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Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

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Miles Davis could just as easily use his windpipes to revolutionise music as he would use his raspy voice to describe someone as a motherfucker.

Through archival audio narration from Davis himself, as well as various music commentators (including previous colleagues and ex-partners), Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool documents Davis’ musical ability as a medium for black expression and an outlet to release his indignation.

Davis’ contribution to music history is one for the ages. From Davis’ early days living in Jim Crow America, to his involvement with the music scene in 1940s NYC, it’s clear that Davis was an artist whose dedication to jazz would become an outlet for his hardships, creating a place where he could get some relief. Ongoing racial mistreatment and the abuse he witnessed in his childhood, through to his difficulties with substance addiction in adulthood, all fed into his music and mythology.

Davis’ commitment to innovation, wherein he famously improvised his jazz recordings, often fusing other genres of music in with the freeform nature of jazz, is explored in vivid enough detail that those unfamiliar with Davis’ contributions to music can appreciate its significance. His prodigious talents saw him capable of creating work that spoke to great pleasure (“music people could play and make love to” as described by one commentator) and underlying struggle. This musical duality was counteracted by Davis’ acid-tongued-personality and his uncompromising veracity that was motivated by the inequality stitched into the American social fabric.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool finds its relevance as an examination of African American mistreatment; a mirror from the past that reflects into the now. Race relations had always been a defining aspect of Davis’ career: this ranges, but is not limited to, the appropriation of black identity, casual racism being accepted by society and Davis’ experiences with the police, which despite his success still saw him unable to escape racist encounters.

Commentators celebrate Davis as a pioneer within the field of music, not just as a maestro jazz artist but a musician unafraid to experiment with genre. Their admiration for Davis is spoken to with intelligence, recognising the work of a talented musician that influenced other greats; yet looking at his transgressions towards women as though they were iridescent. In the documentary, Davis’ acceptance of his wrongdoings is earnest, but is underscored by Stanley Nelson’s direction – a somewhat abnormal feat as Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool exists in a period where the condemnation of celebrities is considered entertainment.

A musical genius whose demeanour was as unpredictable as the jazz harmonies he produced, Miles Davis Birth of the Cool provides an explicit account of a musical legacy that refused to be restricted by genre.

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The Eyes of Orson Welles

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Analysing the thematics of Orson Welles’ oeuvre is no mean feat. Finding a through-line that cuts to the core of who the man was, that hasn’t been ground into a well-worn path by biographers and documentarians over the years, seems a tall order indeed.

Enter Irish film critic/author/filmmaker Mark Cousins, who earned his bones introducing cult films for BBC TV on a show in the ‘90s called Moviedrome before graduating to interviewing filmmakers (like David Lynch and Martin Scorsese) for the TV series Scene by Scene. He’s favoured the visual essay documentary format in recent years (in similar territory to Jean Luc Godard), where he re-frames the subjects of his documentaries via his personal perspective on them, addressing the subject of the documentary in the first person within the narration, posing questions to the subject that hang in air, unanswered. In his recent What Is This Film Called Love? he chronicled a three-day ramble around Mexico City, having a ponderous ‘conversation’ (of sorts) with a picture of Sergei Eisenstein.

The success of his softly spoken Northern Irish lilt, narrating in a ‘stream of consciousness’ fashion, depends on how you react to the documentary’s subject matter. In the ground-breaking series The Story of Film: An Odyssey or the wonderful A Story of Children and Film, it works remarkably well, with an almost ethereally beautiful synergy. In the films he’s made that don’t gel as successfully, it can tip over into self-indulgent wankery, with sharp rapidity.

In The Eyes of Orson Welles, Cousins stays true to form and steams in with his signature style and perspective, to wrestle with the core themes in Orson Welles’ filmmaking, drawings and paintings. He breaks the documentary into five thematic segments, numbered like chapters.

This rigidity in categorising an artist’s intent and thought process seems to draw a long bow but Cousins has a considerable amount of insight to offer on Welles’ work. There are truly fascinating observations put forward, particularly when he looks at the ‘facelessness’ of characters sketched or painted by Welles after the period that saw the rise of authoritarian leaders like Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. This concept of ‘facelessness’ became Welles’ go-to motif in films whenever alluding to corruption, loss of humanity and power and there are notable examples in Citizen Kane, Macbeth and The Trial.

