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Castro’s Spies

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Castro’s Spies is an espionage documentary that dissects the subterfuge planning of the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban spies that assumed false identities for several years while living in Miami in order to procure U.S intelligence.

Directed by Gary Lennon and Ollie Aslin, this entirely Irish production offers a distinctly neutral standpoint to the heated political tensions between the U.S and Cuba regarding the arrests of the Cuban Five. In doing so, it presents a chronological timeline of events of the rise of Fidel Castro and political tensions between Cuba and the United States, as well as how the individuals behind the Cuban Five became entangled in broader international diplomacy.

The meticulous re-invention of new personalities seldom resembles the spy stereotype of James Bond. Instead, the Cuban Five members illuminate the mundane and time-consuming process in which they simply memorised and rehearsed information about their new personas, even recalling exact wording and behaviours decades later. Not only this, the documentary showcases tactics utilised to convince authorities of their citizenship by taking photos of themselves at different landmarks, wearing alternate outfits, but the photographs were often taken on the same day.

All five members, Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez, feature prominently to not only highlight their individual roles, but are confronted by the emotional sacrifices made by those they left behind in Cuba. Here lies the emotional core of the film where former loved ones and friends associated with their previous life share their point of view. For example, Olguita Salanueva, Rene’s wife, divulges a candid letter she wrote to her husband when he mysteriously left the family, expressing an outpouring of grief and anger at his betrayal. Her sense of loss and bewilderment offers a human touch to a Cold War political thriller. Nevertheless, each member of the Cuban Five intriguingly still portray a steely resolve for their mission and contain any excess emotion when discussing their families, which reveals just as much as it conceals.

The film seamlessly interweaves archival footage with talking heads, while also juxtaposing the action-packed Cuban television program ‘In Silence it Had to be Done’ that follows similarly covert spy missions, all of which offer effective stylistic flourishes of the tight scrapes the Cuban Five navigated.

The wide political and personal scale of Castro’s Spies presents a sympathetic view of the Cuban Five, while offering a comprehensive historical viewpoint from a range of fascinating sources.

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animation, Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

If you’re not aware of animator Will Vinton’s filmography, there’s a good chance that humming a few bars of Heard it Through the Grapevine will conjure up images of the anthropomorphic California Raisins, who went from being a PSA to becoming a huge merchandise commodity, incorporating computer games, albums, t-shirts and even a syndicated Saturday morning cartoon show. That’s big money, right there. Unfortunately for Vinton’s employees, who worked tirelessly to animate the musical dried grapes, their boss didn’t negotiate a better contract. As such, all the profits went to their client, California Raisin Advisory Board.

This is just one story of several in Claydream, directed by Marq Evans (The Glamour and the Squalor), which shows Vinton’s passion for animation overshadowed by his business aptitude. Wait till you hear about his story with the then fledgling company, Pixar.

Started prior to Vinton’s death from blood cancer in 2018, Evans interviews his subject and various employees about the journey from being a fledgling animation studio running on good-will, to being a slightly bigger animation studio running on good-will.

For Vinton, the goal was to be the Walt Disney of Claymation – just take a look at that company logo! – to the detriment of everything else. Not in a bloodthirsty, cutthroat kind of way though. Vinton is portrayed as a man who was perpetually hopeful to the point that if things weren’t going too well, it was best to just ignore it till it fixed itself or went away. Something his ex-wife testifies to on behalf of herself and his first wife. Oh, and there was that one time his first partner in crime, with whom he won an Oscar, threatened to assassinate him.

Working solely in clay, Evans suggests there was a myopic view of Vinton’s work by the public and entertainment industry. Vinton wanted to experiment with his art, pushing it beyond the limited scope of Gumby. However, his first foray into feature films, The Adventures of Mark Twain, despite all its surreal scenes sure to terrify the young, was pushed as a family film. A family film with warnings that it might be too full-on for the kiddies. Unsurprisingly, it tanked.

Vinton was seemingly too innocent for a world that was becoming increasingly monetised and business-oriented. As Evans charts the ‘rise’ of Vinton’s success, he cuts back and forth to the legal case between the claydreamer and Nike CEO, Phil Knight.

Knight saw Vinton’s studio as a profitable investment and became a shareholder in 1998. Unbeknownst to Vinton, Knight soon began buying out other shareholders before finally introducing a clause into his contract which gave the majority shareholder the right to fire Vinton from his own company.

