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John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky

Genius and humanity
For eight years, the Beatles rewrote the rules of popular music. After they split up, they were never to reach the same heights as individuals. Except, perhaps, for John Lennon's 'Imagine' album, his first record after the break-up. The album was recorded at his home studio, a process that was mostly recorded on film. That film, coupled with the obligatory sequence of talking heads, has now been recycled into this documentary. Why is it good? Well, because Lennon was (at his peak) brilliant, which makes the insight into how he made his music innately more interesting than the average film of this type. But it also makes a strong case for the (positive) influence that his wife Yoko Ono had on him, and suggests persuasively that the album was very much a product of their shared life, although once it was completed, they abandoned their English country home forever. It's a very human picture of a genius; there's (almost invetably) a measure of sycophancy to it, but it's still well worth watching.

Inside the Foreign Office

Smooth characters
Michael Waldman's three films take us inside the Foreign Office, watching the country's smooth diplomats (and not so smooth politicians) as they conduct the business of statecraft at the highest levels. It's particularly notable how fluently the senior civil servants sidestep the question of Brexit; also, how transparently obnoxious Boris Johnson is, even when mugging for the camera. We don't get any shocking revelations, and the film allows us to see most of its participants at their best, but I thought that there was a ring of truth in its portrait of what daily work in the F.O. might actually involve. There could have been more frank speaking - but I guess that was always going to be hard to procure with this subject.

Louis Theroux's Altered States

Births, deaths and marriages
Louis Theroux is back in America again, this time speaking to three groups of people: polygamists in Oregon (which is a subject I have seen covered in other documentaries, although I don't know if this is just a statistical quirk or something in the water), some planning their own suicides, and some involved in so-called "open" adoption (an operation similar to surrogacy, although the pregnancy itself is not planned). In the first programme, one gets the impression of people trying rather too hard to convince us, but more importantly themselves, they have found the ideal way to live. It's interesting how earnest and un-hedonistc they are - but it's not clear that they're really as happy as they profess. The second programme is the strongest, a very serious subject that Theroux treats with appropriate sensitivity and respect, and the result is surprisingly un-ghoulish, as he meets real people wrestling with the ultimate dilemma. A worrying possibility the last two films is that, in the land of the free-market, the biggest decisions of all are overly motivated by monetary considerations. Theroux's style of film-making might not be for everyone, but it is well-suited to certain lines of enquiry, and these three stories are a worthwhile addition to his opus.


America vs. evil
'Narcos' tells the extraordinary story of Pablo Escobar, a Columbian who rose to the top of a massive drug smuggling enterprise. The series has been highly praised, but I didn't like it that much. Told from the perspective of U.S. government agents, it paints a picture where those agents are tough as hell but essentially heroic, and there's relatively little interest in the everyday lives of ordinary Columbians (or indeed, of Americans addicted to the drugs Escobar smuggled). Whereas series like 'The Wire' have shown us drug barons who, while grotesque, remain human, 'Narcos' is more about spectacle, and a story whose morality is fundamentally black and white. The details of Escobar's tale are amazing; but I didn't feel I got much in the way of deep insight by watching this show.


Burying the lede
Many stories have been told about John Kennedy's assasination, some of them hysterical feasts of speculation, but Peter Landesman's film 'Parkland' takes a different tack, focusing mainly on what happened at the hospital of the same name on the day of the murder. I'm not sure the concept quite works: we see some interesting side stories but the main thread of events is buried, and there's an awful lot of proud, patriotic, but normally silent men being upset on camaera, and not too much emphasis on building up the subtleties of their characters, or linking the film's fragmented vignettes together into a coherent narrative. It's not awful, but the treatement is unlikely to add much of real interest to what anyone already knows the about these events.


Less clever than it thinks it is
'Informer' has a lot going for it: a complex plot, a bold structure, and the great Paddy Considine in the lead role. But I struggled with this BBC series. Firstly, I found it genuinely hard to follow what was going on. Secondly,it seemed over-cooked, with some of its tough-as-nails dialogue verging on parody. I simply didn't get a feeling that anyone was acting out of any ordinary, plausible motivation, or that undercover operations really work in this way. Perhaps I simply thought it less clever than it thought it was.


You couldn't make it up
'54 Hours' is a docu-drama reconstructing the story of a hostage crisis that took place in Germany in the 1980s. A gang of bank robbers took some people captive and hoped to use them to negotiate their freedom. The police had no desire to let them escape, but also no wish to harm the hostages, and also, it seems, no willingness to take responsibility for action, although it's unclear how bad a thing this was - one thing one learns from the story is that there were no easy answers. An amazing detail was that the kidnap was followed the whole way by the press, who actively became part of the story - long before the internet age, the crimes were played out in full public view. Some of the acting here is perfunctory, and there's a frankly silly depiction of one of the victims as an god-like icon of German beauty, but the story itself is innately interesting and complex - more so, in fact, than that of most fictional crime dramas.

