Conquest Program No.9

2018 #158a-d
30 mins | DVD | 4:3 | English / USA

Conquest Program No.9 advertisement

We all know the cinema experience of today: 20 minutes of TV adverts that we’d fast-forward at home but have no say in on the big screen, followed by 10 minutes of movie trailers that we’ve already watched on YouTube, and, finally, the film we’ve paid to see. But back in the day the theatrical programme was less unedifying, with short films of various stripes preceding the headline film (hence the term “feature film”, obv.)

For her DVD release of the 1917 feature Kidnapped (more about that in my review here), Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently was able to source the four short films that were bundled with it as part of “Conquest Program No.9”. The Conquest Programs were the idea of distributor George Kleine and created by Thomas Edison’s film company. Eleven were created in all, each one bundling together a feature film and a mix of shorts to create a complete bill of wholesome entertainment. By specifically recreating Program No.9, the Kidnapped DVD doesn’t just offer an approximation of what a night at the movies in 1917 might’ve been a bit like, but rather a genuine was-definitely-shown-in-theatres programme from the time.

Friends, Romans and Leo

The programme opens with a twelve-minute comedy short, Friends, Romans and Leo, directed by Alan Crosland, who also helmed Kidnapped, and featuring several of the feature’s leading players too. It’s a bit of Roman farcing about, concerning an “emperor” who’s so in debt he lets the moneylender marry his daughter rather than call in the mortgage on his garage. I’m sure that’s exactly how Roman politics worked. Then, an unwanted and useless servant is cast into the gladiatorial ring to face the hulking Brutal Brutus, and also Leo, a man in a lion costume… er, I mean: Leo, a lion. This bit, at least, has some amusing pratfalling. It’s not big (it’s a short film, after all), it’s not clever (characters speak in a mix of Olde Worlde English (“thou hast been good to me”) and modern slang (“that’s a twenty-karat rock, girlie!”)), and it’s not particularly amusing to today’s eyes either, although the second half is at least diverting enough. Certainly, a grown man titting about in a lion suit has its own kind of charm.

Up next is a seven-minute “fairy tale in silhouette”, Little Red Riding Hood. I’d assumed it was going to be some kind of puppet animation job, but no, it’s live-action shot in silhouette, presumably for a kind of stylistic, picture-book-ish look. This means we’re treated to another man in an animal costume — the wolf, of course — but this outfit is less good than Leo’s, something even the silhouetted visuals can’t hide. The short rattles through the traditional story with no significant variations, which feels a little quaint viewed from the vantage point of over a century later. That said, it does include this immortal line: “It must be grandmama for it is her cap, but how very strange this bad cold makes her look!” Because people can always be identified by their caps, and colds make you look like a wolf.

Little Red Riding Hood

Talking of quaint, that clearly wasn’t a concept alien to 1917 audiences, as the third short implies. Titled Quaint Provincetown, it’s a seven-minute travelogue about a quiet little seaside town and its almost throwback way of life (even for 1917!) A series of lifestyle scenes rather than a narrative documentary, it’s a fascinating window into the past, which arguably makes it the most interesting of these films for the modern viewer. That said, how much of it was captured actuality and how much was staged, who knows — for example, at one point we watch a couple of boys have a fight in the street while their friends egg them on, which you feel the filmmakers can’t’ve just happened upon. Still, kids, eh? I guess some things never change.

Finally, Microscopic Pond Life is a four-minute look at… well, what it says on the tin. This is, broadly speaking, stuff we’re nowadays familiar with from a young age thanks to science lessons and whatnot, but I imagine it must’ve been quite incredible to see these minuscule organisms in action for the first time. You’re not going to learn a lot of detailed scientific information from a 100-year-old short like this, but it remains a fascinating glimpse of the tiniest of lifeforms.

Microscopic Pond Life

Viewed today, this selection of short films is, at worst, an insight into a time long gone — one of the nearest experiences we’re likely to get to time travel. At best, the films themselves retain some inherent interest and entertainment value. As Fritzi puts it in her booklet accompanying the DVD, “the ninth Conquest program is not filled with hidden masterpieces, just good solid programmers that would have entertained the average American audience in 1917.” Very true, and fair enough.

3 out of 5

Read my review of Conquest Program No.9’s feature film, Kidnapped, here.
The DVD is now available to purchase from Amazon.com.

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Review Roundup

Hello, dear readers! I’ve been away for most of the past week, hence the shortage of posts, but I’m back now, so here’s a random ragtag roundup of reviews to kick things off again.

In today’s roundup:

  • That’s Entertainment! (1974)
  • ’71 (2014)
  • Guardians (2017)


    That’s Entertainment!
    (1974)

    2017 #80
    Jack Haley Jr. | 124 mins | TV | 1.33:1 + 1.78:1 + 2.35:1 + 2.55:1 | USA / English | U / G

    That's Entertainment!