Evans uses footage from the legal dispositions and, to paraphrase The Simpsons, if you pause it just right you can see Vinton’s heart break as he realises the world around him is collapsing. Knowing that Knight’s power grab, and putting his son Travis on the board of directors, led to Laika Studios, will certainly sour Kubo and the Two strings for many.

At its heart though, Claydream doesn’t mourn a talent, but celebrates it. Punctuated with clips from his work, Vinton’s employees have nothing but good things to say about their boss. Even if his contracts with them weren’t legally binding to begin with, they can’t fault someone for wanting to maintain the joy he got from animation. You just wish someone had tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, ‘Will, don’t forget to employ lawyers.’

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Enemies of the State

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Director Sonia Kennebeck sets the tone for her documentary about alleged WikiLeaks contributor Matt DeHart with a quote by Oscar Wilde: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Over the next hour and forty minutes, the concept of truth collapses and contradicts itself over and over until the viewer is forced to admit that Wilde had it right: there’s nothing pure or simple when it comes to the case of Matthew DeHart.

Born into a Fundamental Christian family with a military background, we’re first introduced to Matt as a young man who lives at home with his parents and is obsessed with his computer. It’s not a particularly original story, that is until the night Matt calls his father asking him to come home quick — the FBI have a search warrant and they’re seizing Matt’s computer on suspicion of child pornography.

Matt claims that he’s being framed and comes out to his parents as an online activist, or “hacktivist”, and a member of the social justice group Anonymous. According to Matt, he was forwarded certain files that the U.S. government would go to great lengths to keep hidden. According to the U.S. government, they have proof of unspeakable behaviour Matt has exhibited towards two teenaged boys he claims are his friends.

Alongside her credentials as filmmaker, Kennebeck is also an investigative journalist, and it shows. The interviews with Matt’s parents are heartfelt and emotionally charged, but as the film progresses and Kennebeck introduces more and more subjects outside of the DeHart family — police investigators, journalists, professors — the emotional impact is lessened beneath the sheer weight of inconsistent evidence.

The narrative structure of the film does tend to lose its way in the confusion. Kennebeck seems to want the audience to take part in the investigation as it progresses, but untangling truth from lies becomes next to impossible when each new piece of evidence contradicts the last. Re-enactments where actors lip-sync to recorded interviews feel awkward and out of place next to real life footage, but while the direction that the story wants to take might waver, the message at the heart of the film does not.

There is real power in storytelling, media can be manipulated and public opinion can be swayed. More often than not, it’s the person controlling the narrative who gets to decide what counts as “truth”. No one is more aware of that fact than Matt DeHart himself, made evident when he simply doesn’t show up for his one-on-one interview at the conclusion of the film. Perhaps to his mind, what better way to take control of how the world views you than to refuse to be viewed at all?

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Yes I Am – The Ric Weiland Story

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It’s hard to use the word “unsung” when it comes to a globally influential computer software pioneer with a net worth in the millions, yet after hearing Ric Weiland’s story, it’s undeniable that whatever praise the world has heaped upon him, he’s owed all that and more.

Childhood friend of Microsoft founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates, their shared passion for technology and the dream of a personal computer on every desk led to Weiland being offered the role of Project Leader for Microsoft Works in 1975, just as the company was finding its feet. His bold determination was instrumental to the company’s success; a boldness that carried over into his personal life as an openly gay man in 1970s America. The film’s title “Yes I Am” comes from Weiland’s personalised numberplate, a proud declaration of his sexuality during an era of widespread prejudice and bigotry.

Zachary Quinto narrates passages from Weiland’s own journals, giving emotional insight into his struggles with depression, anxiety, and the mounting fear brought on by the emerging AIDS crisis.

While the US government’s response was to turn away with a shrug of the shoulders and a recommendation of celibacy, Weiland contributed an unheard-of amount of funding to AIDS research, subsidizing treatments and medical advancements.

There’s a wild, kinetic energy to director Aaron Bear’s film — a mix of home video and news reels intercut with animation and traditional talking heads. Nostalgic reminiscence is paired with vibrant re-enactment, Gil Bar-Sela taking on the role of Weiland as he transforms from buttoned-up computer programmer to lycra-clad party boy. Paired with often heartbreaking journal entries, it lends a sense of desperation, of longing to connect. The filmmaker brings to life the story of a man striving for acceptance, fighting for a brighter future for the LGBTQIA+ community as he himself becomes lost to darkness.

