Sunday, January 30, 2011

Aguirre: The Wrath of God

Every once in a while Werner Herzog decides to film in a manner that doesn’t just create an other worldly experience for the viewer, but also one for the cast and crew making the picture. In doing so, he tries to have you walk in the shoes of the characters by having the cast and crew walk in their shoes too. He doesn’t do this very often, for obvious reasons, and though these are usually highly criticized during their making they are also invariably his best works. In Little Dieter Needs to Fly, he took a POW escapee back to the jungles of Cambodia from whence he escaped to have him walk Herzog through just what happened. Fitzcarraldo tells the story of a man who decided to pull a boat over a mountain to continue his river journey; thus, Herzog had them travel the same river and actually pull the boat over the mountain.

Well, Aguirre tells the story of Lobe de Aguirre, a man who, while on a trip down a wild Peruvian river as part of a Spanish mission to find the golden city of El Dorado, mutinied and established a new empire free from Spain. Problem is, the empire is confined to a large raft floating down the river. In other words, Aguirre was totally nuts. The story is good and Klaus Kinski’s performance as Aguirre is one of the best in film history, but what makes this movie truly worth watching is the experience of the film as a whole.

Herzog shot it in order and claims he only did one second take in the entire movie (which involved a horse kicking a fire and it’s hilariously obvious that they spliced in a second take). In other words, they filmed the performance as it occurred and for good reason, they often had no choice to go back and do it again. Why, you ask?

Because they were literally filming it on a giant raft floating down a wild Peruvian river. The part at the beginning that isn’t on the river was on steep cliff edges 14,000 feet up in the Andean rainforest. It was so dangerous and slick that the only way to film it and get back down in time before anyone died was to have the 400-person cast and crew all get in costume and for Herzog to simply perch himself and film them as they made their way down the mountain, as though it was the procession of the characters in the movie. There are unscripted moments of animals and objects falling to their demise as people walked by. Many people became violently ill from nerves and altitude sickness. Then, they all get on rafts for weeks, only stopping for sleep in tents on the side of the river.

Man, what an experience this production must have been. Herzog claims many of the local tribesmen hired on the film would come to him and ask to kill Kinski. Kinski himself got so angry at one point that he wondered off into the jungle, only for Herzog to find him and threaten to kill himself it Kinski didn’t come back and finish.

The product of all this madness is a truly one-of-a-kind film.

It’s not all good, though. Since it was the early 70’s and since much of the cast weren’t actors, the acting among the supporting cast can be pretty weak. Perhaps the biggest negative of the viewing experience is the dubbing. The film was shot in English, but when Herzog got back he found that almost none of it was audible due to the river. He didn’t have enough money to hire the actors to come to Germany to do voiceover either. He had such a blow out fight with Kinski during post-production that Kinski refused to record his part either, though he lived in Germany near Herzog. On top of this, word had spread, very negatively, around about the production and he was finding no one reputable either to do the voice acting or the recording. In the end, Herzog had to find pretty second-rate actors and post people to work with and the product is a very badly dubbed and poorly acted voice track. It’s pretty stark, when the production and visual acting is so fantastic.

Either way, everyone should see this movie, and maybe watch My Best Fiend as a chaser.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Fighter

The Fighter tells the true story of a very particular moment in the life of Boston-based welterweight boxer Micky Ward. In the late 90’s HBO showed up to shoot a documentary on Micky’s older brother Dickey. The documentarians showed up to shoot the once great Dickey’s return to boxing as a trainer of his younger brother Micky; however, when they saw that Micky was going nowhere with his boxing career and that Dickey was a major loser and crackhead, they changed the focus of their examination, which was eventually release as the documentary called High on Crack Street.

When it came out, Micky came to an epiphany. He either needed to get serious about his life and career or get out. His brother’s delusions about being this great boxer seemed only to exacerbate Dickey’s delusions about everything else. Micky couldn’t be that. It was time to put up or shut up.

So, Micky fires everyone in his entourage, including most members of his family, like his mother and brother. He decides to get down to business and take a shot at the international title.

I don’t need to tell you that he works hard, learns something about himself and his family he didn’t know before and does end up winning the title. While there are many good things about this movie, the story is certainly predictable and seems almost cut-and-pasted from many other sports movies we’ve seen before.

This doesn’t make it bad, however, as many other aspects of the movie really great. First, there are the performances. Mark Wahlberg is moderately good (he’s been better) but others like Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo knock it out of the park. Secondly, they do a great job of making the whole thing feel very authentic. The whole family was on set throughout the entire filming to make sure they did everything as it truly was. They shot it in the neighborhoods where it occurred. They even got the HBO crew that shot the real doc to play the crew in the movie and got HBO to shoot the fight scenes using the same equipment and set up as they did in the original fights portrayed. Not only all this, but Mark Wahlberg trained with Manny Pacquiao and Freddie Roach for months before shooting and since they filmed the fights as actual fights (as in, no camera tricks) the actor actually fought real boxers for the fight scenes (though the director says he told the boxers to only hit at 60%, whatever that means). The point is, the movie seemed like a very authentic look into the story. While you might guess everything that comes at you in this movie, how it comes at you makes it worth the trip.


