Tag Archives: documentary

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet | review

Cinema’s power often lies in a very direct form of emotiveness, with the immediacy of the image being the perfect foil for a good story. But the simplicity with which this directness operates requires a fine balance. It’s all too easy to mishandle the power at one’s disposal, to bludgeon an audience’s goodwill into pained submission under a hail of grandstanding sentiment. This is especially true in the ‘Life Story’ genre. Documentaries and acted biopics which bear this scary moniker often come generously ladled with words and phrases like ‘inspiring’ and ‘heart-warming’ as directors amp up every aspect of tragedy and triumph in human life, screaming ‘FEEL!’ at the audience as though we were already cold in our seats, vacant and resigned at this still-early stage in the emotional evolution of the human beast. In most cases, ‘vomit-inducing’ would be more of an accurate description of these films.

Great credit, then, to Jesse Vile, director of Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet who has made a film which impacts in a meaningful way whilst keeping any potential melodrama or sensationalism firmly outside of the frame. Jason Becker isn’t manipulative, it isn’t preachy, and most importantly it isn’t patronising. Jason Becker isn’t dead yet, and he doesn’t want your sympathy.

In 1989, small-town teenager Becker, a ridiculously talented guitarist, was about to make the step up from barely-known prodigy to big time player. David Lee Roth, whose band had launched the careers of first Eddie Van Halen and then Steve Vai – the established Best Guitarists in the World in the ‘shredder’ mould – had heard Becker playing and wanted him to feature on a new album and a tour. This was literally ‘it’ – and nothing more than a culmination of years of obsessive practice combined with a natural talent in a nurturing family environment, although these are the kind of dreams we hardly dare hope for even in our wildest moments. The album was recorded and the band were hitting the studio in preparation for the next stage. Around this time what had begun as a twinge in Jason’s leg was causing him serious discomfort. On the advice of his parents he went to the doctor, who diagnosed him with ALS – a wasting disease – an extremely rare condition for someone of his age, and totally incurable.

As a reviewer you try to be as neutral as possible during screenings, but sometimes you get caught up, and from there it’s almost impossible to imagine blankly critiquing things like form and narrative. In this sense the film must, therefore, be a success – removing this reviewer from the relative ease and safety of his objectiveness. So far as this is a piece of cinema, it has some cute directorial touches, but Vile is both wise and modest enough to keep his presence to a minimum. If there’s a message, it’s one that comes naturally from the material, not from some superficial slants, artificial crescendos of emotion or sensationalism. Becker’s story changed, it deviated from what might have been expected – and many times – but it’s clear from the film that all changes are navigable with good people behind you.

Having made a point of the film’s emotional neutrality, I haven’t tried so hard not to cry in a film since watching Bambi as a child, unsure as I was at the time whether it was allowed in the cinema or not. As with then, the effort gave me a massive headache. But it wasn’t that what I was watching made me sad. The film’s emotional impact sits in that quiet hinterland between sadness and joy – the one where you’re experiencing the sense of being. It’s neither a happy experience nor an unhappy one, but it’s more than both – an experience of fullness and potential. A man who created his opus while paralysed? A great achievement – but here’s the thing – it’s also not. It’s entirely normal when viewed in the context of Becker’s life. What this film highlights –the incredible thing – is that all of life is within anyone’s grasp if they just have the confidence to take it in hand – to commit to it. Life can’t be this simple, so we think. And truly, you don’t know what myriad complexities have been simplified, what disparate threads have been unified for the purposes of effective cinema. But what this film suggests is that there aren’t any, and if there are they’re unimportant. While it’s common practice now to view life ‘realistically’ as a series of inherently meaningless events swinging, by our selfish imposition of our worth upon them, between the twin states of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, one can also approach it from a far simpler outlook: we’re alive right now, and that’s what really matters. Is there not incredible hope in that?

Please don’t be put off if you think this is just going to be a film about a metal guitarist. This is a universal film, an important film, meriting a wider audience than it will probably receive. In his steadfast refusal to patronise his subject, Vile has made the film his subject richly deserves.

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is in cinemas from Friday, and released by Dogwoof. It’s released on DVD on December 3.

PPH presents: Beats Rhymes and Life | Here’s the poster!

Now only two weeks away, our screening of Michael Rapaport’s cracking hip hop doc Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest at the Clapham Picturehouse is starting to cause some serious excitement around these parts. Join us on Thursday September 27 for the big event.

You can – and how will you live with yourself if you don’t? – book tickets by following this link. Our last event (a screening of Do The Right Thing) was a sell-out so book now to avoid disappointment.