    Greatest hits compilations always seem to be a popular product in the music biz, and that’s essentially what this is, but for movies. An array of famous faces appear on screen to help provide a scattershot history of the MGM musical, but really it’s an excuse to play some fantastic clips from old hits. This may be the kind of programming that TV has taken on and made its own in the decades since, but when the quality of the material is this high, it feels like more than just schedule filler.

    Thanks to many eras being covered it has more aspect ratio changes than a Christopher Nolan movie, though that’s actually quite effective at demarcating the old-school spectacle from the linking chatter. There’s also some “you wouldn’t get that today” commentary, like Frank Sinatra talking about a line of chubby chorus girls (who don’t even look that large!), or various bits and pieces criticising the studio’s history, like how all the films had the same plot.

    It was originally promoted with the tagline “boy, do we need it now”, a reaction to the gritty style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood at the time, as well as all the real-life problems of the era (it was released the same year as Nixon resigned because of Watergate). MGM needed it too: the studio was in decline, releasing just five films in 1974. The whole thing carries a somewhat bittersweet air, as ageing stars reflect on past glories from the decrepit environs of MGM’s rundown backlot.

    Nonetheless, it creates a marvellous tribute to a golden era. And I guess it must’ve done alright, because it spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and MGM are still going (more or less) today.

    4 out of 5

    ’71
    (2014)

    2017 #95
    Yann Demange | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    ’71

    Set in Belfast in (you guessed it) 1971, ’71 is a thriller that sees an Army recruit become separated from his unit during a riot at the height of the Troubles, leaving him trying to survive the night “behind enemy lines”.

    The film’s best stuff is early on: a brewing riot as police perform a door-to-door search; a tense foot chase through the backstreets; a single-take bombing and its aftermath. The immediacy of all this is well-conveyed, suitably tense and exciting, but also plausible. Then the film decides it needs some sort of plot to bring itself to a close, and so it kicks off some IRA infighting and British Army skullduggery. The added complications don’t exactly bring it off the rails — it’s still a fine and tense thriller — but it lacks that extra oomph that the hair-raising sequences of the first half deliver.

    Still, it’s a promising big screen debut for director Yann Demange, who was reportedly among the frontrunners to helm Bond 25 before that got diverted into Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s idea. His second feature, another period movie, this time a crime drama, White Boy Rick, is out later this year.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians
    (2017)

    aka Zashchitniki

    2017 #122
    Sarik Andreasyan | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Russia / Russian | 12

    Guardians

    You may remember this film from when its trailer went viral a couple of years ago: it’s the “Russian answer to The Avengers” that featured a machine-gun-wielding bear. Naturally, that kind of attention assured it got an international release eventually (I paid to rent it, then it later popped up on Prime Video. You never know how these things are going to go, do you?)

    It’s about a bunch of old Soviet superheroes being reactivated to stop a villain. If that sounds vague, well, I can’t remember the details. Frankly, they don’t matter — Guardians is the kind of film a 6-year-old would write after a diet of Saturday morning cartoons, with the same attention to character development and plot structure you’d expect from such an endeavour. The story is semi-nonsensical: the villain’s plan is never clear (beyond “rule the world”); it flits about between subplots; characters appear and disappear from locations… There’s a litany of “things that don’t quite make sense” — too many to remember without making obsessive notes while rewatching, which I have no intention of doing.

    But if you can ignore all that — or, even better, laugh at it — then it’s fairly watchable, in a brain-off entirely-undemanding so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s some decent CGI (given its budget), some half-decent action, and it’s mercifully brief at under 90 minutes.

    2 out of 5

  • Vintage Tomorrows (2015)

    2017 #120
    Byrd McDonald | 67 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA, Canada, Czech Republic & UK / English

    Vintage Tomorrows

    Heard the term “steampunk” but don’t really know what it is? Or have an idea, but you’d like a fuller picture of the whole subculture? Then this is the film for you, my friend, because Vintage Tomorrows is basically Steampunk 101.

    For those that don’t know, steampunk is a kind of alternate history, where Victorian-esque technology and fashion rub against advanced technology — think steam-powered cars; clockwork machinery; and cogs. Lots of cogs. Although little more than an hour long, Vintage Tomorrows does a good job of providing an overview of the movement, encompassing the cool literature, fun costumes, impressive self-built gizmos, and so on. It also doesn’t ignore the political dimension: how steampunk does — or, frequently, doesn’t — deal with the dark side of the Victorian era: the poverty, oppression, racism, colonialism, misogyny, and so forth. Mainly, the subculture still needs to “grow up” and tackle that stuff. With plenty of featured interviewees, it’s also interesting to hear the different ideas that different people have about what exactly steampunk is and should be — there are clearly dissenting voices, rather than a homogenous whole. I guess that’s probably true of any subculture, but I imagine particularly one that’s quite counter-cultural.

