Talking Movies

August 9, 2011

Project Nim

If you see only one film about a chimpanzee that’s smarter than your average primate this weekend then make it this one.

James Marsh, who’s becoming a regular Werner Herzog in alternating acclaimed documentaries with features, returns to the 1970s milieu of his previous hit Man on Wire. The setting is again New York but this time the dare-devil antics are intellectual not acrobatic and the span being traversed is not the gap between the Twin Towers but between the human and chimpanzee species. Nim Chimpsky is a chimpanzee baby taken from his mother in 1973 for a Columbia University experiment. Marsh mixes archive footage and still photos with a number of interviews he’s conducted with some of the principal players in the experiment which asked can a chimp, if raised as human, be taught to communicate in sign language? Marsh’s staged reconstructions and overly dramatic pans away from his talking heads are unnecessary, there’s drama enough in the story without inserting the visual clichés of 1970s thrillers. Startlingly enough the relevant clichés are Woody Allen’s 1970s films as nearly everyone involved was sleeping with everyone else, while maintaining that this in no way affected an experiment originally intended to provide a stable family environment for Nim…

Dr Herb Terrace, a psychologist, gives the baby Nim to his ex-lover Stephanie Lafarge, a former graduate student in Oedipal psychoanalysis, who promptly breastfeeds said chimpanzee before moving on to investigating his masturbatory habits and getting him high on marijuana. Nim’s lack of progress in learning sign language sees Terrace hire Laura, a linguist, as a teacher. Hardly a surprise given that Stephanie, obviously railing against her poet husband, reveals that she thinks word are bad and that Nim lost his essence by having language foisted on him… Bob and Joyce, another couple, arrive to help in the teaching, later joined by Renee, but as Nim grows up he becomes more dangerous and Terrace abruptly terminates the experiment. It’s radically unclear from the film who collated the data, or indeed why Terrace got all the credit. Project Nim loses its way in dealing with the endless post-experiment life of Nim. Sent back to the Oklahoma facility where he was born he is treated as another dude by hippie psychologist Bob Ingersoll, who eventually forms an unlikely alliance with British veterinarian Mahoney to give Nim the special attention he deserves.

While it’s heartbreaking to see an animal being made exceptional only to be casually discarded and cast back with other chimpanzees who now regard him as a freak, Marsh forces the pathos with continual emphasis on Nim’s humanity. Nim could never remain with humans as he always remained a wild animal, a point proved by his vicious attack on Renee in which he gashed a whole thru her cheek, and then attempted to re-open it months later, from pure instinct. The true fascination of this film is the conflict in Nim between nature and nurture, to wit – the experiment. Terrace concluded (all visual evidence to the contrary) that Nim never learnt language but was merely a beggar using signs. This seems to ignore the work of Eric Berne who posited in Games People Play that all social situations were transactional, one interpretation of which is that everyone always wanted something. By which yardstick Nim mastered language’s ultimate purpose perfectly…

Columbia University won’t thank James Marsh for it but this is a fascinating study of how science can be derailed by the human factor.

3/5

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June 10, 2011

On Fassbendering

“To Fassbender: To very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work”. That’s the Urban Dictionary definition at any rate. But, like the residents of Madison Avenue advertising firms in the 1960s being termed Mad Men, I defined it myself…

So, where on earth did I get the concept of Fassbendering from? Well, I first really noticed Michael Fassbender when he played Azazeal in Hex, and my reaction to the show was pretty much “meh, pale Buffy rip-off, but serious kudos to that guy who’s really enjoying himself far too much as the Big Bad”. Later on I realised that he was the actor from Guinness ad who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. The fact that Fassbender had ended that ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again, suggested a trend – this was a guy who just couldn’t stop grinning mischievously because he was always enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender fell off my radar for a while so I only belatedly noticed that he grinned with some malevolence in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, as he got to be both an impeccably impassive servant and a sadistic serial killer; who, several years before Heath Ledger’s Joker, took a distinct pleasure in being tortured by Holmes. I also later caught up with ITV’s Poirot and discovered that Fassbender had smoked, drank, drawled and grinned his way thru After the Funeral.