By Weiland’s own account, he was a socially insecure man who preferred to stay out of the spotlight, however as the film notes, we are still seeing the effects of the contributions he made to the community today. His is a legacy worth acknowledging, a life worth celebrating, and a name to be remembered.

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We Are Conjola

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

For most of Australia, the summer of 2019 was coloured by the NSW bushfires that tore through the state, including Lake Conjola. Local filmmaker, Ash Brennan, was in Perth at the time and watched in disbelief as he saw what used to be his house in the background of a news report.

For Brennan, We are Conjola is a way to process the tragedy and the events that followed after the embers died down. Nearly losing his brother to the fires, the documentary is clearly very personal for the filmmaker, but the focus is not on him. Brennan aims his lens at the community that was affected. Through talking heads, Conjola residents recall the New Year’s Eve fire, often accompanied by mobile phone footage recorded there and then. We have all seen the news footage of the fire service holding back the flames, however, the handheld footage of Conjola drops you slap bang into the chaos.

More than simply giving a blow-by-blow account of the fires, Brennan interviews people who have used the disaster to fuel their art or, perhaps more accurately, used art to heal themselves. Through painting, poems and music, We Are Conjola reaffirms the belief that good things can sometimes come out of the worst of times. However, it should be noted that the film certainly isn’t flippant about the trauma that many suffered, including the loss of lives.

A certain holidaying prime minister is very much notable in his absence within Brennan’s retelling, and that seems appropriate. Conjola, as the documentary tells us, is a community that felt abandoned after the fires. To them, Federal Government support was ineffectual, and it was the shared support as a community that made the real difference to people rebuilding their lives.

A hopeful and emotional documentary, We Are Conjola captures a destructive moment in time and tries to reframe it to find hope under the ashes.

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Meeting The Beatles in India

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Namaste. When considering one of the greatest cultural forces in the Western world, it’s easy to think that all possible ground has been trodden already. Teenaged fans screaming themselves into oblivion, myriads of covers, a library of music that stands taller than most (if not all) others; we know The Beatles. But with the latest documentary from Paul Saltzman, a glimpse is offered at an aspect of their legacy that, while not outright ignored, usually takes a back seat to everything else. And he makes a damn compelling argument for it to be kept in mind.

The film’s pace operates much like its genesis in Paul rediscovering old photos of himself and the Beatles at the ashram of the legendary Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in that it drifts in and out of reminiscence of this focal point for the group’s spirituality and creativity. Through a combination of found footage, Paul filming himself returning to the ashram decades after the fact, and some fantastic comic-book-style sequences courtesy of Tales From The Crypt artist Mike Vosburg, we are shown a journey that is as much internal as it is temporal.

While the artistic work that took place here stays within the figurative frame, up to and including some healthy debate about exactly how many songs the group came up with at the time, the overall tone is more egalitarian than deifying. As Paul recollects his interactions with the group, he emphasises their place not as music legends but as people no different than himself (“Everyone farts and is frightened of the dark” is a great piece of Zen wisdom Paul delivers with this in mind).

Through that levelling of the playing field, the film’s true purpose presents itself. By bringing these pop culture deities down to the human level, presented through Paul’s permanently humanistic lens, it treats The Beatles in the same way the film alleges the Maharishi did: a Western gateway to Eastern practices, in particular Transcendental Meditation. In as much as George Harrison’s infatuation with the sitar led to some of the group’s trippiest sonic moments like ‘Love You To’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, their introduction to the practice led to a chance for inner peace. A chance that Paul himself sought after and, through a combination of Grant Morrison-esque psychedelia and Orson Welles-esque professional bullshittery, eventually found.

Meeting The Beatles In India, with its name reminiscent of a beat poet’s aside, is a somewhat digressional nostalgia trip where the prospect of meeting pop idols in their prime is tempered by the director’s own journey of discovery and self-fulfillment. It’d make for an intriguing double feature with Ron Howard’s excellent tour documentary Eight Days A Week, balancing out the heady rush of fame with the eventual inward turn in search of real happiness, with Paul Saltzman’s voyage through the Hellfire and into the Pure Fire further grounding the film’s ultimate message of contentment in oneself. In these turbulent times we live in, it’s an idea worth meditating on.