    That said, when some people start placing steampunk in the context of widespread movements like the Beat Generation, hippies, punk, hip-hop — asserting that it’s following in their footsteps — I think they’re possibly going a bit far. It may be inspired by the same mentality (the rejection of the mainstream, the desire to create something different, the search for your own identity and people who share it), but to imply steampunk is having the same influence on wider culture that those earlier movements did… I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway. In the future? Who knows.

    Fire!

    Indeed, some pretentious assumptions come to the fore when the interviewees get on to the subject of modern technology. They don’t like sleek, minimalist, Apple-esque design — it’s not complicated or tactile enough for them. Fine, if that’s your taste — but it is just your taste. A lot of people love that stuff. And, actually, it’s not a different subculture that loves it, it’s the mainstream. If the mainstream didn’t like it, something else would’ve swept it aside by now. But a level of self-absorption seems to go hand-in-hand with those at the forefront of niche movements, so I guess we should expect such attitudes.

    Set aside those occasionally presumptive attitudes, and there’s a lot to like about steampunk. Well, if it meshes with your sensibilities, anyway. It’s not something I’d want to partake in myself, but it looks like a fun alternate reality to be a part of. And if Hollywood saw fit to give us a few more movies that fit into the genre (because there haven’t been many, I believe), I certainly wouldn’t complain.

    4 out of 5

    Trekkies & Trekkies 2

    In today’s roundup:

  • Trekkies (1997)
  • Trekkies 2 (2004)


    Trekkies
    (1997)

    2018 #97
    Roger Nygard | 83 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English & Klingon | PG / PG

    Trekkies

    There are quite a few fan documentaries out there nowadays (a few years ago… wait, ten years ago? Bloody hell. Anyway, back then I reviewed the likes of Starwoids, Ringers: Lord of the Fans, and Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of Firefly and Serenity). But before all of those, and I think the first of its subgenre, was Trekkies, which examined the phenomenon of Star Trek fandom — or, rather, the wild, weird extremities of it.

    Trekkies begins with the proclamation that “Trekkies are the only fans listed by name in the Oxford English Dictionary.” That’s not true anymore (“Whovian”, at least, is in there), and that speaks to an interesting truth about this entire documentary. When it was released 21 years ago, Trekkies was exposing a niche thing to wider awareness, and these fans were seen as weirdos, fundamentally. Watching it today, though, you see that it’s mostly just cons and cosplay — stuff that’s been virtually mainstream for a few years at this point. It may’ve once seemed odd for these people to define their lives as “Star Trek fan”, but now, for many people (especially younger people), it’s perfectly routine to be defined by which fandom you’re in.

    Gabriel Koerner in 1997

    That said, Trekkies still managed to find some people who are pretty weird by any standard. At the time the filmmakers received some criticism for this — for creating a film that got laughs out of “look at the weirdos!” while ignoring the more normal side of fandom. That’s not a wholly baseless critique, but I didn’t think the film was cruel. As well as going “aren’t these people nuts!”, I think it does try to dig into why they do it, what they get out of it. I’m not sure how well it reveals the former (I mean, how did any of them go from liking a TV show to… this? It must be some personality thing), but it does a decent job of showing what benefits it brings them. And there are some incredible stories (mainly from interviewed cast members) about how Trek has changed, or even saved, people’s lives.

    Trekkies may’ve lost the uniqueness it once had, with elements of the lifestyle it depicts coming to increasing prominence, but it still remains an interesting look at that kind of world, with some very memorable characters. And if you think it might’ve aged into irrelevance after all this time, there’s a bit about the importance of Captain Janeway as a role model for female leadership and what women can do — we’re still having debates and arguments about that sort of thing over twenty years later, which is, frankly, depressing.

    4 out of 5

    Trekkies 2
    (2004)

    2018 #98
    Roger Nygard | 93 mins | download | 4:3 | USA / English, German, Italian, Portuguese, French & Serbian | PG / PG

    Trekkies 2

    Such is the strangeness of Time that, just 24 hours after I watched Trekkies, I jumped forward seven years to catch up with some of that film’s featured fans in this lesser-seen follow-up. It’s not just repeat visits to old friends, though — if you thought America had a monopoly on crazies, well, Trekkies 2’s got news for you!

