Thursday, December 22, 2005

Grizzly Man (2005)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Inability of Hollywood to produce original stories has benefited the makers of documentaries. These days it is more likely that a viewer will experience huge outburst of emotions while watching documentary than by watching any average Hollywood drama. One of those true stories that seem to be beyond the grasp of Hollywood screenwriters is a subject of GRIZZLY MAN, 2005 documentary written and directed by legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog.

The protagonist of this documentary is Timothy Treadwell (1957- 2003), failed Hollywood actor and former drug addict who reached fame as one of the world's greatest bear enthusiasts. Staring with 1990, he was spending every summer in Kaitami National Park in Alaska. There he became enchanted with local fauna, most notably brown bears. Gradually, he became self-appointed protector of bears from human encroachment and spent his last few summers recording his adventures with video camera. The footage was more than a hundred hours long, and small section of it makes the basis of Herzog's film. The rest is made of interviews with Treadwell's friends, acquaintances, Park officials, biologists, various experts and local coroner.

The story of GRIZZLY MAN is very unusual, to say the least. Those who never heard of Treadwell or Herzog might get an impression of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT parody rather than documentary. This illusion is broken only through Herzog's solemn and serious narration that puts surreal words and images into the real life context.

Some of the most surreal scenes feature Treadwell coming near the huge bears and expressing his love for them in high-pitched tone. Those, near-idyllic images, set in the area of enormous natural beauty, represent the sharp contrast to the extremely violent fight between two male bears over a female. Treadwell, who recorded the event, later visits the site, which now looks very much like an aftermath of tank battle, and describes it with the words more appropriate to kindergarten fight. When the audience compares those two images, they will come to conclusion Treadwell couldn't or didn't want to make.

Those familiar with Herzog's previous opus will probably understand why German filmmaker became attracted to Treadwell's story. Treadwell is in many ways similar to the protagonists of Herzog's classic films. As film goes by, Treadwell's recordings- in which he acts like a genuine star - reveal a man increasingly disconnected not only with civilisation he learned to despise, but also with reality. Herzog spells that out in his narration, while, in the same time, praises his ability of a filmmaker.

Like few films ever made in recent times, GRIZZLY MAN is able to make audience both laugh and cry. This film also allows audience to make its own mind about the unusual protagonist. Some may praise Treadwell as noble idealist who paid the ultimate price trying to fight for something he believed in. Others may see him as mentally disturbed exhibitionists, while some may look at him as a modern-day equivalent of Sacred Fool. In any case, Treadwell deserved to have film about him, just like this exceptionally powerful documentary deserves to be seen.

RATING: 9/10 (++++)

Monday, December 05, 2005

Crash (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

If someone tries to base his picture of the world on average Hollywood films, he would come to conclusion that there isn't any world outside Los Angeles. This could be explained with sharp ethnic, social, economic and cultural divisions that exist within something that people like to refer as a "city". For many of its citizens - especially those living in wealthier sections like Beverly Hills - some of the neighbourhoods and their inhabitants appear like another planet. This failure to communicate seems to be endless source of frustrations for Hollywood - entertainment industry institution based on the very idea of bridging all cultural and other gaps. One of many films to address this issue is CRASH, 2005 drama directed by Paul Haggis.

Haggis, who co-wrote the script with Robert Moresco, built the plot on the narrative device very familiar to those who had seen Altman's SHORT CUTS and Paul Thomas Anderson's MAGNOLIA. The film begins with Graham Waters (played by Don Cheadle), passenger in car driven by Latina woman named Ria (played by Jennifer Esposito). When they get rear-ended, it is slowly revealed that those two are Los Angeles Police detectives who investigate a murder of young black man. The rest of the film shows 36 hours that had preceded this event and during which many new characters - each belonging to different race, class, ethnic or social group - are introduced. All those characters are by coincidence connected with each other and series of vignettes - some featuring very violent and unpleasant incidents -describe how they interact, often using each and every opportunity to show racism and other forms of prejudice.

Haggis, best known as the scriptwriter for "Oscar"-awarded and overrated MILLION DOLLAR BABY, shows great skill as a director. The plot, despite its complicated structure, is easy to follow and the characters are intriguing. The cast is superb, with many actors playing against the type - especially Brendan Fraser as faceless politician and Sandra Bullock as his bourgeois snobby wife. The most pleasant surprise is, however, Michael Pena as a young Mexican locksmith - the only character with whom the audience could identify without feeling bad about it.

