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last update 13.May.07
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The Future Is Unwritten   4/5
The Future Is Unwritten With a wealth of footage, this biographical documentary about Clash frontman Joe Strummer is utterly fascinating. As with his other docs (The Filth and the Fury, Glastonbury), Temple assembles the material skilfully, although he doesn't make it easy for the uninformed.

After a childhood living all over the world, Strummer returned to the UK and joined a series of bands that eventually evolved into the Clash in 1976. Over the next 10 years their politically aware music redefined rock and punk as they indulged in typical rockstar turbulence. The film uses home movies, unheard audio tapes, backstage footage, concert clips and moody modern interviews, accompanied by narration from Strummer himself, taken from his late-90s BBC radio series. He died from a congenital heart defect in 2002.

Temple compiles this beautifully, layering outside influences from the Rolling Stones to the Sex Pistols, as well as inventively animated glimpses of Strummer's own doodles and sketches. This is witty, pointed filmmaking that really gets under the surface, so it's a little annoying that Temple refuses to identify anyone who's talking.

For example, just seeing Bono is potent because, with their meaningful music and social activism, U2 are now what the Clash were then. So everything Bono says deepens our understanding of Strummer's impact on both the music industry and pop culture. On the other hand, if we can't recognise Strummer's now-aged fellow musicians, whatever they say may be lost on us. Also, by cleverly weaving in clips from various movies, Temple is able to lovingly illustrate Strummer's life journey. But we're rarely sure if we're watching actual archive footage or a vintage film clip. And gaps in the narrative are impossible to fill in unless we know the story beforehand.

That said, the artful swirl of material coalesces in two powerful ways: as a grippingly impressionistic look at Strummer's life and as a comment on the politics of pop. The band's voyage into arrogance and superstardom is sobering, as is Strummer's prescient description of the meaning behind Rock the Casbah ("There's no tenderness or humanity in fanaticism"). As a result, the final section, in which Strummer rediscovers himself around utopian campfires, really catches his personality and a tone of creative reconciliation. Gorgeous.

dir Julien Temple
narr Joe Strummer
with Mick Jones, Topper Headon, Steve Jones, Don Letts, Bono, Johnny Depp, Martin Scorsese, John Cusack, Matt Dillon, Steve Buscemi, Courtney Love, Jim Jarmusch
release UK 18.May.07,
US 2.Nov.07
07/UK 2h03

Other docs by Temple:
15 themes, language, some nudity
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Roving Mars   3.5/5
A fascinating examination of the two Mars rover missions, this documentary benefits from being projected onto the giant Imax screen, taking us right out there onto the Red Planet.

After years of preparation, the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity were launched in June 2003, three weeks apart. If they survived the landing several months later, they were expected to explore opposite sides of the planet for about 60 days each. Four years later both are still in operation as robotic geologists examining soil and rocks, as well as shooting photos and video both of Mars and of the galaxy from a new perspective.

The film begins with the research phase, as the scientists construct the rovers, test them in the desert and figure out how to ensure they'll survive the landing. Much of this footage is shot in the lab, which isn't the most Imax-friendly place, with its sea of dull computer terminals and geeky scientists (although they're all charming, and thankfully never too over-technical). The desert footage and the various test landings are much more spectacular, as is the astonishing blast-off sequence, and then the footage from Mars itself. Much of this consists of carefully crafted composites and animations based on images the rovers have sent back.

Where the film drifts is in its overwhelming desire to give these rovers human personalities. Sure, since they're individually built, they will behave with slight variations, but to describe them as "brave" or "tenacious" is a disservice to the geniuses who designed and built them. And a bit patronising to the audience watching the movie.

But it's a remarkably well-assembled film that looks jaw-dropping and makes us want to see more. And it expertly shows us, repeatedly, what a staggering achievement these rovers are, and what amazing knowledge we already have gained from them. It also doesn't seem to be stretching things to suggest that one day a man will walk in the rovers' tire tracks.

dir George Butler
scr George Butler, Robert Andrus
narr Paul Newman
with Steve Squyres, Rob Manning, Charles Elachi, Wayne Lee
a rover release US 27.Jan.06,
UK 4.May.07
06/US Disney 40m
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Sketches of Frank Gehry   4/5
Filmmaker Pollack spent some five years with his architect friend Gehry to create an engaging documentary portrait that says more about the artistic process than it does about Gehry himself.

