Tag Archives: 2003

Doctober II #6 – The Fog of War (2003)

fog_of_warThe Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Directed by: Errol Morris
Written by: Errol Morris
Starring: Robert S. McNamara

The greatest documentary subjects often tend to be the most divisive and controversial ones.  Usually without agenda or bias, they instead challenge viewers to think outside the box and reconsider their own personal positions and points of view.  Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War pushes this idea even further.  Consisting of a 105-minute interview with Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, The Fog of War is more stylish, revealing, and honest than most docs could ever hope to be.  McNamara brings with him a list of eleven critical lessons he learned during his time serving the United States of America, and makes an excellent case for his and his colleague’s often controversial actions.  In many cases, his eleven lessons can be considered for universal use, and not just for those in high-ranking positions of power.

McNamara comes across as a genuine and truly down to earth man with nothing more to lose.  His political career is behind him, and it’s clear that he has reflected on the actions of his government and his country that came in a time of great confusion and turmoil.  He is transparent and never afraid to admit when somebody was in the wrong, using a vast knowledge of history and terrific anecdotal evidence to backup his claims.  McNamara frequently tells the camera that it was sheer blind luck that got the United States and Russia through the Cold War without starting a nuclear war.  The former Secretary of Defense gives chilling recollections of the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK and the subsequent inauguration of Lyndon Johnson, and America’s entry in Vietnam and the immediate mess that situation would become.  Stories like these leave a long-lasting impression with viewers because of how genuinely terrifying they are, and really puts the role of government into perspective.  Nothing is black and white for those in charge; at the end of the day, regardless of education, wealth, or status, we’re all just feeling our way through the dark.

The film’s fascinating subject aside, director Errol Morris is a major reason why The Fog of War works nearly as well as it does.  He shows tremendous restraint by allowing McNamara to speak his mind, especially since he often doesn’t seem to have any sort of script or agenda.  He lets his subject stumble, pause, and go back in his own timeline to clarify facts and anecdotes, and adds a great deal of humanization to somebody who is considered to be very divisive and controversial.  Morris’ veteran eye for details and penchant for storytelling shine just as bright as they did in his earlier masterpiece The Thin Blue Line.  It’s clear that he’s matured as a filmmaker and a storyteller in the years since that film, but his trademarks are still there.  He manages to turn an interview with this controversial figure into a very intimate and revealing experience – something Morris seems to have a knack for.  The Fog of War tackles incredibly complex topics like human nature, conflict resolution, acting under pressure and scrutiny, and most importantly our taste for war and appetite for destruction.  He adds to McNamara’s storytelling by using archival footage and stylized graphics and inserts, making The Fog of War constantly interesting from both visual and narrative standpoints.  Backing up Errol Morris’ expert direction is a typically haunting (and sometimes playful) score by frequent collaborator Philip Glass.  The film’s soundtrack adds weight to McNamara’s anecdotes and Morris’ direction, turning the film into a truly unforgettable experience.  Today, The Fog of War is considered to be one of Errol Morris’ greatest accomplishments, and perhaps one of the most important documentaries of the 2000’s.  It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2004, as well as an Independent Spirit Award.  Robert McNamara passed away in 2009 at the age of 93, leaving an incredible legacy behind him – he is still to this day the longest acting Secretary of Defense in US history.
What I Liked:

  • Robert McNamara is an incredibly fascinating and well-spoken subject.  His points are all delivered clearly and concisely, and his anecdotes are riveting.
  • The “11 lessons” structure really adds to the pacing of the film, but doesn’t detract from McNamara’s interview at all.
  • Errol Morris’ interview style is up-close and personal and very intimate.  By the end of the film, you really feel like you understand McNamara.
  • Philip Glass’ score is incredible – haunting, tense, and just a tiny bit playful.  Would work perfectly in a spy film.
  • The use of archival footage never distracts from the interview, but adds tremendous weight to the picture – especially when dealing with the subjects of nuclear war or Vietnam.
  • Morris often chimes in from behind the camera, sometimes asking questions or calling for clarification, and it always helps to alleviate things a little.
  • Every single one of Robert McNamara’s eleven lessons are relevant and important to leaders around the world.  They deal with empathy, rationality, efficiency, data, good and evil, and human nature, and every single one resonates after the credits roll.

