Tag Archives: 2005

Top 100 Films #20 – Grizzly Man (2005)

 

11#20. Grizzly Man (2005)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Written by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Werner Herzog

Grizzly Man is the fourth and final documentary on my top 100 films list. Werner Herzog’s intimate and disturbing look at the life and death of the controversial Timothy Treadwell was one of the films that introduced me to the power of documentaries, and is an experience that I will never be able to forget. Grizzly Man is composed of videos captured by Timothy Treadwell, a nature and bear enthusiast who spent a great deal of time camping in Katmai National Park in order to capture footage of grizzly bears.  Treadwell claimed that he was a “protector” of the bears, warding off poachers while forming strong relationships with the unpredictable animals.  Interspersed throughout are interviews with family and friends of Treadwell, as well as those who encountered Timothy along the way on his adventures.  Treadwell is painted as a deeply caring but reckless man whose trust in the grizzly bears eventually cost him his life.  Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is a masterpiece in terms of editing and story structure, combining hundreds of hours of tape into a film that clocks in at less than two hours.  Herzog’s attitude towards Treadwell is made clear from the onset of the project – the director is fascinated by the bear-enthusiast, but also deeply disturbed by his point of view and actions. Despite this, Herzog constructs a beautiful and often endearing portrait of Timothy Treadwell, never straying into exploitative territory like some documentarians would have done.  Treadwell consistently proves to be a fascinating and complex character, making Grizzly Man a powerful and moving character study.  It never shies away from Timothy’s obsessive and naive character traits, but also never punishes him for these things. The footage that Treadwell managed to capture during his camping trips is stunning, with bears and other animals making regular appearances in the background and foreground – Timothy even approaches the bears confidently on multiple occasions.  Herzog notes that he admires Treadwell as a filmmaker, as his talents are clear.  As always, Werner Herzog adds a sense of pitch black humor to the project through the use of deadpan narration, helping the story flow along at a quick pace.  Grizzly Man is a profound and moving experience the likes of which only comes around once in a lifetime.  No matter what your opinion of Timothy Treadwell, I implore you to see Grizzly Man.  

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Top 100 Films #91 – Brokeback Mountain (2005)

 

mgid-ao-image-mtv#91. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana (based on Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx)
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams

2005 was a landmark year in Hollywood for the LGBT community – featuring at least three critically acclaimed and financially successful films exploring themes of homosexuality and transgenderism in Capote, Transamerica, and Brokeback Mountain.  Ang Lee’s massively successful film starring the late Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two young cowboys who become engaged in a complicated and controversial love affair.  Brokeback Mountain broke both hearts and barriers in 2005, drumming up nearly universal critical acclaim, earning over $170 million at the box office, and racking up eight Academy Award nominations in the process.  While it was certainly controversial for a notable Hollywood film to explore homosexuality so bluntly, Ang Lee and writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana did so with the utmost sincerity and respect for the subject matter. The film features incredible performances from relatively fresh actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal – both of whom manage to convey the story’s emotional weight and importance without skipping a beat.  Supporting the performances of the leading men are terrific turns from Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, who never once let their male counterparts outperform them without a heck of a fight.  Brokeback Mountain is a truly important, beautiful, and heartbreaking film, and one that I think deserves a hell of a lot more respect than it has received since its initial release.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #1 – The War of the Worlds (1953)

Film1953-TheWarOfTheWorlds-OriginalPosterThe War of the Worlds (1953)
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Written by: Barre Lyndon (based on The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells)
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Sir Cedric Hardwicke

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is one of the most famous science fiction stories of all-time, largely in part to how many times the story has been adapted and improved upon.  The classic novel led to Orson Welles’ infamous panic-inducing radio drama, which would originally lead to a big screen adaptation of the novel, and that film led to countless remakes.  The original film version differs greatly from the novel, mainly by setting it in modern America, rather than the Victorian England setting of the Wells story.  The film instead takes place after the first two World Wars, which saw humans banding together to defeat a common enemy, a theme that becomes important in the film version.  The War of the Worlds was directed by former special effects artist Byron Haskin, and it would go on to be the biggest success of his long career.  Haskin teamed up with his friend and producer George Pal, making it one of the many successful projects the two underwent together.  The special effects experience and knowledge held by the film’s director would lead to an Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects, and would cement the film’s legacy as a special effects marvel.  The film stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, both of whom had successful careers as television actors, and would both later appear in cameo roles in Steven Spielberg’s modern take on the story.  The War of the Worlds was a massive financial success, becoming the highest grossing sci-fi film of 1953, and spawning a great deal of imitators in the years to follow.  The tremendous success and influence of the original film has been mostly overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s highly successful (and arguably much better) 2005 reimagining of the story.  Today, Byron Haksin’s The War of the Worlds sits in the National Film Registry, and is looked back upon fondly by historians for pushing the boundaries of the genre.

