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Prison Valley (2009)
The benchmark is set very high for the future of documentary making
This is an interactive documentary but don't assume that means gimmicky and clicky and aimed at people with short attention spans. This is a significant, thoughtful and richly rewarding piece of work that explores the industrialisation of prisons in the US.
You begin by arriving in Canon City, Colorado, a town with 13 prisons. You check into a motel. It feels very game-like as you choose whether to visit your first prison, drive further into town or attend the funeral of prison guard who died on the job. But when you do choose, you are presented with engrossing insights and interviews, all superbly filmed. It's a grim world you've entered but it is almost hypnotically compelling.
One of the best things I've seen (played? experienced?) in years.
The Hill (1965)
Overlooked but not over the hill
Lot's of other reviews here have said what I wanted to say, that this is a fantastically powerful film that seems to have become frustratingly overlooked. This was never available on DVD in the UK as far as I know, so I've treasured my VHS copy.
On top of all the other great things written here about this film, mentioned in other reviews, it's worth also pointing out that this British war film makes some effort to deal with race issues in the armed forces. When you think that a film like Days of Glory, produced some 40 years later, made headlines for doing this, admittedly a little more incisively, it gives some context to the merits of the script and of maturity of director Lumet.
A Little More Oscillation?
I enjoyed watching this homage to the synthesizer inventor and all round nice guy Bob Moog but spent hours afterward discussing ways this documentary could have been better. That's not to say there's all that much wrong with it except that it suffers from a genuine lack of archive footage. Bob was building his Synths from the early 60s, before that he was making Theremins. There's no footage of any of this. 'Why not use stills and rostrum?' was my immediate thought.
It was great to hear Moog Synths being played well. Rick Wakemen (who provides the film's one big laugh) made them sound good. In fact, just to hear people messing about on them was interesting. I wanted more of this and perhaps some insights into how they were used in the studio (the film concentrates mainly on live performance).
Perhaps just a bit too much time was spent allowing Bob to share his rather vague (and, sorry to say this, slightly boring) view of the universe. Not that the Doc as a whole is boring, it is not. It is very watchable and only 70 minutes long. Though I wanted something more from it, it did do what it set out to do without sagging.
What Ever Happened to Kevin Turvey?
There's a 40 minute version of this (the version available to buy) and a 30 minute version for TV. The shorter one is much, much funnier.
Kevin Turvey is an investigative reporter who works mainly in the Reditch area, Midlands, UK. He investigates the park, the canal, the library, the supermarket...
Kevin is my favourite Rik Mayall character. He's not the instigator of violence like so many of the others, but is sometimes on the receiving end. He's an innocent, carefree, poking his nose journalistically into the mundane things around him.
It's his calm, logical approach that is so funny and his determination to discover the truth about such things as what happens to frogs after people have eaten their legs.
Sadly this character never had his own series. He did have a regular five minute section in the middle of a sketch show called A Kick Up the Eighties. Personally I would have much rather had more Kevin Turvey and less Bottom.
(Having said that, can anyone ever really have enough Bottom?)
Control Room (2004)
Control Room gives you a press pass
So glad I caught this quiet, level-headed assumption-buster. While I loved Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, it did sometimes feel like bad mid-western evangelism. This makes a great companion film, shows you the war from a different, unexpected angle, and doesn't leave you feeling manipulated.
The documentary is about Al Jazeera, the Arab news channel and how it covered the war.
Control Room essentially gives you a press pass and lets you tag along to sit out Gulf War II with the world's big news agencies. The power of it lies in the stark insight you get, the various versions of the same story each agency reports, how Al Jazeera's version of things was so relentlessly rejected by Washington.
There's an admirable bravery you begin to wonder at, as this poorly funded news outfit chooses to contradict what the West is reporting. Daring to show the real horrors of 'precision' bombing seems to earn them a missile of their own; a war plane attacked their Baghdad office killing one of their journalists. They got no explanation.
If F 9/11 got you at all interested in the truth about Bush/Blair's utterly ridiculous war, you must seek out this film and learn more.
