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last update 10.Jun.17
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Dying Laughing
dir Lloyd Stanton, Paul Toogood
prd Suli McCullough, Lloyd Stanton, Paul Toogood
with Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Connolly, Jerry Lewis, Garry Shandling, Jamie Foxx, Sarah Silverman, Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan, Victoria Wood, Bobby Lee, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Cedric the Entertainer, Jo Brand
release US 24.Feb.17,
UK 16.Jun.17
16/US 1h29
Dying Laughing This relatively simple documentary allows a wide range of comics to share their experiences, focussing on the challenges of performing stand-up. From Jerry Lewis to Amy Schumer, they recount similar stories of the long road to success and the challenge of dealing with hecklers, something other performers don't face. It's all rather indulgent and ingrown, but also fascinating. And often very funny too.

As the late Garry Shandling says, there's no shortcut to becoming a stand-up comic. You have to put in the years, refining your jokes, finding your voice and learning how to cope with an audience that almost dares you to make them laugh. Life on the road is lonely, traveling to random venues to say funny things to people you don't know. And you won't know if you have what it takes to make it until audience members taunt you and you're booed off stage. But finding success brings experience that changes your perspective.

All of this is spoken to camera by some 60 comedians in black and white clips, interspersed with generic shots of life on the road, from comedy clubs to endless country highways to big cities. The camera work is slick, but the film itself isn't made with any particular creativity. The filmmakers instead rely on what these engaging people have to say, and without ever being critical or terribly provocative, they share their stories with plenty of humour.

Aside from the knowing description of what it takes to make it as a stand-up, the film is packed with riotous anecdotes, told by these expert story-tellers for maximum impact, both humorous and emotional. All of these are people who have made it to the big time, some much bigger than others, but none of them are struggling any more. So they definitely remember what it was like, what it meant to them and how it informed the career that developed from there.

This is essential viewing for anyone who wants to become a comic, as well as for anyone who is struggling in the trenches. In the section on gigs that go horribly wrong, there's a strong exploration of exactly what kind of resilience is required to go into a field in which you are the author, director and actor in a show that's all about you. Although perhaps it would have been meaningful to also hear from some comics who gave up and found alternative careers.

15 themes, language
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I Am Not Your Negro
5/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Raoul Peck
scr James Baldwin
prd Remi Grellety, Hebert Peck, Raoul Peck
with James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Dick Cavett, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Billy Dee Williams, Robert F Kennedy
narr Samuel L Jackson
release US 9.Dec.16,
UK 7.Apr.17
16/US 1h33

I Am Not Your Negro A blistering exploration of American culture, this film focusses on racial issues that have been a driving force across the nation, whether or not citizens realise it. But this isn't a political movie; it's a poetic odyssey based on the words of author James Baldwin, whose sharp observations ring devastatingly true. Even though he died in 1987, what he has to say is relevant and important.

In 1979, Baldwin proposed writing a book titled Remember This House, about the iconic 1960s civil rights murders: Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. Baldwin knew these three men personally, and describes how he learned of their violent deaths. He also understood that they were very different men who were activists in the same cause, seeking some sort of solution to the racial inequality that repeatedly boiled over into protests. And Baldwin realised that this issue reveals a lot about the American psyche in general.

Filmmaker Peck assembles this with skill, artfully juxtaposing newsreel footage, period interviews and telling clips from more than a century of cinema and television, plus crisp new images that bring the themes to the present day. Over this, Jackson speaks Baldwin's words, which poetically observe the situation with an eerie prescience that rattles us to the core. The cumulative effect of this film is to completely redefine how we perceive America's cultural traditions and history.

The central idea is that these three murders "bang against and reveal each other". Baldwin's perceived role as a witness to society (rather than as an activist) made him unusually sensitive to spotting connections, which makes his commentary unusually pointed, vividly showing how films and television have eroded a sense of reality about the true make-up of America and the meaning of the American Dream. Since Baldwin's comments are so personal, they're also darkly moving ("I was not allowed to act like I belonged here").

Peck drives the points home by cutting from the violent 1963 Birmingham riots to 2014 Ferguson. And Baldwin's conclusions are chilling: that this isn't a racial problem, but a sign that America is an infant nation that values sincerity and immaturity, revealing its emotional poverty in a fear of outsiders, sexuality, the inner self and the fact that real people still pay a high price for America's prosperity. Which is why the privileged misunderstand their protests. Baldwin's words and Peck's imagery back this up with jarring evidence of how entertainment has consistently dumbed down the public. And there can never be a true American dream as long as segments of society are denied it.