But his ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where I really started to take this nonsense seriously, if you will. I have found among my circle that whoever watched 300 as a serious action drama thought it was unbearably bad, but whoever watched it thru the absurd prism of Fassbender (on my prompting) thought it was a deliriously great black comedy. Watching the film with Fassbender as your focus you realise just how much fun he’s obviously having. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning… Later he jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Well then, we shall fight in the shade”, with the air of a man once again enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender gets to be half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and, in his definitive moment of gleefulness, when the Persian mystics are throwing bombs Fassbender runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. In the darkness lit only by bomb blasts we can’t see Fassbender’s face underneath his helmet until we see his teeth, as he grins. Fassbender does something awesome in the denouement to allow Leonidas to do something even more awesome, before holding hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines; where even dying becomes a blast…

But, daft as it sounds, it was Fassbender’s subsequent role in Hunger that led me to go online and define Fassbendering, because, when announcing the casting news from Cannes the Irish Times, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to accompany the story that Fassbender was taking on this big serious role in what one would expect to be a grim sombre film, with a photo of Fassbender cracking up on set – as if there was nothing on this planet, not decency, not logic, that could prevent Fassbender from enjoying himself too much… And indeed Hunger did provide one moment which I deemed Fassbendering above and beyond the call of duty. In the midst of a serious performance in a serious film he still managed to sneak in a scene where, after being beaten up and then dropped naked and bloodied on the floor of his cell, his Bobby Sands rolls over, blood streaming from his mouth, and slowly grins at the camera… On retrospect this is obviously the moment where Sands realises he can defeat his captors by doing this to himself by going on hunger strike, but would anyone but Fassbender dare to do communicate this by a grin, that also serves to indicate that he knows he is doing a great job with this role and still can’t quite believe his luck.

Fassbender had a straight man role in Inglourious Basterds opposite Mike Myers’ absurdist British officer, and then in one of the tensest sequences in the film, but I argue that he was able to play things straight because he didn’t need to Fassbender, he’d already infected the entire ensemble. Christoph Waltz’s ecstatic glee at his role is pure Fassbendering, especially his appreciation of the musical qualities of Italian names and Diane Kruger’s explanation of her leg injury, during which he has to go off to one side to laugh himself sick. The trailer for Jonah Hex left me in tears of laughter as Fassbender’s first appearance as henchman Burke saw him grinning manically while dressed as a droog and setting fire to a barn with someone trapped in it. You can only hope that one day Fassbender gets to truly cut loose with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films.

So what is Fassbendering? I used 300 for the definition because it’s the supreme example of a man just obviously enjoying himself far too much for something that’s meant to be paid work, hence my quip – “On being handed the cheque he probably said ‘No, really I couldn’t. It’s just been such a blast. Can I keep the cape?” Now, Fassbendering is not unique to Fassbender, but only in one sense as I will argue in a minute. I would argue that the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be audibly heard Fassbendering their way thru BloodSugarSexMagik because when you listen to it you feel that they would do this for free, they are so obviously deriving too much enjoyment from their paid work. But Fassbendering always has a positive undertone, what is enjoyable for the performer is enjoyable for the audience too, unlike fiascos like Ocean’s 12 where a group of actors obviously having a ball does not translate into the warm hug of the audience that the same actors having a ball provides in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13. Fassbendering therefore is high praise when I use it for another actor, as I have occasionally done (Iron Man, Speed Racer, The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell, Death of A Salesman, 7 Reasons to Love Scott Pilgrim, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pygmalion, X-Men: First Class).