    This time out director Roger Nygard and host Denise Crosby take us to Germany (visiting the set of a fan film); the UK (with a guy who turned his flat into a starship, which he’s listed on eBay for $2 million (a couple of years later it sold for c.$840,000, which was still 16 times what he paid for it)); Italy (where fandom is apparently centred around food); Brazil (where a collector has a rare playset from the ’60s… which Crosby accidentally knocks over); Australia (where the fans mainly seem to be female and obsessed with the sexy male cast members); France (which is really just “more international fans”, to be honest); and Serbia (where the series and its values has brought a lot of hope to people in a tumultuous region).

    We also meet more US fans, as the sequel tries to rectify some of the first film’s shortcomings. For example, there’s a much greater section on filk music (which is, basically, music tied to sci-fi/fantasy fandom), as well as some crazy-funny Star Trek punk tribute bands — there’s a whole scene of that kind of thing in Sacramento, randomly. Plus we’re shown the lighter side of fandom, like the theatre company staging a satirical Trek-ified version of Romeo & Juliet.

    German fan film

    And, as I mentioned, we catch up with some old friends, including Barbara Adams, the lady who wore her Trek uniform while on jury duty (and who has a hilarious Trek vs Wars debate with a coworker that’s like something out of The Office), and the film’s break-out star, Gabriel Koerner. A super-geeky teen in the first movie, seven years later he has a wife and has turned his hobby into a career in visual effects. It just goes to show, there’s someone and something for everyone.

    Indeed, overall it’s not quite as “look at the freaks!” as the first film. It takes time to explicitly discuss what’s going too far and what’s normal, and it also highlights how Trek fandom has been a force for good, like raising money for charity, or giving hope in war-torn regions. Consequently it’s not as funny as last time, but probably in a good way — this one’s a bit more thoughtful, a bit fairer to its subjects as people. Ultimately, I think the two films work quite well as a pair. There’s also been talk of a Trekkies 3, which I hope happens — as I mentioned about the first film, attitudes to this kind of fandom have changed massively in the past decade or so (for example, the rise of Comic-Con and its influence), so it would be very interesting to explore that.

    For my money, the most insightful moment in either film comes from Pierluigi Piazzi, a Brazilian publisher of Star Trek books, when he says that “this is a wonderful way to be crazy. Everybody’s crazy, but it’s wonderful this way.”

    4 out of 5

  • The Pixar Story (2007)

    2018 #110
    Leslie Iwerks | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | U / G

    The Pixar Story

    Made to celebrate the first 20 years of Pixar, Leslie Iwerks’ documentary charts not only the genesis, founding, and rise to industry-changing prominence of the beloved computer animation company, but also the birth of computer animation itself.

    It starts at the very beginning, with John Lasseter’s education and time as a traditional animator at Disney, and, separately, explaining how computer graphics and animation even came to be. I won’t recap the full story here, but it recounts how Pixar come to be formed, how they pushed at boundaries, and, eventually, how the massive success of their feature films came to transform the American animation industry. While the documentary is primarily narrative, then, it also exposes a little of why all this happened — the processes and philosophies behind-the-scenes at Pixar that helped make their early films so good, and consequently so loved. It doesn’t explicitly dig into this, but their mindset and attitudes seep through in the stories of what happened.

    For example, there’s the case of Toy Story 2: Lasseter had just come off the gruelling production and promotion schedule of A Bug’s Life when Disney decided to upgrade Toy Story 2, which was being made by another team, from direct-to-video to a theatrical release. Pixar reviewed the project and were unhappy, but Disney thought it was fine and refused to move the release date. So Lasseter abandoned plans for a much-needed break to spend time with his family and set about retooling the sequel from scratch — but while the original Toy Story and Bug’s Life had each taken years to make, for Toy Story 2 they had just nine months. The rest is history: not only did they get the film out on time, it’s arguably even better than the first one. Quite rightly, that whole palaver is named as their proudest achievement — the way everyone came together to make it happen helped define the company.

    Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter

    It also exposes another major contributing factor to the company’s success: Steve Jobs’ patience. Toy Story is when the wider world noticed Pixar, but they’d been going for years, pushing boundaries and breaking ground with short films and advertising, but not making a profit. But Jobs stuck with it, giving them more money, because he took a long-term view. Of course, it paid off, and when they did hit it big, it was his business acumen that secured the future of the company: taking them public (which brought in massive funds) and striking a new, better deal with Disney. It’s easy for us to look at the quality of their films and go “that’s what changed things”, but the business side is a vital component too.

    Change things they certainly did, as the documentary shows towards the end, with 2D animation dying off and the Disney buyout-cum-merger with Pixar that would lead to 2D being saved — hurrah! Of course, this film is now 11 years old, and we know things didn’t end so happily: despite Lasseter & co’s commitment to helping 2D stay alive, Disney have released jus two traditionally-animated feature films since then, and the last of those was in 2011, apparently with no more planned.