If you’re on Facebook, you can also use our event page to tell us you’re coming. Spread the word!

Here’s a running order:

7.30 Join us in the bar for food and drink, soundtracked by classic 90s hip-hop

8.30 Intro and prize giveaway

8.45 Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest starts

10.15 More drinks in the bar!

To whet your appetite further, here’s the lovely event poster; a joint effort between Soda Pictures and designer Piccia Neri.

Interview | The Imposter’s Bart Layton and Charlie Parker

The Imposter is a thought-provoking new documentary based on the bizarre true story of a Frenchman who convinced a grieving Texan family that he was their 16-year-old son who been missing for 3 years. I recently met up with the film’s director Bart Layton, and the Private Investigator on the case, Charlie Parker, to find out more about this strange tale and how the film came about.

PPH: How did you guys meet initially, and did you get on?

BL: Well, the person who deserves a great deal of credit for a lot of the access in the film is Poppy Dixon, who’s the co-producer. If you wanted to speak to her, we could happily arrange that. And she went to San Antonio on her own – she’s a young, attractive English woman – and she was there trying to find the family in order to talk to them about possibly collaborating in the film, you know contributing, and also to find Charlie, and of course she found Charlie, and then Charlie helped her, because being a private investigator, helped her to find other people that we were looking for to be part of the film. She spent a long time just doing her own detective work, didn’t she?

CP: She did; she did a great job.

BL: And Charlie was incredibly helpful. And then I came out and we met…

This was a few months after?

BL: Yeah, this was a few months after she arranged it. And I came out and met with Charlie, and we hit it off straight away.

CP: I had seen a lot of people ask about the case, and he’s really believable. And he got me from hello, from the start. So it helped.

How did it feel for you, to go back to this story, being such a big part of your life at a particular time?

CP: It’s an unusual feeling, to go back and see Frédéric [Bourdin, the Imposter of the title] again. Our relationship was a strange one, and to see him on the screen and see how frightening he is…

What was it about the case that provoked you to feel so passionately about it?

CP: No one would believe me, and I think when you feel that you’re in the right, even if someone’s beating you up, you know that eventually it’ll be told right. So you take that stand, and it’s like a cause, it’s like a fight for a cause.

And you were isolated in that cause for how long?

CP: For… months. Even from my own wife! Who wanted me to work, get out and make some money, quit worrying about that guy. And I was thunderstruck when Hard Copy, the people that hired me, told me “forget about it, go on to the next thing”.

Between the two of you, what did you think the case says about the American Dream? Because it comes up at some points, the idea that this guy came over and he mentioned the American Dream? Does that mean anything to you guys in relation to this case?

CP: No, except that it’s going to be the American Dream and going to this movie that’ll probably help us find the real Nicholas Barclay. Somebody out there watching this movie will have heard something or know something. Just the fact that it grabs people, and gets a hold of them and mesmerises them is a big help.

BL: I think the idea of the American Dream is an interesting one – I think you’re only aware of it if you’re not a part of it. If you’re not an inhabitant of the US – it’s part of the psyche there. I think with Frédéric, what America represented to him was everything he’d seen on TV, everything that he’d seen in the movies. I think there’s this moment when he gets on a yellow school bus – it’s pretty commonplace to these guys, but for us it’s kind of an icon of America. At times it felt like he was playing a role in his own strange movie that he was creating for himself. And I guess he talked about America as the home of Michael Jackson and Kojak and all of those TV shows.

So Bart, as a Brit, do you have a fascination with Americana, because the film has a quite Errol Morris-esque and film-noirsh element to it – was that something that informed you making it?

BL: Yeah I think so – I certainly felt that there was something about this story and about this documentary that feels like it shouldn’t belong in the real world; you know, it should belong in a Coen brothers’ film. And I think because of that, because it had this cinematic quality to it, I was keen to find a kind of visual language which would do justice to the kind of surreal, at times, story which has one foot firmly in reality because, as Charlie says, he lived it. But it also feels like the character, Frédéric, could say that, do that in a movie. Those kind of shots that I shot of the school corridor and all of those things that we’ve all seen in those movies felt like they belonged in this kind of strange hybrid world.

And that really comes through in the film. Charlie, to what extent did you enjoy being in front of the camera? You provide some of the film’s most memorable moments.

CP: I was being myself. I was actually surprised when people laughed. I actually thought it was sophisticated to examine the ears, didn’t know that about ears… but people found that humorous. And nobody Photoshopped – young guys have used that for years, and back then nobody did. Lots of law enforcement people now use that to look at crime scenes. But to me, one of the best shots of the film is him walking down, out of that school bus – that was eerie to me – and looking at the people, and in the room with the orphans. That was a great shot for me.

