Chemsex (2016)

Chemsex is an extremely confronting documentary. It has to be. Directed by William Fairman and Max Gogarty, the film focuses on a subculture embedded in social networking, such as Grindr, that allows men to hook up not only for vanilla sex, but drug-fuelled sex. Admittedly there’s nothing new about the combination of sexual activity and narcotics, whether you’re gay, straight or bi. Chemsex knows this and instead highlights the how easy it can be to go from a gripping one-night thrill, to something much darker.

Fairman and Gogarty, with no narration, follow the lives of several chemsex aficionados as they live and love across the UK. All ages, all different walks of life, they have all been part of the chemsex lifestyle which sadly threatens to consume them whole. On the other side of the coin is David Stuart, a health worker at 56 Dean Street, an outreach centre in London. Stuart doesn’t look upon his patients as good or bad. They’re just people. ‘It’s not binary!’ he points out.

Stuart has seen, as we do through the documentary, how the phenomenon goes from being a cheeky dare to something that chips away at a person, leaving them utterly hollow. Despite insistences from some that they can, as the old cliché goes, quite any time they want, they often find out too late that they can’t.

There will be some who use Chemsex to propagate a myth which reinforces their own problematic ideas of alternative lifestyles. They will see men talk openly and honestly about the pain they put themselves and others through. They will see men exposing their souls to an unjudging eye. They will hear their stories and, despite everything, they will come out the other end sharpening their caustic putdowns and gearing themselves up for their next outpouring of bile, whether online or, sadly, in parliament. What they say will not be the least bit helpful and will simply demonise these people, whilst turning their backs on the good work David Stuart and his colleagues do every single day. Don’t be one of those people. See this with your eyes wide open.

Harmontown (2014)

Soon after his much publicised firing from NBC in 2013, Dan Harmon, infamous creator of Community, decided to take his podcast, Harmontown, across the country in a series of live shows that see him continually airing his dirty laundry, overthinking and over drinking. Filmmaker Neil Berkeley (Beauty is Embarrassing) was there for the ride and his documentary, also titled Harmontown, paints a somewhat entertainingly light portrait of the tortured artist.

Harmon, for all his neuroses and insecurities, is incredibly media savvy and within five minutes of the film starting, he’s already deconstructing the tropes of documentary making; mock-chastising Berkeley for setting up a scene of him getting in his car by asking the writer to pretend there’s no camera in his vehicle. He’s a performer and unafraid to pull back the curtains on secrets both professionally and personally. His podcast is filled with moments of introspection wherein the bearded artist questions who he is and why he can’t stop his predilection to sabotage himself.

Like Harmon himself, Harmontown never really scratches the surface of what make him who he is. Berkeley’s footage is separated with talking heads from Harmon’s previous employers and colleagues. Sarah Silverman is one of the many to admit that Harmon’s talent is second only to his desire to destroy himself. And it’s this point that is constantly brought to the forefront as we’re exposed to numerous examples of Harmon’s inability to be happy. Whether it be reliving a drunken fight with his partner at the time, Erin McGathy, in front of his audience whilst she stands, frozen, trying to mine some humour out of something she clearly doesn’t find funny, to admitting that he’s struggling to finish off commissioned work in favour of his own podcast.

There’s no denying Harmon’s talent, but Harmontown, at times, feels like it celebrates his inability to pull his head out. Yes, his work has touched the lives of those who attend his shows, but there’s only so long you can support someone who says they have a problem but refuses to do anything about it. It’s probably no surprise that Harmon was a producer on the film as, despite Berkeley’s insistence he had free-reign, we are continually asked to ruffle his hair and say ‘oh you!’

The Harmon hard-core will lap this up but, as documentaries go, Harmontown is the perfect exercise for Community fans in learning to separate the art from the artist.

The Nightmare (2015)

One part horror film to two parts documentary, The Nightmare is the sophomore effort of filmmaker Rodney Ascher. Looking at the subject of sleep paralysis, he interviews several sufferers from the US and UK. Each of them has a tale to tale that interestingly contain similar elements including shadow men, tingling experiences and other hallucinations.

Not content to merely have them recollect their experiences, Ascher performs reconstructions of these events to provide a shared experience for the audience. And this is where The Nightmare lets itself down. Have you ever had to explain a nightmare to a loved one? You try and capture the fear and anxiety you felt. Whilst your friends will nod and tut in an emphatic fashion, you’re never sure they truly understand. That’s what it’s like watching The Nightmare.