    Luxo, pre-logo

    It’s at this point the film is also forced to acknowledge Cars, which I think most would regard as Pixar’s first real critical flop. They talk about how it was “beautiful” and a “hit”, but then move past it speedily, presumably to gloss over the fact it didn’t go down nearly as well as their other movies. This highlights two things: firstly, that this is certainly no “warts and all” telling — if there were internal conflicts or difficulties, they’re glossed over. Secondly, that the film could do with an update. As I said, it’s 11 years old now, and much has changed in that time. Pixar had only released seven movies at that point and were on top of the world, but since then they’ve released many more (they’re up to 19 now, with #20 imminent) and faced challenges of less-well-received films, a resurgence in the quality and popularity of Disney’s main output, and the likes of DreamWorks and Illumination gaining ground. It would be very interesting to see an update on how that time has been for the company.

    Despite those drawbacks, The Pixar Story feels like a very good overview of one of the most significant forces in 21st Century movies. Without being too sycophantic, it definitely feels like a celebration, but one that they’d earned.

    4 out of 5

    Drew: The Man Behind the Poster (2013)

    2017 #127
    Erik Sharkey | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

    If you don’t know the name Drew Struzan, there’s a fair chance you know his work: he’s the poster artist behind the likes of the Back to the Future trilogy, almost everything Indiana Jones related, many iconic Star Wars posters (including the primary art for the prequel trilogy), and so many more. Even when not painted by Drew himself, his style has been a major influence on blockbuster posters across the board, even in today’s era of Photoshopped collages. Nonetheless, you may wonder if the topic can really support a feature-length documentary. How much is there to say? Turns out, plenty.

    It starts out, as the title might suggest, in the form of a biography — rather than just looking at Struzan’s famous posters, it talks about his days as a struggling artist; literally starving, choosing to spend his limited money on paint rather than food. Once it reaches his move into film posters it goes more topically, covering a series at a time. He started on B-movies, which led to doing a poster for Star Wars’ 1978 re-release, which led to Indiana Jones, which was his big breakthrough: his poster for Temple of Doom established him as the Indy artist, and he went on to do video covers, book covers, and the rest.

    Painting Menace

    Despite the biographical start, the film is really an appreciation, if that were a genre, but a well-deserved one. There are stories about how the posters were commissioned, or designed, or painted, or whatever, but also about their impact, effect, and significance, and what it’s like for filmmakers to work with Struzan. In that regard the list of interviewees is impressive, including the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and more. Their presence speaks not only to the awe-inspiring people Struzan has done posters for, but also how much they admire him. As Spielberg says, he was trying to make a movie that would live up to the art they’d later commission from Drew.

    Movie posters are just advertisements, really; certainly in the minds of executives — I mean, why else are the Marvel ones overloaded with every possible character and location featured in the movie? But to the public they’re more than that. Michael J. Fox makes the point very well right at the start of this film: the poster is the first part of the story; it’s where the film begins for the audience. There’s definite truth to that — the ad creates an expectation, and the resultant film has to match it. With Struzan’s work, the bar was never set higher.

    4 out of 5

    Review Roundup: Comedy Documentaries About Music

    In today’s does-what-it-says-on-the-tin roundup:

  • Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)
  • Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)


    Anvil:
    The Story of Anvil

    (2008)

    2017 #117
    Sacha Gervasi | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Canada / English | 15

    Anvil: The Story of Anvil

    This is the real Spinal Tap: a rockumentary about heavy metal group Anvil, who once headlined alongside Whitensake and Bon Jovi, and are cited as an influence on groups like Megadeth and Metallica, but who haven’t enjoyed the same success as any of them. The film follows the group as they attempt to relaunch with a tour and new album.

    Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say, and, thanks to This is Spinal Tap, Anvil at first feels like fiction, with broad characters and a humorous tone. But it isn’t a blatant rip-off of Rob Reiner’s influential mockumentary, it’s a true story.

    That knowledge gives the whole thing a different air. It’s not so much tinged with sadness as endlessly sad — hopes and dreams that have come to nothing, even though they’re still pursued; how those continued pursuits falter and fail. And, perhaps worst of all, is the esteem other bands hold them in — the influence they admit to have taken from Anvil — and yet Anvil themselves languish in crummy jobs with no wide recognition, while the people who ripped them off (as one of them even admits) are famous and successful.

    A lot of comedy would actually be quite sad if it wasn’t fiction. Anvil proves that.

    4 out of 5

    Popstar:
    Never Stop Never Stopping

    (2016)

    2018 #41
    Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

    This is Spinal Rap: comedy trio The Lonely Island star as the Style Boyz, a popular pop-rap boy band who disbanded after their frontman, Conner4Real (Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Andy Samberg), decided to go solo. The mockumentary follows Conner as he goes on tour to launch his second album.

