Documentary Review: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010)

Release Date: May 13th, 2011
Directed by: Craig McCall
Music by: Mark Sayer-Wade

Modus Operandi Films, UK Film Council, National Lottery, 86 Minutes

Review:

I was glad to find this documentary streaming on FilmStruck, a service which every film lover should already be subscribed to.

I have known of Jack Cardiff and his contributions to movies for years but never have I seen anything that talks about the man and really analyzes the great work he did behind the camera for decades.

He was a master of color, of style and became one of the most sought after cinematographers in motion picture history. He was an auteur in the same vein as the greatest directors who have their own distinct styles.

This documentary is done in a general biography style but it spends a lot of time focusing on all the important and trendsetting films that Cardiff was a part of. It also gave me some films that I had to add to my “must see” list.

The coolest thing about Cameraman is that it interviews Cardiff and lets him speak about his work and his experiences. It also showcases directors, actors and other artists who worked with or were influenced by Jack Cardiff.

For those truly interested in filmmaking, film history and film culture, this is a documentary that is definitely worth your time. It is well produced, finely presented and paints a glorious picture of the man’s contribution to the art that he loved.

Documentary Review: American Cinema: Film Noir (1995)

Release Date: 1995
Directed by: Jeffrey Schon
Music by: Thomas Wagner
Narrated by: Richard Widmark
Hosted by: John Lithgow

PBS, 54 Minutes

Review:

I have been casually watching episodes of PBS’ documentary television series American Cinema. Since I have been watching a ton of film-noir movies for Noirvember, one of my favorite cinematic celebration months, I had to dig up the episode Film Noir. Luckily, it is streaming on YouTube, as many old PBS documentaries are.

What makes this cool when compared to other film-noir documentaries is that it doesn’t explain away the style or the elements that make noir. It focuses more on talking head interviews of actors, directors and scholars who simply just discuss film-noir. While the interviewees are alone, it still plays more like an open forum of ideas and thoughts on the noir style and its importance in American filmmaking.

It was a really nice touch that Richard Widmark, my choice for a 1950s Joker if ever there was a serious Batman movie made back then, got to narrate this short documentary. I also enjoyed seeing John Lithgow host the episode, even though he is way too young to have been in classic film-noir. But Lithgow is certainly a guy that understands film and the important things in the long history of the art.

Film Noir is one of my favorite episodes of the American Cinema series but then again, I have a strong bias in favor of noir. Ultimately, though, this is a really good educational piece on the style and its significance.

Documentary Review: Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows (2007)

Release Date: September 2nd, 2007
Directed by: Kent Jones
Narrated by: Martin Scorsese, Elias Koteas

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Turner Entertainment, Sikelia Productions, 77 Minutes

Review:

I remember seeing this on television a decade ago and it is where I really discovered who Val Lewton is and why his contribution to the film industry was so important.

When I was a kid, I discovered classic film early, as my mother and grandmother were both avid watchers of AMC, which at the time still stood for American Movie Classics. I also watched a lot of TCM, or Turner Classic Movies, when that cable network debuted. I got pulled in to old school horror, as I loved the Universal Monsters movies, Vincent Price’s Edgar Allan Poe pictures and the movies put out by Hammer with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I didn’t quite experience Val Lewton’s body of work though, until years later.

My appreciation for all that other stuff, really gave me the foundation to appreciate and understand what Lewton was trying to do for RKO Radio Pictures. His mission was to run the B-movie unit for the studio, where he and the artists he brought in, would create films to rival what Universal was doing with all their successful Monster franchises.

I’m glad that I found this on television a decade ago and it was really fantastic revisiting it now, as it is streaming on FilmStruck.

It is produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese with Elias Koteas jumping in to narrate Val Lewton’s actual words.

It is a nice and quick documentary that covers a lot of ground and gives a good amount of time to each of Lewton’s pictures. It also gets into how his collaborations with Boris Karloff came to be and how Lewton initially didn’t want to work with Karloff but quickly grew to love the man’s work, as he helped contribute to these films, which were much more psychological and intelligent than the majority of Universal’s horror pictures.

