REVIEW: Queen of the Desert

5 04 2017

“You will not scare men with your intelligence,” warns an elder to the young Gertrude Bell at the outset of Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert.” It’s the kind of “nevertheless, she persisted” moment that would spur on a great feminist tale. Instead, the line represents the tease for a story that never materializes.

This story of an accomplished archaeologist who provided valuable research on tribes in the Ottoman Empire as their empire collapses is all too eager to define her life in relation to the men whose path she crosses. There’s T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame, a more professional acquaintance, but she sets off on her quest primarily in grief-stricken anguish at the loss of Henry Cadogan (James Franco). While in the Middle East, she spends as much time on screen rebuffing offers from Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) as she interacts with the native tribes.

This becomes an issue later on when Herzog tries to land the film with an anti-imperialist message as Winston Churchill arrives from the British Empire to help break up the Ottoman Empire. Gradually, Bell does grow into a bit of an anti-imperialist as she increases her understanding of the region’s tribes. But in her embittered farewell, knowing that her advice will likely be discarded, Bell expresses a kind of fondness for the people she loves that also reeks of a white savior complex.

The only thing to recommend in the film is Pattinson’s turn as Lawrence; he does the self-effacing British elite routine with aplomb. Otherwise, “Queen of the Desert” sits on a hollow throne. C

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 9, 2015)

9 07 2015

No matter how his projects turn out in the end, no one can accuse Werner Herzog of being lazy or complacent.  As he floats freely between fiction and documentary, Herzog always manages to find some unique angle to examine humanity and its place in both culture and nature.

“Grizzly Man,” though, marks peak Herzog.  This documentary is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it exemplifies all his best qualities as a filmmaker: a distinct vision, an unlikely subject, and a clearly articulated worldview that shines through a narrative that fascinates the senses and enraptures the brain.

Herzog works mostly with the found footage of Timothy Treadwell, a self-styled nature expert and wannabe television personality.  For over a decade, he spent his summers observing and interacting with grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness.  And rather than writing something pedestrian like a journal or research text, Treadwell recorded his adventures like a Discovery Channel show.  Through Treadwell’s lens, he fashioned himself like an even greater version of Steve Irwin, toeing the line between bear and man, the animal and the human.

This treasure trove of footage discovered after Treadwell met a grizzly end (sorry, terrible pun) being mauled by one of the creatures he loved forms the backbone of Herzog’s “Grizzly Man.”  Though he pads the recordings with traditional documentary-style interviews of friends, family, and colleagues, neither they nor Treadwell get the final word.  Herzog himself actively narrates the film, offering his own commentary on what transpired from his removed yet engaged perspective.

Herzog’s presence over “Grizzly Man” makes the experience less like watching a film and more like a thrilling presentation of critical analysis about a filmmaker yet to exhibit a film.  That may sound dry and boring, yet it proves anything but. He dares to look beyond the surface of Treadwell’s recordings, which many would immediately dismiss as hubristic or insane.  When processed by Herzog, Treadwell serves as a cautionary tale about someone who processes life as characters and images rather than actual living things.

In addition, the filmmaker in Herzog sees something that most people locked in a perspective of pure humanism would be unable to discern.  Since Treadwell operates as a renegade cameraman without a unionized crew, he could shoot the world without being encumbered by regulations or safety concerns.  (Given his fate, however, he could have used some.)  Herzog lets some of this pure beauty shine through.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” is one heck of an intelligent film, then, as it allows for a portrait of Treadwell as both profound and profoundly stupid to emerge.

REVIEW: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

7 02 2015

In his documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Werner Herzog explores a cave in southern France with some of the oldest known examples of human painting.  Naturally, he tries to invoke a sense of majesty, and he often amplifies the impact of the prehistoric drawings with a wondrous classical score.  A part of me wonders if he and Terrence Malick swapped contacts on a music supervisor since the film sounds quite a bit like “The Tree of Life.”