The part of Erik Lensherr is dark and vengeful, but there is some Fassbendering. The most obvious moments come in the recruitment and training montages where Erik suddenly reveals a hitherto unsuspected sardonic side. These are where any actor would grin widely at how much fun they’re having, even if Fassbender grins wider than most. The true moment that defines Fassbendering as something that only Michael Fassbender truly personifies comes in the extremely tense sequence in the Argentinian German Bar. Fassbender smiling widely drops loaded hints to the ex-Nazis, “They had no name. It was taken from them, by pig-farmers, and tailors”, his smile confusing the hell out of them, even as he slowly drains his drink, still looking affable, but perhaps to be feared. Fassbender is obviously enjoying himself far too much in this scene, but what’s more, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, he’s conveying an inner thought process of his character that other actors would not attempt – Erik really is obviously enjoying this Nazi-hunting business far too much…

March 22, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D

Werner Herzog uses 3-D technology to show off the cave-paintings of the Ardeche region of southern France in his straightest documentary in years, but some characteristic madness still shines through…

The Pont d’Arc-Chauvet cave-paintings, discovered by the intrepid Chauvet in 1995, are 32,000 years old; more than twice as old as any previously discovered cave-paintings, but because of a collapse in the cliff-face thousands of years ago which sealed the cave they remain as startlingly fresh as if the artist had just ceased work five minutes ago. The impressionistic stampeding buffalo, the fearsome lions and rhinos, and the centaur originating merging of woman and bull in one fertility image offer testament to its cultural importance, which is why the French government has closed access to the cave and treats it extremely delicately. For that reason you should watch this film in the cinema as you will never get a chance to see the real thing and 3-D for once actually earns its keep by allowing you to grasp fully the texture of the cave interiors, where the artists have used rock formations to add effect to their sketching.

Having uncharacteristically praised 3-D let me add an important rider; it is a wonderful innovation for scenes inside the cave but unbearably awful outside. You would be well advised to shut one eye during any outdoor scenes as foliage and hand-held 3-D camera-work make for a terrible viewing experience, not to mention the demented sequences shot by a miniature camera on a radio-controlled toy helicopter. Aside from that latter eccentricity the film finds its groove of ecstatic madness with the continuing phenomenon of any and all craziness in the universe gravitating towards Herzog; only he could find the sole serious archaeologist in the world who had previously pursued a circus career as an unicyclist. And that’s before he meets Wulf Heine, experimental archaeologist (whatever that may be), and then an embittered perfumier, before commanding another archaeologist, wandering off to demonstrate how to hunt with a spear, “Stay where you are”, which will bring down the house down as it recalls Alan Rickman’s delivery of “Remain seated” in John Gabriel Borkman.

That last archaeologist claims we should be dubbed Homo Spiritus not Homo Sapiens as we do not know; all philosophy tells us uncertainty is our lot, but we have always striven for the eternal. Carl Jung claimed that civilisation was an inbuilt human instinct, one which we always turn to immediately after we satisfy our most basic needs. Heine even plays ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ on a replica of an 8,000 year old musical instrument to demonstrate how far back our liking for tonality goes. In the Chauvet cave Cro-Magnon man started to dream; about his soul, his purpose in the world, and he expressed his need to celebrate both, and perhaps tangibly grasp immortality, through his art. Herzog’s enigmatic postscript visits a nearby alligator farm, created to re-use coolant water from its neighbouring nuclear power-plant. Predictably any alligators born there have a mutation, they are all albinos. Herzog thus muses on how unrecognisable we would be to our ancestors. We arrogantly think we know everything, they knew they did not, and so venerated in their art powers beyond their grasp.

Given events in Fukushima, perhaps we could use their humility.