    Popstar is every inch a modern do-over of This is Spinal Tap. That’s not to say it’s a straight-up remake, but it’s certainly a spiritual sequel, with many similar building blocks: not very bright musicians; unsuccessful musical endeavours; and lots of fully-realised spoof songs. Where Spinal Tap satirised the metal scene of the ’80s, Popstar turns its sights on the world of present-day mainstream music. In both cases, the base funniness is enough that you don’t need much familiarity with reality to get the gags.

    It only bears so much comparison to its forebear (there’s nothing as iconic as “it goes up to 11” to be found here), but as a modern take on the same genre, it has merit. And, most importantly, I thought it was consistently very amusing.

    4 out of 5

  • The Director and the Jedi (2018)

    2018 #59
    Anthony Wonke | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12

    The Director and the Jedi title card

    So, The Last Jedi, eh?

    No, okay, let’s not get into that again. Instead, how about this: the film’s Blu-ray making-of documentary. But oh, how that undersells it. More indicative, perhaps, is the fact it was screened as part of the South by Southwest festival last month. The Director and the Jedi isn’t some cobbled-together EPK featurette, where talking heads tell you how wonderful everyone is and how great the working environment was, while tech guys show you how to build a puppet or paint out greenscreen or, you know, whatever. No, for this one Last Jedi’s writer-director Rian Johnson and his producer Ram Bergman contacted documentary-maker Anthony Wonke to follow them around throughout the film’s production and provide a more truthful account of the film’s creation.

    If that sounds like it would just turn out a video diary (another familiar special feature of the DVD era), the key would seem to be Wonke, who brings considerably more artistry than that. Most making-ofs are, for want of a better word, educational — “this is how they did it”. There’s some of that here, naturally, but it’s not about that. It’s more often about the psychology and emotion of being the people making a new Star Wars movie. But not heavy-handedly (Wonke isn’t constantly making people say how they feel or something), and that’s why it’s so artfully done. It’s even beautifully filmed and edited. It doesn’t look like crummy behind-the-scenes B-roll — there are some legitimately gorgeous shots in here.

    The producer, the apprentice, the director, and the Jedi

    If that makes it sound faked, no, it’s definitely not been staged. Far from it, in fact: this is a warts-and-all making-of. Exceedingly rarely for a documentary about a new release, Wonke has been allowed to include comments critical of the process or filmmakers. Chief among them: Mark Hamill’s much-discussed reservations about Johnson’s treatment of Luke Skywalker. As the title might imply, this is the doc’s strongest throughline, and would be its most affecting were it not for another part (more on that later). I say that because the feeling you eventually get from Hamill and Johnson is one of immense mutual respect, even as their beliefs about what should happen in the film clash. Except they don’t clash because Hamill, the dutiful actor, informs Johnson of his misgivings before committing to realise Johnson’s vision as best he can. It causes Johnson to doubt whether he’s doing the right thing — and, again, such elements of doubt are not something we normally witness in documentaries like this, even as they are surely always a part of the creative process.

    Indeed, the creative process of filmmaking is another major point, especially in how it clashes with reality. The Last Jedi may’ve had a phenomenal budget and a massive production machine to back it up, but it also had just a 100-day shoot to squeeze in the construction of and filming on 120 sets, not to mention travelling around the world for location shooting. What Johnson and co want to achieve constantly clashes with what’s possible with the time and budget available. (The amount of effort that went into making the thala-siren milking scene happen just makes it all the funnier how much some people hated it.) As one producer puts it, eventually you have to fit everything in a box — “this box is big, but it has limits”.

    It ain't easy at the top

    Consequently, there’s a lot of stuff with department heads butting against Johnson’s vision a little bit, either because of time, or money, or “that? In Star Wars?” feelings. But, like Hamill, they all get on with their jobs to serve his vision, because that’s filmmaking. And this is why we, as film fans/theorists, still discuss the notion of the director as auteur, even though filmmaking is undeniably a massively collaborative exercise. The Director and the Jedi is as a good demonstration as any of why the seemingly-conflicting notions of “filmmaking is entirely collaborative” and “auteur theory is relevant” are both true.

    The other most memorable part of the film is how it handles Carrie Fisher’s presence and, well, eventual lack thereof. The bulk of the documentary is dedicated to the actual filming of The Last Jedi (Wonke wasn’t privy to either the writing or post-production, which is a shame because they’re certainly key parts of the creative process), but Fisher’s death is an unavoidable topic, and clearly they conducted at least a short interview with Johnson after it happened. Aside from those few comments, Wonke builds a tribute to her through her work and the regard others hold her in. He chooses to end the documentary, not with the last day of shooting, but with Fisher and Hamill finally reunited on set and on screen, the crew watching in hushed awe as they film that beautiful scene in the Crait hangar. It forms a fitting, respectful tribute.

