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Pick of the Litter

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

800 dogs are born every year at Guide Dogs for the Blind, one of the leading guide dog schools in America. Of those only 300 will actually make it as a guide dog. Others will be ‘career changed’, meaning they can become house pets, breeders or support dogs for those with other additional needs. Pick of the Litter, a documentary from filmmakers Dana Nachman (Batkid Begins) and Don Hardy Jnr (Love Hate Love), follows five good doggos for the first 18 months of their lives as they’re trained to help the blind.

As well as the new pups, we’re introduced to their trainers; volunteers who can only keep the dogs for a short period of time and must adhere to an arm’s length list of rules. It’s surprising how many trainers one pup can go through, with the dog school chopping and changing regularly in order to find the optimum trainer to get their furry padawans to the finishing line. However, when you’re being called upon to train to obey your every command, whilst simultaneously encouraging it to ignore you in order to save your life – such as if you’re about to walk into traffic, for example – it’s easy to understand why trainers, as well as dogs, don’t always make the grade.

Importantly, Nachman and Hardy never make fools of their failing human subjects, choosing to highlight instead their genuine desire to raise the dogs to the best of their ability.

Admittedly, there is probably something that could be said about the couple that take their dog wine-tasting when all the training becomes too much for them but let he who has not sinned cast the first stone, eh.

The bottom line is, if you love canines and just the thought of seeing puppies brings a big smile to your face then Pick of the Litter is going to snare you into its trap from minute one. More hardened documentary aficionados are likely going to be left wanting a whole lot more. That said, if you go into something like Pick of the Litter expecting the equivalent of Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, then that’s on you.

This documentary is light, it’s frothy and let’s be honest, there’s always a time and place for something like this; prepare to say ‘aww’ a lot.

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Elderly LBGTI Are Having a Ball

Melbourne International Film Festival closing night gala The Coming Back Out Ball Movie is coming to cinemas, and we were lucky to preview the film and hear some words from its filmmaker Sue Thomson.
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Jessica Leski: Making Us Normal

The talented documentary filmmaker finally follows up 2010’s poignant, disability themed The Ball with the feature documentary I Used to be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story.
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I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Entertaining and insightful, this is a must-see for anyone with an interest in celebrity and the subtle (and not so subtle) workings of fandom.

Taking a clear-eyed look at obsessive tenancies and pop music, Jessica Leski’s illuminating feature documentary is a moving, poignant and often very funny detailing of what it means to be a die-hard fan. Tracking the stories of four women separated by age, background and location, the film examines the various ways being a fan has helped to shape and inform them.

At points these obsessions with Take That, Backstreet Boys, One Direction and The Beatles resemble full-blown addictions, and hearing the stories of former or ‘recovering’ fan girls highlights the all-consuming psychological processes at work.

Leski shows a deft touch in the presentation of such stories, and doesn’t let things get too dark or despondent. The tone is more optimistic and energised, even when the realities of life become sharply intense.

That is certainly the case with former One Direction mega-fan Elif, whose self-referencing lament and subsequent capture on viral video forms part of the film’s title. The doco sympathetically looks at how she has to come to terms with dealing with growing up and how life isn’t really like it is in the pop songs. This, plus the disapproval of her less than understanding parents brings in a strong dramatic edge to the film.

Take That – and specifically Gary Barlow – fan Daria offers an analytical examination of the whole fan-girl experience, bringing her skills as a brand strategist into play when designing a boy-band-101 lesson. This and other amusing anecdotal material ensures that the film maintains an optimistic and, ultimately joyful, path.

Sydney based Daria, also has the best line in the film. When recounting how she understood she was gay and also a devotee of the pop singer she comments, “I wasn’t in love with Gary Barlow, I wanted to be Gary Barlow.”

The film also hears from The Beatles fan Susan, who provides not only a story from the dawn of pop but also a look at the context of gender roles and how pop music can open up the world and provide a different way of looking at things.

Backstreet Boys fan Sadia is the fourth star of the film, offering her experience as a fan and how it impacted on her relationship with her conservative and religious family.

After hearing all of the stories we begin to realise that being a die-hard fan – particularly of the screaming and crying hysterically variety – acts as a catharsis for questions of identity usually asked before and during adolescence. Belonging to a tribe, singing along to ear-worms and rehearsing dance moves are all ways to recognise and reassert one’s value and self-image.

Entertaining and insightful, this is a must-see for anyone with an interest in celebrity and the subtle (and not so subtle) workings of fandom.

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They Shall Not Grow Old

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

Sir Peter Jackson is used to directing big battle scenes but this recent departure (as a producer) into documentary about real war, dwarfs his fictional efforts. Nearly a million people died in World War One, or the Great War as it was sometimes known.

This film will be released in cinemas on the hundredth anniversary of the armistice which took place on the 11th of the eleventh in 1918.

Of course, it is not without irony that just thirty years after this ‘war to end all wars’ another world war was fought. But somehow it is this one that sticks in the popular imagination (and which spawned the greatest war poetry), perhaps because it was such a watershed between the old world and the modern one. Never such innocence again, as the poet said.

Jackson’s film is long and sombre and it is entirely composed of war footage. Most of this is from the front, the hellish mud-bogged, shell-shrieking trenches that have been so endlessly represented (and still are, at almost exactly the same time a British drama called Journey’s End, just released).

Even so, there is footage here that you will probably have never seen. Jackson has produced this film with collaboration from the imperial War Museum, so there is an emphasis on both the accuracy and the respect (it mostly soft pedals on the critique of the generals’ military blunders, or the whole ill-conceived imperialistic/blindly patriotic elements of the enterprise).

What made this war so brutally different was that it was the first mechanised war on that scale. Initially, the horse-mounted regiments sallied forth, but this was not the Crimea, and in the event, the endlessly-sacrificed human flesh was no match for the machine guns and artillery shells.

This is one of the things the film captures so well; the sense of being sitting ducks stuck in an open-topped trench while bombs rained down. Or, if you were sent ‘over the top’, you had only a faint chance of dodging the hail of enemy fire.

The film is technically innovative and brilliantly synched. It uses only quotes from the soldiers who were there (their voices recorded over many decades). In this way it is able to trace the arc from the ‘let’s sign up, ‘it’ll be over by Christmas’ optimism to the unsparing accounts of the realities of the gas, and the guns and the gangrene. In the first half hour we see the rickety young recruits (and so many lied about their age to get in), being drilled and knocked into shape by the feared sergeants. The rest of the film (by now jumping into colour by being skilfully colourised) all takes place in the European battlefields.

Although Canadian, New Zealand and Australian troops are mentioned in dispatches, the bulk of the film’s content relates to the British. As implied above, most of them seem determined to see it as a bit of a lark. There are the endless shots of the still-jolly recruits looking so chipper, gurning to camera with their terrible British teeth. It is seeing those individual faces, and knowing what actually happened that makes it all still unbearably poignant. Lest we forget indeed.

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Born To Ride: Remembering Stone

With the Aussie bike flick, 1%, in cinemas this week, we look back at the first true local two-wheel classic – 1974’s Stone – and the equally absorbing documentary about its troubled production, 1999’s Stone Forever.