Saturday, August 18, 2007
I'm trying to decide whether GRIZZLY MAN is a very good movie or a downright brilliant one.
The photography alone is very good; Herzog's calling our attention to the photography is brilliant. The insights into Timothy Treadwell are very good; Herzog's editing of Treadwell's soliloquoys is brilliant. The film's balancing on the thin line between fascination and morbid voyeurism is very good; Herzog's occasional steps across the line are brilliant.
GRIZZLY MAN is a collaboration between Herzog and a dead man, a dead man who left hundreds of hours of (mostly self-shot) footage behind. Timothy Treadwell, Herzog's collaborator and the titular Grizzly Man, is disturbed, sympathetic, angry, profoundly innocent, and absolutely in love with Nature. Treadwell's the kind of guy who would've loved MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. He anthropomorphizes bears, foxes, even Alaska, seeming to believe that if he just loves them enough, they'll love him back. But bears are bears and nature doesn't love him back. It's a lesson Herzog understands but Treadwell may never have learned.
GRIZZLY MAN'S power comes from the juxtaposition of Treadwell's innocence, Herzog's wisdom, and the stupendous beauty of Alaska and the grizzlies Treadwell was foolish enough to try to befriend. Because Treadwell was a fool, he shot footage of these bears unlike anything I've ever seen. He got right up next to them. He talked to them, scolded them, even swam with them. He seemed to make something of a pet of a local fox. He lived his dream, right up until he (and his apprehensive girlfriend) died in a grizzly's hungry maw. Amazingly, Treadwell's camera was running (lens cap on) at the time of his death, and Herzog shot some oblique footage of himself listening to the couple's final minutes. In the end, Herzog doesn't share those minutes with us. Instead, he advises the keeper of the tape to destroy it, as it's simply to horrible to own. It's better to remember Treadwell as he was: innocent, foolish, and enveloped in beauty.
And it's that beauty I'll remember long after I've forgotten Treadwell's name. Thank you for a brilliant movie, gentlemen.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Dziga Vertov's MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA (1929) begins with a declaration that reads: The film Man with a Movie Camera represents an experimentation in the cinematic transmission of visual phenomena without the use of intertitles, without the help of a script, and without the help of a theater. This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature." 'Great,' I thought. 'Here comes an hour of self-important, Marxist twaddle.' Only MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA isn't an hour of self-important, Marxist twaddle. It's an energetic experiment with filmmaking, full of vigor and delight in the tools and techniques of the form.
MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA chronicles 24 hours in an agglomeration of Ukrainian cities. "Chronicles" may not be the correct term, however. "Riffs on" may be more accurate. This film loves to play with multiple exposures, creative editing, and the mounting kinetic energy of quick cut after quick cut to give us a portrait of life, perhaps as lived and perhaps as dreamed, in the Soviet Union of its day. It's moved along by a delightful and wholly original score, performed by the Alloy Orchestra from Vertov's notes, that both speaks to the action onscreen and manages to remain intrinsically fascinating. This is a just a neat, entertaining glimpse into a different time and place. I was sorry when it ended.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Jean-Pierre Melville's ARMY OF SHADOWS is a brilliant, brilliant movie.
Released to failure in 1969, when it films about the French Resistance were decidedly not à la mode, ARMY OF SHADOWS now enjoys the full Criterion treatment, with a magnificently restored picture and crystal-clear sound. It's a tense, exciting, moving picture, and it captured my imagination from the first frame to the last.
The film begins at the Arc de Triomphe. It's just after dawn, and the street is quiet. Soon, we hear the sound of marching, then the music of a band. What kind of Frenchman gets up before sunrise to march in a band? No kind - only the Hun would do something as crazy as that. And then we realize that this is a Nazi band, the occupation is on, and things can't be good. From there, we meet Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) a nondescript engineer who's being checked into a Vichy prison camp. He's just another middle-class guy, nothing special, but he becomes one of the hearts of this film, a character whose matter-of-fact, world-weary heroism packs more punch than that of a thousand action heroes.
It's important that we buy into this guy, because he's going to take us to some dark, dark places. ARMY OF SHADOWS is not a movie about romantically heroic Frenchmen clearing the way to victory, but fatalistic operators who kill with implacable horror and struggle to die with something approaching dignity. Moreso, it's about people living with the hovering spectre of betrayal, torture, and death, and ARMY OF SHADOWS winds us tightly in the tension of that existence and never lets us go. This is a film whose big action set-piece is basically three stonefaced people sitting in or standing around a truck, and it's a setpiece that had me on edge from beginning to end.
While this movie works strictly as a spy thriller, it's also a brilliant exploration of both leadership and human perception. Leadership, because its leaders aren't made of ribbons and external authority - they're made of quickness of wit, intensity of purpose, and ability to execute. It's fascinating to see how their power relationships develop, and how much their followers rely on them for their very lives. Perception, because it carefully explores how the human mind frames and parses reality, particularly in a scene I'll refer to as "The firing range," in which we see a character's recollection of the action as filtered through his perceptions at the moment of remembrance.
The more I think about this movie, the more I like it. ARMY OF SHADOWS is a must-see.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
I'm wrestling with an ethical conundrum. Is it ok to post comments on a film you haven't seen all the way through?
After suffering through the first fifteen minutes of THE HOT CHICK, I came to believe that Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, and even the fine-in-THE NOTEBOOK Rachel McAdams not only personally hated me, but were actively seeking to destroy my family. I remember sitting in my basement, stunned, not sure whether to be more horrified by what I was seeing on the screen or the fact that my wife and older son were both laughing out loud. For the first time in my married life, the open road beckoned ...
So I went upstairs and did the dishes. What, I'm going to run away in a Ford station wagon?
But I don't know if this counts as an actual contribution. Maybe the movie gets better. Maybe it eclipses DUCK SOUP in inspired comedy. Maybe watching it all the way through is like reaching out one's hand and touching the face of God.
But I doubt it.
THE HOT CHICK opens with prologue whose production values make the BABYLON 5 pilot look like THE SOPRANOS. Then it takes us to the present, Rachel McAdams, and an act of cruelty so vicious that it provoked burning hatred in my heart. That's right - burning hatred for Rachel McAdams, in a comedy! And yet there was my wife, laughing right along at her later antics, blithely delighting in the petty cruelty of McAdams and her posse. Before you know it, we're suffering through Adam Sandler putting in a cameo in which his greatest contribution is to recycle an old SNL bit that wasn't funny the first several times. So much entertainment, and Rob Schneider, the supposed star (who didn't even bother to shower for the benefit of the crew), hasn't even shown up yet!
When he does show up, wait'll you see him drink a Slurpee straight from the dispenser! It's comedy gold! I'll tell you, when my boy laughed, it felt like a betrayal. "I've shown you YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN! We've laughed together over STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.! Now this? Who are you and what have you done with my son?"
Oh, no, now I'm beginning to hammer away at the keyboard. I may not be able to get my mind back on my work. Not only has THE HOT CHICK already threatened the fabric of my family, now it's trying to ruin my job. This movie is evil, I tell you. Evil!
Sunday, August 12, 2007
"Big Deal on Madonna Street" is a heist movie with a twist: our thieves are a gang of loveable but hopeless incompetents who couldn't steal a handbag from an old lady. It's supposed to be funny, and it does elicit a chuckle here and there, but it's never quite as funny as it wants to be. Ah, well.