Errol Morris’ The Fog of War could have easily been another dull, lifeless, lost in the crowd interview documentary – but the end result is so much more than that.  Morris created a masterpiece using simple direction, incredible archival footage, a brilliant score, and one hell of a subject.  It’s intimate, important, startling, informative, and powerful.  Robert McNamara is one of the most interesting documentary subjects in the history of the medium, and the importance of his messages cannot be understated. You don’t have to be a history buff to take something away from The Fog of War, you only need to be human.  Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara gets my highest recommendation.

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Doctober Feature #2: Werner Herzog Triple Feature – Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), The White Diamond (2004), and Wheel of Time (2003)

Werner Herzog is one, if not the most, influential documentary filmmaker of our time after a host of incredible and successful documentaries like the incomparable Grizzly Man, Lessons of Darkness, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and his most recent Into the Abyss.  His eye for quirky interview subjects, beautiful scenery, relatively uncovered film subjects, and his penchant for asking really, really, really (REALLY) big questions of the audience have turned Werner Herzog into something of a cultural icon in the film world.  His narration is often lovingly mocked by those in the film community, and comedian Paul F. Tompkins has even made it a regular part of his act on television and podcasts.  The bottom line is that Werner Herzog is incredibly influential, and has given us some of the greatest documentary and narrative films of our generation, and deserves to be discovered by an even wider audience. These three films were blind spots in my viewing of Herzog’s documentary filmography, and even though I had different reactions to the lot of them, I’m incredibly happy that I finally sought them out.  If you’ve never seen a Herzog film, do yourself a favor and see Grizzly Man as soon as humanly possible.  It will change the way you view the art of documentary filmmaking.

Cave_of_forgotten_dreams_posterCave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: the Chauvet Cave, Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary was originally released in 3D, and I’m very upset that I didn’t have the opportunity to see it as it was originally intended.  In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog takes the audience on a tour of the Chauvet Cave in France, where some of the oldest surviving human art was discovered in the 1990’s.  The cave paintings were created over 30,000 years ago, and are very carefully preserved by the French government.  Due to the sensitive nature and rarity of the paintings, the general public is not actually admitted to exploring the cave, and even Werner Herzog himself was only able to take himself and three others to film the documentary.  Special walkways were created for those permitted into the cave, anything off the path being strictly prohibited.

The cave and the ancient art inside are absolutely beautiful, and it’s hard to imagine that these images were created so long ago.  Alongside the paintings are many bones of the now extinct cave bear, a relic and a major find in themselves.  Herzog manages to find experts in the archaeological field, interviewing them about various items found in the area surrounding the cave, including an ancient wind instrument, as well as a spear of sorts.  These experts in question are ridiculous and quirky and incredibly fun to watch in their brief appearances on screen.  One of the experts in question happens to be a perfume creator, and goes about finding cave openings in the woods using only the power his nose, another is openly mocked by Herzog about his spear-throwing abilities.  It is these interviews coupled with the imagery that makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams an absolute delight.  I would highly recommend this film to both Herzog rookies and seasoned veterans alike.  High recommendation.

The White Diamond (2004)


Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Graham Dorrington, Werner Herzog, Dieter Plage

This is a film I knew almost nothing about before going into it, as it came out a year before one of Werner Herzog’s greatest successes, Grizzly Man. For a film I knew very little about, The White Diamond absolutely took my breath away, and quickly became one of my favorite Herzog documentaries.  In The White Diamond, Werner Herzog and his lovable voice take us on a journey into the dense rainforests of Guyana, a small country in South America.  There we find the film’s subject Graham Dorrington, an engineer who has created a terrific white airship (or blimp) in the shape of a teardrop;his mission is to fly the airship over canopies of the Guyana rainforest.  The film chronicles Dorrington’s past as an aeronautical engineer, covers the history of modern flight as a whole, and explores the beauty of Guyana’s vast rainforests, specifically taking a look at the massive Kaieteur Falls, as well as astounding white-tipped swifts, a species of bird which roost in an unexplored cave directly behind the falls.

