Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Great Directors... Martin Scorsese: Part 2 (1978-1990)












Continuing my quest to watch Martin Scorsese's entire directorial catalogue in chronological order. See the box in the right column for links to the other parts.

The Last Waltz (1978)
THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD! That's your introduction to the film, in giant black and white writing. It's a music film see, the final concert of The Band, featuring a range of guest performers and interspersed with Scorsese's interviews with the band. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and plenty other big names join them on stage, and the lead singer is at pains to emphasise that they want it to be a celebration rather than a morose end of era mood. I wasn't consciously aware of them beforehand, and although a few songs were familiar as soon as I heard them, I wasn't sure which were theirs and which were covers or guest songs. My highlights were an Emmylou Harris soundcheck performance (her country-twang voice is incredible), and the sight of Bob Dylan in what appeared to be a lady's wedding hat. As for the film, it works best as something to have on in the background, though if you can't stomach this kind of music then I'm not sure you could get much out of any such documentary. I found my feet tapping along anyway, so for me it must have had something going for it. The ending too is very cinematic, a really nice conclusion for band and film, and it's the inclusion of such moments that make it a Scorsese film rather than typical concert film.

Raging Bull (1980)
The last Scorsese film to be made before I was born. It is all downhill after that, for me at least. Less so for Scorsese I'd imagine. Many see this as Scorsese at his peak, a furious portrait of a broken man with all the boxing talent in the world but not the mentality to live in it. Watching it again for I think only the third time, what struck me was how little this is actually about the sport itself. It doesn't do the typical Rocky style training montage, or develop any sense of what it's like to be a professional boxer in terms of fight planning and strategy. You are in the ring with him, and out of the ring with him, but the sport itself is of less consequence than the character. Of course it is based on a real person, Jake LaMotta, so it's not as if Scorsese could have decided to make him an American Football player, but it's more to do with the person and his fall from grace. That he is a boxer is a huge bonus to the film though, Scorsese pulls off some incredible slow-mo shots in the ring, especially one amazing shot in which a blow is landed and blood and sweat explodes from De Niro's face. Cinematography of the highest order. De Niro put on a lot of weight for parts of the role, and is exceptional, arguably as good as he ever got; his iconic opening speech is easily one of Scorsese's best ever scenes. LaMotta comes across as a fairly selfish and self-destructive character, and it raises the age old issue of whether you can truly love a movie if you don't much like the lead character. I think in this case yes you can, because Scorsese lays out the story in a way that helps you 'get' why he became such a sad individual, why his behaviour towards women became so cowardly, and why his final bouts took the direction they did. From the acting to the cinematography to the writing to the directing; every aspect of this film stands as true cinematic brilliance.

The King of Comedy (1982)
I don't know why this would be the case, but I remember not being particularly enamoured with The King of Comedy first time around, and yet now I've seen it again I'm thinking it's going to be right up there as a contender for my favourite Scorsese picture. What changed? Perhaps last time I just wasn't in the mood or too tired to invest in the story. It concerns Rupert Pupkin, a delusional, disturbed man who lives at home with his mother and fantasises about being a famous comedian, and his attempts to force his way into the life of TV star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) as a means of getting to the top. The stalker-ish madman he becomes is brilliantly played by Robert De Niro, you really buy into him as a nutcase who will go to any length to live out his fantasy. Watching it back-to-back with Raging Bull makes for a remarkable contrast in character and performance. When we do see him perform bits and pieces of comedy, he has a believable routine, but is awkward and ungainly in his speech and mannerisms. The result is that you don't know whether to laugh at him or with him, and root for him to succeed or fail in his bizarre desperation for fame. I must say that Jerry Lewis is also excellent as the suffering TV personality at the centre of Pupkin's attentions, which is something of a miracle, as I find Lewis' own comedy schtick (in films like The Nutty Professor and The Ladies Man) to be utterly hateful. It's clever casting to play him as the straight man rather than the goon he usually presents himself as. You can no doubt critique the film as Scorsese's statement on the modern obsession with fame and popularity being the main measure of success for many people, which is even more true today than when the film was made, but mainly I think I'm just looking at it as an entertaining and original story that only seems to improve with repeat viewings.

After Hours (1985)
This is definitely not by the same director who made Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Taxi Driver. It can't be. It doesn't look or sound much like one of his, the writing's different, it's trying and mostly failing to be funny through an irritating brand of quirkiness, and I really didn't get it at all. It's about a guy named Paul Hackett who meets a woman (Rosanna Arquette) in a cafe, kicking off a night of increasingly bizarre and fairly nonsensical events. Logic plays very little part in the plot development, and I guess that's where it thinks the comedy lies, but for once I could see another director making a better job of this - David Lynch for example would master such material. I ended up wondering if anyone involved actually knew what sort of picture this was supposed to be, the script is all over the place and maybe the fact it's remained a relatively little known Scorsese picture is down to the studios not knowing how to pitch it? Out of curiosity I just had a look at the critical response to the film, and surprisingly it seems to have been highly rated on release, so I guess I must be missing something. As is the case with all comedies though, everyone has different ideas on what qualifies as funny, so even if it wasn't for me I wouldn't be surprised if it has gained a bit of a cult following over the years.

Mirror, Mirror (Amazing Stories) (1986)
A number of years back, Steven Spielberg brought together a collection of mildly supernatural and sci-fi stories similar to The Twilight Zone, attached them to a remarkable selection of directors (including Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Danny DeVito, Robert Zemekis, Spielberg himself, and of course Martin Scorsese). Amazing Stories was the result. I don't know if it was ever shown on TV in the UK as this was the first I'd heard of it, but it seems they are well known in the US at least. Scorsese's tale is about a man who keeps seeing a spooky figure coming towards him whenever he looks in the mirror, frightening the life out of him. For adults it's a long way from essential viewing, and if I was going to watch the rest of the box set, I'd have to hope there is better to come. Assuming however that these were made for kids, you could probably bump the score up a bit, I would have been totally freaked out if I'd seen this at a young age. But then I've always been a bit of a wimp when it comes to horror. At only 20 minutes long, I'm just about old enough to cope with it now, but I'm also old enough to know that I'm too old to be watching this. Fun facts: apparently plans are afoot to remake the series, with Hannibal producer Bryan Singer at the helm. Also, Batteries Not Included (1987) was originally intended to be part of Amazing Stories, but Spielberg was so taken with the idea that he turned it into a film instead. I really should dig that out and relive my youth, it must be 25 years since I last saw it.