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Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break

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There’s always a sense of trepidation when a film like Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break pops onto the radar. At first glance, it seems to offer so much – a blackly comic premise, a pedigree British comedy cast, some catchy, yet slightly corny ‘80s tunes – but it also screams a warning of ‘Beware, you’ve been here before, and you’ve been let down before’.

Paul Dood is played by Tom Meeten, who looks like a Robert Downey Jr. impersonator in desperate need of sleep. Paul is preparing for an upcoming talent show audition, his elderly mum acting as cheerleader and assistant. When it becomes clear that Paul has got the day wrong, panic ensues and his attempts to get to the audition while looking after his frail mother fill the first act.

Here is where the film takes a tonal shift, from a kind of sweet-natured oddball story to something more doleful, and sinister. Paul’s path to potential stardom is blocked at every turn by other agents displaying, in turns, officiousness, despair, entitlement and arrogance. This elevation of stress results in a pivotal moment for Paul Dood and his even temperament begins to crack. From here on in, he becomes a vengeance-driven, live streaming psychopath, looking to right the wrongs acted on his person. Or so it would play out in a more formulaic film.

There is a smattering of gore but the style and method of these ‘confrontations’ is neatly subverted.

The director, Nick Gillespie, had only made one feature prior to this but he has bags of experience on sets with Ben Wheatley, and that director’s macabre influence is on show here.

Gillespie has a decidedly esoteric cast at his disposal. Meeten is given every opportunity to go wildly over the top but his performance as the pitiable lap-dog turned flaky nemesis is melancholic and restrained. Katherine Parkinson (Jen from The IT Crowd), Steve Oram and Alice Lowe (both Wheatley alumni), Pippa Hayward, Kris Marshall and even Johnny Vegas have small but important roles, gravitating around Paul’s central force.

The overall tone of the film is curious. Thematically, it’s a modern re-working of Kind Hearts and Coronets, but it doesn’t quite nail its colours to the mast. When it seems like it might be heading towards farce, it holds back. When it threatens to go all early Peter Jackson, again it resists. And at the climax, when it appears to be setting up for a bleak bloodbath, it switches to crowd-pleasing mode, to the detriment of the final product.

Meeten’s performance, the fine soundtrack and the mundanely incongruous locations take the spoils here, and as a low-key satire on the perils of instant celebrity and the dangerous voyeurism of social media, Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break almost makes a mockery of any pre-emptive uneasiness. Almost.

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Oh It Hertz!

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The wordplay and punctuation of the title gives clues to the kind of film that is served up by Norwegian director, Gunnar Hall Jensen. He looks at the many roles that sound plays in modern society, from therapy to weaponry, from soundscape design to conspiracy theories.

There is a lot of content in this documentary, possibly too much, but all the ideas are underpinned by idiosyncratic characters. It begins with musician and researcher, Laurie Amat, talking about her love of sound and her fear of losing her hearing. She is also the entry point to the ludicrous sounding idea that Goebbels was behind the switch from 432 hertz to 440 hertz as the standard for orchestral pitch (apparently, this was intended to make people more aggressive). It’s a neat throw-away, but using this theory as the throughline for the whole film wears on the patience levels.

Ideas and uses for sound are at the forefront, but it’s the characters that act as the drivers of the film. Aside from Amat – who is the weakest of the group – there’s Dame Evelyn Glennie, a deaf Scottish percussionist who uses the vibrations to ‘feel’ the music; Jamie Buturff, an American ‘researcher and YouTuber’ who rambles about the 440Hz conspiracy and complains about how he doesn’t get along with his brainwashed family; Stig Arne Skilbrei, a Norwegian audiophile who weeps when he recalls hearing Bowie’s Black Star; and Yoko Sen, a Japanese ambient electronic musician who is working to clean up the audio design of hospitals.

A couple of the tangents could have been focused on more, among them the idea of using sound as a weapon, and the fascinating phenomenon of Cymatics, which seems to be an odd amalgamation of science and philosophy. More time spent on these topics may have given the film more direction or clarity.

Coincidentally for a film about sound, the audio mix at the start was unbalanced, so much so that it was very difficult to hear Amat’s narration over the crowd sounds from archive footage. Leaving technical blips aside, Oh It Hertz! takes a laudable swing at this broad field of interest, and comes away with a share of hits and misses.

