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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.
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Westwood: Punk. Icon. Activist.

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The words punk, icon, activist have never been more fitting to anyone other than Dame Vivienne Westwood. Lorna Tucker directs Westwood, or at least tries to, in this colourful and provocative documentary. The tension between Tucker and Westwood is evident from the beginning, with Westwood slumped in a chair accompanied by a disinterested expression. It’s clear she has very little interest in sharing her life story. “It’s so boring to say all this”, Westwood says right before some slick editing work cuts to a montage of a selection of iconic images from her life.


Beginning with her more conservative life, a child in post-war Derbyshire, to becoming punk royalty and then Britain’s most iconic fashion designer. Westwood truly redefined British fashion and although she might beg to differ, the most intriguing part of the film is how she set the punk movement on fire with ex-partner Malcolm McLaren. Westwood is disinterested in rehashing the memories of her relationship with McLaren, however, for the viewer this is where the film starts to gain momentum. She modestly says, “we invented punk”, and yes, they did. They gave the word “punk” new meaning. They recreated punk garments that would confront society and ignite the movement.

Where Westwood lacks enthusiasm to talk about herself, her associates and family members fill in the gaps of the story. This makes for good pacing throughout. Her long-time lover and husband Andreas Kronthaler recaps how the pair met and how he, a student at the time, fell in love with his then teacher, Westwood. Andreas expressing his love and adoration for her sets a warm romantic tone for the documentary and it’s welcoming to see a light-hearted and loveable side of Westwood. It is very clear she is so undeniably in love with Andreas just as much as he is with her.

Westwood’s hard work and determination as designer and businesswoman are on show here, as she remains the only major fashion designer who still owns her own company. Even now in her late seventies, her provocative and daring fashions are constantly evolving to this day. The film doesn’t provide the viewer with much about Westwood’s avid environmental activism, however there is a moment when she is followed on a Greenpeace mission to the Arctic. It is brief and unfortunately not something Tucker delves into much.

Undoubtedly, Westwood is a hard-ass subject to film, but Tucker perseveres, and the result is a well-paced documentary that captures Westwood to a tee.

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Ryuichi Sakamoto cuts a solitary figure, striding silently along a desolate irradiated beach in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, not far from the nuclear power facility that was damaged during the 2011 tsunami. Along with a group of environmental activists, clad in hazmat suits and masks, Sakamoto searches through abandoned buildings and remote beaches, in search of found objects that may provide interesting sounds that can be recorded.

He’s a collector, of recorded sounds from nature and technology. Earlier in his career, he was fascinated by degraded technology, happy accidents that can create strange and wonderful soundscapes. These days, he’s more concerned with the organic sounds of nature; technology still features though, as exemplified in his wonder at the discovery of an intact grand piano in an abandoned building that was consumed by the tsunami floods. He joyfully tinkers with a dead piano key that emanates a muffled chime and nods agreeably.

Starting his solo career in the late seventies, while at the same time collaborating in the electronic three-piece Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto also established his tastes for working across a variety of media when he composed the music for (and starred in) Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence alongside David Bowie. He would also go on to compose the scores for many films, such as Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Constantly working, Sakamoto has also written for various anime and games.

All this was brought to a grinding halt in 2014 when Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer. Now in remission, we follow him on his daily routine, as he muses about his mortality and his shock at not knowing quite what to do with himself during this extended hiatus.

In conversation, Sakamoto is quietly spoken and reflective though he’s prone to bouts of enthusiastic wonder such as one sequence where he records a frozen Antarctic stream, revelling in the fact that these waters are ‘pre-industrial’ and untouched by modern machines; moments later he stands beneath a huge Antarctic boulder and clangs two hand-held bells together – they chime like tuning forks, shrill and reverberating. As if claiming an unseen victory in the bells tolling amidst the silence of the frozen surrounds, he pumps his fists in the air and bounces on his toes.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s infectious curiosity about nature and the music of life, make for an engaging and moving subject. Highly recommended.

Following its screening at the Brisbane International Film Festival, the film will release in cinemas, which you can find here:

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The Gardener

Documentary, Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

Hidden away in Quebec, lies a 20-acre estate housing one of the most renowned gardens in the world: Les Jardins de Quatre-Vents. For several decades, the garden was tended to by Francis Cabot, who passed away in 2011. Directed by Sébastien Chabot, this documentary, The Gardener, ambles through Les Jardins de Quatre-Vents, capturing the foliage in pristine and colourful HD.