The War of the Worlds begins with a montage of Earth’s first two World Wars, with a narrator remarking how much technology has rapidly advanced throughout these decades.  The narrator then gives us a quick explanation of the harsh conditions on Mars, and explains the motivations for its inhabitants wanting to scout the planet Earth for eventual relocation of the remaining Martians.  We meet a scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), just as a large meteor-like object is touching down on Earth.  Dr. Forrester and his troupe go to investigate the crash site, where he meets Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) and others.  Later that evening, after most of the crowd has called it a day, the “meteor” opens up and the inhabitants found within kill all those in the area of impact.  All technology in the town is disabled by the invading Martians after an EMP is set off, causing the United States military to investigate the invaders.  Reports from all around the world are soon received with similar stories, meaning that the invaders are here to conquer.  After an attempted peace offering, the Martians destroy the military’s best with little effort and move on to the next town.  Dr. Forrester and Sylvia take shelter in an old farmhouse, where the two fall in love.  After a close encounter with the invaders, the two manage to steal a sample of alien DNA and escape to the relative safety of Dr. Forrester’s Pacific Tech.  When they are, the doctor, Sylvia, and their fellow survivors and military officials begin to develop weapons of mass destruction in order to take down the seemingly indestructible Martian ships.  Can humankind overcome the impossible odds stacked against them, or will the Martian invaders squash human beings from existence?  Find out in the iconic 1953 film The War of the Worlds!

48d83f56a3dfddacd734b82d8b03ab21

Ann Robinson and Gene Barry, stars of The War of the Worlds.

I was thirteen when I saw Steven Spielberg’s epic reimagining of The War of the Worlds, and it instantly became one of my favorite films as an adolescent. While I don’t look back on it with the same fondness I once did, the film inspired me to read H.G. Wells’ terrific novel, and launched my love for all things science fiction.  It took me a decade to finally get around to seeing the original film, and I can definitely see why 1953’s The War of the Worlds was so influential on the genre.  While I can’t say that I’m in love with the film by any means, I also can’t deny the fact that this is a very fun, very fast moving action sci-fi flick.  Its groundbreaking use of special effects haven’t aged well, but they’re still incredibly charming today in all of their faults.  The heat ray weapon used by the Martians is still really effective, even if the actual effect looks completely silly with actors just kind of disappearing.  The effect used in Spielberg’s film where those affected by the weapon “disintegrate” into dust doesn’t look great today either, so it’s clearly a case of the effect being hard to realize visually.  Despite the charming goofiness of the heat rays and the actual snake-like alien ships, the design of the aliens themselves is quite creepy and definitely adds to their presence.  Of course, it helps that we very rarely see the creatures through the film’s last half, adding to the uneasiness felt by their presence.  Aside from some obviously dated effects, The War of the Worlds features consistently flat and unremarkable direction from Byron Haskin.  While the Martians feel like a threat throughout, it has almost nothing to do with Haskin’s steady and lazy direction.  Haskin’s direction doesn’t do much to detract from the overall film, but it does absolutely nothing to add to it.  The direction brings the film down from what could have been incredible heights, making it instead feel like what it is: a pretty good science fiction film that was ahead of its time in terms of visual effects.  On top of unremarkable direction, the lead performances in The War of the Worlds are nothing to write home about.  Both Gene Barry and Ann Robinson do an admirable job of being likeable protagonists, but they never quite go into the territory that Spielberg brought Tom Cruise’s multi-layered loser father character to.  While this isn’t exactly a quiet character study, the lack of any sort of depth or development certainly doesn’t help the film’s case.  Luckily for science fiction fans, The War of the Worlds still feels significant because of its ridiculously fast pacing.  It never pauses for too long, never focuses on insignificant side stories or characters, but instead gives it to us straight.  At the end of the day, isn’t that what everybody wants from a cheesy, fun sci-fi flick?

war-of-the-worlds4

The iconic Martian spaceship design from 1953’s The War of the Worlds.