CRASH is well-acted and well-directed, but also betrayed by its script. Haggis has built the plot on the series of often implausible coincidences that look more suitable to misanthropic black comedies than dramas that aspire to tell important truths about real life. There were better ways to present the idea of everyone in Los Angeles being connected with everyone else. The dialogue also leaves much to be desired - characters are often burdened with long expository dialogues that don't sound particularly realistic. This starts with Graham's "poetic" monologue at the beginning and continues throughout film - most often in situations when characters have to address various issues that plague their social or ethnic group. Mark Isham's musical score also takes away film's realism by emphasising pathos in the least opportune moments. The quasi-biblical ending - "borrowed" from MAGNOLIA - also underlines the impression of plot's artificiality, but at that time its effect on film's quality isn't that important.

While at times CRASH might look more like a sermon than genuine film, there are more than enough powerful scenes and more than enough displays of great talent for this film to deserve recommendation.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Sunday, December 04, 2005

11:14 (2003)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Good films at certain occasions can cause bad feelings. The author of this review experienced this phenomenon with 11:14, 2003 black comedy directed by Greg Marcks. The feelings weren't directed at film, but at the contemporary Hollywood in general. Marcks' film showed how little was necessary for a film to be quality entertainment. And, to make things even more depressing, qualities of 11:14 were ignored by distributors, making it into just another good film nobody had heard of.

The plot is simple and set in small American suburb of Middleton during the course of one night. It all appears to begin when Jack (played by Henry Thomas), young and slightly drunk man, drives a car. At 11:14 PM, his car hits something. Much to his horror, the apparent victim is a man, dead and terribly disfigured during the crash. Jack tries to cover up his crime, only to learn that the incident happens to be only one in the series of macabre events that involve armed robberies, genital mutilations, overprotective parents and young people with too much fondness for perverse sex or substance abuse.

At first sight, the plot of 11:14 looks very complicated. Thankfully, Marcks used non-linear narrative structure for the script. This technique - quite fashionable and often over-used in post-Tarantino years - works wonderfully in 11:14. All events and the character motivations are gradually explained through different perspectives, each adding another part of the puzzle. The transitions are smooth and the viewers are never confused, nor do they lose interest for the plot, despite having its resolution telegraphed in advance. This is mostly due to very intelligent script and very realistic characters - ordinary people who do some very un-ordinary things due to macabre set of coincidences.

The film benefits a lot from small, but very capable and experienced cast that includes both younger actors like Shawn Hatosy or Rachael Leigh Cook and veterans like Patrick Swayze or Barbara Hershey. Some of the characters, especially older, aren't properly developed. The ending also lacks emotional impact - probably due to the lack of deeper meaning in the story. 11:14 can be viewed more like an exercise in style than film in its own right, but even as such, it provides enough entertainment for the audience to deserve recommendation.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Boogeyman (2005)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

In not so distant past horror films used to scare or, at least, excite people. This appears to be beyond comprehension of most contemporary Hollywood executives. BOOGEYMAN, 2005 film directed by Stephen M. Kay, appears to be an attempt to change this state of affairs.

The protagonist of the film is Tim (played by Barry Watson), young man who, as a young child, saw his father consumed by mysterious dark force hidden in the closet. Fifteen years and many visits to child psychiatric hospitals later, he convinced himself and others that his father had simply abandoned family, thus leaving young Tim to find explanation in the form of childish imagination. However, Tim still has irrational fear of closets and dark. Ehen his mother (played by Lucy Lawless) dies, he returns to his old house where he would have to face his demons.

Authors of BOOGEYMAN made very little effort to be original. The basic premise, together with opening sequence, is "borrowed" from DARKNESS FALLS. The screenwriting trio of Eric Kripke, Juliet Snowden and Stilles White filled the rest of the film with material taken from many other recent horror films, so BOOGEYMAN also features ghosts and teleportation. This strange combination, however, resembles something like coherent plot and director Stephen M. Kay tries his best to truly scare audience. His efforts are mostly satisfactory, despite rapid MTV-style editing, overuse of zooming and miscasting Barry Watson for the role of protagonist. The disappointment for viewers comes at the very end - the monster is revealed in one of the cheapest-looking CGI shots, only to be disposed in one of the most confusing and least cathartic ending in recent Hollywood history. However, it could be said that such abrupt and unexpected ending worked to film's advantage by hiding the authors' lack of inspiration. Few films benefited that much from being so short.

RATING: 3/10 (+)