La isla mínima

Less than its parts
Alberto Rodriguez' film 'Marshland' tells the story of a grizzly murder in a remote deltaic region shortly after the fall of Franco. With its combination of atmospheric setting, an insular community, and post-fascist politics, it should be gripping. But it's a low-budget and (mostly) low-key affair, the exposition of the plot isn't always crystal clear and the integration of the political backstory with the foreground plot is underdeveloped. I've seen worse films, but I was hoping for more here, and didn't find it.

Black Earth Rising

Brilliant yet maddening
Hugo Blick is arguably the most ambitious writer of television drama in Britain today, and he certainly restates his case with 'Black Earth Rising', his latest work, which is by turns brilliant, intelligent and maddening. The series touches upon an immensely difficult subject - the Rwandan genocide - and amazingly manages to give mass murder a delicate, nuanced treatment without hiding from the horror. The acting and direction are also first rate. And yet, I found the central character deeply unappealing (though impressively portrayed by Michaela Coel), a person who demands the right to set the terms of debate with an inner sense of absolute moral certainty. Blick's script allows for the fact that she might be a difficult person to be around; but not that she might be wrong. And if part of Blick's skill is to distill huge issues into personal dramas, there are perhaps unintended side effects, most obviously that the fate of a country seems to be in the hands of a handful of people, all of whom know each other extremely closely, but this goes uncommented upon. In some ways, these two issues coincide - that the good guys have the right to represent their nation is presented almost as a given. Yet while I can nitpick, it's a story that will remain in my mind long after countless police procedurals have been forgotten. It's worth your time.

Killing Eve

Kids' TV for grown-ups
Imagine a spy thriller where the heroine was an ordinary woman who never intended to get into the game. And her nemesis was a cross between a Bond girl and a Bind villain. And that, in the course of their encounters, they developed a lesbian crush. It sounds very silly, and in one sense 'Killing Eve' is exactly that, but at the same time, it's played almost straight: each time Eve finds herself in a preposterous situation, she raises her eyebrows even as she lives it. Ultimately, however it's not quite funny enough to make one split one's sides, while it's too daft to be wholly engrossing. If I was to sum it up, I'd say it's best described as kids' TV for adults. If you take it on those terms, it's a success.

Mr. Turner

Scenes from a life
J.M.W. Turner is widely regarded as one of Britain's greatest artists. As portrayed by Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh's film, he was a taciturn, curmudgeonly individual, far from the model of the cultured gentleman. Leigh mostly works, of course, in a contemporary setting, and often features eccentrics and misfits. But in a Victorian setting, it's harder to assess the output: are we seeing crude, Deickensian caracitures, or what are actually subtle portraits, just in an alien milleu? In places the film just works - some scenes are deeply imbued with the character-driven black comedy that typifies Leigh's best work. But elsewhere I found it dragging, perhaps because there's no real plot - just a portrait of a life already well-established when the film begins, and consequently, one that only becomes truly moving as it approaches its end.


A convincing (but lengthy) telling of a weird true story
Jean Paul Getty was spectactularly rich, and spectacularly mean. Unable to obain any money from his grandfather by honest means, his grandson decided to arrange his own kidnap. Unfortunately for him, his co-conspirators decided it would be more profitable to do it for real. Would his family pay the ransom? Not if they could help it! The story is reconstructed in 'Trust', with Donald Sutherland playing the old man. Much of the story is set in Italy, and the series doesn't shy away from keeping the dialogue Italian wherever that is appropriate. It also features a few tricksy features, characters talking to camera and split screens, although it's mostly played straight. Overall, I'm not completely certain the story merits a full 10 episodes: the characters are convincingly played, but one gets the idea long before the tale is told. It is a remarkable story, however, and one that may make one think one should be careful what one wishes for; whaever else their money bought the Gettys, happiness does not seem to have been among their rewards.


Strogn themes, great backdrop, but a little pedestrian
'Goldstone' is an Australian drama set in the outback, and featuring a story centred on the relationships between the mining industy, corrupt local officials, and the often abused indigenous population. It's basically a strong movie, and the scenery is harsh and stunning, but the direction often feels pedestrian, failing to convey tension in the action scenes, and the motivation of its central character, a rogue detective who turns up drunk, is a little underdeveloped. If you like it, watch 'Mystery Road', a recent television series featuring the same central character and similar themes (there's also another movie in the series with the same name).