    The princess and the director

    “Beautiful” is a word I keep coming back to with this documentary — how it’s shot and constructed; how it handles its subjects; how the relationships between people come across. I guess those who hated Last Jedi and Johnson’s contribution will still rile against it to some degree, but even for them I think it’s worth a watch, if only to try to appreciate that no one was deliberately trying to “ruin their childhoods” or whatever. Quite the opposite. And even for non-fans, there’s insight here into humanity when its applied to a joint creative endeavour. If that sounds a bit grand for a blockbuster’s making-of, well, The Director and the Jedi is much more than your bog-standard making-of.

    5 out of 5

    The Director and the Jedi is included on the Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is released in the UK today.

    Making of the Living Dead

    To mark the UK release of Criterion’s remastered, definitive Blu-ray edition of George A. Romero’s seminal subgenre-starting zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, I finally got round to watching two related feature-length documentaries that, er, aren’t included on that release. Never mind, eh?

    Anyway, here are my thoughts on One for the Fire and Birth of the Living Dead.


    One for the Fire:
    The Legacy of “Night of the Living Dead”

    (2008)

    2018 #29
    Robert L. Lucas & Chris Roe | 84 mins | Blu-ray (SD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    One for the Fire Italian DVD

    Made to mark the film’s 40th anniversary, this documentary interviews many of the surviving creators of Night of the Living Dead to tell the full story of the project’s genesis, making, release, and legacy.

    After an opening segment that imitates Night’s own beginning and interviews the graveyard scene’s stars, One for the Fire goes for a chronological telling of events. It starts with Romero’s college days, when he met most of the gang who would eventually create Night. There are some great tales of him as a flamboyant student, swishing around in a cape or dressing up as a Mexican bandit for no particular reason — if you put it in a biopic it’d look like an OTT sitcom-ish affectation. After that they set up a production company, The Latent Image, making local TV ads. The expertise (and equipment) gained there would eventually embolden them to make a feature film, choosing the horror genre because it would be a relatively easy sell.

    “We were just a bunch of guys out to make a movie,” says Romero, which kind of sums up the whole shoot — they basically winged it, making up the process of moviemaking as they went along. Any one of them could’ve done each other’s jobs because they all knew about as much as each other did; if someone knew slightly more about something, they were assigned that role. Everyone mucked in, doing what was necessary, be that zombie make-up or running to the shop for lunch. But they were canny, reaching out to local TV personalities, police, and helicopter pilots to lend a sense of scale to some sequences, or popping to Washington D.C. on a quiet Sunday to shoot a scene guerrilla-style, all to make it look like the film had some budget.

    Making Night of the Living Dead

    Interestingly, Romero says that Night is not only his scariest film, it’s in fact his only scary film. Not what you expect from a renowned horror director. But he says a specific part of the impetus while making Night was to try to scare the viewer, which hasn’t been his goal on any film he’s made since, despite the genre.

    The documentary’s general narrative is interspersed with short asides that focus on minor-seeming individuals and the contributions they made to the film, which is a nice way of giving people credit. One who merits a longer discussion is Duane Jones, the actor who played the heroic role of Ben. He died in 1988 and they all pay quite moving tribute to him — he was clearly very well liked; admired, even. His part was written as colourless… well, so they say — I’m sure they assumed he’d be white. But they were young, hip guys, and so they happily cast Jones because he was the best actor they knew. They proudly didn’t change a single thing about the script to accommodate the race change. Romero thought they were being hip, treating him exactly the same as if he were white, but Jones disagreed, arguing they should acknowledge his race at least a bit. Speaking now, Romero thinks Jones was right — they were so busy being cool about it that they didn’t really understand that, in those days, it really was different him being black.

    One for the Fire doesn’t get too far into that kind of analysis, mind. It’s really an oral history of how the film was made, by many of the people who were there doing it. How much that interests you will dictate how much this film does. Movie buffs may prefer the next documentary…

    3 out of 5

    Birth of the Living Dead
    (2013)

    2018 #30
    Rob Kuhns | 76 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15

    Birth of the Living Dead

    As Birth of the Living Dead got underway, I was worried I’d made a mistake watching it so soon after One for the Fire: it seemed to be telling the same making-of story (though starting later: it jumps straight to the Latent Image days), but with only one interviewee who was there (at least that interviewee is Romero himself) and some slick animations to illustrate events. However, it moves very quickly on to commenting on and analysing the film’s construction, effect, and influence, and puts both the finished film itself and its production methods into wider social and historical contexts.