12 themes, language, violent images

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Last Men in Aleppo
4.5/5     MUST must see SEE
dir-scr Firas Fayyad
prd Kareem Abeed, Soeren Steen Jespersen, Stefan Kloos
with Khaled Omar Harrah, Mahmoud, Yousef, Ahmad, Isra, Batoul, Subhi, Omar, Hussein, Whalid, Ibrahim, Amer, Louai, Bakri, Shabaab Badawi, Hasan Hannan, Mohammed Mashahadani, Fawzi Barghot, Ayman Seter
Last Men in Aleppo release US 5.May.17
17/Syria 1h50

Last Men in Aleppo With cameras on the ground in terrifying situations, this astonishing film documents the remaining residents of a sophisticated city decimated by years of bombardment. It's beautifully shot and edited, putting the audience right in the middle of some horrific events while also letting us experience the joy of life even in this troubled place.

In 2011, a peaceful protest against Syria's oppressive government shifted into civil war when President Bashar Assad responded with military force, brutally attacking his own citizens. By 2013 in the city of Aleppo, students and construction workers volunteered to become White Helmets, rescuing victims of Assad's relentless bombing. Then in 2015, Russian jets joined in dropping bombs indiscriminately, dramatically escalating the carnage and leaving 250,000 remaining civilians under siege. Every day they watch the sky for any sign of death coming their way.

The film follows men like Mahmoud, an ambulance driver who races to rescue the injured, often infants pulled from the rubble of decimated buildings. He's left speechless (as are we) by each death, and he worries about his brother Ahmad, who works with him. Family man Khaled is clearly thinking of his adorable young daughters as he says, "When I look at these ruins, something tells me it's time to leave." But it's almost impossible to escape. So he tries to build a normal life for them in between the attacks.

Director Fayyad assembles this in a fly-on-the-wall style, just showing the situation without any voiceover narration (title cards fill in details). Shooting with remarkable intimacy, the filmmakers' cameras experience the highs and lows of life in Aleppo. Food and medicine are hard to come by, but this is their home, and they don't want to leave. So when there are no planes in the sky, they play and throw parties. Their interaction is lively, often funny. But when a father tells his child not to play in the streets, the echoes are chilling.

The cameras capture a series of bombings and rescues, each of which is shattering. These people feel like the whole world has turned its back on them, as even neighbouring countries refuse Syrian refugees. Their only hope is that somehow Assad's regime will be overthrown. Through all of this, their optimism and perseverance are inspiring. This is an urgent, important film that reminds us that if we keep ignoring what's happening in Syria, it might not be such a big leap to imagine this happening in our own cities.

15 themes, language, violence
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4/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Rahul Jain
prd Rahul Jain, Thanassis Karathanos, Iikka Vehkalahti
machines release UK 19.May.17,
US 9.Aug.17
16/India 1h11

Machines This documentary may appear straightforward and simple, but it's a cleverly complex exploration of one aspect of our greed-obsessed world that we would rather not think about. The focus is on a fabric factory in India, and filmmaker Rahul Jain trains his camera with unusual skill to reveal the conditions and quietly comment on what it all means.

In Gujarat, factory employees work gruelling 12-hour shifts for around $3. This isn't enough to support themselves, let alone their families, so they work multiple shifts in a row. Jain's cameras have full run of a fabric factory, showing various jobs in the process, from silk-screening to quality control, from setting up the machines to cleaning up afterwards. At various points, workers speak to the camera about their lives, the stresses of this kind of work and why it's unlikely to change. And the boss has his perspective as well.

The cinematography by Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva is strikingly beautiful. There are long static shots that capture the colour and textures in this grim, windowless space, but most of the film consists of extended tracking shots following workers through their routines. There are only a few glimpses outside the walls, including a torrential rainstorm that floods the local streets, a moment of colourful levity on the roof and a staggering aerial shot that reminds us that this is just one of hundreds of factories here.

The range of interviewees is intriguing. Some of these jobs are clearly physically perilous, whether operating heavy machinery or handling sloppy chemicals. A young teen says he needs to start work young so he has some skills when he gets older. Because of a drought, a farmer has turned to factory work to support his family and earn money to buy seeds for next season. And one more experienced worker explains that every time they try to unionise to demand shorter shifts and better pay, the organiser dies.

This isn't one of those hopeful docs that challenges us to do something to help these people, although anyone paying attention can see what it means for us in the West. The demand for cheap goods in Europe and North America is directly leading to this situation, equally to blame with factory owners who keep the profits for themselves, just as executives do in our countries while paying people as little as they can get away with. So there's a clear sense of injustice about the whole chain of commerce. And it's important to have well-made movies like this to remind us what unregulated capitalism is doing to the planet.

12 themes, language

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