4/5

January 28, 2011

2011: Hopes

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In Darkest Night

Ryan Reynolds is Green Lantern, Blake Lively is love interest Carol Ferris, and Mark Strong is renegade alien lantern Sinestro in the biggest gamble of the year. Green Lantern’s ring which allows him to physically project anything he can imagine, but which can’t handle the colour yellow because of the evil Parallax, is the most far-out of the major DC characters; but in the right hands (see the recent resurgence of the comics title by Geoff Johns) he can be majestic. If this movie works it opens up the whole DC Universe for cinematic imaginings. If it fails then Nolan’s Batman swansong and Snyder’s Superman will be the end of DC on film for another decade…

A Knife-Edge

Talking of gambles what about Suckerpunch: can Zack Snyder handle an all-female cast and a PG-13 rating after the flop of his animated movie? The answers provided by his Del Toro like escapade set in a 1950s mental hospital where Vanessa Hudgens and Abbie Cornish escape into a fantasy universe to fight a never-ending war will give hints as to how he’ll handle Lois Lane and the challenge of resurrecting Superman’s cinematic fortunes. Breaking Dawn sees Bill Condon, director of Gods & Monsters, take on the final Twilight book in two movies. Given that the book sounds the epitome of unfilmable on the grounds of utter insanity, it’s a gamble to split it in two when it may make New Moon look competent. On the other hand he may take the Slade/Nelson route of Eclipse and simply play the romance as stark nonsense and be as nasty as he can with what little time for horror is left him after he’s shot Jacob shirtless 20 times. Paul should be a lock: it’s a comedy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. However, they’re not working with Edgar Wright, co-writer and director of their other two movies, but with Greg Mottola, writer/director of Adventureland, and this film was meant to be released last year. Kristen Wiig has a supporting role created for her and Seth Rogen voices the titular slobbish alien with whom Pegg & Frost’s archetypal nerds have daft adventures, but will this be a mish-mash of styles?

A Grand Madness

Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? has had immense success on the festival circuit and seems to confirm that Bad Lieutenant was no one-of, he really has got his feature mojo back.  Michael Shannon stars in a very loose version of a true-life murder case which saw reality and fiction tragically become fatally confused for a young actor appearing in a Greek tragedy. The Tempest sees Julie Taymor takes a break from injuring actors on Broadway to helm another Shakespeare movie. Her last film Across the Universe was misfiring but inspired when it worked, expect something of the same from this. Helen Mirren is Prospera, while Russell Brand’s obvious love of language should see him Fassbender his way through his jester role.

In England’s Green and Pleasant Land

February sees the release of two adaptations of acclaimed English novels. Brighton Rock sees Sam Riley, exceptional as Ian Curtis in 2007’s Control, take on the iconic role of the psychotic gangster Pinkie in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel. This remake updates the action to the 1960s and mods v rockers, with Helen Mirren as the avenging Fury pursuing Pinkie for murdering an innocent man, and rising star Andrea Riseborough as Pinkie’s naive girlfriend. Greene and Terence Rattigan co-wrote the script for the superb Boulting Brothers’ 1947 film, so this version has to live up to the high-water mark of British film noir. Meanwhile Never Let Me Go sees one of the most acclaimed novels of the Zeros get a film treatment from the director of Johnny Cash’s Hurt video. Can Mark Romanek find a visual way to render Kazuo Ishiguro’s dreamy first-person narration of the slow realisation by a group of elite public-school pupils of the sinister purpose of their isolated education? The cast; Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, and Carey Mulligan; represents the cream of young English talent, but replicating the impact of the novel will be difficult.

Empire of the Spielberg

Super 8. I gather it’s about aliens, and monsters, in fact probably alien monsters. In fact really it’s probably Cloverfield: Part II but with Abrams writing and directing instead of producing. Spielberg is producing so it’s safe to say this will be exciting. Whatever it’s about. It’s out in August. The War Horse sees Spielberg breaks his silence after Indy 4 with an adaptation of West End hit which follows a young boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse from being used to drag provisions to the front. Meanwhile with Tintin we get an answer to the question does Peter Jackson still have his directorial mojo? His version of the beloved famous Belgian comic-book has a lot to live up to, not least the uber-faithful TV cartoon adaptations. And can the problem of dead eyes in photo realistic motion capture CGI finally be solved?