We can sit there and go ‘oh I see’ and ‘that’s a shame’, but it means naught. We are no better to understanding these people and what they’re going through. The reconstructions themselves are, unfortunately, rather cheap and so moments of tension sometimes end up being unintentionally amusing.

As a result, The Nightmare is an interesting premise let down considerably by its execution.

Tyke Elephant Outlaw (2015)

In 1994, an elephant by the name of Tyke was due to perform at the Circus International of Honolulu, Hawaii. Instead she trampled and killed her trainer, severely injured her groomer and managed to get out of the arena where the event was being held. From there, she roamed the streets for 30 minutes in clear distress. Pursued by the police, she was shot 86 times before finally dying, propped up against a car, in a novelty hat and surrounded by the gaze of several weeping bystanders. The owner of the elephant, who employed the trainer said that she had never done anything like this before.

Tyke Elephant Outlaw would kindly beg to differ.

Built around a number of talking heads and archival footage, this new documentary follows Tyke from the moment she was taken in Africa to her life in the circus, to her demise. The film’s narrative makes it clear that there were always warning signs. Like 2013’s Blackfish, which focused on SeaWorld’s attitude towards its main attractions, it becomes apparent that she had done things like this before, if not to the violent extent that would see her life being ended. It’s a powerful piece of work which is let down somewhat by the inclusion of the full video that shows not only Tyke’s death, but the brutal crushing of her trainer. Whilst its understandable why the filmmakers included the footage, it unfortunately cheapens the movie and makes it feel voyeuristic.

However, it’s an emotional journey for the viewer and, like others before it, raises issues about animal rights and despite how far we’ve come, how much further we still have to go.

Amy (2015)

Amy Winehouse’s obvious talents were tainted by a media that emphasised her big hair, her rocky relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil and her dependence of drugs and alcohol. The new documentary by Asif Kapadia (Senna) attempts to dissipate this fog of misinformation exposing a fact that can easily be forgiven: Amy was a person.

Through mixture of home videos, talking heads, paparazzi photos and new articles, Kapadia builds up a multimedia picture of Winehouse’s rise fame. Along the way, we see a little girl who never truly grew up when it came to her father, Mitch Winehouse. In the biopic of Amy’s life Mitch would be the bad guy. Faced with her daughter’s crippling addictions, Mitch seems to keep one eye on the ticket sales at all times. He was a man who perchance didn’t always know what his daughter needed.

Whilst there are to be expected moments of heartbreak, Amy throws light on the star who was as quick-witted as she was talented. Someone who didn’t take fools gladly. A particular choice clip sees Winehouse struggling to hide her displeasure as a rambling journo compares her to Dido.

Kapadia falls down though when he dips his toe in the ghoulishness he calls the media out on. Footage of Winehouse’s body being carried out of the house and footage of her funeral seem tasteless when stack against everything else.

Intimate and captivating, Amy is still however a wonderful portrait of someone who should have been given another go of life.

The Search for Weng Weng (2014)

There is a moment when Andrew Leavold, director of The Search for Weng Weng, meets editor and director Edgardo ‘Boy’ Vinarao. As soon as Leavold mentions his documentary and how he is trying to hunt down the diminutive film star Weng Weng. Vinarao in a rather matter of fact manner, says he is dead. Despite suspecting as much, Leavold, off camera, can clearly be heard to deflate. To paraphrase Bart Simpson, ‘If you look closely you can actually pinpoint the exact moment his heart breaks in two.’

For Leavold, this documentary is a love letter to the Filipino star who was born Ernesto de la Cruz, but who will always be known as Weng Weng. He appeared in numerous films with For Y’ur Height Only being his most famous, in which he punch, kicked and kissed as good as James Bond would if he were 2ft 9. Leavold interviews numerous friends and acquaintances to build a picture of Weng Weng’s life behind the camera and honestly, it’s not a pretty picture. Despite seemingly being adored by all he worked with, there’s a suggestion in Leavold’s fact finding that there was an exploitative nature to his work; akin to the freak shows of yore. Indeed, his adoptive parents – who incidentally wrote and directed his films – seems to have acquired an asset rather than a son.

