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Column Fri Jan 23 2009
Waltz with Bashir, Inkheart, Outlander, Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains, Ice People and Killer Poet
Waltz with Bashir
Part documentary, part animated splendor, part fever dream, writer-director Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir (having just captured the Golden Globe in this category, it's probably the current frontrunner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) is a surreal, sometimes terrifying essay on the fragile nature of memory as related to times of war. Folman was in the Israeli Army in the early 1980s, during the first Lebanon War, and he had led a life believing that his recollections about that time in his life are solid and accurate. But when an old army buddy tells Folman about recurring nightmare he's had, the two men convince themselves that both the nightmare and other aspects of their waking and sleeping state are a reaction to a time during that war that neither of them can recall accurately, if at all. Folman's film collects testimony primarily from men he served with or who served in the Israeli Army at the same time in the same place as he did, and he tries to piece together this missing fragment of his life. For the most part, the conversations we hear between Folman and these other men are the actual taped conversations he had with them in doing research for this film, but rather than simply show us talking heads in the form of a traditional documentary, Folman and a team of animators have pieced together something far more captivating.
Created using an advanced form of Flash animation, Waltz with Bashir absolutely pulsates with life and energy. There's an unnerving, fluid quality to the work that is completely appropriate to a story whose focus is lost memory and bad dreams. Even discounting the recurring appearance of Folman's therapist in the film (who attempts to help him recount his lost memories), the film indeed feels like therapy, which is not entirely surprising considering that Folman was one of the original writers on the Israeli TV show that became HBO's fantastic "In Treatment."
It turns out that Folman's repressed memories have to do with a brutal Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which thousands of Palestinian refugees were butchered by Christian Phalangists. Although Folman knows neither he nor his army had nothing to do with these events directly, his army's and nation's inaction plague him a great deal. The film doesn't try to answer questions about how much the Israeli government knew or didn't know about the massacre ahead of time — he was a low-level army grunt, these issues were above him at the time — but things he saw before, during, and after the massacre have remained buried in his brain for 25 years. Waltz with Bashir is, above all other things, an antiwar statement, which makes what is going on in the Gaza Strip all the more reason to see the film as it reminds us that a nation's leaders do not speak for, or act on behalf of, its people in all instances. I interviewed Folman a couple months back, but I wonder what he would think of this current conflict Israel finds itself in. Actually, I don't wonder; I think I know what he'd think. In this film, Folman makes it clear he doesn't believe Israel committed any acts of violence during this shameful event, but he doesn't easily excuse the nation's role in the massacre either. Waltz with Bashir is the finest filmed statement against war the 21st century has yet to produce, and it manages to be so without being preachy or political, or putting the blame on any one party. Folman clearly believes that not taking a stance against war is the same as condoning it. Inaction is consent in his eyes, and he seems more ashamed of his actions during the massacre as anyone else's. This is quite simply a film you will never forget.
Waltz with Bashir opens today at the AMC Pipers Alley theater, but don't hold that against it. If you're as dead set against seeing anything at Pipers Alley, let me recommend you make a special trip north to the Century theaters in Evanston. That's where I'd go to watch this extraordinary work.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my interview with Waltz with Bashir writer-director Ali Folman.
Remember when Brendan Fraser used to act and didn't just make shitty, uninspired action-adventure movies? I have some vague recollection of those better times, but my memory of them is quickly fading. With three such hunks of junk under his belt in the last six months — Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and now Inkheart — I'm fearing the worst for an actor I used to genuinely love to watch in films such as Gods and Monsters, The Quiet American, Blast from the Past and With Honors. Hell, I'd even settle for another Monkeybone or Airheads. (I actually always loved Monkeybone, but I digress.) In Inkheart, Fraser plays rare book collector Mo Folchart who is traveling the world with his daughter, Meggie (Eliza Bennet, one of the charges in Nanny McPhee), in search of elusive titles for his collection. But Meggie suspects that, in fact, her father is searching the globe's bookstores for one title in particular, although she has no idea which one. Mo's wife, Resa, (Sienna Guillory) has been missing since Meggie was very young, and while he's allowed her to believe her mother abandoned them, the truth is far more complicated.
While in the Swiss Alps, Mo finds a novel called Inkheart in the nether regions of a tiny specialty bookstore. Suddenly his life turns upside down when a strange man named Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), who seems to have the ability to control fire, confronts him, calling him Silvertongue and demands that Folchart send him home. Mo and Meggie narrowly escape Dustfinger's fiery ways, and they land upon the doorstep of Mo's stuffy Aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren), another book collector. But it doesn't take long for Dustfinger to find them, and this time he's brought reinforcements in the form of bizarre-looking men with misshapen faces and writing across their features. They are the minions of the evil Capricorn (Andy Serkis), the villain from the "Inkheart" book who wants to abuse Mo's abilities as a Silvertongue, a person who can bring things (both living and inanimate) out of books by simply reading passages aloud. It's a great idea for a story, but in this film, all opportunities to bring these possibilities to life are squandered in the worst possible way. All anyone in this film wants is to either be sent back into the Inkheart world or bring back people from it — Mo's wife was transported into Inkheart, since everything that comes out of the book must be replaced by something from our world, or some horseshit like that.
