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

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 good a 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 it’s 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.

La La Land (2016)

2018 #10
Damien Chazelle | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.55:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English | 12 / PG-13

La La Land

Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
14 nominations — 6 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Song (City of Stars), Best Production Design.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Song (Audition (The Fools Who Dream)).

Yes, I am very, very, exceptionally late to the party here. For example: whenever I watch a film I log it on Letterboxd, then have a scan through the ratings my ‘friends’ have given it, whether that’s just one other person or a few dozen. This had by far the highest number of ‘friends’ who’d already seen it that I’ve ever encountered. And it was on Letterboxd that I first encountered La La Land, in fact, when it started screening at festivals in the latter half of 2016 and everyone was raving about it. It was a must-see long before the Oscar buzz started to build, and obviously that only intensified the film’s reputation. It’s a lot of anticipation to heap upon one movie. Fortunately, La La Land can bear it.

For anyone who’s even later to it than me, it’s the story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who encounter each other randomly, initially hate each other, but fall in love. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoilt the ending — there’s more story beyond that typical romance plotline. And much of it is told through the mediums of song and dance.

Watching the best picture...

La La Land isn’t “kind of a musical”, or “I suppose you could call it a musical”, or “a film with songs, a bit like a musical” — it is a Musical. And while the leads can’t really sing, that doesn’t stop there being some beltingly good numbers in it — though, for my money, the best either (a) don’t involve the leads at all, or (b) don’t involve singing. Coincidentally, two of those are the set pieces that bookend the film. The opener is a colourful stunner, a bright and breezy singalongathon on a gridlocked freeway, made even more enjoyable by being realised in a (faked) single-take. Related thought: I feel like we need to bring back done-for-real oners — people are faking them too easily and too often nowadays. Though, saying that, another particularly joyful sequence is the dance routine that adorns the poster. Its success lies in part with Gosling and Stone’s well-performed moves, but also, like the opening number, with how well shot it is. I assumed it was done on a set with some CGI’d backgrounds and probably some invisible cuts, but no, it was achieved on location, the shoot squeezed into the real ‘magic hour’ — actually a half-hour window — and is, I believe, a genuine single take.

Now, the other bookend is (obviously) the ending. Well, I think they actually label it an epilogue, because its events occur after the main story; but an epilogue is an addendum, isn’t it?, and I reckon this final sequence is as vital as any other part of the film. It’s how the story really ends, and it’s an all-timer of a finale. That comes both from the tone it takes (no spoilers here, but see my Letterboxd comment) but also the sequence itself, a stunning marriage of visuals, soundtrack, and meaning — and I say this as someone who (for a pertinent example) disliked An American in Paris specifically because of its extended ballet bit at the end. Damien Chazelle well earned his Best Director Oscar.

Finale

Speaking of which, I must mention what went down at the Oscars. Well, not so much the snafu itself (though that made for great telly), but the ultimate result. I think there can be little doubt that Moonlight is a more significant film for our times, for all kinds of reasons, and it’s certainly a quality work of filmmaking in its own right, but La La Land is a more purely enjoyable cinematic experience, with just enough grit in the mix to stop it being too sappy. I don’t resent Moonlight its victory, but I’d’ve voted for this.

5 out of 5

The 2018 Academy Awards are handed out tonight from 1am GMT.

La La Land placed 4th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

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.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

2017 #23
Joel & Ethan Coen | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Hail, Caesar!

The Coen brothers’ ode to the golden age of Hollywood provoked mixed reactions from their faithful fans (i.e. all film critics and most moviegoers) — some say it’s just a lightweight romp, others that there’s more meat on its bones.

Well, maybe there are indeed hidden depths here, but I think I’d prefer it as just a zany caper centred on Josh Brolin’s character, surrounded by the game all-star supporting cast, rather than having lengthy asides where a room of kinda-recognisable supporting actors discuss economics and communist philosophies and that kind of thing. Is that shallow of me? Maybe. But the movie is so entertaining when it’s riffing off classic Hollywood staples and making light work of many an amusing scenario, it’s tough not to want it to be no more than that.

Fundamentally I enjoyed it (those handful of political longueurs aside), but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it as a whole. I can believe there’s a deeper reading there if one looks to interpret it, but I’m not sure I’m bothered — I’m satisfied with it being merely a comical tribute-to-old-Hollywood caper, thanks.

4 out of 5

Hail, Caesar! was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016)

2016 #162
Tim Skousen & Jeremy Coon | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

You may have heard about this: in 1982, a group of teenagers decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot, starring themselves. It was a project that ended up filling their whole adolescence, filming scenes here and there every summer for years. Decades later, their amateur recreation (known nowadays as Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation) was uncovered by director Eli Roth, who passed it to Harry Knowles to screen at a film festival he organises, and it began to gain cult notoriety. Eventually, that new appreciation led to the guys reuniting in an attempt to crowdfund production of the one scene they were never able to shoot originally. This documentary tells the stories of both the original production and the attempt to complete it.