Cousins also talks to Welles’ third daughter, Beatrice, who sheds light on her own relationship with her iconic father. However, it’s when Cousins uses Welles’ paintings and drawings (Welles trained to be a painter at the Chicago Art Institute) to find the connective tissue that linked his films, his romantic life and his political views, that the film soars. Using Welles’ artworks as a way in to examining his inner life is an inspired move, though it does shift the focus of The Eyes of Orson Welles, seeing it become less a dissection of a filmmaker than it is an overall reflection upon the creative impetus of an iconic artist.

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Gay Chorus Deep South

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In response to legal reforms that jeopardise the livelihoods of members of the LGBTQI+ community, members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir embark on a tour of the American Bible Belt as documented in Gay Chorus Deep South.

The choir, comprising of people from differing backgrounds, use performance as a medium to instigate discussion amidst a heated political climate – a form of peaceful protest that bellows as powerfully as the choir songs.

Going as far as to label Gay Chorus Deep South as an angry film would misrepresent the sincere intentions of the choir using their voice to spread messages of unity. At the same time, Gay Chorus Deep South demonstrates discourse through anger laced rhetoric – a flat note that sees the film become blinded by the same misguided attitudes that it wishes to fight.

Gay Chorus Deep South acknowledges the choir can only appeal to those that are willing to listen. Whether or not the choir, or the film, recognises that their platform will reach those they are looking to persuade appears to have been overlooked and creates a misalignment between the choir’s objective with their execution.

A willingness to investigate the motives of the choir, to help or to intervene, creates a fascinating dissection on liberal values in America – particularly those belonging to Americans on the West Coast. Gay Chorus Deep South drills deeper into the complexity of the issue because of this, though, renders itself incapable of recovering from heavy blows against the choir’s involvement being counterintuitive, elitist and imposing.

It’d be remiss to discuss Gay Chorus Deep South without mentioning its release being timed with abortion reforms in the American South (or that its premise is not unlike Oscar winner Green Book); exemplifying how politics is riddled with religious foundations that disadvantage women and members of the LGBTQI+ community.

It is important however to recognise that religion is never presented as the villain, with Gay Chorus Deep South at the very least offering solidarity to marginalised communities whose political freedoms are compromised.

For others, Gay Chorus Deep South preaches to the already converted.

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On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship

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The best reason to see On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship is its level of access. Documentarian Karen Stokkendal Poulsen, directing her second film, scores interviews across Myanmar’s political spectrum, from Aung San Suu Kyi to former president Thein Sein, military generals turned politicians as well as colourful characters from the governing National League for Democracy. Technically, the documentary is well constructed, assiduously assembling archival footage from both local and foreign newsreels. And there are some stunningly beautiful postcard shots – including, at the very end, the temple complex at Bagan, thrown in without any exploration of its historical context or place in contemporary Burmese society.

The pretty imagery is unhappily symbolic of this vaguely patronising and exasperating documentary, which adds very little to our understanding of either Aung San Suu Kyi or Myanmar’s tortuous democratic transition. Myanmar itself is painted in Orientalist terms as a superstitious hermit state; loaded words like ‘kingdom’ and ‘throne’ are bandied about in the narration, even though the country is a republic; the constitution is described as a ‘sacred book’, although the national religion is Buddhism. The film sticks subtitles under all its interview subjects: even Aung San Suu Kyi, with her crisp Oxford accent. The disembodied voice narrating events seems, at the beginning, to be Burmese, but is later revealed to belong to the (Danish) director.

On the Inside’s argument is that Aung San Suu Kyi has failed, and Daw Suu is herself subject to ‘gotcha’ techniques to nudge the argument along. The film frontloads an outtake of the interviewer asking her, ‘Can you look me in the eye?’, quick and dirty cinematic shorthand to imply lack of trustworthiness. No comment is included from her at all on developments since 2017, the point at which the most recent Rakhine crisis began, and her international reputation collapsed. In fairness to the filmmakers, it’s possible she refused to discuss those matters – but, if that was the case, it should have been acknowledged.

Of the other interview subjects, politician and Aung San Suu Kyi ally Win Htein is probably the MVP, supplying a freewheeling and irreverent survey of the Myanmar political landscape. From the other side, Soe Thane prosecutes a cogent case that the military has been underestimated. And the film does manage to land a few blows arguing that it was a severe error of judgment to open up the Rakhine crisis to international scrutiny. It also peels back some of the mystery surrounding the ‘court intrigue’ of Myanmar politics, such as the overthrow of parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, and the assassination of Aung San Suu Kyi’s chief legal advisor.