Overall, The War of the Worlds isn’t a great film.  I’m not even completely convinced that it’s a really good film, to be honest.  What we have here though is an incredibly charming and fun (albeit goofy) thrill ride.  While the special effects may seem dated to most today, they do the trick in getting the audience engaged enough to buy into the fantastic story at hand.  The direction and acting may be completely ordinary, but that doesn’t hinder The War of the Worlds the same way it would completely destroy most films.  If you want a fun piece of American history to digest after something with a little more weight like Spielberg’s 2005 film, this might be your ticket.  It may not wow you like it did for audiences in 1953, but it’s a hell of a good time.  The War of the Worlds is cautiously recommended.

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My 20 Favorite Documentaries of All-Time (#5-1)

Americanmovie5. American Movie (1999)

Directed by: Chris Smith

Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank

“Coven sounds like oven, man…and that just doesn’t work” – 1999’s Sundance Film Festival darling American Movie has it all, it’s hilarious, touching, and weirdly inspirational for what is essentially one of the weirdest “making of” documentaries ever made.  The film follows young Mark Borchardt, an aspiring film director looking to make two films, a short horror film Coven and a slice-of-life indie called Northwestern, both of which have been passion projects of his for years, and his many blunders along the way.  Mark, our star, is easily one of the most lovably odd characters in documentary film history, rivalling only Grey Gardens’ Big and Little Edie.  Mark’s desire to see his film Coven to the very end, despite having no experience in the filmmaking world and encountering plenty of roadblocks along the way, is truly inspirational for anybody passionate about creating anything artistic.  Everybody can relate to the story being told in American Movie, despite how quirky and over-the-top some of its small town characters may be.  The absolute highlights of American Movie include any scene with Mark and his best friend Mike Schank, who delivers some of the funniest lines in any documentary film I’ve ever seen.  Mark and Mike have such a wonderful on-screen chemistry together, at the end of the movie’s short run-time you’ll be begging for much, much more.  I don’t want to say too much about American Movie, because I really do think that it’s a film absolutely everybody should see and enjoy.  If you’re passionate about creating anything in your life and love hilariously quirky small-town folk, American Movie is absolutely the film for you.  


4. Hoop Dreams (1994)Hoop_dreamsposter

Directed by: Steve James

Starring: William Gates, Arthur Agee

On a far more real, less silly note, Steve James’ remarkable and highly-acclaimed Hoop Dreams is everything that American Movie isn’t.  While Hoop Dreams can still be seen as inspirational and uplifting to many, Steve James’ documentary is a much more bleak story about following your dreams, but not always arriving to the conclusion you’d like to see.  Hoop Dreams is seen by many critics as being one of the greatest documentaries of the modern era, highlighting major social issues in a touching, interesting, and subtle way.  The documentary follows young basketball hopefuls William Gates and Arthur Agee, both of whom are scouted and subsequently recruited from St. Joseph High School in Illinois.  Both Gates and Agee struggle with keeping their grades up to par while also training for and playing basketball, as well as face the many struggles of being young lower-class African-Americans in a predominantly white area.  We watch these two young athletes overcome injuries, find work and try to hone their skills in one of the most highly-competitive sports in America, and try to overcome adversities like race, social class, and lack of economic and educational support.  Hoop Dreams is a terrific film that absolutely lives up to its tremendous reputation, but isn’t always easy to watch because of the hardships these talented kids face.  Despite its length (nearly 2 ½ hours), Hoop Dreams flies by and is a very smooth watch, largely in part to its editing which earned the film its sole Academy Award nomination.  If you’re at all interested in sports or stories of people trying to overcome social class and other hugely important issues, seek out Hoop Dreams immediately.  Not only is it an incredibly well-made documentary, but it’s also one of the most important films of its kind.  Hoop Dreams is available on blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.