The Wrong Guy (1997)
The first time I watched this it was because I just randomly found it. I stuck with it only because I recognised Dave Foley from Kids in the Hall in the lead (I like Kids in the Hall). I've watched it twice since and will watch it again. It keeps getting better. It's a really sweet, funny, quirky film.
This film reminds me a little of Doc Hollywood, Dave Foley certainly has a Michael J Fox quality. There aren't any huge laughs, just loads of really good chuckles. The goofy romance that developes is quite charming too.
KITH fans will have noticed that Kevin McDonald turns up later in this film as a motel manager. And in the hospital scene, there's a call for a Doctor Chris Cooper (Kevin's character in KITH Brain Candy).
A great small film that feels like it was made in the late 80s not the late 90s.
Falling Down (1993)
There's more to this film than you think
A lot of semi-educated liberals assume this film is about the festering xenophobia of America's middleclass whites. But I don't see that at all in this film. The script, very boldly, explores post cold war America and seems to ask this question: While we were busy defending ourselves from outsiders and fighting wars abroad did we forget what was wrong at home?
The central character, played by Michael Douglas, represents old school, commie-fearing Uncle Sam. He's a man who has spent his life developing weapons to defend his country. Now he is, in every sense, redundant and is left wondering what he worked so hard to achieve.
The film captured how many of us were feeling at the time. Opening with a traffic jam on a baking freeway, we immediately get the idea that all is not well in the land of the free. Despite all the tumultuous events of the 20th Century, all the wars, technology, science, politics and the hard lessons, despite the brief optimism felt as the wall came down, the dream of a better world is still so far away.
Most of the characters we meet along the way represent nations which, at some point in history, the USA has been at war with: The Korean (economic), The Hispanics (land rights), the Nazis (ideology). We meet one solitary black man in the film, holding a banner which reads NOT ECOMINCALLY VIABLE. This speaks volumes and rams home the central message: We looked abroad to solve problems while we ignored our own. The Whammy Burger Bar scene is a representation of the inflexible and misleading' corporate world (even the child can clearly see what's wrong with this picture'), it captures a dissatisfaction that has gained much momentum since 1993.
Despite what was written in reviews of the time Douglas' character D-Fens' actually commits very few acts of violence in the film. The press yelled racist' too, but here's a story brave enough to avoid the token black-police-chief approach to race and show a world where everyone is potentially malicious. His mirror opposite in the story, played by Duvall, balances the bleak view of modern America nicely but, as we gradually discover how horrible and strange D-fens has become to his own wife and children, the film leaves thinking about how strange and horrible so much of American society has become.
Total Recall (1990)
Better Dead Than Red.
I have this mad theory about Total Recall which is that the famously USA-bashing Director Paul Verhoeven wanted this film about Earth and Mars to be a parallel for USA and Cuba. Mars is being starved of air the way sanctions are supposed to starve communist Cuba. Castro is Kuato, rebel leader and idealist. There is an ugly battle for control of the red' planet. Any takers?
Genghis Blues (1999)
Sing in Tuva, Win a Horse!
Buena Vista Social Club, did you see that? It was cool but looking back it now seems like a big advert for the soundtrack album. Genghis Blues is also a musical journey of discovery but seemingly without the end goal of $$$$. This documentary is a rare treat. Paul Pena is fascinating, a bind blues guitarist who heard Tuvan musicians on his sw radio and then made a brave step into the unknown by setting out to find them. Cultures collide in style as the Tuvans and the San Franciscan get tuned up and create some mean throat-singing blues. Great music, great humour.
Gawain and the Green Knight (1973)
World Of The Strange
I was about six when I saw this so forgive the vagueness. It's kind of Monty Python's Holy Grail in look with a Michael "couldn't-direct-traffic-on-the-Orkney-Islands" Winner directorial style. It was so deeply bizarre that it has stuck in the memory ever since. Thinking I perhaps didn't understand it because I was a kid I asked a couple of film boffins I know, they said, "no, mate, it was a genuinely odd film." (I seem to recollect lots of misty forests, dream-like fights and a man who lived in a vat of oil in order that his genitals erode away). Anyway, I think more youngsters should be made to watch this film so that they can grow up confused and slightly warped.