The Color of Money (1986)
Twenty-five years after The Hustler, 'Fast Eddie' Nelson (Paul Newman) has walked away from the game of pool and is doing the rounds as a liquor salesman. When he spots a hotshot young pool player (Tom Cruise) in a bar, he vows to coach Cruise to success at an upcoming Atlantic City tournament, and they set about hustling their way through the pool halls of America so they can raise the cash to get there. The characterisation of the leads is quite predictable, not least because it's a sequel, and also due to Cruise's Vincent being exactly as cocksure and rebellious as you'd expect. You get quite used to all these original film ideas coming from Scorsese that it's surprising to find him directing a sequel, and even though it's lacking the tension and pacing of the original, there are flashes of quality that make it recognisable as a Scorsese picture. There's some fine cinematography with clever use of camera placements on and around the tables, and the editing does a convincing job of making you believe you're seeing ultra gifted players. The Hustler is a set-in-stone classic, this isn't, but it's still enjoyable enough to recommend (so long as you've seen the original first).

Bad (1987)
This took me back fifteen years to a golden time when I would finish university in the middle of the day, head home and spend the rest of the afternoon watching music channels when I could have been doing something more constructive. The music video for Michael Jackson's Bad starts out as a short film in which Jackson is hanging out with some guys, who he falls out with regarding his badness, or lack thereof. I don't know what other short film music videos I can compare this to (so won't bother rating it), but it's slickly put together even if there's nothing identifiably Scorsese on show. It all culminates in a subway station standoff, where Jackson exhibits just how bad he really is, by dancing around and repeatedly singing "I'm bad, I'm bad, you know it, I'm bad, I'm really really really bad, look how quickly I can thrust my crotch in your general direction, that's how bad I am, and did I also mention I'm bad? Where did all these people come from? I'm bad".

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
I'll skip the plot recap, hopefully by now most people are familiar with how this goes. The only thing to note is that this is based on a fictional book that offers an alternative interpretation of the book. And look, I know it's a technically impressive exercise, well acted and shot, and we can all appreciate how much care and work has gone into it's making. But for want of a better expression, god it's a drag to watch. There's only so much "I'm Jesus Son of God, woe is me, isn't life hard" anyone can take, and it just goes on for hour after hour. Willem Dafoe does as well as could be expected in the central role, but the casting of Harvey Keitel as Judas is magnificently wrong; the mixture of his curly brown hair, costume design and awkward out-of-place accent only convinces that Judas must in fact have been a hobbit. Was Gandalf also in the Bible? I forget. There are some interesting ideas to credit it with, especially in the way it goes off on tangents and then draws itself back to what is commonly held up as the true version of the story. The way it ends is quite striking too, a fault with the film reel caused some unusual effects as it cuts out, and Scorsese used the faulty footage anyway. He really lucked out because it prompts all sorts of theories and questions about what's just happened, quite fitting given what's just come before.

Life Lessons (New York Stories) (1989)
New York Stories takes the form of three short (approx 45 min) films of varying quality by three marquee directors; Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen. The first is Scorsese's and tells the tale of a troubled artist and his unreciprocated love for a fellow painter who happens to be sharing his New York loft apartment. Nick Nolte and Patricia Arquette are the two leads, Steve Buscemi drops in briefly, and actually they all become impressively compelling characters considering the short running time. Nolte makes for a very convincing artist, the character produces these epic canvas paintings and it really seems as though it's Nolte producing them, I'd love to know how they managed it. I would have happily continued watching a full-length feature continuing the story, it sets itself up in a way where that would have been possible. The second story by Coppola follows a wealthy young girl and her wealthy young school friends, behaving as wealthy young people do. You know, having breakfast brought to their room by the butler, and so on. Inconsequential and easily forgettable. Finally, Woody Allen pitches one of the most enjoyable ideas I've seen of his, I don't always take to his humour but in this case it's warm and funny and really quite silly. He's explaining to his psychiatrist that he's been dreaming of his mother disappearing, and the happiness that idea creates. In real life he then takes his mum to a magic show, where of course she promptly vanishes, and even the magician can't work out what's happened. Each of the stories is just the right length to not outstay their welcome, and I really like the format, it seems a great way of presenting films that would be too short to receive a cinema release in their own right. And conveniently for this article, Scorsese's is the best of the three.

Goodfellas (1990)
Wiseguys of the world rejoice, for we have reached Goodfellas, and boy was it worth the wait. From the first minute I had a smile on my face that barely faded for the next two hours. Ray Liotta, in a role that he has never been able to repeat, leads the (true) story as young man making his way in the crooked world of Italian American New York gangsters. He guides us through this world with a narration that's constantly introducing characters and explaining what's going on, a filmmaking tactic that sometimes backfires but in this case is one of the reasons it's such a classic. Robert De Niro makes his usual appearance but this time cedes the limelight to Joe Pesci, who delivers the ultimate scene stealing performance with his infamous "how am I funny?" rant. He is a deeply unstable character, one you really wouldn't want to be around for any length of time if you value living, and is so well played that I couldn't imagine anyone else in the role. Fantastically, Scorsese's parents both also landed speaking parts in the film, I hadn't realised who they were before but after seeing his excellent documentary about them (Italianamerican, reviewed in part 1), they were instantly recognisable. She plays Pesci's mother, but is exactly like her real life persona, and the scene in which she shows a painting to him is the funniest part of the film. The film has all the hallmarks of what I think of as a Scorsese picture - the extreme violence, the humour, the tremendous soundtrack, the stylish cinematography, the voiceover, the wisecracking Italian American lingo, the seedy bars in the back alleys of New York, the corruption, the guns, the drugs, the sharp suits, and most important of all, the spaghetti sauce. To be hyper critical, I could have done with a little less hysteria from Liotta's wife, it starts to grate in the second half, but it's a minor niggle and about the only one I can think of. The best picture Scorsese ever made? I won't know that in my own mind until I've seen the rest of his work, and I'm only at the half way point now, but it's definitely going to take some beating.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Blindspot Series: In the Name of the Father (1993)



Bloody Sunday. Hunger. The Art of Conflict. The Devil's Own. The Crying Game. '71. What ties these titles together is they are all set around 'the troubles' in Northern Ireland. Like World War II, and especially the Holocaust, it seems to be an endlessly fascinating subject for filmmakers, and these are just the few I could immediately think of. They are also linked by way of their quality, in almost all cases making for impressive cinema, and In the Name of the Father is another that fits that description.