All jokes aside, Herzog makes some excellent points about art history, development, and evolution by delving deeply into these murals.  These early cave dwellers showed a remarkable awareness of contrast and contour.  (Gazing at them reminded me of my own experience standing in front of the sprawling “La Guernica” by Pablo Picasso, which hangs in Madrid’s Reína Sofia.)  Herzog even argues that their depiction of legs with movement represents humanity’s first attempt at cinema.  After all, they are called motion pictures.

Perhaps some of the grandeur and spectacle was lost on me since I watched the film on my couch at home, not in Herzog’s preferred 3D.  But I felt the film, fascinating as it was, could have been sped up at times.  If “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” ran under an hour, then it could be easily consumed by a cultural anthropology course (a prime target audience) in one classic period.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Into the Abyss

6 02 2015

Into the AbyssWhen people think of documentaries, they often remember the most boring or the most didactic ones.  For many, non-fiction film is about telling you exactly what happened or, in the minds of the documentarian, exactly what needs to happen.  Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss” is neither of these.

Herzog does what most filmmakers set out to do – that is, to tell a story.  It’s one of true crime, a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas, resulting from complications in the robbery of a red Camaro.  A decade after the crime resulted in a life sentence for one and a death sentence for another, Herzog retraces the story from the beginning and allows the events to unfold rather slowly but still grippingly.

“Into the Abyss” isn’t selling any sort of viewpoint or moral cause, unlike most documentaries on law and order.  Herzog is a rather extreme case of laying all the information out there and allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions.  Some might prefer it if their documentary shouted to them that they should deplore the death penalty.  But I rather like being left to my own devices to ponder the movie as so many documentaries make their message clear from the get-go and being instantly forgettable.

Herzog gathers interviews from pretty much everyone involved in the story: the family members of the deceased, the law enforcement officials on the murders, the two robbers-turned-murderers, and even the man who will deliver the lethal injection.  With all these viewpoints, there’s a sense of comprehensiveness to the tale.  I don’t think Herzog’s film is perfect, but there’s something refreshing in its straightforward approach that leaves all the slanting to be done by the viewer.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Red Army

14 11 2014

New York Film Festival

Cultural differences can manifest themselves in almost every activity. Most, however, presume a modicum of universality to sports – after all, what are the Olympic Games if not a union of the world around competition and athleticism? Gabe Polsky says otherwise in his documentary “Red Army,” a look at Russian hockey with an emphasis on the country’s turbulent ‘80s and ‘90s.

There is no allele that makes Russians more predisposed to hold court on the ice; like many attributes of any people, social forces heavily condition its expression. In the Soviet Union, hockey was more than a sport. It was an expression of their national ideals, particularly collectivism. Some of the clips in “Red Army” that feature their national team passing should honestly be used in business presentations on synergy. (Maybe the only other place five people act so efficiently like one being would be in a “Human Centipede” movie.)

Red Army

Polsky effectively shows how, for the Soviet Union, hockey not only encapsulated their society in microcosm but also how sport could become politics itself.  That journey is shown best by the film’s central personality, Slava Fetisov.  After being brought up in the Russian youth farm system for youth, he eventually earned the ultimate honor of a spot on their Olympic team (only to be on the other side of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice”).  He also carries the distinction of being one of his country’s first defectors to capitalism on ice, or, as we call it in America, the National Hockey League.

Festiov, and “Red Army” as a whole, shows the best and the worst of the Russian tradition of collectivism.  He and his teammates, when at their highest function, translated the aesthetic beauty of the country’s Bolshoi ballet into athletic grace.  Yet such an emphasis on interdependence leaves them ill-equipped to mesh with the Western world and its individualistic style.  Russia’s political collapse coupled with the flight of its hockey stars really does result in a loss of national pride.  Thank goodness documentarians like Polsky are looking for these kinds of stories in less-than-obvious places.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Life Itself

10 07 2014

Life ItselfFilm critic Roger Ebert inspired many people and touched countless lives, ranging from saving Martin Scorsese from self-implosion to many much smaller-scale interactions.  One such example is a brief response to a blog comment he made to a then-sixteen year-old movie writer who had just decided to try his hand at scribbling down his opinions about film.