    There are some familiar stories and anecdotes here, unsurprisingly, but there’s actually not that much overlap with One for the Fire, and Romero even tells some new behind-the-scenes stories. Much more of the film is about commentary from knowledgeable individuals — other people in the industry, journalists, movie experts, and so on. What the film lacks in not having other voices from the production, it makes up for with this outside analysis. This is all good stuff for those interested in the movie’s effect more than its production. Some of the discussion is obvious or reiterates well-known perspectives, but there’s a good variety of voices. It’s the kind of commentary that can enhance your appreciation of the film itself.

    George Romero interviewed in Birth of the Living Dead

    The only seemingly pointless thread follows a school teacher as he shows Night to a bunch of elementary school kids. No, that’s not a typo — they’re surely far too young for it! But they seem to delight in it. Nonetheless, it seems like a needless addition to the film, until quite late on. When the documentary gets on to discussing Night’s release, it talks about how horror had become a genre mainly marketed to kids — it was seen as colourful campy fun, with only the occasional hint of slight scariness. But then it was that audience that saw Night of the Living Dead, and they were fucking terrified (see: Roger Ebert’s contemporary article about watching it with an audience of children). I thought the documentary wouldn’t dare to revisit the modern teacher after that, but it does — and they still seem to love it. I don’t know what that says about our society now, if anything.

    Aside from traumatising small children, Night of the Living Dead was initially dismissed by American critics as trash; but when it was re-released the next year, it was seen by a writer for Andy Warhol’s magazine, who called it art and said it should be playing in art houses. When it reached Europe in 1970, the French had a similar reaction. That fed back to the US: the Museum of Modern Art played it to a standing-room-only crowd. I guess that’s how we get to where we are today, with it acknowledged as a solid classic.

    Now THAT's a triple bill

    As I said earlier, when I decided to watch these two documentaries basically back to back I thought it would probably turn out to be a stupid idea. Fortunately, the overlap is minimal, meaning they actually compliment each other pretty well. Fans would surely benefit from seeing both. Alternatively, the fact that they offer distinctly different things means a viewer could pick the topic that particularly interests them. In that regard, I’d err towards recommending Birth of the Living Dead, for its critical appreciation and historical analysis that furnishes viewers with wider perspectives with which to appreciate one of the most significant horror movies — arguably, one of the most significant movies full stop — ever made.

    4 out of 5

    One for the Fire is available as a special feature on certain releases of Night of the Living Dead: the Australian and US 40th anniversary DVDs, the Japanese 40th anniversary Blu-ray, and Optimum’s UK Blu-ray (not the one released by Network). It seems it’s also available on an Italian DVD and Blu-ray, which provided the cover art above.

    Birth of the Living Dead is available by itself on DVD in the US and on Blu-ray in the UK, as well as bundled with Network’s UK Blu-ray of Night. It’s also streaming free to Amazon Prime members in the US, and I’m sure available to rent and/or purchase from other digital providers.

    Saludos Amigos (1942)

    2017 #161
    Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Ham Luske & Bill Roberts | 40 mins | download | 4:3 | USA / Portuguese & English | U / PG

    Saludos Amigos

    The sixth film in Disney’s official animated canon was the first in a run of cheap “package films” that span the gap from 1942’s Bambi to 1950’s Cinderella. Frankly, if Disney hadn’t decided to make it part of their animated canon whenever that list was first settled upon, I very much doubt it would be remembered today.

    It’s called a “package film” because it bundled together a handful of animated shorts, linked by live-action footage of Disney’s team on location researching the films, to form a feature-length movie (though in the case of Saludos Amigos it barely qualifies as feature-length). This particular set depict various aspects of South America, apparently in an attempt by Disney to improve US relations with its neighbouring continent during World War II. According to this item of trivia on IMDb, it worked — but thanks to the linking documentaries, not the animation: by “featuring footage of modern Latin American cities with skyscrapers and fashionably dressed residents [it] went against the then-current perception of the American audience that Latin America was a culturally backwards area, predominately rural, and mostly inhabited by poorly-dressed peasants. The film is credited with helping change the American perception of Latin America and its inhabitants.”

    No stereotypes here

    Viewed today, it’s largely fine — one or two parts are likeable, even — but there’s not a great deal to it. The live-action linking segments are meant to show what inspired the short animations, but sometimes that goes a little too far and they seem to convey the same Educational info twice over. And unless you’re looking into, say, North American perceptions of South America in the 1940s, there’s not a great deal of value left in it as a factual piece.

    So my score errs on the harsh side, because it’s not a bad film per se, but I think it has very little to offer the modern viewer, either in terms of entertainment or education.

    2 out of 5