The presence of Bettany, Mirren, Serkis and Jim Broadbent as the Inkheart author Fenoglio might lead you to believe that this film has something special, or at least above-average, to offer, and you'd be miserably wrong. There are elements here that are actually quite interesting and in a different movie might have made for something special. The idea of characters from all of these different works of classic literature in the same world is kind of cool. There are a couple sequences in Capricorn's castle where we see a stable filled with animals from various stories, including flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz and a ticking crocodile from Peter Pan. But then none of these elements are ever utilized in a satisfying way. And then it turns out that the author of Inkheart can simply rewrite passages to be read by Mo and change everything, including the endings of classic books. Think about the message that sends: If you don't like the great works of fiction, change them. I didn't know the film was about a screenwriting class. I grew increasingly frustrated with Inkheart and its changing rules and vanishing characters, who would be introduced early in the film and then go away from long stretches, only to return when the plot needs them. Fraser is giving one of his now-classic act-by-numbers performances. He couldn't care less about what he's saying or doing. He just knows he's in his third film in a row opposite a young actor, but it doesn't make him any more hip or happening or relevant. Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (co-writer on Robots and apparently the writer of the latest Spider-Man 4 script) has drawn some good ideas from Cornelia Funke's novel, but done nothing with it. And director Iain Softley (Backbeat, K-PAX, The Skeleton Key) seems incapable of directing a decent action sequence or bothering to spend just a little time developing these characters. I actually grew to hate this film the longer it stayed on screen. If it had been 10 minutes long, this might be a good review. But as it stands, the film is unbearable despite a strong start and one or two interesting characters... I liked the ferret or whatever that furry creature was. This is what I was reduced to watching Inkheart.
Where the hell did this movie come from? That was pretty much my reaction when the invite to a screening of Outlander dropped in my Inbox recently. Apparently, it came from the 2008 Cannes Film Festival last May and has been slowly creeping its way across the world toward the U.S. sine then. The film features real actors, clearly had some sort of budget, and has a story just wacky enough to pique my interest. Space man? Vikings? Killer alien creatures? Sign my ass up! Let's not get crazy, though. This movie is not a unbridled success, but it is a decent attempt to take an idea that sounds utterly ridiculous on paper and turn it into something somewhat thrilling. Outlander doesn't spare us all sorts of gruesome violence, superior hammy performances (with Ron Perlman and John Hurt in the cast, you'll get nothing less), and an almost unlimited supply of debauchery as only Hollywood Vikings can supply.
Director and co-writer Howard McCain (probably best known now as the scriptwriter of the current draft of Brett Ratner's Conan film) tells the story of Kainan (James Caviezel), an outer space man whose ship crash lands in a small lake in Norway. He is the sole survivor of the crash, which was caused by an alien beast known as a Moorwen sneaking on board and killing the rest of the crew. Using convenient technology that allow him to speak Viking (which sounds surprisingly like American-accented English), Kainan is captured by a tribe of Vikings living in the area. They think that he has massacred a nearby village, when it fact it was the Moorwen. We learn that the Moorwen also murdered Kainan's family back on his home planet (there's a part of me that wishes they'd just made Kainan a time-traveling human from the distant future after an alien attack of some sort). Eventually both the off-worlder (or "Outlander," as the Vikings call him) and the Vikings get their shit together and agree to slay the Moorwen together.
Although Kainan drums up some pretty great traps to capture and kill the giant, near-invisible-at-dark Moorwen, it takes a fusing together of parts of his ship with Viking-style weapons to make swords and spears that will actually match the deadly creature. Plus, there's Hurt as Rothgar, the rather impish king of this particular Viking sect; the lovely Sophia Myles as Freya, his tough-as-nails daughter who wants to fight as much as she'd like to find a husband worthy of her; Jack Huston as Wulfric, the heir apparent to the crown and Freya's bed; and Perlman as Gunnar, the leader of another tribe of Viking warriors. The names alone scored points with me. But the funny thing is, the pacing of the film is solid, the attacks are nasty and loaded with suspense, and the conceit of melding alien monsters with Norseman is just goofy enough to work. There's a lot of Viking screaming (think 300, but with pelts rather than loincloths) and chest puffing, and that gets old after a while, but I'll admit I kind of got sucked into this nutty adventure tale. Caviezel does a workman's job of playing his character straight and conveying a sense of desperation and knowing that sold me on a lot going on in this film that I otherwise might not have been able to forgive. As I said, there's nothing great about this Outlander, but if you're in the mood for big, dopey fun that actually has a concept I'm fairly certain you've never seen before, you might like to try this one on for size. It certainly surprised the hell out of me how much of it worked.
Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains
Remember that movie from about 15 years ago, Alive, about the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crash lands in the Andes Mountains in 1972, and they were stuck in the cold and the snow for 72 days before they were rescued and they had to resort to cannibalism to survive? Yeah, Stranded is that story but with the real survivors not only submitting new interviews to filmmaker Gonzalo Arijon but also revisiting the site of the crash that most believed would be where they would die from a slow and agonizing combination of starvation and freezing.