Having been interviewed just before his passing, Cabot, alongside friends and family, is on hand to provide a sort of running commentary about the time and decision making that went into his creation. Cabot tended to his garden like Willy Wonka tackled chocolate; planting – excuse the pun – musical statues, mirrors, secret doors and hidden stone wolves in hideaway places. Cheeky little embellishments which somewhat burst the pomposity within the ornate greenery.

And let’s be honest here, as we make our way around his grounds, it’s clear that Cabot’s tale is hardly one of rags to riches. No, Cabot came from good stock and his garden is a sought-after excursion which is closed off from the public for a large part of the year. Whilst all but one of the talking heads that feature in The Gardener fail to mention it, a lot of money was pumped into what we see. You don’t get an ornate Japanese tea house built in the traditional manner with less than $5 in your pocket.

As a result, The Gardener could come across as an act of bragging. Yet, somehow, it just about manages to skirt this issue. What it gives us instead is access to the imagination of a man who, like any other creative person, worked tirelessly to achieve his ends. You can see it in every crisp new shot that Chabot doles out to us. Alongside the piano accompaniment, quite honestly, this is the cinematic equivalent of a relaxation tape and it’s all the better for it.

Whilst it might not do much narratively speaking, The Gardener is a summer treat for the eyes at the very least.

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Blue Velvet Revisited

Documentary, experimental, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Back in 1985, a young German filmmaker named Peter Braatz corresponded with director David Lynch (fresh off the ill-fated Dune) during pre-production on his upcoming film Blue Velvet and pitched the legendary artist/filmmaker the idea of documenting his new film’s production on Super 8mm. Lynch was up for it and afforded Braatz total access. What Braatz captured is the minutiae of the day to day filming, short interviews with actors such as Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch-regular Jack Nance, Brad Dourif (“I wouldn’t play this type of role for any other director”), Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern. Production crew are less forthcoming, though Braatz captures audio of almost everyone discussing aspects of the production; cinematographer Frederick Elmes keeps mostly to himself, even so there’s a considerable amount of Super 8mm and stills from the set documenting (largely in chronological order) the shooting of all the key scenes.

If Blue Velvet was a film that held sway over your brain when you first experienced it and lingers still, then this film is a stream of consciousness resurgence of all the free-form dream logic that Lynch unleashed on us to mess with our brains those thirty odd years ago. Seeing the mundanity of the production that helped create it, is something of a joy to watch. The editing style is fragmented and drifts pleasantly along, audio interviews form a large part of the narration, peppered with short Super 8mm interviews that were captured by Braatz with Lynch, who gives his impressions of how the production is going.

This will absolutely appeal to fans of Lynch and Blue Velvet though the style is not the most accessible. The footage, as it stands, is phenomenally crisp and clear and the feeling of time and place is startling’ that said, it would’ve been great to hear the surviving cast members recall their experiences on the film retrospectively. This is a must see for Lynch fans and for those in the thrall of the ‘mysteries of love’.

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Backtrack Boys

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

Bernie Shakeshaft is a jackaroo, and this documentary is essentially about the residential youth programme he runs on the outskirts of Armidale in NSW. Kids (predominantly boys) who are troubled – and in trouble – go there to continue their education, as a last chance before “juvie”. A key part of the process is the way they work and bond with Shakeshaft’s dogs, preparing them for dog-jumping competitions.

So far so straightforward, and indeed after five or ten minutes it seems that the point – admirable though it may be – has been made, and that the feature length of Backtrack Boys is superfluous. Happily, this is not the case at all, though, because the film grows in depth and as we get to know more about some of the boys – and the personalities of them and their wonderfully big-hearted mentor – it becomes very moving and suspenseful.  (The dogs themselves are rather engaging too, incidentally.)

The focus is principally on two lads, a 12-year-old called Rusty and a very likeable older (aboriginal) guy called Zach. They’ve both had pretty tumultuous pasts, and they’re both facing the ghastly prospect of imminent incarceration. Shakeshaft calls a spade a spade – at one point he tells someone not to “carry on like a fuckwit” – but can also be almost poetic in the way he describes the crushing emotional effect of the inevitable disappointments. (“There’s only so many times you can suck the soul out of something before it turns pear-shaped”.)

This is very affecting viewing, by turns harrowing and inspiring.