It’s a great tale, but unfortunately it’s told in a really sloppily made documentary. The narrative is a complete jumble — it jumps in and out of stories all over the place, getting distracted by something else before looping back around. Exposition and setup are bungled, leaving the viewer constantly playing catch-up and trying to piece things together. It throws in general observations mid-film that really belong in an introduction or conclusion. It goes back and forth in time at will — presumably someone thought they’d structured it to tell the parallel stories of the original project and the 2014 shoot, but the editing isn’t clear enough to support that structure. Interviews are cut to shreds, leaving soundbite-sized snippets that often fade out while the person’s still talking, just moving away without letting them finish.

Some people never grow up...

As a viewer, you endure all of this because the underlying story is so good, but there’s a better film to be made here — one that tells the story more clearly, that better draws out the characters of the people involved, the psychology of what they’re doing, and any latent thematic points too. I mean, what these guys did is extraordinary in its dedication, but it’s also completely bizarre. Why did they start it? What does it say about them, or their lives, or maybe even the human condition? And it does say something, I’d wager — you can almost glimpse it around the edges and in the corners of the documentary, but it rarely comes close to actually exploring it. There is a section on the kids’ shitty home lives — that’s something they all seemed to share — and how the Raiders project was a refuge. At this point the editing calms down and it’s briefly very good. If the whole film had displayed that same clarity, it would merit a higher rating.

As it stands, Raiders! has a brilliant story to tell, meaning it’s worth watching to learn about that, but I yearned for it to be told better.

3 out of 5

Elstree 1976 (2015)

2017 #18
Jon Spira | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 12

Elstree 1976

In a studio near London in the summer of 1976, filming took place for a movie that the crew regarded as a children’s flick and several cast members assumed would be a flop. They couldn’t’ve been more wrong, because that film was Star Wars, probably the most influential movie of the last 40 years. You know the names of many of the people who were there: George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness… But there was also an army of supporting actors and extras. This is their story.

Here’s where the point of Elstree 1976 runs aground for some viewers. It is not The Making of Star Wars; nor is it The Secret Making of Star Wars, where the “little people” dish the dirt on what really happened. There is a bit of that in here — a section where the interviewees tell their tales from the set — but it’s not what the film is about. Rather, it’s a study of what it’s like to be tangentially attached to something great; to be a bit player in a cultural phenomenon. Most of the contributors here just took any old job to earn some cash, but by happening to be in the right place at the right time they found themselves attached to something huge for the entire rest of their lives. How does that change the course of someone’s life? How does it change the very fabric of who they are as a person?

What it's actually like being on a film set

There are reviews of Elstree 1976 that espouse a “why should we care” perspective. “These people aren’t the leads, they were just little people, why should we give a hoot about their lives?” Well, isn’t that the point? They’re people, like you and I — people who have lives. They were involved with one of the largest, most enduring pop culture events of our time, and yet they were so on the periphery that it’s a tiny part of their lives… or it should have been. Star Wars may be this huge, defining thing for its lead actors and high-profile crew members, but there were also dozens (probably hundreds) of people who “just happened to work on it”, and who otherwise have led ordinary lives. Or haven’t, because of the effect the film has had.

You see, here’s the thing: some of these people were only on screen for a frame or two, or they were hidden under a prosthetic that means you never even saw their face… and yet they still attend conventions where people want to meet them, get their autograph, all that jazz. For all the people who don’t understand the appeal of a movie telling these performers’ life stories, there are fans who are so much more interested in them for so much less. I don’t know how much the documentary actually explores the psychology of that, but it does touch on some aspects — the behind-the-scenes hierarchy of conventions, for instance, and how some actors don’t think others are worthy of putting in an appearance.

Extras, extras, read all about it!

Providing you approach it with the right expectations, Elstree 1976 is interesting in its way. As a portrait of ordinary lives that were touched by something extraordinary it’s got an interesting thematic point to make, but the lives covered are still ordinary, and we therefore hear a lot about that ordinariness. Well, maybe that’s harsh — some of these people certainly have stories to tell. Still, it’s probably a bit too long, and a greater focus on the behind-the-scenes stories and conventions, plus a trim to the general life stuff, might’ve been beneficial. Nonetheless, it offers a unique perspective on a much-discussed movie and the culture that surrounds it.