Based on a true story, Pete Postlethwaite and Daniel Day Lewis star as a father and son accused of conspiring to carry out an IRA bombing on British soil. Despite being entirely innocent, the police force them into signing confessions of guilt, and are wrongly imprisoned for years before the truth comes to light. The film feels like a highly realistic portrayal of those times, no doubt there is some artistic license taken for dramatic effect, but the key thing is that the quality of the writing and acting very much gives the impression of staying truthful to the facts. The prison chapters are a scary insight into what it would have been like to be an Irish criminal in a English prison during that era, especially if you weren't even guilty, and the content of one or two scenes is quite shocking if events did indeed happen as shown.

To give some idea of how far Daniel Day Lewis is prepared to go with his method acting, he stayed in solitary confinement for three nights prior to the start of filming, and also at one stage stayed awake for three nights to get himself into the right place to film crucial interrogation scenes. The man is a master of his art. He gets the Irish accent and character traits spot on, leading to a level of fury and contempt for what the legal system calls "justice" that is utterly convincing. This equally goes for Emma Thompson, the lawyer who comes into the story years after they are jailed, attempting to have them freed. For someone who often appears on screen as jolly or low key characters, she really tears up the courtroom once she gets going. Postlethwaite on the other hand needs to play it down, and contrasts their roles with a quiet, dignified performance that leaves just as much of an impression.

There's no doubt that it's a quality piece of work, and an important piece of history in the context of the troubles, but I can't help thinking that it's not quite at the level required to be considered amongst the cinematic greats. It's surprising then that it found it's way into IMDb's list of the top 250 films of all time (where I took my blindspot selections from), considering this is based entirely on ratings by the website's millions of users, it really doesn't seem like the sort of film that would gain mass appeal. I was impressed by it, but the heavy subject matter makes it unlikely I'd want to see it again, so I'd gladly give it a 'view once' recommendation and leave it there.

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The prison scenes were filmed in a disused jail in Dublin, called Kilmainham Gaol. It is now a public museum, so you can go on a tour of the set if you so wish. It also featured in The Italian Job (1969).

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Blindspots is an ongoing project from film site The Matinee, and this year I’m joining in. The idea is to pick 12 well known or highly rated films you’ve not seen but feel you should have, and vow to watch them all by the end of the year. If you write your own film blog, feel free to join in at any time. My list is here.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Forget Netflix, MUBI is the future of cinema...


Imagine a Netflix-type film streaming service with an emphasis on quality rather than quantity. That's exactly what MUBI is, and if you've never heard of it or tried it, I think it's a far more interesting proposition for film aficionados, cinephiles and general movie viewers than the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime (which are both currently being filled by an unprecedented level of awfulness).

Now I hope this doesn't come across as an advert, it's merely my own recommendation of a service I've subscribed to for just short of two years. I was initially going to do a big comparison of all the streaming sites, similar to my previous post on DVD rental providers, but then I realised that no-one on earth could possibly read it and go “well that Netflix thing sounds interesting, I must find out more” (there are undiscovered tribes in the Amazon rainforest who know what just happened in House of Cards season 3). Unlike those bigger players, MUBI isn't filled to the rafters with movie dross, and operates in a very different way. Now children, if we're all sitting comfortably, let's begin...

MUBI ROULETTE

MUBI is a film streaming service that deliberately limits it's offering to a rotating collection of 30 films, with the idea being that it's much easier and quicker to find something decent to watch. It does this by adding a new film each day, and you then have 30 days to watch before it expires. So every day at midnight the film that's been there for 30 days disappears, and a new one pops up in it's place. I swear the first thing I do each morning is open the MUBI app on my iPad to see what the new film is for that day, it has become a troubling obsession. I love the randomness of not knowing what's going to appear, like Russian Roulette but with movies and a smidgen less chance of death. Their countdown system is a kick up the movie-watching backside too, it's surprising how effective the "expiring in 2 days, 1 day, 8 hours..." message is at finally helping you find time for that movie you'd never gotten around to seeing. You can also rate, review, discuss and make film lists on their website, similar to Letterboxd and IMDb.

Another plus is that MUBI thankfully doesn’t do that stupid Netflix and Amazon thing of cutting off the end credits to promote another film or show that is entirely unrelated and unwelcomed - you already have my money, stop promoting at me and let me enjoy the music and credits please. I remember when I was young I used to watch Dawson’s Creek, mainly for little Joey Potter, but also because the main character (Dawson, obviously) was obsessed with movies. He would insist on watching through the entire end credits of every film out of respect for everyone involved in it’s making, it’s almost worth bringing the show back just to see his response to Netflix’s shenanigans.



TYPES OF FILMS SHOWN

I guess you could call it the arthouse cinema of online movie streaming services, the focus is firmly on independent films, hidden gems, award winners and classics, though they do throw in a mainstream release or two as well. I haven't picked up on any obvious favouring in terms of movie era, there are as many recent releases as older ones, and sometimes they host new movie exclusives and tie-ins with film festivals. To give some idea of the variation on offer, at the time of writing they are showing films by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kramer, Jacques Rivettes, Sean Penn, Sidney Lumet, Jim Jarmusch, Ridley Scott, Werner Herzog, Todd Field, Stanley Kubrick, Wim Wenders, and a host of lesser known names who receive equal billing. That's actually one of the things I most like about their system, you get exposed to films and directors you probably would otherwise never hear of, and every film receives the same space and time to be found by viewers. Imagine being a first-time director of a tiny budget movie that gets little attention anywhere, and then it gets onto MUBI sat alongside a Hitchcock or Kubrick or Spielberg.

HOW & WHERE TO WATCH

You can access MUBI in over 200 countries around the world, and because of cultural differences and licensing, each country gets a different selection of films. A nice touch is that when you go on holiday you can continue to use it, and you'll have access to the films available in the country you're visiting rather than the ones you'd see at home. I mostly use the pre-installed app on my Sony TV, but there's all sorts of TVs, Playstations, phones (though surely no-one watches films on a telephone?), tablets and streaming dongle thingys that offer it too. You can also watch on the MUBI.com website, and the iPad app very usefully allows you to download the films for offline viewing (which you can then airplay to an Apple TV box). The streaming quality is excellent, most films are shown in HD and to my untrained eye the pictures are as good as Blu-ray unless it's a particularly old release.