And to what extent did the two of you develop a bond with the Barclays?

BL: Charlie’s relationship with them is obviously completely different. I think my relationship with them was… anyone you spend time with as a contributor, you tend to, I… Generally our nature – this is borne out – our nature as human beings is that we tend to believe people. We tend to see what’s best in them. If you’re confronted by a damaged child, you don’t question their mind to you – this is something he [Frédéric] relies on. I think most of the people you’re confronted with, you believe the story they tell. And I certainly believed everyone’s story, even though they were all completely implausible. And I think that’s one of the things that..

CP: I think in fairness to that family, the grandmother, Bourdin called the grandmother, made a 94 minute phone call and pumped her for information to tell the family. I bonded with them, even though I was accusatory at the beginning; Beverly still talks to me, I talked to Carey the other day. My job was to find out what happened to that boy. In my mind, that’s my job. And I think they were so fooled by him, that were they the perpetrator, he still got to them. He has a way of getting into someone’s head. I think the young kids liked him because there’s a vampire effect to him. I think older people like him because there’s a Criminal Minds thing to the show. This is the kind of movie that the old people like it, they know people like it. Strange, strange thing.

Have you, in all your years as a PI, worked on a case as strange as this?

CP: No, I haven’t. I believe he’ll do it again. I don’t care if he has a family, what he has – he will probably do it again. He’ll be an older person, and he’ll pretend to be someone else, but…

It’s a compulsion thing.

CP: I think fooling people, the challenge…

Do you see yourself going back to him as the subject? You couldn’t bring yourself to do it, or…?

BL: No. I feel like at the beginning I possibly wondered whether this was his story. What the film was going to be – was it going to be about the imposter and was it going to be really limited to his story. But I felt that actually he was the way into another bigger story which was really about not just about deception, but about self-deception. It becomes more of a human story, it becomes bigger than just his story. Even though I’m sure he’d like to think the whole film is about him, I don’t think it is – I think it’s about other things: what we chose to believe, what we’re capable of convincing ourselves of. But no, I wouldn’t go back; that bit of that story is done.

Charlie, are you a big film fan, and if so, what kind of stuff are you into?

CP: Actually my wife and I went to see Bernie – we like that – and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And I’m really not into criminal shows, like Criminal Minds, I never watch that. But a lot of people do. When I left that theatre with my wife [to see The Imposter], we were talking about that case! It so grabs you. It’s the only movie I’ve been to where no one spoke during the movie! No cell phones went off in that movie. I mean, it was quiet and they were on the edge of their seats – I bet you got that same feeling.

A version of this interview first appeared on Grolsch Film Works. The Imposter is in cinemas from Fri 24 Aug.

Screening announcement: Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest @ Clapham Picturehouse, Thursday 27 Sep, 20:30

Hot on the heels of our last event – a packed screening of Spike Lee’s classic Do The Right Thing, we’re absolutely delighted to announce a rare screening of Michael Rapaport’s brilliant documentary about the hip-hop legends. The time and place? 20:30 on Thursday 27 September at south London’s lovely Clapham Picturehouse.

Best known for songs like “Bonita Applebum” and “Can I Kick It?”, and classic albums like “Midnight Marauders” and “The Low-End Theory”, the influential Queens-based group, alongside the likes of De La Soul, pioneered a jazzier, sunnier sound at a time when Gangsta rap was in the ascendancy. Their 1998 break-up shocked the industry, and this film picks up with Tribe in 2008, when they reunited to perform sold-out concerts across the country. It wasn’t all plain sailing…

This all-access film focuses on the inner workings, personal relationships and behind the scenes drama that defines the band. No stone is left unturned, with a host of musical legends (including Kanye West, Common and Mos Def) on hand to pay tribute. You won’t need to be a die-hard hip-hop head to enjoy this revealing, funny and finally very moving film. And don’t just take my word for it; the film currently holds a 91% fresh rating on aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.

You can, and absolutely should, buy tickets here, and you can bet we’ll be making an event out of it, with drinks and music in the bar, food, and a prize giveaway. Before you scamper off to tell all of your friends, be sure to watch the trailer:

Permanent Plastic Helmet would like to thank the lovely people at Soda Pictures for offering us the opportunity to put this screening on.

Undefeated | review

Winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated tells the story of a long-suffering volunteer coach who shepherds a team of underperforming high-school football players in a depressed North Memphis suburb through a rough, but ultimately rewarding season.

