Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog Werner Herzog is such a singular director. Although I haven’t seen a lot of his work, I think I can safely say that obsession of the human spirit seems to be one of the themes he most likes to cover (be it a straight film or a documentary). Grizzly Man is certainly no exception, and it turned out to be one of the more engrossing films that I’ve seen in some time.

Basically, the film is a documentary about the life of one Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent his summers living with grizzly bears on the Alaskan peninsula for 13 years. Late one summer, he and his girlfriend were killed by one of the bears, but Treadwell left behind roughly 100 hours of film from his excursions, including everything from on-screen contemplations about wildlife to wild-eyed rants about the forest service. Oh yeah, and he also shot some rather astounding footage of the animals themselves.

There’s no question that Treadwell is a flawed character and that his actual work was questionable at best. He talks about doing research, but we never see any concrete evidence of any. He speaks of protecting the bears from different outside forces, but one could argue that he actually hurt them by living amongst them and letting them grow accustomed to a human presence. If anything, the most important thing that he actually did was spread awareness of the bears themselves, and hopefully because of that people will think twice if their habitat comes under attack from different interests.
In the above regard, I can see how it would be easy for someone to get hung up on his misguided nature and miss out on what is truly one of the more fascinating character studies that I’ve seen in a long time. Whether it’s reading a Studs Terkel book or hearing about people like Christopher McCandless, I’ve always felt that real life always seems to trump fiction most of the time. Treadwell is a fascinating person, and whether you agree with his philosophies or not, all his good points and flaws are laid bare in the film.

Herzog narrates the film, and while he sometimes made unexpected entries into the film to expouse on personal reflections, it wasn’t something that bothered me. His thinly-veiled reference to working with Klaus Kinski made me smile a bit as he added his careful words with his heavy German accent. A completely unique film about a man obsessed, this one made me laugh at times and even got to me a bit at times. Highly recommended.

The Thin Blue Line directed by Errol Morris Last year sometime, TG and I ordered the box set of Errol Morris’ first three films. In order, they were Vernon, Florida, Gates Of Heaven, and The Thin Blue Line, and it’s interesting to watch the progression of Morris as a director and storyteller through these three documentaries.

I’d already seen The Thin Blue Line a couple years back, but TG never had and I wanted to see how it held up to a repeat viewing. Although it’s an easy film to digest just by watching it once, I felt like there were a lot of little things in it that I was able to pick up on the second time through, especially in the body language and in the odd wording of some of the interviews that Morris does with the different subjects of the film. Perhaps because it’s a bit older, and perhaps just because of the plain unique people in the film, it almost feels like a fictitious film at times, which makes it all the more haunting.

If you feel strongly one way or another about the death penalty, this is a movie that might just make you think about things in a different way or reinforce your beliefs. It shines a light on just how massively wrong a large criminal justice system (in Texas, interestingly enough) can get something and the consequences for one man because of that.

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries in my day, but this one is easily in the top five (like The Fog Of War, the score by Philip Glass is great). As a greedy film watcher, I wish that Morris would put out even more documentaries.

JunebugAfter our last experience with an independent film from a first-time director (see Thumbsucker), I think I had some apprehension going into is another independent film from a first-time director, so I was somewhat surprised by how much I enjoyed Junebug. The story itself was fairly simple, basically a culture clash story where the main character comes back his roots after a long time away and the resulting weirdness.

In addition to all the performances in the film being great (Amy Adams is nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress), the film moves with sort of an unassuming air that works perfectly. It doesn’t play anything for laughs and also seems very nonjudgemental towards all the different characters, which was very refreshing.

At first, some of the motivations and actions of the different characters seem like they might be a little misguided or simply done for dramatic effect, but as the film progresses, all the neurosis and quirks and emotional instabilities seem to fall into place and everything seems to make sense. The film touches on everything from education to religion to socio-economic classes, but does so in delicate ways and subtle ways and in doing so resonates even more powerfully. It’s one of those films that creates tension through peeling back different layers and doesn’t rely on gimmicks.

This is easily one of the better films I’ve seen lately. Highly recommended.

2046I’d been wanting to see this one since I saw the super-cool trailer for it well over a year ago, and after missing it at the local arthouse theatre, I was glad to finally see it on DVD. Although I haven’t seen all of Won Kar Wai’s films, I knew that 2046 would be sumptuous to look at, but hoped that it would steer clear of some more of his vague tendencies.

That’s not to say that I mind non-linear storytelling in films, because I really do if it’s done well. 2046 had a fascinating concept in that it pulled together both a period piece (the late 60s) about a journalist and writer while at the same time blending in futuristic subplots (based around the writing of the aforementioned character). I was correct to expect that the film would be a feast, and it seems that all the stops are pulled out on this film, with just about every shot oozing with gorgeous color, awesome framing, and other little tricks that pull the viewer in.

That said, the film is frustrating at times, in more ways than one. Although it makes for some beautiful visuals, the futuristic elements of the story never feel like they quite mesh with the rest of the story, and while there are some interesting plays on time elapsing, the film is also broken up with overl pretentious chapter-headings like “All Memories Are Traces Of Tears.” In addition, the film makes vague references to cultural events taking place in the region at the time, but never really delves into them. That’s a small nitpick, but since it doesn’t seem to affect the characters at all in their insular little world, it feels a bit distracting to even bring them up.

Now that I’ve mentioned what annoyed me, I will say that the acting was uniformly outstanding. Lead man Tony Leung was great as a character that exudes smoothness in an attempt to cover his hollow emotional core, while Zhang Ziyi gave what might be her most varied performance yet (from playful to cold to emotionally shattered).

The structure (or lack thereof) will turn off a lot of viewers, but when the film really gets down to business, it’s quite good. In that regard, it should probably be more frustrating to me (especially given the less-than-sympathetic main character), but I still mostly enjoyed it and had my jaw dropped by the lavish visuals for a good portion of the film (which may indeed be why I was willing to overlook some of the less-cogent sections).

ThumbsuckerThere were several movies at the DVD rental place that we’d heard good things (the box even had an unintentionally(?) funny quote from Roeper and Ebert proclaiming “Two Thumbs Up!”) about, but we finally decided to go with Thumbsucker, which turned out to be sort of a blah choice.

One of the things that’s a bit misleading about the film is that it indeed does have a great cast, with uniformly good acting. Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio (who should be in more films), and even Keanu Reeves were all excellent, along with a supporting cast that included Vince Vaughn and others. Overall, the film looked nice and was edited well.

Unfortunately, the actual plot of the film is what drags the whole thing down as it tries to throw just about every different theory for teenage turmoil out there and hope that some of it sticks. You’ve got a 17 year old sucking his thumb, taking psychotropic drugs by prescription, smoking pot, having fumbling relationships, feeling isolated, having a few small redemptions, and finally feeling some sense of freedom as he goes to college in another city.

That above description might sound fine and dandy, but the execution of everything is so random and even awkward that instead of feeling much for the characters, you can’t help but wish the film had just a little more focus. There are a few great scenes where the acting really shines through and raw emotions are felt, but they’re few and far between, with lots of other moments that simply feel random and/or out-of-place. Because of the good parts, it makes the bad ones even more frustrating, because it seems like there’s a good film hiding in there somewhere wanting to escape. I wanted to like this one, but it just didn’t do much for me.