THE DOWNSIDES

As much as I've sung it's praises, the positives could also be negatives for some folk. Only having access to 30 films at any one time probably on the face of it seems stingy for £5.99 a month, after all Netflix UK has 2000 films to choose from and isn't much more expensive. Again that comes down to whether you’re looking for quality or quantity. And given that you probably spend twice that for a single film screening at the cinema, it seems a relative bargain. With such a small selection of such varied and often unusual or obscure pictures, there are inevitably periods when there's little appearing that I'm especially keen to watch, but at a minimum there’s usually at least one or two of interest. If MUBI was the only place I was using to watch films I would probably find it too restrictive, yet if I could only choose one movie streaming site I’d definitely ditch Netflix before I’d ditch MUBI. Add it to a DVD rental service and I can’t see any need to ever visit the cinema again; the popcorn munchers, sweetie packet rustlers, giant Coke gurglers and mobile phone fiddlers can enjoy their half-hour of pre-film adverts and continue chatting away to their hearts' content right the way through the movie. Because I won't be there to hear it...

FREE TRIAL

If you fancy giving it a go, here's a link for a 1 MONTH FREE TRIAL. This is my personal tell-a-friend link, if you sign up through that I also get a free month, even if you decide not to continue after the trial. Which would be jolly nice of you and them. Everyone loves free movies after all, especially when they're half decent. 

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COMING SOON

I think that'll do for my season of movies about the movies and posts about ways of watching movies, time for something different. I'm almost done with part 2 of my Scorsese marathon, and I've recently been enjoying Aaron Sorkin's series The Newsroom, so my next film theme after that will be television network news.

CUEMARKS.COM

I should also mention that after months of trying and giving up, I finally worked out how to set up my own domain on here, Blogger doesn't half make it complicated. Anyway this blog is now hosted at Cuemarks.com, though any old links will hopefully still redirect to the correct place. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

UK DVD Rental Provider Face-Off: Lovefilm vs Cinema Paradiso (Or, The Alternative To Lovefilm Now It's Closing)








Update: Lovefilm will be closing down at the end of October 2017. This leaves Cinema Paradiso as the sole provider of DVD rental discs in the UK. If you want to try it out, help yourself to a 1 month free trial via this link (this is 2 weeks longer than their publicly offered trial).

Lovefilm's demise does also make this article largely redundant, but feel free to read on if you want to find out who won my coveted award for best DVD rental provider.

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I watch an awful lot of movies. Some would say too many, but those people are wrong. As my season of movies about the movies comes to an end, I thought I’d go a little off-piste by reviewing the DVD rental providers I use to consume all the movies I get through each week, and hand a highly coveted Cuemarks award to the winner. I subscribe to just about every online streaming and DVD rental service that exists in the UK, so I feel well qualified to answer the questions about these services that literally no-one is asking. I cannot imagine there is a single person on this planet, dead or alive, who will find this article remotely useful, but that hasn’t stopped me before.

The DVD rental market should in theory still be dominated by Blockbuster, if only the people running the company had any clue what they were doing. Instead they went bust, leaving behind just two UK companies offering to send you films and TV series in the post in return for a monthly fee. Waiting for films to arrive in the mail, then again for them to be returned before the next ones are sent out, already seems a dated way of watching films. Except it's worth it because the range of titles on offer is vast compared to online streaming catalogues like Netflix, and is the only way to access the majority of titles without spending a fortune buying them. If you’re not familiar with how it works, you add titles to your watchlist, prioritising the ones you most want to see, and they send out whatever’s next available on your list. You can keep the discs for as long as you want, the days of late return fees are long gone, but it obviously makes sense to watch and return them quickly to keep the flow of titles coming. Netflix owns this market in the US, but is just an online platform here in the UK, so your choices are LOVEFILM (an Amazon company) and the less well-known CINEMA PARADISO. I subscribe to both, here’s how they compare:

PRICE

Lovefilm
£4.99 (limited to 2 discs p/m)
£8.99 (limited to 4 discs p/m)
£11.99 (unlimited, 2 discs at a time)
Amazon Prime members get a discount

Cinema Paradiso
£6.98 (limited to 4 discs p/m)
£9.98 (limited to 6 discs p/m)
£11.98 (unlimited, 2 discs at a time)
£19.98 (unlimited, 3 discs at a time)
£29.98 (unlimited, 4 discs at a time) (on request)

Who wins on price depends on your chosen level. If you’re only a very occasional film viewer, Lovefilm’s 2-discs-a-month option wins, though move up to 4-discs-a-month and Paradiso becomes cheaper. Personally the limited disc levels are too restrictive for me, so for unlimited rentals Lovefilm is comfortably the cheapest option, and an extra £2 discount for Amazon Prime members drops their top package below a tenner a month (£5 less than Paradiso’s equivalent)  Update: Paradiso has now price matched Lovefilm's unlimited 2 discs at a time offering, both now £12. 

Even though it’s more expensive, Paradiso’s 3-discs-at-a-time unlimited price level betters Lovefilm’s offering for movie-watching obsessives like me, and in fact there is yet another level (4-at-a-time unlimited) that they don’t advertise but will privately upgrade you to if you ask customer services nicely by email. And are willing to pay for it of course. Winner: for most options, especially the unlimited ones, Lovefilm is the cheapest way to rent, whether an Amazon Prime member or not. As discussed further below, even Lovefilm's most expensive package can work out as little as 62p-74p per film.

CATALOGUE

Both of these services house enormous collections, in fact almost every film and tv series you can buy new on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK can be rented on either site, as well as plenty that are now out-of-print. To put it in context, Netflix UK offers around 2000 titles, and Paradiso stocks over 90,000. Even just comparing the two rental firms, Cinema Paradiso is the better option as it stocks a large number of titles which are listed as “unavailable” over on Lovefilm. I have around 250 titles on my Paradiso watchlist at the moment, and I’d guess that around 50 of them are unavailable on Lovefilm, and plenty more are sat in Lovefilm’s limited availability pile. Additionally, if there’s a title you’d like that they don’t have, with Paradiso you can make a request and they’ll buy it for their catalogue if it’s available. Winner: for the volume of available titles, including obscure and out-of-print titles, plus their film request service, Cinema Paradiso easily wins best catalogue.

MANAGING YOUR WATCHLIST

Both services recommend having a minimum of 10 titles on your watchlist, to ensure they always have something available to send to you. As my list runs into the hundreds, I’ve never had any problem with delays, but the downside is you don’t always get sent what you’d most wanted to see next. Lovefilm allows you to prioritise your list into High/Normal/Low priority, yet you can’t prioritise within each level (so for example you can put titles into High priority but not then say which you want first). Paradiso uses a different setup in which you can rank every title on your list in order of preference, and plonk at no.1 the film you most want to see next. When renting a TV series and planning a binge-watch, this also carries the benefit of prioritising and receiving all the discs in a series in one go (i.e. place a 3-disc set at No.1, 2, 3), whereas in my experience Lovefilm usually only sends 1 series disc at a time. Lovefilm has an app for iPad etc which is quite useful, but both sites are easy enough to use from a browser so it’s not really a negative that Paradiso doesn’t offer one. Winner: Cinema Paradiso, purely because the ability to rank your list in preference order does make it more likely that the next disc you’re sent is your first choice.