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The Emigrants

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The story of migration is a universal one. Throughout human history, people have been dislodged or forced in one way or another to roam in search of greener pastures. In this epic drama, we follow the journey of a small group of Swedish people as they head to America in the 1850s.

The first half concentrates upon the life back home in Sweden. Times are very hard. Though the ruling classes are in their fine palaces, the peasantry are doing it tough. They are dressed in rags and when the meagre crops fail, many of them face literal starvation. Of the families we follow, the main one is that of Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow) and Kristina (Liv Ullman) and their little children. Karl Oscar is trying to be strong and hopeful. He is protective towards Kristina and there is a genuine and believable bond between them. However, he can also see that Kristina is right when she says that there is no more hope for them in their current circumstances. In desperation, they decide to join a small gathering of families who plan to emigrate.

First of all, they have to scrape together enough for a passage, and they risk being ripped off by the 19th Century equivalent of human traffickers. By the time we get to the second half of the film, they are on a boat to the New World. This is very far from, er, plain sailing. The conditions on the sailing ship are terrible, with all the families crammed into small wooden bunks. If a disease breaks out in one family, many others will get it, and tipping the bodies overboard is the only funeral they will get.

It is not exactly a spoiler to say that our leads survive. The director gets us rooting for them. Given all that they have gone through, we feel that they deserve every chance. However, we also suspect that their life will still be one of toil and economic hardship even in America. Karl Oskar, ever the optimist, feels that he has arrived at a land of opportunity.

Director Jan Troell’s film is based on a classic Swedish book, but as noted, the story is easy to identify with. Troell’s approach is to keep the filming and lighting and acting simple. The palette of the film is muted; all pale grey-greens and dirty browns. The camera rarely opens out. The clothes are plain rags, and the actors are not heavily made up.

That said, there are lovely grace notes and observations, and the close focus allows these small moments to take on a larger significance. The main strength is the acting, especially from the two leads who are, of course, towering figures in the history of Scandinavian and world cinema.

Even though we have seen both von Sydow and Ullmann in dozens of roles, it was almost a shock to see their younger selves again. Von Sydow is classically chiselled and handsome but with a softness around the eyes. Ullmann’s role is less obviously heroic, but there is plenty of scope to be moved by her tremulous vulnerability.

At 190 minutes, the film can feel long (it is often shown with an intermission) but it is a rewarding experience nonetheless. With its careful concentration on the couples’ struggle, Troell has succeeded in making an intimate epic.

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After a nine-year hiatus from filmmaking on account of a life-threatening terminal illness, Maria Sodahl directs the semi-autobiographical Hope. The film centres on Anya, a career-driven mother whose cancer diagnosis turns her life upside down on the eve of the Christmas holidays.

After successfully battling lung cancer the previous year, Anya learns that her cancer has metastasized to her brain and is incurable, but possibly operable. As they consult with numerous doctors and undergo medical procedures, Anya is forced to confront her own mortality and past regrets.

Anya has three children of her own with partner Tomas, while they also look after three older children that Tomas had from a previous marriage. With this large family of disparate ages, Anya, for a time, keeps her condition secret from the family to preserve the festive mood. Not only this, her relationship with Tomas has grown stale and faded, as they both focus on their careers. However, the diagnosis revitalises their love for each other, as they reveal brutally honest truths about each other, while also realising why they fell in love to begin with.

Given that such an emotional flux propels the film, the characters are affectionately portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård as Tomas, as well as a restrained but conflicted emotional turmoil from Andrea Bræin Hovig as Anya. The film derives its emotional authenticity from the couple’s shared pain. For example, Anya’s medications result in side-effects of irritability and increased energy as she gorges on snacks to mitigate her nausea, while erratic outbursts grate on Tomas.

The use of blocking and staging effectively represent the private battle Anya confronts while conjuring up the courage in front of her family. In cloistered, cramped spaces such as bathrooms and cars, heightened emotion and home-truths are expressed. Anya reveals she should have left Tomas a year ago, but the cancer prevented her from doing so, while Tomas confesses to infidelity. Meanwhile, at festive parties and family get-togethers, the open space of living rooms and balconies contain an infectious optimism as the family enthusiastically plan a makeshift wedding for the long-term couple.

The film is meticulously detailed in the nuanced changes a relationship undergoes with a terminal diagnosis. Although a sadness permeates throughout, belying the film’s title, the familial warmth and sacrifice each character shows makes for a beautifully crafted film.