But there are baffling omissions. The film includes ample footage of Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s official capital since 2005, while barely touching on the weirdness of that city as a place, or reasons for the relocation from Yangon (it was allegedly due to fear of Western intervention and regime change). Coverage of the situation of Rakhine state amounts to a regurgitation of headlines and soundbites, with no examination of the issues at stake. Information is needlessly repeated: for example, the difficulty of changing the Constitution, or the fact that US sanctions are the ‘toughest in the world.’ Finally, there is a fundamental lack of voices from Myanmar, beyond the political elite and a few journalists.

Films about Myanmar are rare enough, and the opportunity to hear from all the country’s political heavyweights pulls this across the line to make it worth seeing. But only just.

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Defend, Conserve, Protect

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

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is one of the most highly visible (we’ve all seen someone on the street wearing one of their promotional hoodies, right?) and instantly effective environmental protective organisations in the world. Founded by Paul Watson – who was ousted from Greenpeace because his approach was too confrontational for the appropriately titled environmental activist group – Sea Shepherd has used various seagoing vessels to obstruct the Japanese whale trade via direct and often aggressive methods. Unsurprisingly, they are a highly divisive player on the environmental protection scene.

This crowd-funded, Australian-produced documentary from director, Stephen Amis (whose diverse resume includes everything from the Shane Jacobson-led comedy, The BBQ, to the schlock-action of The 25th Reich), however, is unapologetically in Sea Shepherd’s corner. With a ragged sense of urgency, the film takes viewers on-board Sea Shepherd’s various vessels as they set out into the icy waters of Antarctica to way-lay a phalanx of Japanese whaling ships on their way to harpoon as many Minke whales as they can.

With different types of ships with catchy names (including the Brigitte Bardot and the Steve Irwin) and flashy paint jobs, the small Sea Shepherd flotilla is almost like an environmental version of The Thunderbirds, heroically crewed by its own version of the Tracy brothers. Committed and charismatic, the likeable likes of Captains Peter Hammarstedt and Luis Manuel De Pinho put their lives on the line as they bump their vessels up against the much larger (and utterly horrific) Japanese factory ships, which are basically blood-stained aquatic abattoirs equipped with high powered water cannons.

The footage is high-intensity and gripping, while on-screen interviews with iconic figurehead Paul Watson provide context about Sea Shepherd. Sequences featuring Dan Aykroyd as the collective voice of the Minke whales, however, are far less effective and largely superfluous. It’s in Sea Shepherd’s sense of commitment, passion and daring that the exciting and compelling Defend, Conserve, Protect finds its best footing, playing out more like a seafaring adventure tale than an environmental doco.

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Back to the Future with Framing John DeLorean

Ahead of its Australian premiere at the Revelation Film Festival in Perth. directors Sheena M. Joyce & Don Argott open up about their documentary on the duplicitous engineer, inventor and businessman, John DeLorean, whose name lives on in pop culture history through the Back to the Future movies.
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The Wandering Chef

Asian Cinema, Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

The Wandering Chef is the kind of left-field, ethereal pleasure only found at film festivals: a documentary on a chef who roams the country, monk-like in his devotion to the search for rare ingredients. Less an exhibition of culinary pyrotechnics, this is more an expression of food as an experience, rooted in culture and tradition.

The subject, Im Jiho, is also a fascinating and compelling individual. Implicit in his solitary journeys is a rejection of modern society and contentment with loneliness unusual in Korea’s collective culture; yet he is also emotionally vulnerable and generous-hearted. The film transports him from rural Korea to international cooking shows and back again, but you get the sense Im is most in his element engaging in earthy banter with other Koreans – usually elderly – on folk remedies. One of the film’s pleasures is watching him get excited about an obscure wild herb and list its medicinal properties, and the scene in which he debates whether moss can or cannot be eaten is a highlight. Im’s vocation draws him close to forgotten, timeless lifestyles: the weather-beaten haenyeo (female divers) of Jeju, and a grandfather hauling stones on his back to a mountainside home. This is as much an ode to Korea’s wild landscapes, with casually stunning cinematography to match, as it is a cooking documentary.

One would have been perfectly happy for The Wandering Chef to be a visual encyclopedia on Korean cuisine and ingredients. However, first-time director Hye Ryeong Park, who filmed the documentary over the span of several years, chooses to push the material in a more narrative direction. The film gravitates increasingly towards Im’s friendship with an elderly lady and her husband, treating it as a quasi-redemptive arc. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it is deeply touching, and adds depth to Im as a character. It’s just that everything else comes to feel increasingly peripheral, and out of place structurally.

While not quite the out-and-out masterpiece it had the potential to be, The Wandering Chef is still a terrific heart-warmer, captivating in its detail, and a reminder that all the world’s great cuisines are the accumulation of informal knowledge and folk tradition.