TURNAROUND & DELIVERY

I’ve been with Lovefilm for a couple of years now, and Paradiso since the start of the year, and have always found the speed of turnaround on both sites to be excellent. For example, if they send you 2 films on Monday, they arrive Tuesday by 1st class Royal Mail. You watch them on Tuesday night, send back on Wednesday (for free in the same envelope they arrived in). They receive the returned discs on Thursday, and immediately send out the next two, which arrive at your home on Friday. If you watch the 2 films on the day they arrive and send them straight back (which I always try to do), you can easily get through 4 a week, 16 a month. On Lovefilm’s £11.99 a month unlimited package that works out at 74p per film (or for Prime members, that’s 62p per film). Compared to streaming a rental film for a fiver or buying the DVD/Blu-ray for up to £10-15, the savings are huge. And as yet I’ve never had anything go missing in the mail, or any faulty discs. Winner: a tie, for me they have both always sent out discs really quickly, even major new releases, and with 1st class postage I always get them next day unless Royal Mail are playing silly buggers.

FREE TRIALS

The good news is that both offer a no-obligation free trial. Lovefilm’s trial is 1 month, Cinema Paradiso’s is 2 weeks.

You can however get an extended 1 month free trial to Paradiso by signing up via this link (and if you then choose to become a paying member after the trial, I also get a bonus so everybody wins). It's worth trying both seeing as it's free and easy to cancel on their websites before the trial ends, no phoning up call centres required.

OVERALL WINNER

Lovefilm wins on price, Cinema Paradiso wins on catalogue and prioritisation system, and turnaround/delivery is a tie. Both offer an excellent level of service for the money, if you’re into films or tv series in a big way then signing up to at least one of them is a no-brainer. With little to choose between them, for me it all comes down to their catalogues and how many films I can rent from them, and there’s one that’s just a bit better than the other. 

So the Cuemarks award for best DVD rental provider in the UK (and therefore the world) goes to…

CINEMA PARADISO














I'm sure everyone at the company is thrilled to bits.

Now let's sit back and enjoy the movie.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

A Few Good Movies... Netflix Originals



The future of cinema is Netflix. Or at least it could be, and that’s what I wanted to find out. The money Netflix is throwing at film and television production right now is huge, and their commissioning of original films and buying up the distribution rights to others ahead of traditional film studios is having a significant impact on the industry. According to The Guardian, Netflix will spend $5 billion on new content in 2016 alone. $5 billion! Their business model relies on attracting new subscribers and then keeping them, and through hit series like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Orange is the New Black, and The Killing, they’re proving that it’s working. But what of their films? At the time of writing there are 23 films under the Netflix Originals banner, I’ve now seen them all (even Pee-wee’s Big Holiday), and I must say I’ve been impressed by the general quality of them. There are of course a few duds, but the majority are worth seeing, and a few of them are exceptional.

In fact it’s really impressed me that Netflix is putting so much funding into documentaries that bring to light some highly controversial and political issues, stories that need to be told yet you wouldn’t expect to see on such a platform, and shows that their output is not just dictated by box office figures. A huge captive audience (75 million in 200 countries, and growing) are hoovering up their content, and those numbers are only going to increase. I think it’s too early to say whether it will become an MGM, Universal, 20th Century Fox… but the signs are that over the next few years Netflix will be an increasingly prominent home for major new films. Aside from the current films reviewed below, there are original films on the way from the likes of Brad Pitt, Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Christopher Guest and Angelina Jolie. As someone who has already almost entirely abandoned the cinema in favour of home viewing, I’m really interested to see where this is all headed. Anyway, on with the reviews. I've even painted my rating system Netflix red for the occasion...

"Bullet is just eating everything... leaves, trees, ground, person. Eating them. Just making person to bleed everywhere. We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going. Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody's ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here." (Beasts of No Nation)

Art of Conflict (2012)
We begin with an unusual choice for a documentary subject; the propaganda murals that dominate the walls and communities of Northern Ireland. As explained by narrator Vince Vaughn (whose sister Valeri Vaughn is the director), these murals arose from the troubles between Protestants and Catholics, and the uprising of the IRA that led to years of what was essentially civil war in Britain and Ireland. There have been so many documentaries and dramas about the history of these troubles, but by tying the story of these times into an analysis of the infamous murals, it offers a different insight into a familiar tale. I've travelled through Northern and Southern Ireland many times, and even though the country is now for the most part at peace, over recent years it has still been quite intimidating to be faced with bloody images of balaclava-covered fighters holding bombs and machine guns as soon as you exit the ferry. The film raises the question of whether these paintings can be considered art, or merely propaganda. I'm not even sure what the answer is, but it's perhaps enough just to raise the question. A well made and thought-provoking film about a bleak subject.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)
Who knew that Kurt Russell's dad was an actor who went on to become a groundbreaking and hugely successful baseball team owner? Who could watch this film and say they previously knew anything about baseball? Not me, on either count. Kurt appears in this (along with players of the era) to tell the story of Bing Russell, who started up the Portland Mavericks, the only independent team in an otherwise franchise-dominated league system. He broke every "rule" on how a team should be run; holding open trials and signing players that no-one else would touch, allowing the players to look and behave however they wanted, and generally causing a real stir amongst those running the game. Despite having never seen a live game or knowing the name of a single baseball player, I actually found myself really enjoying this, which I guess is always a sign of a good documentary. The music may be part of the reason why, it’s a little like you’d hear in a circus when the clowns come in (forgive my ignorance, it’s probably a classic baseball tune that I’ve just insulted), and has the effect of making it fun to hear about a sport you have absolutely no interest in.