When_We_Were_Kings_DVD_Cover_art3. When We Were Kings (1996)

Directed by: Leon Gast

Starring: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King

“Ali Bomaye!” – When We Were Kings is almost universally considered to be one of the all-time greatest sports documentaries ever made, and in my opinion it absolutely lives up to that terrific reputation.  While never as serious or eye-opening as Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings is a tremendously entertaining film that documents one of boxing’s greatest upset victories, as well as a cultural phenomenon of the time.  The Oscar-winning documentary tells the incredible story of 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle”, where grizzled boxing veteran Muhammad Ali took on the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, George Foreman.  Despite the big game Muhammad Ali talked in the lead-up to his fight with Foreman, the world had already written the bout off as being an easy Foreman win.  What followed would shock the boxing world, and go down as one of the most important and iconic fights of all-time.  When We Were Kings shows how the fight in Zaire, Africa (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) became a hugely important event in the sports world and in pop culture, featuring performances by singers James Brown and B.B. King, and shows Muhammad Ali and his trash-talking of his intimidating and talented opponent George Foreman in all its glory.  The film features interviews with many officials involved in the fight, and other admirers of the iconic match, including writer Norman Mailer and filmmaker Spike Lee.  When We Were Kings is an incredibly entertaining and thrilling account of one hell of an underdog story, and is a documentary I quote and think of very often.


2. Waltz with Bashir (2008)Waltz_with_Bashir_Poster

Directed by: Ari Folman

Starring: Ari Folman, Miki Leon

Ari Folman’s incredible war documentary Waltz with Bashir is without a doubt the most unique film on my top 20 list, as it is entirely told through animation.  The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film after missing the boat on being entered into the documentary category, something which very rarely happens for a documentary film.  Ari Folman’s highly-acclaimed and tremendously important Waltz with Bashir tells the story of the director’s own time in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1980’s, specifically his experiences in the Lebanon War.  Folman travels to meet a friend from his time serving in the military, who reveals that he has been experiencing nightmares and flashbacks connected to their experience in the war.  Folman, unable to recount specifics from his time serving in the forces, seeks out former friends and colleagues who help him piece the events together through anecdotes recreated in animated segments. Many of the events recalled in Waltz with Bashir are horrific and very difficult to watch at times, but this is helped by opting to animate the events as they happen.  The animation is absolutely stunning and unique in its vision, and helps to tell a story that would otherwise be impossible to recount in a live-action documentary film.  Though Folman’s movie can be very difficult to watch, this is exactly what makes it such an important work, as it tells horrific stories of a war that the world needed to hear about.  The film touches on important themes and social issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specifically for those involved in the special forces.  Though the film’s subject matter and nightmarish sequences may be difficult to swallow for some, Waltz with Bashir is a must-see film and one of the most important documentaries of our time.  Ari Folman’s doc is available in both its original Hebrew-language and a dubbed English-version of the film, both of which come highly recommended.


Grizzly_man_ver21. Grizzly Man (2005)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog

Here it is, folks.  The greatest documentary ever made, and personally one of my all-time favorite films period.  Werner Herzog’s incredible film Grizzly Man is incomparable, and works in a way that I can hardly even describe.  The film tells the tragic story of eccentric nature-enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, who spends his Summer’s in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, living with grizzly bears, getting to know them, interacting with them, documenting them with his video camera, and warding off alleged “poachers”.  We are treated to many stunning videos of Timothy Treadwell approaching massive man-eating bears without so much as a second thought, chasing adorable foxes, hiking, and making hilarious observations while going about his regular schedule in the Preserve.  The highlight of Herzog’s film comes when a young fox steals Tim’s hat, and he is forced to give chase, swearing and yelling for the fox to return his hat.  While many may think that Treadwell, our main character in Grizzly Man, was reckless in his comfort with the bears and that he deserved what eventually came to him, I see Timothy as a hopelessly romantic, tragic character.  Timothy Treadwell spent thirteen years of his life pursuing something he adored, and never backing away no matter how terrifying or trying things got, and there’s just something so absolutely romantic and admirable about that. Werner Herzog treats his subject with the utmost respect, while also questioning the logic and motive behind some of Treadwell’s questionable actions and decisions.  If you know anything about the titular “grizzly man”, you know that this story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending.  Despite knowing the conclusion from the get-go, this film keeps you guessing what the fate of Tim Treadwell will be, and does everything in its power to hold the attention of its audience.  This is a story of how dangerous and beautiful nature is, and the fine-line humans tread between respecting that danger and underestimating it.  Grizzly Man features breathtaking scenes, an absolutely stranger than fiction story, and is guaranteed to either infuriate or bring you to tears.  I think it’s a crime that Herzog’s Grizzly Man has not been seen by more people, and I recommend you seek it out immediately if you haven’t already seen this incredible film.  