Equal parts fascinating, funny heartbreaking, and a crash course in the history of Filipino cinema, The Search for Weng Weng could easily have been an excuse for pointing fingers and giggling behind hands. In reality, it’s a lovely documentary that will be fascinating, even to those not familiar with his work. Which, we’ll admit is probably a fair few.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)

Out there in the cosmos, nestled between fact and fiction, there is a parallel universe where all the films you heard about that never made it to post-production live rich fulfilling lives. Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote, Tim Burton’s Superman, Peter Seller’s The Alien. They’re all there. And chief amongst them would be Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. But we don’t live in that parallel universe, we live in someone else’s where Transformers is allowed to have three sequels and a Britain’s Got Talent finalist has their own film… This is indeed the darkest timeline.

So, hallelujah, for Frank Pavich’s documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune; a 90 minute rundown of the passion and energy Jodorowsky put into realizing Frank Herbert’s seminal novel, Dune. The documentary is largely a series of talking heads, with Jodorowsky obviously taking center stage. The 80 something director is on fine form as he talks about adapting a novel that he’d never read with the likes of HR Giger, Chris Foss and Pink Floyd.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn early on in the documentary, talks about Jodorowsky taking him through the story of his vision, using one of the last remaining copies of his storyboards. Refn admits that the adaptation would have been ‘awesome’ and that’s what makes the documentary a little infuriating. In a good way. It offers us peeks of animated storyboards and costumes designs, but it never feels like enough. Cracking open Jodorowsky’s imagination, the spiders of ideas that come running out are innumerable. With everything going on, we wish the film could stay longer than we’re allowed to. What we’re trying to say is, we’re jealous. Like the director of Drive, we want to see it all.

Jodorowsky suggests that maybe one day, someone will adapt his work into an animated film. Maybe they will, but for now we’ll have to settle with this fascinating look at the creative process in all its mind bending glory.

Life Itself (2014)

When we were younger, we would hold video nights: Nothing more complex than choosing a video from the rental store and watching it in a designated bedroom with whatever junk food could be stuffed in the oversized pockets of our oversized jeans. Usually, we’d aim for something highbrow, like Fargo or U-Turn (a film that still causes division amongst us today). Sometimes, we’d go with something less so. Anyone who has ever seen Mortal Kombat: Annihilation will know exactly what we’re talking about.

We were very particular about the quotes of recognition that emblazoned the VHS covers of the films we looked at. Often gaudily written in Day-Glo orange or yellow (this may have just been a UK thing), they would often take up the majority of the cover. We would actively look out quotes from The Sun or Paul Ross; the lesser of the Ross brothers, who once famously described The Matrix Revolutions as ‘A Melon twistingly mega magnificent sequel.’

Maybe because we were British, young, and potentially stupid, we weren’t that aware of Roger Ebert’s body of work. Due to pop culture references that cropped up in cartoons and movies, we obviously knew of him. In the same way we got the Grey Poupon reference in Wayne’s World without really understanding it, we knew about two thumbs up and two thumbs down. We’d seen Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and so he became the thumbs up American who wrote a porn film (as we say, we were young and bare breasts equaled porn back then). As such, maybe in our search for the perfect quote from Paul Ross (a man who described 2003’s Peter Pan as ‘Peter Pan-tastic’), we overlooked Ebert. Had Ebert described a film like Undercover Brother as ‘Funkin’ Funny’ maybe we would have looked harder. You see, we equated the quality of the film against the litmus test in our heads of what constituted a reliable source of opinion and the Sun and Paul Ross weren’t it. We should have looked harder.

As we got older and the internet opened some doors for us, it became easier to dip in and out of Ebert’s work. Of course his bound collections of work are now available freely. And many a journey or time alone has been spent reading them; laughing, agreeing and, sometimes, downright disagreeing with what he had to say. And now we have Life Itself; a documentary by Steve James which is in equal parts a celebration of Ebert’s life and a memorial service.

The filming of the documentary ended up coinciding with an unscheduled visits to hospital for Ebert and it’s where our film begins. Silenced by cancer only in the sense that he can no longer talk except through his laptop and notepad, Ebert’s eyes sparkle as he introduces his wife and nurses. Despite ill health, he’s excited about the prospect of the film. Sadly, he would pass away before its release. The chances are high that he would have liked it. He admits in the film that it must be an honest film and as such, allows himself to be exposed in terms of his treatments and ailing health. As the film time travels through his life, picking up passengers along the way to discuss what he meant to them, nearly everyone is candid; highlighting his talent and joy of life, as well as his controlling nature and dark moods in one breath. Despite the image of TV’s Roger Ebert he created on Siskel and Ebert, he probably wouldn’t have wanted their stark reflections any other way.

