Bludgeon: Orcas of the Land 2019 ****

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Bludgeon: Orcas of the Land is the somewhat lugubrious title for this highly-accessible New Zealand documentary which deals with the much misunderstood subject of medieval combat. Renaissance fairs has been the butt of jokes for decades now; we’re conditioned to laugh at men fighting in costume, although given that they’re physically active, they’re competitive, they’re creative, they’re motivated and getting exercise out in the open air, there’s probably a lot worse that a jock or a geek could do with his time. This is not live-action role-playing with elves and mages, but a physical content involving weapons, armoury and real risks; Andy Deere and Ryan Heron’s film shows armour unceremoniously cut off by medics as participants are whisked to A and E.

Audiences may come to scoff, but while the film-makers accept that there’s humour involved here, Bludgeon wisely doesn’t go down that road. Evoking a medieval quest with animated chapter headings, Bludgeon kicks off with Nick Waiariki, a Kiwi who is trying out for the Steel Thorns group of fighters. With infectious enthusiasm, Waiariki serves as a guide for the novice as to the rules and ethos of the sport. He clearly loves loves talking about it, and it would be churlish to deny the sincerity of his glee in getting close to the New Zealand team, who are limbering up for a world-wide competition in Denmark.

Deere and Heron cleverly disguise some of the details, keeping us keen to find out exactly what the various trials and competitions will look like. And there are visual flourishes, sight-gags naturally generated by the nature of the activity; a knight in armour running on a treadmill, another emerges from a medieval tent pulling a suitcase on wheels. The film-makers chose to frame some of the action with modern elements like parked cars in the background, but as the film goes on and the size of the events increases, the intrusive elements are side-lined and a more immersive environment is detailed. As the veterans gather to look back on a battle, we cut to a wonderful view over a tented village at sunset that appears to be torn from a medieval manuscript; the film suggests the spiritual Valhalla that the men seek, and rewards their quest.

The many who enjoy the comic stylings of Taika Waititi will find amusements here; the Steel Thorns accidentally lock themselves out of their Air B and B, and talk of ‘wench fights’ and ‘international knight marshals’ can’t help but raise a smile. But Bludgeon manages to rehabilitate the public image of a genuine sport that seems to have been unfairly maligned; this likable documentary should appears to sports fans and Game of Thrones aficionados alike, and cuts through prejudices like a flaming sword.

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Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love 2019 ****

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Nick Broomfield has made plenty of socially-conscious documentaries, but he was obviously posh enough to be hanging out on the Greek island of Hydra back in the 1970’s where an artistic community were engaged in the process of getting mashed up in the service of creative indulgence. Amongst those Broomfield seems to have been hanging out with, or at least in the same circle as, was Leonard Cohen, who was writing an unreadable book under the influence of acid, and his lover Marianne Ihlen. The two were lovers, but Cohen’s insatiable appetite for banging groupies proved to be too much for her to take, and they reluctantly went through a conscious uncoupling long before it was fashionable. Broomfield has good access to private and public footage, and some very salacious talking heads who testify to the excess of the 1970’s; while the story may not be extraordinary in itself, the punch-line is heart-breaking and well-documented. It feels like a welcome personal film from Broomfield; not a biopic, but a love story, and one which reflects thoughtfully on both male selfishness and female forgiveness.

Framing John DeLorean 2019 ****

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The title is an interesting one; we know who John DeLorean was, or at least we may have some ideas. Don Argott and Sheena M Joyce have constructed a documentary that aims to ‘frame’ him; are they suggesting that the various crimes that John DeLorean was accused of constituted a frame job? That’s not what their film is about; there’s very little in the way of conspiracy theory or speculation here, just a journey through the key facts of the car moguls rise and fall from grace. This well-constructed doc also has a narrative frame in that it features reconstructions featuring Alec Baldwin as DeLorean, and we also get to see off-cuts showing rehearsals and the actor in make-up, discussing his role. With Back to the Future’s Bob Gale amongst those testifying to the number of potential films which might be made about the subject, Framing John DeLorean is one of the the first out of the gate, but unlikely to be the last.

Like Preston Tucker, DeLorean was a man with a dream, to innovate in the expensive world of car production, and to take on the big boys in the corporate world. Setting up a huge plant in Ireland in the 1980’s, DeLorean was not short of enemies; the key moment comes when he stops dealing with Margaret Thatcher and Jim Prior (the latter interviewed here) and started dealing with Colombian cocaine traffikers. DeLorean managed to move a massive consignment of coke in order to provide finance for his company, and jobs for many workers who had no other options, and he brazenly paid for it in worthless share certificates. If he’d pulled that deception off, it would have been one for the memoirs, a Danny Ocean-style masterstroke that beat the system, but the deal had been set up by a narc and public ignominy followed. Even after DeLorean was found innocent of drug-dealing in the courts, it took a separate scandal to bring him down involving the embezzling of funds. Other public figures have got away with far more; it’s clear that someone had it in for DeLorean. In retrospect, DeLorean’s mistake seems to be not that he stole money or dealt with drugs cartels, but that he accepted public ie government rather than private money; that lack of business savvy seems to have been the real reason for the scrutiny that led to his downfall. Americans often imaging UK government funding to be free money, when the truth is that it’s often the most expensive kind, as DeLorean found to his cost.