Mystery Road

Predictable, but but with strong local colour
At one level, Australian crime drama 'Mystery Road' is a fairly standard piece of television. It's strengths are its convincing use of its setting, in the country's remote north west, and a plot grounded in the particular charactersitics of the area, particularly its dryness and its history of often unhappy relationships between the indigenous population and those of recent European origin. At times it feels a little predictable, and the lighting of some the indoor scenes can make it look like a budget soap-opera, but the core story is strong, and the landscape provides a stunning backdrop once the camera moves outside.


A high-stakes campaign
Ausgusto Pinochet was a brutal, murderous dictator who supressed the Chilean democracy and tortured his opponents. But after 15 years in power, he was persauded to hold a referendum on his continuation in power. In spite of his ability to makes the rules, and threaten his opponents, he lost. The army abandoned him and he was forced to step down. Pablo Larrian's film 'No' looks at this episode from an interesting standpoint: that of an advertising executive (GAel Garcia Bernal, who as usual is excellent), running the campaign against the general, and struggling to persuade the democratic politicans to run on a message of hope, butressed more cynically by modern advertising techniques. As viewers, we're drawn in by the understanding that this was likely the last chance that the democrats would have for many years - the spin of hope was a thin blanket over an underlying sense of existential dread. Even when you know the ending, it's still quite moving when you reach the point where, for once, the good guys win.


Highly contrived, but gripping nonetheless
Jed Mercurio's 'Line of Duty' grew, over the course of three series, from a fairly normal police corruption thriller into one of the best television series of recent years. 'Bodyguard', his latest effort, shows many of the same strengths and weaknesses. It's intelligent and absolutely gripping: the first episode in particular draws you immediately forward to the edge of your seat. It's also somewhat contrived. Of course, series about conspiracies are almost inevitably contrived, for that's what a conspiracy is - a contrivance - but too often, ordinary operational details occur a way that one feels fairly certain just wouldn't happen in real life. Meanwhile, the structure of the plot, centring on a lone hero, lacks the eventual strength of that of 'Line of Duty', where one came to care about a broad cast of characters with different, and often conflicting, interests. But I quibble; this is still a high-quality piece of popular entertainment, and a tense and absorbing watch.


Horrific, but unfocused
The awful, normalised rituals of American fraterities are addressed in 'Goat'. I can't say if the brutality we see see here is commonplace; but it's certainly a documented fact that new recruits are basically tortured, encouraged by social pressures to consent, and college authorities turn a blind eye. But 'Goat' is a peculiar film, because it ties in this story with a secondary tale about an unrelated attack on one of its protagonists, and I don't really understand the intention of linking the two stories. The hazing rituals occupy by the bulk of the film, but at the end, no longer seem to be the point. In consequence, the movie is horrific, but oddly unfocused.


Tied into the franchise, unecessarily
In the beginning was 'Alien', a brutally effective thriller about space exploration, killer aliens and treacherous androids. Then there are 'Aliens', a campier but still classy sequel. Then, sadly inevitably, a near-endless series of successively worse follow-ups. But in 'Prometheus', original director Ridley Scott re-takes the helm for a kind of prequel. Scott is good at this sort of thing, and he cleverly leverages the expected thrills in what is nonetheless an original plot. But at times it's confusing, as the story of the killer monsters is coupled with another one about intelligent, and humanoid, life. Or, to put it another way, this movie might work perfectly well on its own without our familiar favourite enemies even making an appearance. It's still a better than average sci-fi tale; but perhaps one that could have stood on its own.

Mænd & høns

Odd, funny, Danish Gothic horror
In Anders Jensen's oddball film, two brother go to investigate their ancestry: they discover they have more (previously unknown) siblings, who live, both literally and figuratively, in a madhouse. What follows is a comedy that might be described as zany, but is also surreal and in places even thoughful, and a send-up of a gothic horror played with a sometimes straight face. The film's ability to make you laugh without breaking cover entirely is quite admirable; on the other hand, it does sometimes seem as if the director is using "make things as odd as possible" as his primary rationale. It's the kind of movie that one can enjoy every so often, perhaps, even if at times it feels almost like a sketch-show in alternative form.


The downfall that wasn't
Some assassins (and would-be assasins) are highly politcally motivated. Others are just crazy. Oliver Hirschbiegel's film about Georg Elser, who single-handedly attempted to Kill Adolf Hitler in 1939, suggests he was neither; or at least, that his political antipathy to the Fuehrer was driven by a more generalised disgust at the sheer ugliness and banal brutality of life under the Nazis. Hisrschbiegl previously made the brilliant 'Downfall' about Hitler's final days; this film is somewhat less awesome, in part because it focuses on Elser's arrest and interrogation, and tells the story of his earlier life in flashback, removing some of its sense of immediacy. It's still an interesting story, not about a hero in the classical sense, but about a good man, and a brave one.