Beasts of No Nation (2015)
The searing story of a young boy forced into the horrors of militia warfare in Africa, under the command of a brutal leader played by Idris Elba. I was already well aware of this film due to the controversy over the Oscar snubs for the film itself and Elba's lead performance, and I have to say the controversy was justified because it truly is an outstanding performance and an outstanding film. Told from the boy's perspective, he (like many other children in the group) passes from one armed attack to the next, killing victims in the name of their cause. What’s shocking here is not so much the sight of young boys violently killing people with guns and machetes, but how quickly they lose their sense of compassion or thought of the consequences of their actions. They have been turned into ruthless soldiers by a man who claims to be their "father" yet has brainwashed them for his own cause. There is so much to say about the way the film is shot, the fantastic score, and of course the performances of a very young cast absolutely nailing such difficult roles, but the best thing I can do is just recommend it unreservedly. This is the drama film that declares Netflix has arrived at the top table of filmmaking, even if the Oscars haven't yet woken up to that fact.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016)
It's taken sixteen years for the sequel to the groundbreaking Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to appear, and it's notable just how far visual effects have moved on in the intervening period. For this is a spectacular film to look at; full-on Lord of the Rings mountainous landscapes, hordes of swordsmen fleeing all over the place, ambitiously choreographed floaty sword fight scenes, and a standard of visual effects that the original would have loved to have been able to play with. The highlight is a fight in a fantastical wintery landscape atop a frozen lake, it may not last long but is quite something to see. Of course it loses the element of surprise and originality that the first film had, for western audiences at least, and from the beginning was always going to suffer from the comparison. There's a plot in there somewhere about a bunch of people who'd really like to get hold of a fancy sword, the plot barely goes any deeper than that and I'll admit that after a while I'd forgotten exactly any of this was happening, but for me it scarcely mattered. Bloodshed, people jumping around on rooftops, and pretty scenery: that's what I'm looking for in a film like this, and that's exactly what I got. It’s only because the story’s so forgettable that I can’t rate it higher. Stick around too for the end credits, the inkstain animation is utterly beautiful and wouldn't look out of place as a Bond title sequence.

E-Team (2014)
Human Rights Watch are an organisation that reports on human rights abuses around the world; the people on the ground who carry out the investigations into these crimes, often at great risk to their own lives, are called the E-Team (Emergencies Team). A documentary that's an insightfully depressing report on the worst of humanity; in places like Syria and Lybia we hear about and see the aftermath of dictator and government-ordered massacres, bodies burned, bomb detonations in civilian areas, and cover-ups. You can see news reports about such events so often that it becomes white noise, but it hits home much harder in film format. There are also things here that you just won't see on the news, particularly in showing what it's like to be someone whose job it is to uncover these crimes and separate fact from fiction or witness exaggeration. If I wasn't doing this blog I doubt I would have gotten around to watching this, and I bet the viewer numbers are pretty low for such a film as it's not exactly a crowd-pleaser, but I did find it of interest and will likely encourage me to be more open minded and experimental in what I watch.

Hot Girls Wanted (2015)
I’m not really sure who this is aimed at. The title and provocative cover image suggests it’s initially going to attract pervs looking for free porn, but they’ll quickly switch off once they realise it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill documentary account of female ‘amateurs’ trying to make a few bucks in the internet porn industry. If it’s trying to take a serious look at the treatment of women in a seedy and shady industry, then it does achieve that, but there’s nothing to conclude from it that people won’t already know or have assumed, and the tone is quite preachy and condescending. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table, and as it’s a documentary I wouldn’t ordinarily have had any interest in watching, it would have to have done that at the very least before I could recommend it to anyone. Documentary Not Wanted.

Keith Richards: Under the Influence (2015)
Fans of the legendary Rolling Stones musician will find plenty to enjoy in this interview-style documentary about his career and how much it was influenced by a passion for the Blues. There are some fun anecdotes about his young Stones days, how they basically made the careers of a host of little known American Blues artists, along with studio footage of him recording his latest album. Tom Waits also pops up from time to time with a voice that is almost reaching Nick Nolte levels of gravellyness. Almost. It's not going to convert anyone who isn't already a Keith Richards or Stones fan, and there are better Blues docs out there (Scorsese's series for example), but passably interesting all the same.

Mission Blue (2014)
Let’s go all Discovery Channel now with a documentary that follows environmental campaigner Sylvia Earle in her fight so save the ocean from human destruction. It sounds a little over the top to say that, but when you see some of the details of what we’re doing to the planet, it doesn’t sound so far fetched. This most hit home for me when she’s discussing the “dead zones”, vast areas of ocean in over 500 areas around the globe that have become so polluted and starved of oxygen that no life can survive within it - anything living there just suffocates. I hadn’t a clue about stuff like that, it’s quite an eye-opener. Admittedly it is quite a dry film, I didn’t find it quite attention-holding enough (though it would be a difficult subject to jazz up), but as with all such docs, the cinematography is beautifully done and it will find its way to the people who are passionate about such subjects. Having it on Netflix rather than a one-off Discovery episode also means that it will in the long-run be seen by more people, another advantage of the service over traditional tv.

Mitt (2014)
Largely due to my repeated binge-watching of The West Wing and House of Cards, I've been following the current US Presidential campaign with some interest. This documentary goes behind the scenes of Mitt Romney's two attempts to gain the Republican Party's presidential nomination, and then in his second run, his failed attempt to take the White House from Barack Obama. With a surprising level of access we get to see how he and his family handle the lead up to the primaries and elections, particularly during moments before and after key events such as televised debates and election night itself. The focus is predominantly on him and his family, rather than the strategists, pollsters, spin doctors and advisers you might expect to dominate the story, and I thought it was quite a successful attempt to show what it's like to run for the presidency. The film also made the choice not to offer any opinion or narration, only present the recorded footage, which I thought worked well in this context as it helped keep the film away from feeling like part of an agenda or propaganda (though it is naturally very one-sided). I’m not getting into the rights and wrongs of his policies, but I will say that he and his family come across as reasonably grounded people, and on the face of what we see here, he appeared to run a significantly more dignified campaign than we're currently seeing from Trump's All-American Circus. It's a bit of a lightweight in the political documentary genre, but if you have an interest in American politics I would imagine it would be of interest.

My Beautiful Broken Brain (2016)
Lotje Sodderland, from London, was 34 when she suffered a massive brain haemorrhage, which essentially reset her mind back to early childhood and forced her to learn how to speak and write all over again. Her vision is impaired and she suffers wild nightmarish visions that she can only liken to scenes from David Lynch films, the director who ended up producing this and had an indirect influence on her recovery. The story is remarkable, as is she, and the film's direction and editing does an excellent job of visualising what she is seeing and experiencing. I'll admit that I started to get a little claustrophobic, or at least uncomfortable watching this, because it struck me how much a good documentary can make us as viewers link what we're seeing to our own lives. I also have had a couple of consultations with a neurosurgeon in recent times, and there is a realistic prospect of having to undergo surgery at some point in my life. It is of course a daunting thing to have to contemplate, but seeing Lotje's positive attitude and ability to accept her new "normal" rather than crave her old self is hugely inspiring. It's only really in times of difficulty and suffering that people are able to filter out all the unimportant things in life that we fill our days worrying about, and sometimes it takes a documentary like this to remind us of that.