The coach in question is doughy, grizzled and inspirational family man and entrepeneur Bill Courtney. The team are Manassas, comprised entirely of black kids from largely dispossessed backgrounds. Of the kids, Lindsay and Martin pick three contrasting figures upon which to focus; gentle giant OC, hair-trigger thug Chavis, and sensitive Montrail.

While Courtney comes across as a thoroughly decent guy (with a touching familial tale of his own to tell), the film loses perspective in its frantic attempts to paint him as a saviour. The inescapable (and troubling) feeling persists that Courtney is being actively constructed as a hero at the expense of full, thorough characterisation of his students. This is never more keenly felt than in the egregious moment where he grandly pays a distressed Montrail a visit, and seems to be all but winking at the camera. Later he even tweaks Montrail’s nose. Call me a cynical bastard, but I felt my cringe reflex go into overdrive on more than one occasion; the tang of inauthenticity swilled heavy in my nostrils.

Sadly, Undefeated is never especially gripping because, narrative-wise, it’s all so grimly predictable. Despite an ostensibly un-forecastable real-life setting, there’s a curious anti-tension at work which is a corollary of the directors’ own steadfast subscription to time-honoured generic cliches (conflict to resolution, ignorance to learning, earnest aphorisms about being the best you can be etc…). The recent announcement that Sean “Diddy” Combs will serve as a producer on a Hollywood remake begs the question… why? This is Hollywood stuff already.

Furthermore, while the film is competently shot, only rarely is the bone-crunching intensity of the game really captured. Neither do the filmmakers concede to explain the finer points (or, in fact, any of the points) of the sport, which might help it to connect to a wider audience. Wholly unnecessary subtitles for some students exacerbate the already pretty patronizing tone.

It would take a misanthrope of epic proportions to deny that, on a human level, Undefeated is occasionally moving, and that it may prove inspirational to some viewers. OC, Chavis and Montrail are all clearly interesting characters, and their personalities shine through when they’re not being manipulated by the directors (Chavis in particular is hung out to dry to serve the narrative arc). The dedicated Courtney comes to accept that his own responsibilities as a father cannot co-exist with his time-consuming role of self-appointed father figure to his charges.

Thematically speaking, Undefeated touches on the intrinsic nature of sport to people’s lives, and the inextricable financial links between education and sport that are endemic in the States and anathema to UK audiences. But, if you’ve seen Hoop Dreams (and if you haven’t, why not?), there’s nothing new here. What really sticks is this film’s carefully constructed, and altogether tiresome, drift into “white saviour” narrative territory, as seen in the recent likes of The Blind Side and The Help (which makes it all the more surprising that co-director T.J. Martin is African-American). The black kids’ learning journey is externally imposed and constructed, and the filmmakers’ shy away from any real forensic socio-economic analysis. Undefeated is cliched, watchable and inessential.

Undefeated is in cinemas now.

Nostalgia for the Light | review

While Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light juxtaposes fairly niche interests – astronomy and the Pinochet era – the poetic way he draws parallels between scientific and sociopolitical investigations of the past transcends the particulars. Personal traumas resonate on an epic scale in Guzman’s haunting depiction of the scars of modern Chile.

Forty years ago, Chile’s democracy was struggling with a crippled economy and a politically polarised population. Four decades of strong leftist forces were being challenged, especially because of the Cold War. Under these conditions, hard right General Pinochet staged a successful, military coup against the leftist president Salvador Allende. His regime aggressively and brutally silenced any opposition, imprisoning, torturing, ‘disappearing’ and exiling thousands – including Patricio Guzmán.

When Guzmán was 32, he started his second documentary called The Battle of Chile, filming up until the day of the coup that put Pinochet in power. On that day, Guzmán was imprisoned for two weeks. Then, threatened with execution, he fled to Europe with his film stock. Since that time, he has made many documentaries about Chilean concerns, and it is fitting that – now in his 70s – he reflects upon Chile’s history with a pained nostalgia.

The film is dominated by gorgeous, sweeping shots of the Atacama desert and the glittering sky above it. Guzmán shows us how both environments grant us access to evidence of the past, whether through the changing composition of star systems or through preserved artefacts shallowly buried in shifting sands. He also captures how time is pre-modern in these environments, and the present feels like a fallacy. Even the sunlight we see and feel takes eight minutes to travel to us. He makes it clear that the silence of the desert and of space doesn’t necessarily indicate calm – both are pregnant with secrets and history that lead to endless questions.