It's difficult to believe that the survivors have never told their story in such detail before, certainly not in such detail on camera. But filmmaker Arijon is a childhood friend of these men, and it's that relationship that makes the film so heartbreaking. The amount of detail is almost more than one film on the subject can hold, and the emotional remembrances over those who died either in the initial crash or in a subsequent avalanche is at times excruciating. But Stranded doesn't dwell only on sorrowful things. There are actually some amusing tales of killing time and keeping warm, and some of the stories are accompanied by photos taken by the survivors. But perhaps the most eye-opening conversations are concerning the cannibalism. They offer off an extraordinary perspective on their actions, which were met with horror upon their discovery 35 years ago, but seem a lot less so today. I'll let the survivors speak for themselves (that's my cue for you to go see this movie, which opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center), but their justification seems completely sound. The director doesn't dwell on the topic — there are so many aspects to this story worth exploring — but he doesn't gloss over it either.
Stranded is a monumental achievement in documentary filmmaking. Much like the likely-to-win-an-Oscar Man on Wire, the film plays out like a thriller. And although we know how things are going to end (although I'd forgotten that some of those who survived the crash were later killed by an avalanche), there's still an incredible amount of tension about how these people would be rescued and whether or not a two-man self-rescue party sent out to find help will succeed in its mission. I was gripped by this film from minute one, sometimes by suspense or horror or emotion. Seeing these men back on that mountain is so moving, especially when you consider what they must be thinking being there again. This is a triumphant work that will haunt you for quite some time.
Continuing its tremendous "Stranger Than Fiction" series of documentary premieres, the Gene Siskel Film Center brings this meditative, quiet and visually lovely glimpse at the lives of four geologists of various ages (including a professor and two grad students) as they live and do research in Antarctica, digging in the dirt and studying fossils and freeze-dried moss, while slowly getting on each other's nerves. In many ways, Ice People doesn't feel like a finished film; it feels like the first draft of an hour-long (the current running time is 77 minutes) PBS special from director Anne Aghion that is as much about the field work as it is about the people, who have almost nothing to talk about at the end of the day because they've all had almost exactly the same day. But as they talk about their lives before the work, the begin to discover just how little they have in common.
I was particularly intrigued by a Christian scientist, whose work would seem to be at odds with his beliefs, except it's not for reasons that don't quite make sense. Meanwhile the elderly professor began life as a more spiritual man, but his decades of work have pushed him away from God. These two don't really get along very well. This is certainly as aspect to this type of science that we don't often see. There are some breath-taking, snow covered landscapes around them, and a very active volcano not too far from their camp, but we only catch glimpses of these natural wonders. And I'm almost positive there isn't a single shot of an animal in the entire film. Ice People is about humans attempting to make some sense of their environment, even if it's an environment that most humans will never see in person. That's as good a reason to see it as any I can come up with. Plus, Antarctica might be the only place on Earth colder than Chicago in recent weeks, so this film might force you to rethink your definition of cold. The film plays at the Siskel Film Center on Saturday, January 24 at 8pm, and Tuesday, January 27 at 8:30pm.
Also playing as part of the Siskel Film Center's doc series is this tale of a Boston criminal serving a double life sentence who somehow made it to Chicago, where he lived 20 years as a model citizen and a memorable celebrity on the local poetry scene. As directed by Susan Gray, Killer Poet is not an splashy documentary, and it doesn't have to be — the story is so satisfying and captivating that Gray wisely never attempts to impress us with anything but a straightforward storytelling style. She had what appears to be unlimited access to both her subject — Norman Porter, who in 1960 shot a civilian during a Boston robbery and later a prison guard while attempting to escape — and the surviving families and loved ones of the two victims. After years of being a model prisoner and one commuted sentence, Porter was moved to a minimum-security prison. After more or less being assured his second life sentence would be commuted and having it taken away from him for political reasons (that would be Michael Dukakis trying to look tough on crime as he was running for president against George H.W. Bush), Porter got frustrated and, this time, successfully escaped, fleeing to the Windy City.
Changing his name to J.J. Jameson (a nod to Spider-Man?), Porter led an exemplary life as a church-going, borderline homeless man who wrote hard-hitting poetry about life in prison. Was Porter a fully rehabilitated man? Was he a shrewd con artist? Was he sorry for what he'd done? Perhaps the answer to all of these questions is Yes. Director Gray examines every feasible angle of this fascinating case (it goes without saying that Porter was recaptured in 2005, otherwise I'm guessing this film never would have been made), and she does so with equal amounts of sympathy for both Porter and his victims. Killer Poet offers no easy answers, but does expose some major flaws in the criminal justice system that will probably never be answered for. Let's face it, this is a good week for documentaries in Chicago.
Killer Poet plays at the Siskel Film Center on Sunday, January 25 5pm, and Thursday, January 29at 8:15pm. Publisher David Gecic of Puddin' Head Press and poet Shelley Nation will be present for audience discussion on Sunday.