My Own Man (2015)
Would you watch a documentary about a "nobody"? By that I mean an ordinary person who has led an ordinary life, doesn't feel he's achieved much and for most of his days has lacked the drive or confidence to change what he doesn't like about himself. That is basically what filmmaker David Sampliner is doing here, making a film about his own life, interviewing friends and family about their perceptions of him, attending weird workshops in which people shout at each other and try to become more manly, and through narration trying to figure out where he's headed following the news that he's due to be a father. It’s not the most riveting documentary I’ve ever seen, but at least makes a difference from the usual celebrity biographies, with the introspectiveness reminding me in some ways of Sherman’s March (1985). I should say that he hasn't had a wholly ordinary life, since school age he's been friends with Edward Norton, who briefly appears in the film and actually inputs some of the most interesting thoughts from those interviewed. I'm sure it was cathartic for Sampliner to go through the process of making this, yet by the hour mark my mind was starting to wander, and I was left wishing I could have been more engaged with his story than I actually was.

The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (2015)
I just don't know how to judge a film like this. The Grateful Dead are/were apparently up there with the most successful and influential rock and roll bands, yet they were well before my time and not really the sort of music I like. If I can't get into the music that dominates such a documentary, then I have to judge the story rather than the songs. As that story of band member Bob Weir is presented as a fairly typical talking heads music documentary, which is fine but nothing out of the ordinary, all I can think to say is you'll probably enjoy it if you're already a fan of such music, or perhaps have hazy LSD fuelled memories of the era. Otherwise it's entirely skippable.

Pee-wee's Big Holiday (2016)
Well I know what a Pee-Wee is now, so there's that. What else there is to take from this I'm not sure, but then it is a film aimed squarely at kids (or at least I hope it is, otherwise I'm highly confused). It stars a very odd and slightly camp man-child named Pee-Wee Herman, who works as a chef in a greasy diner, and wears his grey suit and bright red bow-tie even during food prep. Environmental health would have a field day. He makes an apparently excellent milkshake for a customer who looks like an Abercromie & Fitch model (or perhaps Arsenal footballer Olivier Giroud), and then for reasons that no-one should care about, goes off on his first ever road trip. Though if I may say, he would probably benefit more from a trip to the doctor - if a grown man in the real world behaved like this he'd probably be sectioned under the mental health act. The highlight of the film is when he gets trapped down a well; the lowlight is when he's rescued. My best advice would be to plonk your youngest children in front of the tv, lock the door behind you, and if after a few minutes you don't hear them smashing windows or banging down the door to get out again, then they're probably enjoying it. Or, like me, are sitting in bewildered silence.

Print the Legend (2014)
Now we’re back on more solid ground with the story of the companies competing to win the race in the world’s next great technological revolution: 3D printing. I’m sure just hearing those words has got your adrenaline going, but if it hasn’t, let me just say that this is a more interesting film than it sounds. It centres mostly around Bre Pettis, CEO of 3D printer company MakerBot, and the guy dubbed by the media as the next Steve Jobs. He does not come out of the film at all well, with scathing character assessments from many of his former associates and employees, who accuse him of selling out his principles in the scramble to become the next Apple. Despite being about technology, it’s actually a film about the people behind it, and the other person who stuck out was Cody Wilson, an easily dislikable man who believes the best use of the technology is to print working handguns and freely allow anyone to make these at home. Because that’s going to end well. It’s still hard to get my head around the idea that you can press print and a functional 3D object will appear before your eyes, from a unit you can already have in your home, and at the top end it’s already being used to manufacture things like artificial limbs. Because this is such a revolutionary invention that in future could become a significant part of a lot of peoples’ lives, I think the film will appeal to quite a range of viewers, even those who are not technologically minded.

The Ridiculous 6 (2015)
For every person who loves Adam Sandler movies, there is another who loathes them. Those in the latter category would no doubt have been dismayed when he signed an exclusive four film deal with Netflix, and this is the first of them. For what it's worth, I think there is a place in the world for Sandler's movies, not everything has to be high art and sometimes the brain just needs to switch off and watch something fun and silly. That's exactly what he's done here, a good old comedy western absolutely rammed with childish humour, exceptionally stupid characters, and as with all his films, a parade of familiar cameos. Mark Kermode, probably the Roger Ebert of British film critics, has a six-laugh rule for a comedy to qualify as funny, and I found it comfortably passed that test. The story itself is solid enough, as a fan of the genre I've certainly seen many poorer western script ideas than this, with Sandler and his five oddball brothers setting off on a trek through the plains to save their kidnapped father (Nick Nolte). I'm not claiming this is a work of greatness, I cannot emphasise enough just how childish the humour gets, but if you disengage brain and go in without preconceived cynicism then it's enjoyably silly nonsense. In a way, this film shows how traditional measures of a film's success - box office numbers and critic reviews - are of little relevance to Netflix; The Ridiculous 6 was predictably slated by the mainstream media yet quickly became the most-watched film in Netflix history (comparing films during the first 30 days of release).

The Short Game (2013)
You know Anna Kournikova, professional pretty lady and part-time tennis player? Turns out her little brother also has a talent for sport, in fact being the best 8 year old tennis player in the world. What this documentary does is follow him and a selection of other ridiculously gifted young golfers competing in an event to become world champion for their age group. I didn't even know there was such a thing, but it does explain why so many golfers nowadays are winning major professional tournaments by their early 20's. Due to their age, it's Mum or Dad acting as caddy, and the most interesting aspect of the film was seeing the difference between the pushy parent driving the child, and in some cases the pushy child driving the parent. Some of the kids are funny and very likeable, others are precocious and probably enough to put anyone off the idea of having children for life. Unless of course you happen to have given birth to a child good enough to succeed in a sport that could make them a multi-millionaire, in which case they're your pension and you'll put up with anything. Funnily enough none of the parents mention that.

Special Correspondents (2016)
Oh dear. If I could give one piece of advice to any comedy film writer, it would be: at least try making it funny. Sadly, this is desperately lacking in laughs. Ricky Gervais and Eric Bana are radio journalists sent to cover a story in war torn Ecuador, who then fail to actually make it out of the US, and instead are forced to fake their radio reports from an attic. As their stories escalate out of control, the film slides away towards a trite, predictable, slushy conclusion that tries to echo Woody Allen but gets nowhere close. Eric Bana in no way, shape or form can carry off a comedy role like this, and it’s beyond me what attracted the usually excellent Kelly MacDonald to such an underwritten and insultingly old-fashioned female role. Now I like Gervais when he's on form, and to be fair there were a one or two moments where I did nearly raise a smile, but they were all when he slipped into David Brent (The Office) mode. Yet if I wanted to watch The Office, I’d just watch The Office. Aside from those few instances, the whole thing is spirit-crushingly unfunny, which is especially disappointing when Gervais as both a writer and actor has proved in the past he can produce so much better than this. I hope Netflix asked for their money back.