In case you hadn’t guessed, that writer was me, and I still count that sentence among the greatest compliments I have ever received.  (It still, to date, features underneath the name of my site in the header of my blog.)  It likely didn’t take him more than five seconds to write, but it may very well have provided the fuel to sustain the site beyond just dipping my toe in the uncharted waters of the blogosphere.

Life Itself,” Steve James’ documentary on Ebert, provides the ultimate celebration of his life and work.  He gathers an eclectic group of friends and admirers, a tribute to just how wide-reaching Ebert’s influence and esteem truly was.  Anecodotes and commentary range from members of the critical establishment like A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss to filmmakers who he befriended over the years, such as Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani (“At Any Price“), and Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere“).

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REVIEW: The Act of Killing

30 07 2013

The Act of KillingRecently in a film class, a discussion arose about disturbing film scenes.  The conversation kept coming back to the rape scene in David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which many people found uncomfortable and hard to watch.  Someone interjected as the voice of reason and said, “Well, yeah, that’s the point.  It’s rape, a horrible act – you aren’t supposed to feel comfortable!”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” tackles another tough subject, one affecting societies rather than individuals: genocide.  Unbeknownst to many (but perhaps surprising to few), the new Indonesian military government commissioned gangsters and paramilitary groups to exterminate dreaded communists in 1965.  As you can imagine, their targets grew in scope beyond avowed Marxists, and the term “communist” came to signify anyone that they consider to be their opposition.  By the next year, they had killed over a million people.

Believe it or not, these perpetrators have not been tried for war crimes.  They proudly walk the streets of Indonesia, boasting of their murders and willing to simulate their violent acts.  Documentarian Oppenheimer crafts an unconventional film around these men by asking them to film reenactments of how they killed and what it felt like.

What ensues in “The Act of Killing” is nothing short of a crash course on the social construction of morality.  Men such as Anwar Congo have a level of impunity in Indonesia because their society does not deem such acts as wrong.  If you’ve ever thought a cinematic gangster was cool, prepare to feel rather shameful when Congo and his band of gangsters talk about how they felt inspired and empowered by films like “The Godfather.”

At times, though, the film fixates a little too strongly on these cultural differences.  The result is a rather dark comedy that happens to end on a harrowing note to drive home the horror of these acts.  While this conclusion (that I dare not spoil) is effective on perhaps the most collective of gut-levels, I didn’t leave feeling all that unsettled or discomforted.  What I’ll remember is that “The Act of Killing” was the most blackly humorous documentary I’ve seen since “Inside Job.”  That’s an accomplishment, to be sure, but not quite the one I think Oppenheimer was aiming for.  B2halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 4, 2011)

4 02 2011

Surely I can’t be the only one who’s a little shocked that Christian Bale is just receiving his first Oscar nomination, and if there’s any justice in the world, his incredible performance in “The Fighter” will earn him a statue on his first time to the big dance.  Bale is one heck of an actor who really can do it all: headline blockbusters like “The Dark Knight” and “Terminator: Salvation” but also step into unconventional leading man roles in independent movies such as “Rescue Dawn,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Bale plays real-life Dieter Dengler, a U.S. military pilot shot down over Laos in the early years of the nation’s involvement with Vietnam.  He survives the crash and attempts to run to safety, but he gets caught by hostile militant forces who take him to a P.O.W. camp.  There, Dieter meets other prisoners, including Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), all gaunt from their extended stays.

Dieter won’t be held back or held in and almost instantaneously begins plans for escape.  After getting the lay of the land, it takes him a while to find the perfect way and the perfect time.  He and Duane manage to get away unscathed, but that leaves the two of them with very little food in the middle of the jungles of Laos.  Lost and desperate, the two embark on a journey for survival that is both harrowing and inspiring.

Sure, Bale makes another one of his trademark physical transformations to make the role believable; however, this is not what makes “Rescue Dawn” such a fantastic watch.  It’s his emotional transformation that’s so gripping. Bale’s stripping away of all acting instincts to portray the most primal instincts with such raw power is nothing short of astonishing.  (And on a lesser note, will someone give Steve Zahn his own movie?  The guy kills every supporting role has gets – it’s time for him to move up to the big leagues.)