To try and answer these questions, Guzmán interweaves varied testimonials from Chileans with these images of nature, effectively layered to ruminate upon how we try to find inner peace by remembering and trying to understand our past. He is fascinated by Chile’s paradoxical predisposition to examine the ancient past through the sky and the desert, while seeming to have a collective amnesia about the recent past. His most heartbreaking interviews are with women who have been tirelessly searching the Atacama desert for the remains of their loved ones for nearly three decades. Their struggles embody the film’s title – they, representative of many Chileans, long for a time when they did not feel like they live restlessly in the dark, isolated in their search for answers.

But ultimately, by focusing on this intersection of history and science, Guzmán’s unique documentary tries to reassure us by emphasising the invisible interconnectedness of everything. It serves as a reminder that we’re part of a massive cycle, made of stardust, and generation after generation will continue to pursue an understanding of it all.

Nostalgia for the Light is in cinemas now. Follow contributor Cathy Landicho on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #10 – Marwencol (2010, dir. Jeff Malmberg)

“Everyone wants an alter ego who can do stuff they can’t.” So speaks Mark Hogancamp. He has a powerful incentive to focus on the contents of a parallel existence. Ten years before Jeff Malmberg’s cameras found him, he, aged 38, had every memory beaten out of his head after five men pounced on him outside a bar. He spent nine days in a coma, then forty in hospital relearning how to walk and talk from scratch. Of his life until that point, “only single frames” were left.

So far, so tragic but let’s return to that point about alter egos. When the Medicaid ran out, Mark, a talented artist before the attack, developed his own form of therapy. He built a miniature World War II-era Belgian town, which he christened by combining the first syllables of his name with the first syllables of two beloved female names (Mark + Wendy + Colleen = Marwencol). He used anything he could get his skilled hands on to furnish the town with all plausible conveniences, and a few implausible ones. A time machine is made from an eviscerated VCR player, its control panel is a Nokia phone cover and the seat a phone holder. The whole effect is a masterpiece of industry and attention-to-detail. Imagine a tiny Borrowers-style universe that doubles as a constant visual reminder of Mark’s need to hide in fantasy.

If the infrastructure of Marwencol is one source of awe then its inhabitants are another. The town is populated by dolls, each possessing a well-developed character and backstory. Some are fictionalised versions of the people he knows while others are fantastical creations. Storylines are devised and photographed and, once again, provide a mirror to his mood. Mark’s yearnings for female companionship materialise in weddings and love triangles while violent fights take place when Mark is angry about what happened to him.

Malmberg got ninety percent of his film’s quality by stumbling upon Mark Hogancamp. He adds the extra ten percent by whole-heartedly embracing the logic that governs Mark’s two-pronged reality. The narrative is broken into sub-titled chapters, each introduced by a doll propping up a cue card. Malmberg himself ends up with a doll incarnation running about in Marwencol. This is an honour reserved for those who have earned Mark’s trust.

Although mainly a showcase for Mark’s story, told through his robotic monotone and the scanned-in photo narratives that provide a timeline for Marwencol, Malmberg successfully provides the social context to Mark’s strange life through a cross-section of revealing interviews. Supportive friends and family talk of Marwencol almost as seriously as Mark does, while a doctor gives the blunt lowdown on the physical and mental damage he has suffered.

What is truly compulsive about this documentary is its timing. At ten years since the trauma and the consequent creation of Marwencol, Mark is ready to challenge the confines of his bubble universe. The film has progressed incrementally to this narrative pivot reflecting Mark’s slow return from the fringes of life. At the cusp of a big personal leap, he is self-aware and conflicted. “I don’t want to get hurt, mentally or emotionally or physically ever again”, he says. It’s a sentiment people frequently voice, but most have never had their worst fears come true in such violence.

Having started the film by detailing the attack in all its senseless brutality, Malmberg ensures that when opportunity comes knocking for Mark, you’ve never wanted anything to work out so badly. The temptation to print a T-shirt with his face and the words, “Go on, my son” written underneath is immense.

By leading the audience gently to this point and by clearly illustrating Marwencol as a work of creative genius and refuge from the storms and uncertainties of real people, Marwencol does an incredible thing. It shows mental illness as a logical response to terrible events. But more than that, it provides a rounded character study of an extraordinary man, it shows how kindness can mean colluding in someone’s fantasy world, and it shows how (although in one respect trauma never disappears) a traumatised person can develop around this bullet in their brain.

In an industry saturated by films that claim to be about issues they merely name-check, Marwencol is an unmissable work of documentary and humanity. I defy anyone to watch it and not come away feeling deepened, humbled and hopeful in a way too profound to fully describe.

Marwencol is now available on Netflix. Contributor Sophie Monks Kaufman can be followed on Twitter @sopharsogood.