Framing John DeLorean is an entertaining, informative documentary with strong source material and plenty to draw the viewer in, not least the sight of the car immortalised by Back To The Future. The sight of thousands of the cars lying unsold in Irish car-parks, or driven en masse to ferries for US import is surreal, as is a glimpse of a red DeLorean; even if it didn’t actually drive terribly well, the car was beautiful to look at. Like the man who created it, the DeLorean had style to burn, and this artful documentary captures the essence of the man and the machine.

Framing John DeLorean, available on Amazon Video and ITunes in the UK from 29th July

In the US…

https://www.amazon.com/Framing-John-DeLorean-Alec-Baldwin/dp/B07SN62Y5K

 

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library 2018 ****

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Oscar-winning documentary maker Frederick Wiseman’s film, Ex Libris, is a three hour valentine to the New York Public Library system, examining in granular detail how the role of the library reflects the changing demands of the internet era. With only one in three New Yorkers having broadband at home, Ex Libris depicts how the modern library is not only an access point, but a hub of communities, a centre of information and a bastion of truth in the era of fake news. Wiseman is one of the great figures of U.S. documentary history, and it’s notable that he’s chosen this particular moment to reflect on the library system, and why it’s important. Even without a voice-over, the running time doesn’t feel punishing at all; in fact, Ex Libris skips by, with brief appearances from luminaries like Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Richard Dawkins to light the way. But it’s Wiseman’s intent that makes Ex Libris so compelling; doubling down on the ordinary interactions that illuminate the lives of the New Yorkers seen here, Wiseman’s film is as important as his Titicut Follies and Hospital as portraits of how key American institutions function.

Kedi 2017 ****

Cats, cats, cats…arguably the greatest gift the internet brought was non-stop cat coverage. The big screen has been slow to see the same potential, but Cedya Torun’s return to his Turkish homeland in Istanbul is a wonderful showcase for stars who have no interest in being in a film. Kedi follows a number of diverse moggies through their daily routines in the city. As in Venice, cats seem to have a tight grip on the underworld, and Torun doesn’t bother with any anthropomorphic analysis or talking heads, other than a few stories about how cats and people get along. One lively character sits outside a restaurant, and seems to have trained the proprietors to bring him his food at a pre-arranged signal; such delightful details make Kedi and charming, original documentary for when a story just seems like too much bother.

Diego Maradona 2019 ***

Asif Kapadia returns to the super-doc format that brought us Senna and his Amy Winehouse film; football fans who saw the infamous 1986 Argentina-England ‘hand of god’ game couldn’t be blamed for thinking Maradona was more twit than talent. As a prostitute-banging, coke-snorting egomaniac cheat, Maradona doesn’t offer much as someone to hero-worship; this film starts with him heading to Naples in 1984, wowing the locals and crime-bosses alike, and then Kapadia positions the Argentina vs Italy 1990 World Cup match in the same city as the moment that the Italian public, and much of the world, turned against him. It’s interesting to see Maradona sporting a ‘man fur’ ie a Doris Day-style fur coat, and there’s some slabs of vapour-wave music to capture the 80’s theme. But it’s not a complete picture, nor a particularly deep one, and there’s also a big problem. Football isn’t filmed, it’s captured on tv, and when you blow tv footage up to cinema screens, it looks like dirt. If Maradona has any fans left, this doc may be an eye-opener, but in lieu of any new information, the unfortunate fact remains that Maradona is best known today as an unscrupulous cheat rather than a sporting god.

Baraka 1992 ****

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Ron Fricke’s visually stunning documentary has no commentary; it’s a feast of images taken from all over the world, capturing geographical and sociological phenomenon and leaving the audience to gape in wonder and draw their own conclusions. Baraka is a Sufi word for spiritual grace, and Fricke’s film captures just that, from the opening shot of a snow monkey sitting in his rock pool, looking as peaceful and pleasantly bemused as viewers will be watching the cavalcade of volcanoes, mines, monasteries, dances, tribal rituals and various other ephemera. Baraka is a mood piece, investigating the lesser-seen riches of the world, and one best enjoyed in the highest definition possible.