The House of M: Part I

Kenneth Branagh’s directorial resurgence sees him helm Thor, his first comic-book blockbuster. Branagh will no doubt coax great performances from Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, but does Chris Hemsworth have the charisma as well as the physique to pull off a Norse God banished to Earth just as Loki decides to invade it? This is a pivotal gamble by Marvel’s in-house studio. If this flops, it puts The Avengers and Iron Man 3 in major difficulties, and it is a worry. Captain America had fantastic storylines in acclaimed comics by Mark Millar and Jeph Loeb in the last decade, but Thor really has no great canonical tale that cries out to be told. Not that those Loeb/Millar ideas will get in the way of a (How I Became) Insert Hero Name approach to the Cap’n. Chris Evans, fresh from dazzling comedic turns in Scott Pilgrim and The Losers, takes on the title role in Captain America: The First Avenger. He will be a likeable hero but it’s almost certain that Hugo Weaving will steal proceedings as Nazi villain The Red Skull. Joe Johnston’s Indiana Jones background should probably guarantee amusing hi-jinks in this 1940s set blockbuster.

The House of M: Part II

Other studios, content to build one franchise at a time around Marvel characters, will unleash two very different comic-book blockbusters. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, fresh from his brush with Herzog, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writers/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his bike is an awesome one. Matthew Vaughn meanwhile helms X-Men: First Class starring James McAvoy as the young Professor X and Talking Movies’ hero Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto. This prequel charts the early days of their friendship and the establishment of Xavier’s Academy, before (according to Mark Millar) a disagreement led to Magneto putting Xavier in a wheelchair. The prospect of Fassbender doing his best Ian McKellen impersonation gives one pause for joy.

Top 10 Films of 2010

(10) Whip It!
Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Ellen Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother’s ideal of beauty pageants by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Filled with sparkling turns from a female comedic ensemble, and some well-choreographed and bone-crunching stunts, the creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, but the third act is pleasingly subversive on two counts.
(9) Avatar
This is closer to the Cameron of Aliens than we could have hoped for. The script appears to have been generated by the same computers as the impressive bespoke special effects but, Worthington aside, the actors sell it well, aided by the fact that Cameron remains a master of emotionally manipulative action sequences; with the 9/11 style destruction of Hometree genuinely upsetting while the final half-hour is pulse-poundingly emotive and well orchestrated.
(8) Kick-Ass
A little gem of ultraviolent comic-book capers from the imagination of Mark Millar this faithfully follows the origin myth template but without PG-13 imposed morality; Batman would be feared by criminals because he acted like Big Daddy, gangsters would react like Mark Strong’s exasperated Don. Matthew Vaughn’s script improves on its source material in mining an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos in the Big Daddy /Hit-Girl relationship.
(7) Let Me In
Matt Reeves follows Cloverfield with an incredible stylistic switch but retains his stark vision. This intimate horror features a number of nail-biting suspense sequences and improves on the Swedish version by making Abby scarier and more manipulative, with Owen more complicit, and by re-instating moral horror into this coming-of-age story. Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more affecting.
(6) Iron Man 2
A fine and very fun film with excellent cleverly counterpointed performances from Downey, Cheadle, Rourke and Rockwell as a consulting villain and a real villain, and a responsible hero and a drunken hero. The first act moves at an insane pace verbally and is full of wonderful comedic touches. So what if Nick Fury solves the plot for Tony Stark, my gripe is with the inconsistent relationship between Pepper and the poorly used Black Widow and the déjà-vu action finale.


