Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The White Diamond

To me, one of the signs of a truly gifted filmmaker is the ability to take the seemingly simple and turn it into something rife with depth and complexity. The few filmmakers I can think of who meet that description are among the best in history, the Kubricks, the Godards, the Tarantinos and someone who’s certainly up high on that list is Werner Herzog. And in 2004 he accomplished this feat again with The White Diamond. This documentary has a premise that could easily have led to a pedestrian doc that you’ve seen a hundred times on television. Basically it’s about a British scientist who is about to head to the South American rainforest to test an airship he is developing for the purpose of hovering above and studying the forest canopy. Interesting, but hardly something that’s going to have you running to the theater, right? Well, that would be the case, if it was just about anyone other than Werner at the helm. He manages to weave a tale about the depth of the human experience that at all times feels both genuine and gripping. You feel as though you’re getting nothing but the god’s honest truth and it’s revealed in a way that will have you glued to the screen. Herzog leaves the camera running just a little longer than most would and asks questions that no one else does. By the end the subjects are displaying aspects of their lives and personalities that I’m certain they never expected to display. For example, he asks the scientist about a test he’s running, which is pretty expected, but then he interrupts the guy and asks him why he’s missing fingers on his left hand. At another point, he asks them if they would take one of the local Guyanese natives up in the balloon with them. A good documentarian knows where to focus the camera and what questions to ask and Herzog certainly hits all the right notes in this one. Expect the unexpected. This movie effortlessly manages to be light, heavy, funny, sad and everything in between. It’s engaging, genuine and beautifully shot. And with it’s short running time there’s seems not a moment wasted.

Worth Watching

Monday, August 24, 2009


Mark Read’s story is both true and truly bizarre. His parents were downright sadists, with his mother cheering as his father would beat him. They could’ve cared less about him too. He became a ward of the state and a streetfighter at the ripe old age of 14. By 19 he was living in an asylum for the criminally insane. And the story just keeps going and keeps building in bizarrity as the years continued to roll by. By adulthood he was an enforcer for mob bosses. I tell you all this to point out the fact that his story is packed to the brim with fascinating bits, which is all the more reason why this movie was so disappointing. While in prison, Mark (AKA Chopper), wrote an autobiography. It was an instant bestseller and made Chopper uber-famous. This 2000 flick about his life picks up after the book’s taken off and just when he’s about to get out of prison. When he gets out he continues to live a sordid and interesting life, albeit much milder, meaning he only kills one person in the movie. You know when you watch a movie about a person who’s been in prison for a long time and finally gets out and there’s that obligatory moment where they struggle with how to live life on the ‘outside?’ Those bits work well when they are short sections of the movie, but in this case that’s the whole flick, or at least the vast majority of it. The characters are interesting and Eric Bana’s Chopper is just fantastic, but it felt like the movie overall lacked much of a cohesive sense of story or purpose. I didn’t know what the point of it all was. Or, put another way, I felt like the whole point was summed up pretty much in the opening scene. In the end, I enjoyed parts of it, now and then, but overall I was checking my watch. There was nothing about this movie that lured me in and got me interested or engaged in the characters. How can you make a movie about a guy who made a living killing and enforcing crime bosses boring? I mean, this guy used to take people’s toes off using a blow torch. He once cut his ears off just so he could get moved to another wing of the prison and the movie was boring?! Sadly, overall, yes, it was. It’s not awful, but there’s very little here to make you think much about ol’ Chopper once you turn off the DVD player. I suggest just picking up that autobiography.