Lewton created horror movies that had a noir style about them. In fact, his films sort of built a bridge between German Expressionist horror movies like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the film-noir movement of the 1940s.

If you love classic horror or film-noir and haven’t seen Lewton’s films, you need to. You should also check out this documentary, which is a great primer on the man and his work.

Documentary Review: You’re So Cool, Brewster! The Story of Fright Night (2016)

Release Date: December 2nd, 2016
Directed by: Chris Griffiths
Music by: Lito Velasco

Dead Mouse Productions, 217 Minutes, 146 Minutes (Condensed version)

Review:

If you don’t like Fright Night, we can’t be friends. I mean, seriously, it’s a hell of a good time and was a much needed return to traditional monsters in a decade ruled by slasher films.

This long documentary covers everything you could ever want to know about Fright Night and it even goes into its mostly unappreciated sequel.

The coolest thing about this film and what I love about these modern documentaries about old horror franchises, is getting to revisit the cast and creators all these years later.

It may seem bizarre to have a documentary that is much longer than the subject matter it is discussing but a lot goes into filmmaking and this documentary doesn’t leave a single stone unturned. You get candid looks at the special effects, props making, creature makeup and how certain sequences were shot.

The interviews with the cast, the director and all the other key people were really the best part of this film though. It was especially cool seeing William Ragsdale, Chris Sarandon, Amanda Bearse and Stephen Geoffreys in 2016. Geoffreys’ bits I liked because it showed the man himself and how different he is from the Evil Ed persona. He also discusses how he was apprehensive about performing certain aspects of the character.

Tom Holland, the director, discussed at length about how the whole project came to be, as well as shedding light on what lead him to it.

If you are a fan of the original Fright Night or you’re hardcore and love the whole franchise, this is certainly worth checking out.

Documentary Review: ESPN 30 For 30 – Soccer Stories – Short Films (2014)

Release Date: April 22nd, 2014 – May 6th, 2014 (run of six short episodes)
Directed by: various
Music by: various
Narrated by: Ryan Van Ness III (4 episodes)

ESPN Films, 6 Episodes, 30 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

*written in 2014.

ESPN returned with their 30 For 30 series this year. This season was strictly about soccer and saw two feature films and six half hour episodes dedicated to the sport. The first feature film Hillsborough is reviewed here. The second film White, Blue and White will be reviewed after I see it. This review here is for the series of six half hour-long episodes that were wedged between the two feature length bookends.

I thought that this series was really well done and covered a diverse set of stories even though they were all from within the soccer world.

There was an episode about Diego Maradona’s performance at the 1986 World Cup, which showed the superstar from every angle on and off the field. There was an episode about the Chilean military coup in the early 1970s and how it affected their national soccer team in the World Cup in 1974. Another episode dealt with a terrorist attack in Northern Ireland on fans of the Irish national team, which lead to a ceasefire by both opposing paramilitary groups involved in the long term conflict. Mané Garrincha, Brazil’s legend was featured in an episode that focused on his legendary status as well as his struggles. Brett Ratner directed an episode about the Jules Rimet Trophy and how it has an insane story that involves Nazis, crime and going missing. The last episode of the six short stories was about goalie Moacir Barbosa and how he went from being a Brazilian soccer hero to a pariah after he allowed a game-winning goal by Uruguay. That goal won Uruguay the World Cup in 1950.

Every chapter of this series was great. All were well shot, well edited and the subjects interviewed were compelling in every episode. Each director in this series made an interesting film. The varying degree of subjects kept it fresh and engaging. The only complaint I have of this series, is that each episode would have benefited more if they were each at least an hour in length or more. They did feel a bit rushed and too condensed.