The Town

The Town is a heist movie, sort of, written and directed by Ben Affleck. Four life-long friends have always been in trouble and always been on the wrong side of the tracks. They’ve also always been each other’s point of security and stability. To say these four guys are thick as blood is an understatement. Jem and Doug (played respectively by Jeremy Renner and Ben Affleck) have the closest relationship of them all, Jem having recently finished doing time for Doug.

The four, now grown up, rob banks together and man are they good. Things get hairy during their most recent heist, however, and they end up taking a teller hostage. This is the straw breaking the camels back for Doug, who actually looks the teller up after the fact and begins a relationship with her. Suddenly Doug has three people breathing down his neck: FBI agent Frawley, who is getting far too close to catching him, Doug’s boss Fergie (played to perfection by the late Pete Postlethwaite), who doesn’t take to kindly to rumors of Doug wanting to leave and Jem, who seems he’d rather see Doug dead than to see him leave him just after Jem did a stint for Doug.

Like in any good heist movie, Doug agrees to do one more score and, of course, the score goes badly and he must pay the consequences.

While the movie is pretty predictable and seems way way to reminiscent of Heat, I still enjoyed it. The performances were good, yes even Affleck’s, and it was shot in a way that easily kept you interested. The best thing is the writing, which was very particular. It was written by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard, who wrote the fantastic Gone Baby Gone as well. Peter Craig also penned the screenplay with Affleck and Stockard, who is known more for his darkly comedic novels about dysfunctional families, which added a good sense of family interaction among the four friends and a good deal of natural comedy to the conversations. The movie itself is based off the very good Prince of Thieves and a good foundation is always helpful for a good screenplay.

So, in the end, it’s nothing new, but it’s done very well and if you like this kind of movie you’ll love it.


White Material

Clearly in reference to the seizure of the Zimbabwean farms run or owned by western Europeans during the Mugabe era, White Material is a French drama showing such an experience from many angles. The story centers on a coffee farm in an unnamed African country run by a white family, a few Africans who work in management-esque positions and quite a few African laborers. I once heard a saying that the problem with Africa is that everyone is wrong.

This certainly seems the vantage point of director Clare Denis is taking. The white farmers are clearly in the wrong. They refuse to give up their farm, refuse to move their family to safety and live in air-conditioned luxury while those around them suffer.

The local adult and child rebels are clearly wrong, as they seem to only care about snatching up what they can get and will kill anyone who gets in their way.

The government is also quite clearly corrupt, as they too live in luxury while those around them suffer, but then they will swoop in and take what they can get and seem to heartlessly kill at will as well. This last one was an obvious reference to Mugabe himself, who heavily suggested an uprising against white farmers for amassing vast properties, but then he owned 14 commercial farms alone and lived like a king.

Each side was portrayed as an intense source of frustration, persons acting grotesquely in the name of entitlement.

The movie was shot well and the performances were top notch. My only complaint about the movie was that it had almost no story. French filmmakers love the ‘slice-of-life’ approach to story telling, where there’s no particular story arch, but rather the watcher gets to simply receive a message by being a fly on the wall during a particular time period. It’s an approach many enjoy, but I’m not a huge fan of it. I can’t help but leave a movie like this and think, why didn’t they just make a documentary? The point of a feature, to me, is storytelling and there just wasn’t much story here.

That said, it was certainly worth a watch and will most definitely get conversations going.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tron Legacy (3D)

First and foremost this is a nostalgia remake. I don't know anyone who thinks the 1982 TRON was a good movie... kind of like if how the majority of 30-somethings would have to admit that The Goonies was not a good movie either, just a piece of their childhood that is a trip down memory lane. I would hope that most of the TRON: Legacy hype was for the return of very specific stylized visuals in a 3D setting, because the movie itself doesn't stand up to any scrutiny whatsoever.

After the disappearance of Encom mogul Kevin Flynn (Bridges), his son becomes the heir (as primary shareholder) of the software giant, but has no interest in leading the company... apart from the cyber attacks he unleashes on a yearly basis to somehow encourage the company to release their products as open source software. When Alan Bradley (Boxleitner as trusted Encom executive) comes to the younger Flynn stating that he received a page from Kevin Flynn's office at the closed arcade, young Sam Flynn can't resist taking a peek at the abandoned building and investigating further. Of course his investigation takes him through the portal to the digital realm that his father appears to be stuck inside, and action/adventure ensues as the story unravels and Sam finds out what went horribly wrong inside the world of his father's creation.

I find that the more I think about the story and how the movie is put together, the more problems I see coming to the surface. At face value, the movie is fine... the special effects are for the most part good - digital Jeff Bridges can be distracting, as the inclusion of non-digital Jeff Bridges makes the CGI stand out... the 3D can distract you from some of the goofiness, but for the most part it is the art design that steals the show. I think they did an incredible job of bringing the art of TRON into 2010, and making it a really interesting watch. I don't find much that is redeeming about the plot - which is just a rehash of several stories and some loose ends that don't really go anywhere. *SPOILER ALERT* The most annoying part of the movie is saved for the ending, where Sam comes to the realization that he really should take his father's place as head of the company... and then promptly hands over power to Alan Bradley because he trusts him to run it properly. Something that could have been done years earlier perhaps? Sam then takes his new friend from the digital realm on a motorcycle ride through the country... even though through the story it is suggested that she might be the key to World Peace or some such nonsense. Really? Did you just write that in to find a reason for Sam to bring her back...? Strange.

Watch it while it is in the theater, 3D is not necessary... skip the rental.