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Space Dogs review – cosmic canine mission lacks gravity | Documentary films

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Ostensibly an alternative biography of Laika, the stray mongrel who became the first cosmonaut, this film faithfully tracks her from her time on the streets of Moscow to her lonely demise in low Earth orbit. Incredible archive footage shows us Laika and a number of other dogs being subjected to a relentless barrage of exercises designed to mimic the incredible stress of space travel; it’s hard not to be affected by the footage knowing, as we do, that Laika is being led to an excruciating end.

Space Dogs documents a cruel period in human history but the bleak tone the film-makers pursue throughout may not be the best way of dealing with it. It is designed, perhaps, to numb you to the horror of what you are witnessing but the unspeakable acts are presented without comment or context.

There’s a secondary narrative here, with Laika’s story interwoven with the tale of a pair of strays navigating the barren streets of modern Moscow. Their story, presumably, is intended to mirror Laika’s intrepid journey, but the unremarkable footage acts as a drag on the film’s momentum.

Narration is sparingly employed throughout, which is a shame given the quality of the writing; this is one of those films that could actually do with more exposition and insight. We see, for example, the post-mission project designed to memorialise Laika as a symbol of Soviet ingenuity – but we don’t hear from the men responsible for this state-sponsored torture. A defence of their actions would have given this otherwise beautiful-looking film a third dimension it’s lacking.

Laika’s dead body is wonderfully described as a “cosmic flotsam” over the opening credits. It’s hard to shake the feeling that a genuinely arresting documentary was cast adrift somewhere along the line.

• Space Dogs is available on Mubi on 10 September.

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Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins review – memorial to a liberal legend | Film

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The late journalist and media commentator Molly Ivins, an outspoken liberal from Texas, has an illustrious reputation among connoisseurs of political writing of the late 20th century, but is not so well known outside the US. This affectionate but thankfully not hagiographic documentary, directed by Janice Engel, offers a handy preçis of her biography, character and impact.

It’s told partly through fresh interviews with admirers (including the doyenne of progressive journalism, Rachel Maddow, as well as Dan Rather and Paul Krugman) and Ivins’ friends and family. But above all the film relies on a smoothly edited melange of archive footage that recorded Ivins’ killer comic timing in interviews on various public stages, as well as her incisive intelligence and irreverence, captured mostly on shoddy video with C-SPAN blazoned in the corners. But neither age nor compression artefacts can wither her immortal charisma.

Ivins was born into a high-Wasp clan but rebelled against her parents’ expectations that she do something genteel, instead becoming a civil rights supporter and then a reporter. While working at a Minnesota paper during the late 60s she was proud to have wound up the police so much with her reporting that they named their mascot pig after her. Then came a stint at the New York Times where she never quite suited the buttoned-down culture, given her tendency to walk around barefoot and bring her dog, whom she named Shit, to work with her.

The film implies she was sacked for describing a mass chicken slaughter in the midwest as a “gang pluck”, a phrase that didn’t make it into print but still raised the ire of the editor in chief. (She said later she only used it to make the copy editors laugh.) Eventually she returned to Texas and became a syndicated columnist and author of several books on politics that gave her a national reputation.

Given that it’s 13 years since Ivins died, it’s puzzling why this film is coming out now, but it’s never not a good time to celebrate a woman with an outsized, big-boned talent, a heroine for the left even if she didn’t always adhere to the party line. Heaven knows we need all the plain-speaking, fearless heroines we can get right now.

Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins is in cinemas and on digital platforms from 23 October.


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Requiem for a Dream at 20: Aronofsky’s nightmare still haunts | Film

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I was 17, and just beginning university, when Requiem for a Dream descended on cinemas like an opaque, bruise-blue mist. Notwithstanding the no-under-18s restrictions stamped upon it by stern censors in the UK and elsewhere, I like to think I was the optimal age for it. Darren Aronofsky’s addiction drama may be cross-generational in its focus, but with its unremittingly punishing storytelling and frenzied, all-systems-go cinematic energy, it represents a very young person’s idea of how a very adult film looks, sounds and spasms. I loved it, even as it followed me through a tertiary arts education to the point of overkill: its poster gracing umpteen friends’ dorm rooms, its Clint Mansell/Kronos Quartet string theme – and its countless remixes – soundtracking all manner of student theatre pieces and presentations, its formal and literary flourishes seized upon by many a hip professor seeking a modish mutual reference point.