(5) Scott Pilgrim Vs the World
The comedy of the year is deliriously nonsensical, filled with joyous touches, played perfectly by the youthful ensemble (aided by insane cameos), and is chockfull of superb visual gags. It is, like Wright’s Hot Fuzz, a bit too long but this is as crazy and original as big studio films get and, like (500) Days of Summer , characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re as fickle as Ramona with men or as shallow/cruel as Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her.
(3) The Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog’s ecstatic madness finally returns to his dramatic features in an examination of the bliss of evil. He drags a barnstorming performance worthy of Klaus Kinksi out of Nicolas Cage and plasters the insanity of his recent documentaries onto what is structurally a solid police procedural, before you add iguanas and drugs, and nonsense, lots of nonsense. This black comedy towers above Ferrara’s portentous original aided by a surprisingly reflective ending.
(3) A Single Man
Colin Firth’s stunning performance is only one of many dazzling elements in a heart-breaking film punctuated by outstanding moments of black comedy and shot with an amazing eye for style, sartorial and visual. Director and co-writer Ford has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships and the crushing nature of bereavement and grief which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines.
(2) The Social Network
The founding of Facebook was played out with amazing scenes, lines, and ideas and gripped like a vice with a constant unnerving tension surrounding the actions of central villain Mark. There were echoes of Fincher past in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rumbling beats, especially underneath Sean’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo, and Sean was in a way the Tyler of this tale, whose rejection leaves no happy ending. Sorkin’s script has witty repartee but its emotionally raw opening scene sets the movie’s tone. Favouring Fincher’s pessimism over Sorkin’s optimism makes this an uneasy masterpiece.


(1) Inception
Nolan wins not just for the tremendous redemptive emotional kick the whole movie builds to, when you read the film on its most superficial level where it’s too neat structurally for its own good, but because once you look deeper you realise that this is a puzzle piece worthy of a UCL English graduate; it supports many contradictory readings, none of them definitive. See a loose thread and pull and the garment does not unravel, it changes pattern and remains coherent. ‘Ellen Page’s character is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with DiCaprio’s character is because she’s a therapist hired by the rest of the team to exorcise Mal from his memory… This is a blockbuster rubik’s cube of a caper movie combined with sci-fi thriller, which exploits the ability give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, in order to dazzle both eyes and mind with spectacle, ideas, and meaty drama.

June 2, 2010

Icon: Werner Herzog

Herzog’s dementedly brilliant The Bad Lieutenant is currently in cinemas and another feature My Son What Have Ye Done? is winning acclaim at film festivals, so it’s time for a brief spot of hero-worship of the insane German auteur.

Werner Herzog was born in 1942 and worked in a steel factory to fund his film education. When he was thirteen his family had shared an apartment in Munich with an eccentric actor called Klaus Kinski. Kinski had a small role in For a Few Dollars More but was widely considered impossible to work with. Herzog (who said of Kinski, “I had to domesticate the wild beast”) was thus uniquely positioned to extract performances of grandeur from the actor in the five films they made together. Herzog spent the mid-60s trying to get his award winning feature script Signs of Life off the ground. He had written it in 1964 and in 1967 finally managed to make it with only $20,000 and a stolen 35 mm movie camera. It was released to acclaim in 1968 and his debut established his directorial style. Languidly paced with long takes and dreamy landscape shots it followed the descent into madness of an injured soldier while working as caretaker of a military fortress with his wife on a Greek island. Herzog followed it up with a National Geographic documentary The Flying Doctors of East Africa establishing a pattern of alternating features with documentaries that persists to this day.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) established Herzog as a truly visionary director with an extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography and a talent for exploring states of deep psychological madness in its epic narrative of a Conquistador’s search for El Dorado. Herzog revisited this theme with Fitzcarraldo (1982) which was another story of insanity in the South American rainforests and during which he remarked, “I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum”. Both films benefited from extraordinary performances by Klaus Kinski of whom he said:  “People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder”. It is alleged that Herzog threatened Kinski with a gun during takes on Fitzcarraldo

Documentaries became Herzog’s mainstay following Kinski’s death in 1990. Herzog’s reputation in that field is immense. He was responsible for forcing Errol Morris, director of 2004’s The Fog of War, to stop talking about it and finally make his documentary debut, the off-beat 1978 pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, with a challenge that Herzog made good on in the 1979 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe… Herzog’s most notable documentaries include 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly and 2005’s Grizzly Man. He also starred in 2004’s Incident at Loch Ness, an uproariously funny mockumentary about Herzog making a film about the phenomenon of Nessie, co-written and directed with X-2 scribe Zak Penn.