Part 1 (#20-#16) can be viewed here

Part 2 (#15-#11) can be viewed here

Part 3 (#10-#6) can be viewed here

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Doctober Feature #5: Alex Gibney Triple Feature – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008), and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

I’ve seen Alex Gibney be called the “Ron Howard of documentary filmmaking” on numerous occasions over the last few years, with the release of popular and acclaimed docs like The Armstrong Lie (2013), We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013), and his latest Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). This title refers to the prolific nature of both filmmakers, and the inevitability of occasional dips in quality and inconsistency.  Both Gibney and Howard have masterpieces and hugely popular films, but both men have also rushed projects or been overly ambitious, resulting in occasionally light, fluffy, or sloppy films being made.  With this said, Gibney is still easily one of the best, most unique voices in the game, and one of the best documentary filmmakers of the 21st century so far.  His films have made a tremendous impact on the documentary world, and on the cultural zeitgeist of our time.  No matter what the reaction to Gibney’s project are, I’m always excited to check out anything with his named attached to it.


SmartestguysintheroomEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Peter Coyote, Andrew Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth Lay, Gray Davis

Alex Gibney’s first major breakthrough in the world of documentary films came with his 2005 film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  The film made Gibney famous because of how concise it was, giving audiences an overview of Enron as a company, what went wrong, and who exactly was response for the downfall of a company many thought was too big to fail.  Not only is the film concise in its delivery of information, but it manages to be incredibly entertaining (especially for the subject matter) and in the process pulls no punches.  Gibney’s voice as a documentarian was born with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, quickly making him a commodity in the world of film, and earning him his very first Academy Award nomination.  Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room gives a profile on Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and the rest of those responsible for the goings-on within the Enron Corporation, a major American energy company through the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  The film covers the stock market bluffs, the controversial ‘rank and yank’ firing system used by the company, the manic CEO’s and executives, misreporting of finances, and Enron’s role in the California energy crisis.  No stone goes unturned, and nobody involved in the quick downfall of the company is safe from the film’s scrutiny.  

In less than two hours, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room manages to deliver more shocking facts, interviews, and entertainment than most modern documentaries could ever hope to do.  The film is edited very sharply, never pausing for too long on any particular subject, but never simply glossing over major moments or figures.  Even those with no prior knowledge of the Enron Corporation or the energy industry of 1990’s America will easily be able to keep up with the film and get a lot out of it.  The music, interviews, video clips, and photographs used throughout the film help move the narrative along, and give you an accurate picture of the times and what was going on at Enron at any given time.  Audio recordings and first-hand accounts of what was going on in and outside of the corporation are riveting, shocking, and incredibly revealing.  Alex Gibney’s Oscar-nominated film does everything it aims to do, and it does it in a very natural, painless way.  When the film’s end credits roll, you will be left infuriated at what took place within the company, and what could have been had such rampant and epic corruption taken place.  In short, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room will move you in ways that you’ll never expect, and have you coming back for more.  This film is highly recommended to all, no matter how interested you may be in the subject matter.


Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)Gonzoposter

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp

Coming just one year after Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson became Gibney’s first major production to tackle just one single subject. Gonzo tells the story of rock star journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson, specifically detailing the years between 1965-1975.  It was during this time that Thompson became a cultural icon for his writings on the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, the hippy movement and counterculture of the late-1960’s, his hatred for US President Richard Nixon, his backing of Democratic nominee George McGovern, the birth of “gonzo” journalism and the publishing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gibney’s film paints a detailed picture of the time period and features a tremendous amount of interviews by those close to the writer, who help give accounts and paint what kind of person Thompson was.  We hear stories of his rampant alcoholism and battle with drug addiction, his thoughts on American politics and culture of the time, original music by Thompson himself, his infatuation with fame and fortune, and the events and mood leading to his suicide years later.