Saturday Afternoon

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Rescue Dawn

When Dieter Dengler was a small boy in Germany during World War II an American bomber flew very low in his village while bombing the junk out of it and Dieter happened to catch the pilot's eye for a split second as he flew by Dieter's house. For most people this would haunt you for the rest of your life, but Dieter is not most people. For it seems nothing can break Dieter Dengler's spirit. He has an insatiable since of hope and a belief that all humans are good, even if they are presently doing bad things. This disposition will come in handy later in his life and in his story. So, Dieter spends the next decades slowly saving the money to move to America, gaining his residency, and working his way up the ranks of the Air Force to where he can be a fighter pilot of his own. On his very first mission during the very early stages of the Vietnam conflict, he is shot down and quickly taken prisoner. This is where Rescue Dawn picks up. Almost bizarrely, Dieter, though he struggles, seems to never lose his foundational respect for his captors. Even while they are torturing him, he politely asks for water and will smile and say hello when a new person walks in. They, in turn, offer him the chance to be released if he will only denounce America and release an Anti-American statement they've prepared for him. Dieter immediately turns down their offer saying he will never denounce America. His unbreakable spirit is just what his fellow POW's need and the group (from all over the world) decide to put their head together and make a break for it. But doing so not only means getting out of the POW camp, but also making out of the jungles of Laos and into friendly Thailand. The film was shot in all the same locations as the true story and, as such, they had to deal with many of the same natural elements. This is important because from moment one this movie feels incredibly authentic. When the characters are struggling with a powerful river, the actors and camera persons are also struggling with it. Christian Bale says that when Werner Herzog was interviewing him for the part the questions were things like, are you afraid of leeches, would you mind living in the jungle for the next several months in a tent, can you cut your way out of impossibly thick underbrush, and could you pick up snakes you find in the wild. It is amazing. And the actors seemed to eat it right up because not only are their performances heartbreakingly natural, but they physically invested in the part, losing frightening amounts of weight and enduring all of the physical hardships firsthand (no stunt doubles here). In 1997 Werner Herzog made a fantastic documentary about Dieter called Little Dieter Needs to Fly and was so inspired by him and his story that, in 2004, when Dieter died, Herzog wanted to pay tribute to him by making his story into a feature film. Well, he's certainly done Dengler justice, as this movie is fantastic from start to finish. I suggest pairing it in a double feature with the documentary as both are some of Herzog's best works and truly no one can get enough of the inspiring unflappable Dieter.

Worth Watching

The Hurt Locker

2008 war drama Kathryn Bigelow about the last month of Bravo Company's rotation in Iraq. Bravo consists of three bomb techs, whose job it is to go in and diffuse/destroy IED's and other explosive devises. This is one of those rare war movies that tells the story 100% from the soldier's vantage point. There are no scenes with generals making deals, no ambassadors, no colonels in strategy rooms. It is war from the ground floor. While some high officers might make a two second appearance now and then, the majority of the movie portrays no one higher ranked than sergeant. Other movies have done this before, take the particularly good Black Hawk Down as an example, but most of those movies relied almost entirely on action and violence to keep the viewer going. Hurt Locker, instead, relies very heavily on the psychology of the war. Bigelow doesn't spend time analyzing the war itself and seems to almost disregard the local culture, but her doing so seems very deliberate, as it is an attempt to portray the war as the regular soldiers see it and, let's be honest, I doubt many of them are thinking about the philosophies of the war or the nuances of the local culture. They just want to make it out alive. They say that more people have died coming back down Everest than going up and this flick is quite a bit about that idea. Bravo is almost done, they've almost made it, but that only means that things are tenser than ever and seem even the more precarious for them. The writing is smooth, the story engaging, the direction very tight (there doesn't seem to be a wasted cell of film in this thing) and the performances are very natural. Bigelow did as much as she could to make this movie seem authentic, including using Iraqi refugees as the extras, the Jordanian military as the Iraqi soldiers and by filming it there, with one of the actors having a heat stroke during filming at one point. And it really does feel like you are there experiencing it with them, which means from moment one this movie is complex emotionally and almost always very intense.

Worth Watching

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Wild Blue Yonder

The plot of this 2005 Werner Herzog feature intrigued me. I loves me some Herzog, in fact, I've never seen one of his movies that I didn't love. The premise is basically this, aliens came to earth about a century ago and by now, with the combined efforts of the aliens and the humans, earth is basically useless and long ago everyone has left. It's a simple premise, really, and Herzog tends to excel with simple premises. I mean, Fitzcarraldo, my favorite of his features, is about getting a ship over a mountain pass, that's it, and it's great. But here, Herzog falls shockingly flat. He uses footage from underwater filming, NASA footage, and historical clips spliced together with the footage he shot for the film. Sounds perfect for him, but it doesn't work. The footage is out of place, doesn't follow a linear sense of time period and often is clearly not what the characters are saying it is. For example, the alien is, in one moment, talking about how desolate the earth has become and Herzog cuts to footage of a barren wasteland, but even with his editing and post production layers you can still tell that the footage is underwater as things actually float by at a point. Then there's the alien himself, the only part Herzog actually shot and all he does is walk around in abandoned locales and talk to the camera, lecturing us about how we screwed up. Even though earth is supposed to be empty, there's actually a moment when the alien has to raise his voice because some dogs are barking loudly in the background. Werner Herzog is famous for his unrelenting focus on quality and his extreme focus on details, but neither is apparent here. In fact, this flick is very very amateurish. It's almost like what someone with tons of resources but almost no experience would produce. Because it was Herzog, it was especially disappointing.