The Square (2013)
In the first of two excellent Netflix documentaries about citizens of a nation staging a revolution, we follow the mass protests that escalated into bloody violence after the downfall of the Egyptian President. It wouldn’t be accurate enough to describe the scenes filmed on the ground as violent, more the police and army staging all-out war against the initially peaceful protesters. To give some idea, we hear about and witness army tanks being deliberately ploughed into crowds, torture, murder, bullets and tear gas being fired at will. I think the reason why films like this matter is that they tell important stories that we don't really hear about in the news, or at least only briefly before moving on to the next thing. It means that the story stays alive and ensures the cause of the people fighting for justice in their country isn't being permanently ignored. Having said that, as a film watching experience I did find the other similar film on the list, Winter on Fire, far more of a must-see.

Team Foxcatcher (2016)
If you've seen last year's Foxcatcher, starring Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum, then this will ring a lot of bells. Using a combination of home camcorder footage and interviews, this new documentary reveals the actual story of John E. du Pont, the high profile leader and benefactor of the USA wrestling team. A paranoid and unstable individual, this is an effective examination of his character leading up to the tragic circumstances that he is now best known for. If you're interested in the story and don't know anything about it, I would actually recommend seeing last year's film first, as this doc reveals the end of his story in the opening minutes (and is actually even in Netflix's description). Witnessing the actual people involved in the events did underline what a good job the actors in the prior dramatisation had done, especially Carrell who got du Pont's look, mannerisms and even his walk just right. The problem with releasing this so soon after such a high profile Hollywood movie is that the tale is very familiar, so even though it's interesting, it’s impact is lessened. That's not really a fault of the director though, only a fault of timing.

Tig (2015)
Tig Notaro is a standup comedian. She got seriously ill, recovered, then her mother died, and then she got cancer. Most people would fold by that point, instead she went the other way. She got up on stage and did a groundbreaking standup routine about her cancer, which made her an overnight sensation. Making light of her situation in front of a room full of strangers is a remarkable way of dealing with it personally, as well as helping others to understand what she's going through, and this is enhanced by the effective way in which the film is put together. Crossing back and forward between her interviews, hospital visits, personal life and clips of her comedy routine brings lightness to a heavy subject, and I think it would be cathartic viewing for anyone who has (or knows someone who has) experience of serious illness. In fact in that scenario I would say this becomes essential viewing, her positivity and self-mocking make her a very amiable, and probably to a lot of people, inspiring person. Crucially for a comedian though, she's also funny.

“They only comprise in killing
The innocent and the old
With guns and ammunition
They offer peaceful plans
And all the while the war is waiting
For our honor to be sold
But oh no, we will not go”
Virunga (2014)
The above lyrics are translated from the absolutely fantastic song, “We Will Not Go” by J. Ralph, that bookends Virunga. You can listen to it on Youtube, but I strongly recommend hearing it within the context of what is a fascinating documentary. Deep in the Virunga National Park, in Africa’s Congo, resides the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. The most intelligent, beautiful, funny and human-like creatures you are ever likely to see (they even eat Pringles!), they are protected from the dangers of the outside world by a small group of park rangers, and this is their story. Except it isn’t that simple. The animal sanctuary is in the middle of a highly unstable conflict zone, and as the story unfolds, we witness the the worst aspects of human nature happen around them and to them. Poachers are a constant threat, and there are a few scenes I found very difficult to watch, in which these despicable people left their mark. All for the sake of a few dollars. There are many other layers to the story, with tank battles breaking out around the habitat of these poor animals, and a young French journalist investigating possible corruption amongst organisations operating in the area. I don’t often watch animal documentaries but I was enormously impressed with this one, the way it’s been put together provides an eye-opening contrast between the innocence and beauty of nature, and the appalling cruelty and stupidity of humans at their worst. Having said that, the care and love that the rangers have for the animals they’re working so hard to protect equally shows humanity at it’s best. The filmmakers haven’t just produced an important film, they’ve produced a very good one, and as I said it’s things like the music and quality of the cinematography that elevate it. I also see that Leonardo DiCaprio is down as Executive Producer, I’m never entirely sure what that involves but if it brings more people on board then it’s a positive thing.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
I knew Nina Simone had a unique voice and unique songs; I didn't know she also had a unique life. Another of Netflix's eye-opening documentaries tells the story of that life, from the early days performing in bars purely as a way to make money, through to her heavy involvement in civil rights campaigning. Her music became increasingly political and dominated by the theme of inequality, and at the same time privately suffering an abusive personal life that led to deep bouts of depression and anger that others found difficult to handle. It's an insightful and poignant look at the life of someone who on the face of it was gifted with the sort of genius that should have led to a dream life, yet instead left her unfulfilled, angry, and towards the end, a little broken. She was a genius though, the many fantastic concert clips included here do prove that beyond doubt.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom (2015)
In 2013, Ukrainian President publicly committed to taking the country into the European Union, a move that the Ukrainian people saw as an essential step towards freedom. Instead he went behind their backs and signed a trade agreement with Vladimir Putin's Russia. This led to a mass revolt by the public, tens of thousands gathered in protest, in an uprising that would turn the streets into a warzone. This oustanding documentary presents footage captured at the heart of these scenes, and so night after night we see peaceful protesters being brutally attacked, beaten and even killed by the police and military under the instruction of the President. The behaviour of those employed to uphold the law is disgusting and so unnecessarily violent against people who simply wanted to exercise their right to protest injustice. Films are often praised for having great cinematography, but most pale into insignificance when compared with what we see here - camera operators literally putting their lives on the line to get the footage, right in the middle of atrocious battles with explosions, tear gas and gunfire going off all around. Before this film I had never heard a word about this conflict, and I came out of it with a newfound admiration and respect for the people of a nation who had the courage to take a stand and try to bring down a government who no longer represented them. The film proves that if Netflix continues to fund and give a voice to the filmmakers going after vital real life stories that need to be told, and that other studios are shying away from, it has the opportunity to become a major player in shaping, expanding and breaking new ground in the documentary genre.