If you’re like me and know next-to-nothing about Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson may not be the most effective place to start learning about the cult writer and cultural icon.  Though the film is fun to watch unfold due to the chaotic nature of its editing and use of music and sound, the loving interviews, the terrific narration by Johnny Depp, and the amount of archival footage and recordings of Hunter S. Thompson himself, when it ended I felt nothing at all.  This nothingness is the worst possible feeling after watching a clearly lovingly crafted and well-made documentary for two hours.  I felt as if I learned nothing about who Hunter S. Thompson was as a person, what shaped him and influenced him as a writer, what fueled the fires that led to his passionate views, and what lead to his reliance on drugs and alcohol, how it affected his day-to-day life, and how it led to his eventual suicide.  Instead, I was taken on a journey detailing Hunter’s drug-use, his support and hatred for politicians of the era, and the zany adventures that inspired his famous musings, articles, and books.  Unfortunately, none of these topics were particularly interesting to me, as they had no real impact due to my not understanding Hunter S. Thompson as a person.  I appreciated many aspects of Gibney’s Gonzo, but was left cold and terribly disappointed in the end.  I wish I didn’t have to say it, but Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is the biggest disappointed of Doctober 2015 thus far, and is a project that had an incredible amount of potential.  For those interested in an introduction to the subject or Alex Gibney completionists, it’s mildly recommended, but made no real impact on me.


Taxi_to_the_dark_sideTaxi to the Dark Side (2007)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Dilawar

Taxi to the Dark Side is Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-winning documentary, released in 2007 and playing an important role in the discussion of America’s use of torture methods to get information out of international terrorist suspects.  The film made Alex Gibney a name to watch in the game, coming just two years after his highly successful Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  Those two films, coupled with the Academy Award win cemented Gibney’s status as one of the most important documentarian’s of the decade, and has resulted in him directed more than a dozen documentaries since their release.  Taxi to the Dark Side tells the tragic story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver, who was detained by the forces in Afghanistan, and ended up being found dead less than one week later.  The death – and others like it – was later investigated and ended up producing truly shocking, disgusting information about the use of assault, sensory deprivation, and humiliation.  Taxi to the Dark Side exposes the soldiers and officials who are to blame for the senseless killings of prisoners, and delves into the controversial methods employed by American special forces in the “War on Terror”.  Officers and soldiers who were stationed in the Afghanistan and played a role in the killing of Dilawar and other prisoners are interviewed by Gibney, with many of them giving honest accounts and admitting to their roles.

There’s no wonder Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary so soon into his directing career, with films like this and Enron exposing the horrible things humans are capable of when there is lack of oversight or effective leadership in place.  Taxi to the Dark Side genuinely shocked me with its accounts of torture, inefficiency in the foreign prison system, and the photos coupled with true reports and accounts of the incidents.  Gibney and the officers tell horrifying stories of sleep and sensory deprivation through the use of music and noise (dogs barking, screaming, etc.), alternating heat and cold, and extreme sexual humiliation.  Other accounts tell of officers destroying the legs of a prisoner by repeating kneeing and kicking, and how many officers saw humor in what they were doing.  Not only does Gibney confront and expose those directly involved in the senseless killings, but also the government officials in the Bush administration who supported and saw the necessity of torture of suspected terrorists.  Even though he may be inconsistent at the best of times, Alex Gibney knows how to put a documentary together concisely, giving the important information – but never spoon-feeding the audience.  The film runs at a smooth pace, and never pulls any punches about its subject.  The accounts are incredibly in-depth, and as a result are never easy to listen to or watch unfold.  This is what makes Gibney’s Oscar-winner such an important piece of work, and what makes it a terrific and revealing film.  Without filmmakers like Gibney who are willing to expose incidents and those responsible for these incidents, then the world would be oblivious to these needless tragedies.  This is a documentary that you need to see, whether or not you agree with the idea of torture to obtain information. Taxi to the Dark Side comes highly recommended, and might be Gibney’s masterpiece.

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Last Days (2005)

ImageLast Days (2005)

Director: Gus Van Sant

Writer: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento

Runtime: 97 minutes

Rating: 57% Fresh

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Last Days was Gus Van Sant’s last (and most puzzling) entry into his “Death trilogy“, following Gerry and the Palme d’Or winner ElephantLast Days is a semi-true story that follows the last few days in the life of a Kurt Cobain-esque rock star.  In reality, Gus Van Sant and Cobain’s widow Courtney Love had decided that making an actual biopic about the Nirvana frontman would be far too painful for Kurt’s family and widow.  Van Sant decided instead to make the film semi-autobiographical, and mostly fictionalized (though, the similarities are most definitely there).  We follow Blake (Michael Pitt) as he stumbles through the woods one early morning, mumbling to himself and seeming generally disconnected from reality and from himself.  Blake eventually makes his way to a mansion (presumably his), where he creeps around the house and discovers that his bandmates and friends are all crashing at the house, as per usual.  Blake has an interaction with a door-to-door Yellowpages representative, and later tries secluding himself from his friends in his own home.  After attempting to help a bandmate with a new song, going to a club late at night, and playing one last song in the woods, the rockstar’s body is found by a worker early the next morning.