While being interviewed about Grizzly Man by Mark Kermode for BBC 2’s Culture Show Herzog was shot live on camera by an air-rifle. Herzog, Kermode and the crew dived for cover and scurried from the Beverly Hills to Herzog’s house to finish the interview. Herzog was remarkably unperturbed, merely muttering “I have been shot at before, but this is the first time I have been shot at in those hills”. Kermode was aghast to discover that Herzog was bleeding having been shot in the stomach by the sniper. Herzog steadfastly refused to go to hospital maintaining, “It is an insignificant wound”, and finished the interview. The morning after the interview was broadcast Joaquin Phoneix revealed Herzog had rescued him from a car wreck. Phoenix overturned his car on a canyon road above Sunset Boulevard after his brakes failed. Phoenix said “I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, ‘Just relax’…I’m saying, ‘I’m fine. I am relaxed’…this head pops inside. And he said, ‘No, you’re not’. And suddenly I said to myself, ‘That’s Werner Herzog’ There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out. I got out of the car and I said, ‘Thank you’, and he was gone”. After such a truly Batman like escapade it was only suitable that Herzog’s next film was with Christian Bale. Rescue Dawn dramatised the true story of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, an account of USAF pilot Dieter Dengler’s attempts to escape from a Vietcong POW camp.

Herzog followed up his highest-profile feature in many years with Encounters at the End of the World, an inspired portrayal of Antarctica’s wildlife and landscape and the oddballs who live there, which was Talking Movies’ pick of 2009. Herzog may well win it and place this year…

May 19, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans

Werner Herzog’s incredibly loose remake of Abel Ferrara’s portentous piece of provocation becomes his first dramatic feature in years to equal the heyday of his collaborations with Klaus Kinski.

Stepping into the shoes of Kinski is the unlikely figure of Knowing star Nicolas Cage, who remembers that he too used to do ‘wild and crazy’ authentically once, and so rediscovers his inner Kinski… The dangerous rescue of a man during Hurricane Katrina leads Terence McDonagh, our ‘hero’ cop, to the titular promotion but also chronic back-pain. The hunch this causes makes him increasingly resemble Kinski’s Aguirre as the film proceeds but McDonagh goes mad on drugs not power, as (like House MD) he soon finds his anaemic painkillers insufficient but instead of trading up to vicodin he trades up to cocaine, heroin and, well, whatever else he can lift from the evidence lock-up room.

There’s actually a surprisingly logical police procedural underpinning all Herzog’s madness. The investigation into a Senegalese family of five murdered by the local drug-lord (Xzibit) is complicated though by McDonagh trying to sort out the escalating problems of his hooker girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), which involves the greatest cameo involving nonsense repetition of one word you will ever see by any actor. McDonagh is also persecuted by Internal Affairs for, um, torturing a frail woman in a nursing home for witness-tampering, the witness being her devoted nurse’s grandson. Cage’s entrance in that scene is startling, shaving while he waves a gun wild-eyed, and the whole scene is jaw-droppingly outrageous but utterly hilarious – as if Sacha Baron Cohen was re-writing a thriller.