Despite the incredible visuals and Werner Herzog’s always incredible narration and subtle humor, what makes The White Diamond a special documentary and a film to remember is the story of Graham Dorrington’s cinematographer and friend Dieter Plage, who died on an ill-fated ascent in the experimental airship.  Herzog films Dorrington telling the story of Dieter Plage’s accident and attempted rescue with unblinking and unflinching direction, never underestimating the weight of Dorrington’s words.  The story is incredible, tragic, and heartbreaking, and is easily one of the great moments in documentary film, period.  The White Diamond is one of Werner Herzog’s most underrated treasures, and a film I plan to revisit again for the visuals and the incredible stories featured throughout.  High recommendation.

Wheel_of_time_posterWheel of Time (2003)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: The Dalai Lama, Werner Herzog

Before the impressive White Diamond came Werner Herzog’s 2003 documentary Wheel of Time, which I knew even less about, but unfortunately wasn’t quite as taken with it as I was with that film.  Wheel of Time is once again narrated by Herzog himself, taking us on a journey to through Asia to meet the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who at the time was suffering from rather poor health.  Herzog covers two ill-fated Kalachakra initiations, one in India, and the next in Austria, presided over by the sick Dalai Lama, as well as the pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in Tibet; considered by many religions to be a sacred place.

Wheel of Time unfortunately didn’t resonate with me the same way previous Herzog documentaries have done, and I can’t quite put my finger on why that is.  The subject material isn’t something I’m particularly interested in, but that hasn’t stopped me before.  I think the biggest reason for my disconnect is Werner Herzog himself, who is incredibly respectful in his chronicling of the ill Dalai Lama, Buddhist traditions, and the Buddhist people themselves.  Not that this respect is a bad thing in any way, but Herzog refrains from using his trademark dark and subtle humor throughout the film’s short run-time, instead opting to cover the events in a much more deadpan style.  Fortunately the visuals throughout the film are more than worth the price of admission, with several breathtaking moments being caught by Herzog’s sharp eye.  One of my favorite scenes featured Buddhist monks on their pilgrimage, giving money to the poor who remain unseen behind a large fence – with the exception of their arms.  Wheel of Time has a lot to say about Buddhism as a whole, and beautifully covers some important and notable ceremonies of the faith, but unfortunately it didn’t move me the way I wanted to.  I enjoyed my time with Wheel of Time, but none of it resonated with me in any way – unlike most of Werner Herzog’s documentary films.  Even though the film did not personally appeal to me, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t still a delight to watch, nor does it mean you won’t get anything out of it.  If you’re interested in Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, give this a shot.  Recommended.

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Elephant (2003)

ImageElephant (2003)

Director: Gus Van Sant

Writer: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson

Runtime: 81 minutes

Rating: 72% Fresh

Views: 1st Viewing

Gus Van Sant’s second entry into his “Death Trilogy” (which also includes 2002’s Gerry and 2005’s Last Days) has been a controversial film since its initial release in 2003 and its Palme d’Or and Best Director wins at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.  Elephant was a truly relevant film upon it’s release, coming just four short years after the Columbine High School massacre, and just one year after Michael Moore’s controversial Bowling for Columbine documentary.  Elephant is about a school shooting at its very core, but there’s much more to it than just a school shooting.  Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) are two high school students who one day decide to shoot up the school, with targets including the “jock” kids, and their principal.  Along the way, Gus Van Sant’s camera is never not moving, and we follow the lives of a regular day in a pretty regular high school (even if nobody seems to go to class in this school, as everybody just kind of roams around the halls throughout the film).