If this sounds like the prelude to a revisionist takedown, I thought it might be one too. It’s 20 years since Requiem for a Dream was released, and at least 15 since I last saw it: revisiting it this week, I was prepared for it to be as dated and artificially edgy as a turn-of-the-millennium tribal tattoo. In a sense it is. There’s no mistaking Aronofsky’s film as a highly styled product of its era, its hopped-up editing schemes and plethora of lens choices and gimmicks a glossy refinement of 90s indie aesthetics and Tarantino-patented extremity. It doesn’t miss a trick, and doesn’t want us to miss any of its tricks either. Some critics called it over-directed at the time, and more of their colleagues would probably join them today; a generation of more restrained kids as old as I was then, quieter rather than shock-inclined in their anxiety, might even agree.

And yet. Certainly, a large part of Requiem’s stylistic mania amounts to auteurist showing-off. It was Aronofsky’s second film, coming two years after his scrappier, more cryptic but equally out-to-dazzle Sundance sensation Pi, and with more money and bigger names at his disposal, he set out to prove himself as the pre-eminent artist-provocateur of his indie class. Still, in choosing to adapt Hubert Selby Jr’s cultish 1978 novel of New York junkie miserablism – and very faithfully, at that – the then 31-year-old film-maker found about the ideal canvas for his ugly showmanship.

The novel was grimly forensic in detailing the physical and mental destruction wrought by drug addiction on a quartet of characters: three of them connected in their youth and knowing submission to heroin, and the fourth an elderly Brooklyn widow, drawn obliviously into amphetamine psychosis by solitude, TV fixation and irresponsibly prescribed diet pills. It’s a slender story that makes its essential points early, often and obviously: we’re all vulnerable to some manner of addiction, and legal ones aren’t necessarily safer or less ruinous than their underworld counterparts.

Scripted in collaboration with the author, Aronofsky’s interpretation doesn’t complicate things any, but it does bring to the material an electrified sensory charge that hasn’t quite been replicated in any other addiction drama. In all its flash, slam-bang technique, it vividly evokes the sensation of what drugs actually do to your system, briefly for better and mostly for worse, from twitchy initial rush through to comedown and tortured aftermath.

Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream.



Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Aritsan Entertainment/Allstar/Cinetext/Artisan Entertainment

Aronofsky’s film-making is neither subtle nor tasteful, two words you wouldn’t tend to apply to heroin addiction either. Its excesses feel grounded, however oppressively, in the hellish experience of all its characters – it’s surely the most stylishly made drug drama ever to escape any accusations of glamorising the scene. As two young, beautiful, kohl-eyed lovers bound by needles and deferred dreams, Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly initially seem veritable poster children for that quintessentially 90s concept of heroin chic. By the time the film reaches its notoriously grotesque, despairing climactic montage, crosscutting between the amputation of his gangrenous arm – a body-horror image more unforgettably gross than any cursed cigarette-pack photo – and her going ass-to-ass with another woman for a braying, paying audience, any concept of “chic” is firmly off the table.

Such is the paradox of Requiem for a Dream, which pushed the envelope in its explicit, from-the-inside view of addiction and its spiralling consequences, while maintaining a philosophical perspective as cautiously moralising as any Just Say No public service announcement. What real shock value it had was tied mostly to Ellen Burstyn’s indelible, progressively unhinged performance as frail, sweet-natured shut-in Sara Goldfarb, whose short-term chemical solution to her loneliness and body-image issues winds up frying her brain as drastically as any class-A drug. Burstyn’s fearless turn hooked this impressively abrasive film an Oscar nomination it would never have received in any other category – and with it, an older audience that probably wouldn’t have considered seeing a film about three young, damned smackheads. It probably surprised them as much as it did any student-age punters drawn in by the vogueish, subversion-promising marketing: “the cinematic heroin nightmare for the whole family” wasn’t anywhere to be seen on that ubiquitous poster, but it wouldn’t have been far off.

Two decades on, Requiem for a Dream doesn’t look especially cool – but then, it never really did. Rather, its numbing, slightly-sick-in-your-mouth power remains undiminished, as does the hard-driving impact of Aronofsky’s film-making: it set the pace for a filmography marked by earnest, grandiose outrageousness, from the ludicrous, ravishing romantic folly of The Fountain through to the magnificent, unapologetically narcissistic artist’s self-diagnosis of his recent Mother!. As someone born closer to the year 2000 than I was might say, Requiem for a Dream didn’t have to go so hard. But I’m kind of glad it did.


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Which Pet Would You Have At Hogwarts Based On Your Food Choices?

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