James’ film is a superb look back on a life that embraces the art of cinema and wasn’t afraid to suggest that *gasp!* it was for everyone, not just the elite. And maybe, just maybe, the genres of cinema are not always comparable. You compare like to like, as shown in a wonderful scene where he does battle with his co-host Gene Siskel over Benji the Hunted. The scene also highlighted the boil in the bag nature of the show. A black and white opinion of thumbs up or down negating the subtle nuances of real criticism. But Ebert knew that and it certainly didn’t detract from his body of work at whole. If his recommendation got someone to see something they wouldn’t ordinarily, where was the issue? Surely that was better than a quote whore like Paul Ross, a man who called Alfie ‘A career best for Jude Law,’ Troy ‘a masterpiece’ and who gave Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow the rather ambitious ‘A wow factor of a gazillion.’

Man, we should have got to Ebert sooner.

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Human pipe cleaner, Nick Cave has a career that spans 40 years and encapsulates being a singer, writer, shit kicker, actor and connoisseur of narcotics. His output with The Birthday Party, to the Bad Seeds, to Grinderman, and numerous compositions with beardy Warren Ellis in between, has bounced from clenched fisted punk to soul gnawing eulogies to the dead. It will come as no surprise then that, like his back catalogue, 20,000 Days on Earth is hard to pin down and summarise.

Directed by video artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (who have collaborated with Cave on numerous occasions) the artist lives out a fictional 24 hours in Brighton. Except it’s not all fictional, because here comes a candid interview that delves into Cave’s drug abuse and early days. And there’s Ellis breaking bread and discussing Nina Simone. But then the waters are muddied as Cave dips into an archive of photos and diaries set up for the film and disguised as something urgent Cave needs to deal with that day (He even cuts his meal with Ellis short to get there on time).

Yes, it’s all a construct. But not in the fashion we’ve become desensitized to thanks to the likes of the Kardashians and the rest of the E! news stable. We actually learn something about our subject, even if we’re not getting a full view behind the black velvet curtain. Cave’s family are rarely glimpsed, apart from a cheeky film night with his youngest children to watch Scarface.

It’s also a fitting portrait on the subject of aging gracefully and being forgotten. Not that Cave has any intention of doing either. As he drives around his hometown of Brighton, he also ferries around Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone and Blixa Bargeld whose appearances are dressed up as Cave reminiscing, merely ghosts of an afterthought. They talk about the humility that comes with growing old and the added responsibilities that crop up.

On paper, it probably all seems jarring, but there’s something intrinsically organic about 20,000 Days on Earth that suggests that this was the only way you could build this cinematic monument to an artist.

I Think We’re Alone Now (2008)

We’re all obsessed by something to a certain extent. Football, films, flans… All sorts of things. They make up part of our character. The documentary I Think We’re Alone Now follows the lives of two people whose obsession, in this case 80s pop star Tiffany, is not just part of them, it consumes them.

Jeff Turner has Asperger’s and would like us to know that he and Tiffany are good friends and have met on several occasions. The media has reported on these ‘meetings’ and refers to them by the colorful, but more accurate term of stalking. Jeff doesn’t seem too bothered, being more embarrassed they use his full name in legal documents. Kelly McCormick was born intersex and fell in love with Tiffany after a serious accident left her in a coma as a child. She has never met Tiffany, but is damn sure that she is destined to be in a relationship with her. Hell, she gets hot flushes whenever Tiffany wiggles on TV.

Whilst it’s hard to turn away from the events that unfurl, the problem with I Think We’re Alone Now is how dirty you feel afterwards. Not because of Jeff and Kelly per se. Their passion for Tiffany is confronting, there’s no denying that. Jeff, a born again Christian, will follow her anywhere, including erotic conventions. Kelly meanwhile has pictures of the Tiff all around the house she shares. Our issue is the rather icky feeling that this is all somehow exploitative and not in the subjects’ best interests. The filmmakers even going so far as to engineer a meeting between the two superfans, so they can see Tiffany in concert together. It’s as natural as Catfish dialogue. Yes, they get along but the suggestion that Jeff was the one to reach out initially seems dubious.

After parading them for inspection over 50 minutes, the film tries to wrap things up with a happy ending that feels contrived and cheapens everything that little bit more. It’s clear that Jeff and Kelly have unresolved issues that the film toys with, but then ultimately drops. I Think We’re Alone Now is certainly a documentary that you won’t forget in a hurry, but it may not be for all the right reasons.