Slow, earnest and generic
'Hidden' is a Welsh police drama, but a boring one. It's spread over eight episodes, in spite of an essentially simple plot, and one that focuses on the unlikely scenario of a lone weirdo who captures troubled young girls and imprisons them over several years, supported by his similarly weird family. The series is faily well acted and shot, but it's slow, and all of the side-plots have an essentially earnest but generic feel. I've seen many far worse series, but this one failed to ignite any particular interest in me.

Behind the Candelabra

Hiding in plain sight
The persecution of gay people in the 20th century had some strange side-effects. Take the career of Liberace, the celebrity pianist, who styled himself according to the most outre social conventions of the gay community, but sued anyone who mentioned his sexuality. Liberace also had a series of semi-contractual relationships with much younger men, which one can see as the sort of thing a certain type of rich person might chose to do, but which surely seemed more natural in a world where a more orthodox relationship was socially prohibited. Steven Sodebergh's film shows us scenes from Liberace's life, but also portrays a very odd person and it doesn't really manage to make us feel sympathetic at a personal level, however much one acknowleges the potentially hostile world he had to navigate. Perhaps a full biopic, showing how he became the man we see in this movie, would have been more revealing.

Over the Limit

Touch of Evil
If you made up the story of 'Olympic Dreams of Russian Gold' (a rubbish title by the way - you could just as easily call it 'Russian dreams of Olympic Gold' and not lose any meaning, suggesting it is really just a random collection of vaguely suitable words thrown together at random for aesthetic effect - but I digress), you might not beleive it. A beautiful, talented but apparently tender-hearted youung Russian gynmast is bullied relentlessly by her coaches ahead of the Olympics. What they do is not coaching at all in any sense that I would recognise: rather, it reminds one more of the world of 'Full Metal Jacket': even if they aren't pumping her full of performance enhancing drugs, this is abuse of the highest level. One's ability to enjoy the extraordinary athleticism on display, meanwhile, is offset by the extent to which the competitotrs are sexualised - and forced to perform in what is little more than underwear. The narrative points in one direction - my only spoiler is that the final updates we receive are not what I was expecting, but complete the story arc as a grand tragedy. I found this a harrowing film to watch: in general, I'm not in favour of a punitive legal system, but it made me want to take those responsible, lock them up, and throw away the key, and I don't care how many champions they have produced.

The Rise and Fall of Nokia

The life and death of an almost human company
Remember when Nokia, a previously obscure Finish company, made the world's most desirable phones? If you want to get an overview of how this came to be, and why it isn't the case any longer, this documentary serves as a primer. Basically, the Scandivanians pioneered the mobile sector, and with first mover advantage, a small offshoot of a mid-sized industrial conglomerate grew rapidly into a global corporation. The story is one where rapid change doesn't completely obliterate the culture that was there in the beginning; and as that culture is rather different to that of Silicon Valley, where most new technology is developed, this part of the film is innately interesting. The end of the firm is passed over relatively quickly: Apple launched their iPhone, and as the maker of premium products, Nokia didn't go down the road of using Android, which was adopted as an operating system by most of their competitors. This decision that is not discussed at all in the film. The eventual Nokia smartphone lacked a supporting ecosystem and led to the company's takeover by Microsoft, who ceased manufacturing in Finland but who themselves failed to revitalise the line. The point that is made is that the technology used in the iPhone was not revolutionary, and the product shipped with serious deficiencies compared with an orthodox phone (it was fragile, and bettery life was poor). But Apple could see that there would still be a market for such a product, while Nokia, keeping faith in the old ways, found itself disrupted. The film could be longer, and discuss such things in more detail; instead, it rather gives an overview of the life and death of a company that was - maybe - a little bit more human than most of the corporations that dominate our lives.

Africa's Great Civilizations

Showing and telling
It's interesting to compare 'Africa's Great Civilizations' with the recent BBC documentary 'Civilisations'. Apart from the difference in spelling, and the exclusive focus on Africa in Henry Gates' series, the central noun is interpreted in different ways: the BBC programme focused almost entirely on art, while Gates views civilisation more broadly. The program is thus somewhat lower brow, but it is a tremendously informative overview of African history (and cultural acheivements), often overlooked in global histories. Its biggest weakness lies in Gates' keenness to make the point that it should not be so overlooked: in its repeated claims of African greatness, it violates the rule of "show not tell". The concluding elision of the 20th century, dealt with in two sentences of cliche, is also strange. Still, I learnt a great deal watching the series, which essentially justifies the point Gates tries so hard to make.

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