3 out of 5

Elstree 1976 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

2016 #137
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

This is a film about a high school student who makes movie parodies for fun, who befriends a dying girl. It won the Audience Award at Sundance. I’m not sure there’s any other knowledge you need to judge if you’ll like this movie or not. Except normally that’d have me thinking “oh God, here we go,” but I liked it enough to put it in my Top 20 of last year.

So, I admit, I went into the film feeling pretty cynical about it. I was expecting to find a movie tailor-made to be an indie cinephile’s dream comedy-drama. There are elements of that about it, but I must also admit I ended up being won round and affected by the film, to the point of feeling quite emotional and often a little teary for, ooh, most of the second half. Was I just manipulated into feeling that way? Well, that question is a fallacy. All film is emotionally manipulative, because it has been constructed to achieve a purpose, and the people who complain about feeling manipulated by sappy dialogue or heavy-handed music or whatever have just seen behind the curtain, as it were. For these reasons it kind of annoys me when critics or ‘film fans’ get annoyed about a film being “manipulative”, but maybe that’s a rant for another time.

Me and Earl and the Criterion Collection

Anyway, as I was saying, I kind of didn’t want to like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl because I didn’t want to fall into the obvious trap of “this movie totally gets me because I love Criterion editions too!” But I thought it worked in spite of those pandering affectations. Or maybe I just couldn’t resist them on a subconscious level? In some respects it doesn’t matter how it achieved it: the film wanted to make me feel a certain way, and I did feel that way — success.

Perhaps another reason it worked for me was the positioning of Greg (the titular “Me”) as a high school “Everyman”, not affiliated with any of the school’s multitudinous social groups. I don’t think I’ve seen that in a film before. What movies (and TV) have taught us about American high schools is that they are chocka with rigid cliques, and everyone belongs in one group or another. Is that true? I have no idea — but as far as movies (and TV) are concerned, yes it is. I don’t think it’s the case out in the rest of the world (well, at least not in the UK); not so rigidly and antagonistically as it’s depicted as being in US high schools, anyway. Nonetheless, I could identify with Greg’s status as someone able to drift around groups being generally well-liked but also almost entirely unnoticed, which perhaps helped me buy into him and his emotional journey a little more, thereby explaining the film’s ultra-effective emotional manipulation effect.

The Dying Girl

A lot of what works lies in the performances. As “the dying girl”, Rachel, Olivia Cooke is fantastic. She’s got the showy role, but manages to play it with subtlety. Instead of the usual indie movie Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the lead character / narrator is the Quirky one and she’s a cynical girl who undercuts him, which is kinda fun. Nonetheless, as the film’s “Me”, Greg, Thomas Mann has a less obviously showcasing part, but the way he handles it — especially as the film moves away from the “he’s a Quirky film fan who’s uncomfortable in high school just like you” aspect — is essential to how the film’s relationships and emotions function.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in a two-hander between the pair: achieved in a single static shot that lasts five minutes, they don’t look at each other while they argue and their friendship struggles. It’s a frankly stunning scene from all involved: kudos to Jesse Andrews (who wrote both the original novel and the screenplay) for the plausible and complex dialogue; kudos to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon for the confident blocking of both actors and camera; kudos to both of the actors for their layered, emotive, but not grandiose, performances.

Several supporting cast members are also worthy of note: Jon Bernthal as a cool teacher; Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom; and Nick Offerman for once again perfectly judging the level of funny his character needed to hit to be comic relief but also stay tonally consistent with the rest of the film.

Fake Criterions

A final stray thought before I wrap up this rather bitty review: I’ve read a few comments that make a point of mentioning this is not like all those other “teen death” movies, or that if you’re sick of all those then this one’s still good, and so on. I’m kind of aware these “teen death” movies exist and that there’ve been a few, but I’ve never bothered to watch one (because, frankly, they’ve all sounded rubbish), so I am immune to any overkill other viewers may experience. But if there’s a lesson here (and I’m not saying there is) it would be that you don’t have to watch every high-profile film that comes out (unless you’re a critic and being paid to do it).

4 out of 5

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl placed 14th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The Quay Brothers in 35mm (2015)

2016 #159
Quay Brothers + Christopher Nolan | 68 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | UK & USA / English | 12*

The Quay Brothers in 35mmChristopher Nolan made a few headlines last year when his first post-Interstellar film was announced for near-immediate release. Not Dunkirk, of course, but an eight-minute short documentary, Quay, about British-based American-born identical-twin animators the Quay brothers. The short was screened theatrically as part of a programme of animated shorts directed by the brothers, curated by Nolan to accompany his documentary, all from 35mm prints — because it’s Nolan, so of course. One critic reckoned it “will always be one of [Nolan]’s most important contributions to cinema.”