The film skims over details of Gehry's life to look at his work as a designer. Much of the screen time features Gehry and Pollack discussing the nature of creativity, where they discovered their voices and how they've worked as artists in commercial industries. We meet Gehry's design partners (Webb and Chan), and examine the working process they use. And we also hear from people who have commissioned work from Gehry, worked with him and admire or loathe his designs.

What emerges is an intriguing portrait of an artist who begins with squiggly drawings, works through models that are constantly in flux, and emerges with structures that sit intriguingly in their landscapes--contrasting and yet oddly lyrical. In the end, Gehry seems much more like a sculptor than an architect, working with shapes, textures and light.

Pollack constantly has a video camera in his hand, shooting Gehry's face while a second camera shoots their interaction. It's edited together cleverly, with a remarkably intimate tone and a superb score by Sorman & Nystrom. We feel like we get extremely close to Gehry, even though the details of his home life remain almost entirely off screen--we get some of his history and we see his astonishing house, but we never quite understand who he is when he's not working.

So where the film breaks the surface is in its examination of serious themes. There are telling conversations between close friends about democracy and politics, a vivid allusion to anti-Semitism (Gehry changed his name from Goldberg in the early 1950s), and an especially astute look at the tension between art and commerce.

The film also captures Gehry's eye--the surprising places where he finds inspiration and his inner resolve to keep pushing himself in new directions. These insights make the film riveting to watch, bringing to life superb footage of Gehry's astounding buildings, especially the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Disney in Los Angeles. You'll want him to build you a house.

dir Sydney Pollack
with Frank Gehry, Sydney Pollack, Craig Webb, Edwin Chan, Dennis Hopper, Julian Schnabel, Bob Geldof, Ed Ruscha, Hal Foster, Michael Ovitz, Michael Eisner, Milton Wexler
gehry release US 12.May.06,
UK 29.Jun.07
06/US PBS 1h23

12 some language
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With You!   3.5/5
This lively documentary has an emotional kick as it looks as a group of gay men who find camaraderie in what seems like an extremely unlikely place.

The Gotham Knights are the only gay rugby team in the New York league. And they're not very good. The filmmakers follow them through one season in which their best final score is a 14-88 loss. And that was the first match in which they scored at all (the worst score was 0-131). But these guys love the game, and the chance to bond with other guys who understand the experience of accepting their sexuality. In comparison to straight teams, Coach Bahr says they play more like a group, with less alpha-dog posturing. But they're also not as aggressive.

Anyone who shows up is allowed on the team, which might be part of their problem. But what they lack in skill they more than make up for in heart. Their post-match drunken revelry puts most straight teams to shame; indeed, one rival team loves playing them mainly because the after-parties at the Knights' local leather bar are so much fun. And among themselves they have a definite family atmosphere, complete with tensions and deep affections. As one player says, gay men always feel alone, and their motto "With you!" means they always know a teammate is alongside.

The film is shot on home video then energetically edited together with a raucous song score. It focuses mainly on three players: vice-captain Negado, who lives with his partner (Fluet) and their kids in a suburban idyll; new player D'Ercola, the team's morale booster who's developing a sideline as a standup comic; and the youngest member, Bain, an aggressively ambitious, somewhat humourless law student--unsurprising considering that he's only 5'5", gay and from Texas.

Director Dabach keeps the film moving briskly, and over the short running time actually gets deep under the skin of these guys, highlighting their individual journeys of self-discovery, personal growth and strong inter-dependence. And by the final coda, which shows a marked improvement in the following season, we can't help but cheer them on.

dir Yaniv Dabach
with Jason D'Ercola, James Bain, Chris Negato, Harold Bahr, Scott Gleissgen, John Dent, Luke Martland, Doug Fields, Toby MJ Butterfield, Adam Josephs, Tutle Burkybile, Robert Fluet
the gotham knights
release US Jun.06 sflgff;
UK Mar.07 llgff
06/US 1h08

London L&G Film Fest
15 themes, language, brief nudity
1.Apr.07 llgff
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© 2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall