mashed up in the service of creative indulgence. Amongst those Broomfield seems to have been hanging out with, or at least in the same circle as, was Leonard Cohen, who was writing an unreadable book under the influence of acid, and his lover Marianne Ihlen. The two were lovers, but Cohen’s insatiable appetite for banging groupies proved to be too much for her to take, and they reluctantly went through a conscious uncoupling long before it was fashionable. Broomfield has good access to private and public footage, and some very salacious talking heads who testify to the excess of the 1970’s; while the story may not be extraordinary in itself, the punch-line is heart-breaking and well-documented. It feels like a welcome personal film from Broomfield; not a biopic, but a love story, and one which reflects thoughtfully on both male selfishness and female forgiveness.

Framing John DeLorean 2019 ****


The title is an interesting one; we know who John DeLorean was, or at least we may have some ideas. Don Argott and Sheena M Joyce have constructed a documentary that aims to ‘frame’ him; are they suggesting that the various crimes that John DeLorean was accused of constituted a frame job? That’s not what their film is about; there’s very little in the way of conspiracy theory or speculation here, just a journey through the key facts of the car moguls rise and fall from grace. This well-constructed doc also has a narrative frame in that it features reconstructions featuring Alec Baldwin as DeLorean, and we also get to see off-cuts showing rehearsals and the actor in make-up, discussing his role. With Back to the Future’s Bob Gale amongst those testifying to the number of potential films which might be made about the subject, Framing John DeLorean is one of the the first out of the gate, but unlikely to be the last.

Like Preston Tucker, DeLorean was a man with a dream, to innovate in the expensive world of car production, and to take on the big boys in the corporate world. Setting up a huge plant in Ireland in the 1980’s, DeLorean was not short of enemies; the key moment comes when he stops dealing with Margaret Thatcher and Jim Prior (the latter interviewed here) and started dealing with Colombian cocaine traffikers. DeLorean managed to move a massive consignment of coke in order to provide finance for his company, and jobs for many workers who had no other options, and he brazenly paid for it in worthless share certificates. If he’d pulled that deception off, it would have been one for the memoirs, a Danny Ocean-style masterstroke that beat the system, but the deal had been set up by a narc and public ignominy followed. Even after DeLorean was found innocent of drug-dealing in the courts, it took a separate scandal to bring him down involving the embezzling of funds. Other public figures have got away with far more; it’s clear that someone had it in for DeLorean. In retrospect, DeLorean’s mistake seems to be not that he stole money or dealt with drugs cartels, but that he accepted public ie government rather than private money; that lack of business savvy seems to have been the real reason for the scrutiny that led to his downfall. Americans often imaging UK government funding to be free money, when the truth is that it’s often the most expensive kind, as DeLorean found to his cost.

Framing John DeLorean is an entertaining, informative documentary with strong source material and plenty to draw the viewer in, not least the sight of the car immortalised by Back To The Future. The sight of thousands of the cars lying unsold in Irish car-parks, or driven en masse to ferries for US import is surreal, as is a glimpse of a red DeLorean; even if it didn’t actually drive terribly well, the car was beautiful to look at. Like the man who created it, the DeLorean had style to burn, and this artful documentary captures the essence of the man and the machine.

Framing John DeLorean, available on Amazon Video and ITunes in the UK from 29th July

In the US…


Ex Libris: The New York Public Library 2018 ****


Oscar-winning documentary maker Frederick Wiseman’s film, Ex Libris, is a three hour valentine to the New York Public Library system, examining in granular detail how the role of the library reflects the changing demands of the internet era. With only one in three New Yorkers having broadband at home, Ex Libris depicts how the modern library is not only an access point, but a hub of communities, a centre of information and a bastion of truth in the era of fake news. Wiseman is one of the great figures of U.S. documentary history, and it’s notable that he’s chosen this particular moment to reflect on the library system, and why it’s important. Even without a voice-over, the running time doesn’t feel punishing at all; in fact, Ex Libris skips by, with brief appearances from luminaries like Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Richard Dawkins to light the way. But it’s Wiseman’s intent that makes Ex Libris so compelling; doubling down on the ordinary interactions that illuminate the lives of the New Yorkers seen here, Wiseman’s film is as important as his Titicut Follies and Hospital as portraits of how key American institutions function.

Kedi 2017 ****

Cats, cats, cats…arguably the greatest gift the internet brought was non-stop cat coverage. The big screen has been slow to see the same potential, but Cedya Torun’s return to his Turkish homeland in Istanbul is a wonderful showcase for stars who have no interest in being in a film. Kedi follows a number of diverse moggies through their daily routines in the city. As in Venice, cats seem to have a tight grip on the underworld, and Torun doesn’t bother with any anthropomorphic analysis or talking heads, other than a few stories about how cats and people get along. One lively character sits outside a restaurant, and seems to have trained the proprietors to bring him his food at a pre-arranged signal; such delightful details make Kedi and charming, original documentary for when a story just seems like too much bother.

Diego Maradona 2019 ***

Asif Kapadia returns to the super-doc format that brought us Senna and his Amy Winehouse film; football fans who saw the infamous 1986 Argentina-England ‘hand of god’ game couldn’t be blamed for thinking Maradona was more twit than talent. As a prostitute-banging, coke-snorting egomaniac cheat, Maradona doesn’t offer much as someone to hero-worship; this film starts with him heading to Naples in 1984, wowing the locals and crime-bosses alike, and then Kapadia positions the Argentina vs Italy 1990 World Cup match in the same city as the moment that the Italian public, and much of the world, turned against him. It’s interesting to see Maradona sporting a ‘man fur’ ie a Doris Day-style fur coat, and there’s some slabs of vapour-wave music to capture the 80’s theme. But it’s not a complete picture, nor a particularly deep one, and there’s also a big problem. Football isn’t filmed, it’s captured on tv, and when you blow tv footage up to cinema screens, it looks like dirt. If Maradona has any fans left, this doc may be an eye-opener, but in lieu of any new information, the unfortunate fact remains that Maradona is best known today as an unscrupulous cheat rather than a sporting god.