Today, the BFI release a Blu-ray set of the Quay brothers’ short animations, containing 24 of their works plus special features, among which is Nolan’s short. As a complete neophyte to the Quays’ work, I thought the best way to begin approaching it might be via the selection Nolan programmed, which was at least partly minded as an introduction to the brothers’ oeuvre. (Now, obviously I’m not watching this on 35mm, nor in its intended form (i.e. in a cinema), and it’s technically a selection of short films, so can I really count it towards my list? We’ll leave that to my conscience.)

Though if it is a beginner’s course, it’s the kind that throws you in at the deep end. In Absentia (2000) was, remarkably, made for the BBC as part of a season about sound on film — you can’t imagine them commissioning anything like this today. Maybe for BBC Four. Maybe. It’s an inscrutable 20-minute nightmare of a film, with sci-fi landscapes, a demonic puppet, sentient pencil leads, and the graphite-stained fingers of too many hands. It’s clear from the outset that these are films more about mood, atmosphere, and feeling than they are strictly concerned with plot or character, and to an extent one needs to be open to just going along with it in the hope that meaning or significance reveals itself.

In AbsentiaFor all that In Absentia initially feels like flailing in deep water without armbands, accompanied with “what have I got myself into?!” thoughts, in retrospect I found it to be the most accessible of the three animations. It’s abstract and confusing for most of its running time, but by the end you can decipher some meaning; you can understand the relevance of the feelings it aims to generate — and if you haven’t got there yourself, or if you’re unsure, there’s a dedication to point you in the right direction. I didn’t get that with the next two; not so easily, anyway, which is why I say they’re less accessible rather than less good per se.

Nolan follows this opening salvo with his documentary, Quay. It provides a sliver of insight into the brothers’ methods and thought processes; the merest glimpse into how they do what they do, with little or no explanation for why or what it means. I suppose Nolan wasn’t aiming for enlightenment or explanation, but to instead acknowledge the craftsmanship of the animators. Rather than the kooky outré bohemians you might imagine from their bizarre films, the brothers seem quiet, calm, and, for want of a better word, ordinary. By placing his documentary here, Nolan gives you an idea of the people whose hands you’re in, before diving back inside their imagination…

The Comb (1990) professes to be adapted from something and has immediately obvious characters, both human and puppet. “Ah,” you may think, “a clearer narrative.” No chance! I came away with even less of an idea what this was about than I did In Absentia, and certainly no clue what a comb has to do with most of it — the exception being the bits where there is a comb, because then there is a comb there. In a piece on the film at BFI Screenonline, The CombMichael Brooke notes that it is “setting out to wrong-foot the viewer at every turn, and the result wilfully defies verbal analysis.” What can be easily discerned is that it’s about a dream, and it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s some dream-logic involved. As to what else is to be gleaned, your guess is as good as mine.

Last up is the film that’s reckoned to be the Quays’ masterpiece, Street of Crocodiles (1986) — Terry Gilliam picked it as one of the ten best animated films ever, while critic Jonathan Romney has twice nominated it in Sight & Sound’s famous “greatest films of all time” poll. Once again, I was left initially floundering for significance. There’s some fascinating imagery, and the implication again that parts function though dream-logic, but as to an overall story or message… Reading various sources before writing this, a theme emerges: that to search a Quay Brothers film for direct meaning is futile; it’s more about somehow accessing the same otherworldly psychological and/or emotional space that’s peculiar to these filmmakers. Even when the Quays themselves describe what’s going on in Street of Crocodiles, you’ll notice there’s nary a nod to meaning — though even an outline of the plot as they conceived it is illuminating, unlocking something you sort of already knew, but providing a kind of clarity that felt absent before. A bit like that title card at the end of In Absentia, I suppose.

It’s true what they say: watching Quay Brothers shorts is like being given a glimpse into another world, connected to our own but also other to it — hiding in the cracks or around the corner, perhaps; or only in our dreams and nightmares; on the other side of the mirror, were we able to pass though it. Their work is our conduit to this otherness, which is Street of Crocodilessometimes informative about the world the rest of us live in (In Absentia), sometimes a twisted analogy for it (Street of Crocodiles), and sometimes just fascinatingly unknowable (The Comb). All the films are teasingly oblique, and by all rights that should make them frustrating to the point of irritation, even abandonment… yet they’re kind of compelling nonetheless.

Oh, and do I need to throw in a “they’re not for everyone” at this point? I imagine that’s implicit.

4 out of 5

The aforementioned Blu-ray collection, Inner Sanctums – Quay Brothers: The Collected Animation Films 1979-2013, is released by the BFI today. The genuine Quay Brothers in 35mm is screening at London’s Prince Charles Cinema in November.

Further Reading

* Although this particular presentation hasn’t been certified by the BBFC, a collection of Quays shorts featuring these is rated 12, and Nolan’s short is classified U. ^