Film Review: Häxan (1922)

Also known as: Heksen (Danish), The Witches, Witchcraft Through the Ages (English)
Release Date: September 18th, 1922 (Sweden)
Directed by: Benjamin Christensen
Written by: Benjamin Christensen
Music by: Matti Bye (2006 restored version), Launy Grøndahl, Daniel Humair (1968 version), Ludwig van Beethoven (1922 score), Barði Jóhannsson (2006 score), Emil Reesen (1941 version), Art Zoyd (1997 version)
Cast: Benjamin Christensen, Clara Pontoppidan, Oscar Stribolt, Astrid Holm, Maren Pedersen
Narrated by: William S. Burroughs (1968 English version)

Svensk Filmindustri, Skandias Filmbyrå , 104 Minutes (Swedish Film Institute print), 74 Minutes (1968 version)

Review:

“Poor little hysterical witch! In the middle ages you were in conflict with the church. Now it is with the law.” – Title Card

Häxan is a film I saw some clips of, as a kid, and was immediately mesmerized by. I didn’t see the full version of the film until the high quality 2006 remaster came out on DVD. Most recently, I checked out the shorter 1968 English language version with the narration by William S. Burroughs.

Both versions of the film are generally the same, except that the English language version has spoken dialogue and a shorter running time due to the exclusion of some of the title cards. The 2006 remaster is superior though, if you want to see the most authentic version of the film. Plus, the music in the 1968 version is bizarre and actually distracts from the tone.

Comparing this to what was out in 1922 really puts into perspective how terrifying this film must have been. The scariest thing at the time was Nosferatu and even though it effectively builds suspense and dread, Häxan throws demons and evil in your face at just about every turn. In fact, the Satanic ceremonies in this film are still better constructed than those in almost every other film throughout history. The amount of demons in this picture is astounding and just about every evil character has its own unique look.

Häxan is really in your face though, so maybe its approach was initially shocking and audiences got somewhat desensitized as the film ran on. Regardless, the costumes, sets and overall visual composition of the film is superb and unlike anything I’ve seen from this era or really, anything after this era. There are some good devil worshiping films with ceremonies and the appearance of a “devil” but this is like a nonstop Satanic orgy playing out on screen.

In a lot of ways, the film is like an over the top PSA to deter people from getting involved with witchcraft. It is to Satan what Reefer Madness was to marijuana use. Granted, this is a much better film in every way. But I imagine that the film probably had an effect opposite of what was probably intended. It plays as the most effective and coolest “Come join Satan!” propaganda that could ever be created.

Apart from the costumes themselves, the makeup and special effects were impressive and uncanny for 1922. The scene with the witches flying over the town is especially breathtaking.

While this isn’t remembered at quite the same level as Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it deserves to be in the same conversations film aficionados and historians have had about horror pictures from that era.

Documentary Review: Hillsborough (2014)

Release Date: April 15th, 2014
Directed by: Daniel Gordon
Music by: Tim Atack, Joel Beckerman
Narrated by: Ryan Van Ness III

ESPN Films, BBC, 121 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2014.

Hillsborough is a film that kicked off a new series of 30 For 30 on ESPN. It is the first part in the Soccer Stories run, which were released over the last few months in order to build for the World Cup, which itself just started a few hours ago. I plan on reviewing the whole series in its complete form but since this part stands out as a film, where the other parts are half hour episodes, I felt it deserving of its own review.

This film told the story of the Hillsborough disaster, which happened on April 15th, 1989 in Sheffield, England. For those who don’t know, this tragedy happened during a game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest and saw the death of 96 people who were crushed to death in the standing room only pens of the stadium. Following the tragedy, families of the victims have been seeking justice for decades but been denied it.

Hillsborough gives a pretty solid rundown of everything that happened leading up to the tragedy and everything that happened during and after, painting a very clear picture of what actually went down years after media spin and corruption tried to weave a different story.

The film was beautifully edited and presented, the interviews were conducted very well and I felt like the people involved, who had been victimized by this disaster were able to get some form of closure and peace by being able to be involved in this project while getting out their individual stories.

As a film, it was one of the best 30 For 30 chapters ever produced. It’s a definite must see for fans of the ongoing ESPN series or fans of real football (or soccer as we Americans call it).