Gus Van Sant’s roaming camera during the first half of the film is incredibly beautiful, giving the audience an idea of what a regular day at this high school feels like.  None of these young teens have any way of knowing about the horrible events that are going to happen to them in a few short hours, and it makes this film (and the reality of shootings like Columbine) seem even more tragic.  As far as filmmaking goes, Elephant is a fascinating and incredibly well-structured film.  The school shooting scenes are over as quickly as they begin, and are never once easy to watch.  Van Sant follows the two shooters with as much care and thoughtfulness as did while following the lives of the students during the first half of the film.  The cast is mostly made up of non-actors, and the realism of these performances really comes through while watch the film, adding that much more to the experience.

Elephant is an incredibly troubled film when you really dig deep into its themes and motivations.  Van Sant never delves into why Alex and Eric decide to shoot the school up, other than showing us some fairly minor bullying at the beginning of the film.  Elephant isn’t about giving us the answers, and one can definitely understand why the answers aren’t provided.  We still don’t Imageunderstand why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacred their Colorado school in 1999, and we probably never will, which is why this works within the film.  The trouble with Elephant lies in the symbolism and some of the more subtle imagery Van Sant paints as Elephant wears on.  The first time we see Alex and Eric together, one of the them is playing a mindless first-person shooter video game on his computer, giving the indication that perhaps violence in the media is to be blamed for this.  In a scene soon after where the two boys are unpacking their brand new weapons, a documentary about the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini is playing in the background.  A lot of these things would feel like cute satire in most films, but Van Sant’s direction makes them feel unflinchingly serious in these scenes, to the point of distraction.  The point of all this is that Elephant is both heavy-handed and disconnected at the same time, and it simply doesn’t work.  I can’t recommend Elephant to anybody, unless they’re interested in truly great technical filmmaking.  It’s far too heavy-handed and flawed for me to look past, and I really expected more from a director and writer like Gus Van Sant.  6/10.

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Dogville (2003)

ImageDogville (2003)

Director: Lars von Trier

Writer: Lars von Trier

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, James Caan, Philip Baker Hall, John Hurt

Runtime: 178 minutes

Rating: 70% Fresh

Views: 1st Viewing

Wow.  I can’t say that I went into Dogville knowing what to expect, but I left the film with an odd sense of joy, despite what the film is actually about.  Dogville is a very new, fresh, experimental film that will turn away many viewers simply because of how different it really is.  The brilliance of Lars von Trier’s writing shines throughout the film, and shows that his vision isn’t just a cute gimmick.  Dogville is a minimalist film shot on a soundstage, with little-to-no sets to speak of.  There are a few doors, there are a few windows, but that’s all that makes up the small town of the same name.  The sets are traced on the stage, creating something even more unique and minimal than a stage play.

Dogville is about Grace Margaret Mulligan (played wonderfully by Nicole Kidman), and the titular town she runs to in order to hide from gangsters who are pursuing her.  She is first greeted by Tom (Paul Bettany), who proceeds to show her around the town and to introduce her to its Imagevarious occupants.  The townsfolk eventually decide to vote on whether or not they should harbour Grace in their peaceful village.  Grace is given a two-week trial period in which she is to help each household with various everyday tasks, and to try to win over the reluctant settlers.  After a unanimously positive vote, Grace is allowed to stay in the town and continues working for each household.  She soon comes to find out that Dogville’s inhabitants may be more sinister than she initially suspected, and must find a way to leave the town.

Lars von Trier’s unique and visionary film is unlike anything ever captured on celluloid (or digital, in this case).  It features a cast full of famous faces including the legendary Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Philip Baker Hall, John Hurt as the narrator of the story, Chloe Sivigny, and Stellan Skarsgard.  The large cast of odd characters in the film interact perfectly with each other, with ImageNicole Kidman’s Grace, and with the unique set they’re giving to work with.  von Trier never makes the lack of sets or unique storytelling seem like a gimmick, and that is a massive benefit to the film.  The increasingly dark and disturbing script is told in 9 chapters (with a prologue), through a near 3-hour runtime, but Dogville never once seems overly-long.  John Hurt’s narration is brilliant, and never feels intrusive as narration sometimes can.  The direction, amazing cinematography (especially for what the film actually has to work with), and incredible ensemble cast makes Dogville a truly unique and unforgettable film, and one that I recommend to anybody who thinks they’ve seen it all in the world of film.  9/10.