Gus Van Sant’s Last Days is a very curious film, and one can’t help but think that this was a huge missed opportunity for the filmmaker, and for a Kurt Cobain bio-pic.  We spend almost the entire film following a wordless Blake around the woods, around his dilapidated (or nearly) mansion, and then around a club.  The director’s camera is fluid and incredible to watch follow characters as they live out their everyday lives (as with his previous film, Elephant), but it simply drags on for much longer than it should.  The movie almost seems directionless at some points, and at 97 minutes long is a chore to get through because of these long periods of time where literally nothing happens.

Michael Pitt’s Blake looks the part of Kurt Cobain, and for what he’s given to work with seems to do a phenomenal job portraying a rockstar with the whole world behind him.  Much like Kurt ImageCobain, this is a broken, hurt man who just doesn’t want or know what to do with the superstardom that he has unfortunately acquired.  Last Days doesn’t seem to fit in with the Death trilogy, simply because it seems even more disconnected that the previous two films (where Gerry was easily the standout).  The very end of the film is what kills any attempt to take Last Days seriously as a piece of art.  We see Blake’s soul climb out of his body, and climb up to the “nirvana” above him.  It feels tacked on, and far too heavy-handed, which fits in perfectly with Elephant.  Overall, Last Days is a curious film, but unfortunately not a good one.  A definite miss for Van Sant, who many people claim to be a great modern filmmaker.  5/10.

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Munich (2005)

ImageMunich (2005)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Tony Kushner, Eric Roth

Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush

Runtime: 164 minutes

Rating: 78% Fresh

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 effort Munich revolves around the events that took place at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany.  During the events, a Palestinian terror cell known as Black September took eleven Israeli athletes hostage, eventually killing them as well as a German police officer.  This is where our main character Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) comes into play.  He is hand-picked as the leader of an elite assassination squad whose mission is simple: Track down and kill those responsible for the Black September killings.

Spielberg’s 160+ minute film seems like more of a passion project for the legendary director than some of his latest efforts, and it really benefits the film.  This is a Spielberg the likes of which we’ve never seen before.  Munich is dark, violent, bleak, and gives the audience very little to chew on in the way of clear-cut answers.  Looking at Spielberg’s filmography up to this point, there’s almost literally nothing one can compare Munich to, which is part of what makes this film so special.  There’s a scene in the film where the crew raids a compound where three of the targets are hidden.  The scene is incredibly to the point, and easily one of the bloodiest and most gruesome scenes ever to be found in a Steven Spielberg film.  Tony Kushner’s incredible script and John Williams’ noticeably darker score only adds to the atmosphere, really stressing the bleakness of the film.

The cast includes of host of familiar faces, including Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, and Geoffrey Rush which sounds like the most unlikely cast ever assembled, but they /really/ work effective in this case.  Bana in particular shines in the lead role, and is never painted as some sort of hero, because he simply isn’t one.  One of the coolest parts of this film is that the crew uses an assortment of inventive execution methods, which all have varying results.  These weapons only further the fact that these men aren’t heroes, rather a team simply doing their job the best they can.  The atmosphere in the film is incredible, using songs from the 1960’s and early 70’s and costumes of the era to make it really feel like 1972, something that can make or break a period piece.

There /were/ things that simply didn’t work within the film, however.  At one point, Bana’s assassination attempt on one of the targets is accidentally thwarted by a group of drunk American’s.  This had absolutely no place in a dark film like Munich, and really takes the audience out of the moment.  It doesn’t do anything to add to the suspense of the film, because the suspense is already there.  There’s also a moment where Bana is on the phone with his infant daughter, and both the direction and score start to feel more like a conventional Spielberg-ian film.  This certainly wasn’t a bad or even distracting scene, but it’s one that doesn’t have a place in this film.  Overall, I think I can safely say that Munich is easily one of the best Spielberg films I’ve ever seen (this coming from a fan of his work), and one of the best films of the 2000’s.  I highly recommend that everybody see Munich9.5/10.

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