Cage’s matter of fact delivery of “I snorted some cocaine but it turned out to be heroin and I have to be in work in an hour” is almost the starting point for the film to go enjoyably and totally off the rails. Herzog lingers on the soul of an alligator observing a traffic accident, plays out an entire scene with iguanas sitting on a coffee table, and shows unnecessary violence being authorised to stop non-corporeal jiving. McDonagh tries to get incriminating evidence on Xzibit’s drug-lord by working for him, and the deadpanning of all concerned as Xzibit’s Big Fate explains his plan for going straight by building condos three years before it’s fashionable, while a dead body is disposed of in the background, is priceless. To gripe, Val Kilmer is under-used as McDonagh’s partner, but the ensemble, including Vondie Curtis Hall’s Captain and Brad Dourif’s long-suffering bookie, are uniformly solid and wisely under-stated opposite Cage’s rampaging.

Cage gives notice that he should be taken seriously again with his best performance in many years, while the ecstatic madness of Werner Herzog which has found full rein in his recent documentaries The White Diamond and Encounters at the End of the World finally returns to his dramatic movies. Essential viewing.

4/5

January 22, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

(10) Crank 2 Jason Statham rampages thru the streets fighting mobsters, electrocuting himself, humiliating Amy Smart and generally incarnating lunacy in celluloid form. I saw it in a ‘private screening’ in Tallaght UCI and my brain is still slowly recovering.

(9) Star Trek I still have issues with the intellectual con-job involved in its in-camera ret-conning plot, and its poor villain, but this was a truly exuberant romp that rejuvenated the Trek franchise with great joy and reverence, down to the old familiar alarm siren, even if Spock (both versions) did act new Kirk off the screen. Here’s to the sequels.

(8) Mesrine 1 & 2 A brassy, bold piece of film-making, this French two-parter about the life of infamous bank-robber Jacques Mesrine saw Vincent Cassell in sensational form aided by a supporting cast of current Gallic cinematic royalty. Sure, this was too long and had flaws, but it had twice the spark of its efficient but autopiloted cousin Public Enemies.

(7) Moon Playing like a faithful adaptation of an Isaac Asimov tale this low-budget sci-fi proved that a clever concept and good execution will always win out over empty special effects and bombast as this tale of a badly injured worker having an identity crisis in a deserted moon-base was both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

(5) (500) Days of Summer It’s not a riotous comedy, but it is always charming, it is tough emotionally when it needs to be and its systematic deconstruction of the rom-com is of great importance, as, bar The Devil Wears Prada, Definitely Maybe and The Jane Austen Book Club, that genre produces only bad films and is moribund, hypocritical and, yes, damaging.

(5) Frost/Nixon It was hard to shake the wish that you had seen the crackling tension of the stage production but this is still wonderfully satisfying drama. Sheen and Langella are both on top form in their real-life roles, backed by a solid supporting cast, and the probing of the psyches of both men, especially their midnight phone call, was impeccable.

(3) Inglourious Basterds Tarantino roars back with his best script since 1994. Historical inaccuracy has never been so joyfully euphoric in granting Jewish revenge on the Nazis, QT’s theatrical propensities have never been better than the first extended scene with the Jew-hunter and the French farmer, the flair for language is once again devoted to uproarious comedy, and the ability to create minor characters of great brilliance has returned.

(3) The Private Lives of Pippa Lee An intimate female-centred film this was a refreshing joy to stumble on during the summer and, powered by great turns from Robin Wright and Blake Lively, this was an always absorbing tale of a woman looking back at a life lived in an extremely bizarre fashion. Rebecca Miller inserted a great message of hope for the possibility of renewing yourself if you could only endure in an ending that averted sentimentality.

(2) Milk For my money a far more important landmark than Brokeback Mountain as Gus Van Sant, directing with more focus and great verve than he has shown for years, melded a convincing portrait of gay relationships with an enthralling and inspirational account of the politics of equal rights advocator and ‘Mayor of Castro’, the slain Harvey Milk.

(1) Encounters at the End of the World After a slow start Werner Herzog’s stunning documentary melds breathtaking landscape and underwater photography and a warning on the dangers of global warming with a typically Herzogian journey into madness whether it be an insane penguin or the eccentric oddballs and scientists who live in Antarctica’s bases.

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