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Angels in America (2003)


Angels in America (2003)

Directed: Mike Nichols

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Justin Kirk, Ben Shankman

Runtime: 352 minutes

Ah, my very first review for Matt’s Life in Film…No pressure or anything, of course!

I remember as a child watching Canada’s “The Movie Network” day and night, taking in any and all films that looked even remotely interesting to me.  I vividly remember seeing advertisements for HBO’s new mini-series, Angels in America.  Based on the previews, it looked like something a boy my age might enjoy (there were Angels, cool looking special effects, and a lot of drama.  What else do you need!?), but unfortunately Angels always played for too late for a 12-year-old boy to watch.  In many ways, I’m glad that this week marked my first viewing of the series.  As much as I may have enjoy parts of it as a kid, there’s no way I would have been able to grasp most of what the film challenges its audience with, or appreciate some of the great performances and moments within Angels in America.

The year is 1985, and the AIDS epidemic is in full-swing.  We follow Mormon and Republican law clerk, Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), his boss, the much maligned Roy Cohn (played brilliantly by Al Pacino), and Joe’s Valium addicted wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker) on one side of the story.  We come to find out early in the story that Roy Cohn has been infected with the AIDS virus, though he lies about it to his colleagues in order to preserve his position of power in the United States Department of Justice.  Joe and Harper Pitt are living in a loveless, sexless marriage, and both parties are unhappy with where their lives have led them.  Harper is made anxious by affection and many other everyday activities, and relies heavily on Valium to lift her spirits, and Joe is in the closet due to his religious views.

On the other side of things are Prior (Justin Kirk) and his lover Louis (Ben Shankman).  Prior has also been infected by the virus, and is quickly abandoned by his long-time partner because Louis is simply unable to handle it.  As Prior is slowly dying in the hospital, Louis is ravaged by feelings of guilt and confusion.  Prior is visited in dreams by an angel (Emma Thompson), who commands him to choose death and become a prophet in the afterlife.  Joe Pitt’s mother Hannah (Meryl Streep) and Prior’s former lover Belize (Jeffrey Wright) help Prior to decide between life or death, and Louis soon becomes involved with Joe Pitt.

Even after all of that is said and done, there’s a lot more to Angels in America than one person can describe with words.  As cliched as it sounds, this mini-series is something that has to be experienced to be believed.  It’s a beautiful period-piece, and captures its time period a  lot more accurately than I expected it to.  Playwright Tony Kushner (Academy Award nominated writer of 2012’s “Lincoln”) penned the amazing and intricate script for Angels, lending it immediate credibility.  Though AiA runs for six hours, there are very few parts of the story that drag or don’t work in the context of the film, and I was never bored or confused by what was going on within this world.  It was completely believable, and incredibly well-acted by most of the cast, including amazing performances by the legendary Al Pacino, newcomer Patrick Wilson, and Ben Shankman.  The one performance that just didn’t work for me, and the biggest flaw of the film in my eyes, was that of Mary-Louis Parker, who played Hannah Pitt.  While she is competent in some of her pivotal scenes, her line delivery never seems believable, making her monologues a bit of a chore to get through.  Not only does Angels in America feature an amazing writer and cast, but it was also directed by Mike Nichols, director of films like “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, who definitely does the film justice with his years of directing experience.

This is a beautifully made film in every respect, and one that I’m glad I finally caught up with.  I highly recommend it to anybody with the patience to sit through six-hours of incredible dialogue,  moments that will stick with you long after the film ends, and incredible acting, writing, and direction.  9/10.

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