May 16, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Werner Herzog has been one of the most prolific filmmakers over the past six decades, and with so many projects, it’s not surprising that his films range from very good (AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD) to fascinating (GRIZZLY MAN) to disappointing (QUEEN OF THE DESERT). With this latest documentary, co-directed with Andre Singer, Herzog sits down for interviews with Mikhail Gorbachev three times over a six month period, and yet somehow squanders this rare opportunity by ensuring his own mug gets equal screen time, and his own voice even more.

Mikhail Gorbachev was the 8th and final President of the Soviet Union and is considered to be one of the most influential political figures of the second half of the twentieth century. He is now 87 years old, and his diabetes likely contributes to his puffy, bloated look and his recent hospital stay prior to his third interview with Herzog. The film walks us through a chronological look back at Gorbachev’s life and his beginnings as the son of peasants. His father became a decorated war hero, and upon returning to his war-torn country, offered this to young Mikhail: “We fought until we ran out of fight. That’s how you must live.”

Having joined the Communist Party at an early age, Mikhail went on to study at the prestigious Moscow State University, which soon led him into politics. He was a fast riser and a true man of the people … unusual for the Soviet Union. We see many interesting photos and clips, including video of a senile Leonid Brezhnev presenting Gorbachev with an award. The film breezes through the 3 year period which saw funerals for Brezhnev (1982) and his successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. These deaths led to Gorbachev becoming the youngest leader in Soviet history as General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Union.

Herzog as an interviewer spends entirely too much time on screen and narrating. We have come to hear what Gorbachev has to say, not take Herzog’s word that he’s authentic, or to waste time with the presentation of a box of sugar-free chocolate. It’s a bit of a fluff piece, and Herzog is certainly no Mike Wallace; however, it is quite informative to go through the timeline of Gorbachev’s life.

We are reminded of Gorbachev’s reform platform that included Perestroika (re-structuring) and Glasnost (transparent government), and there are clips of Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, George Shultz and James Baker offering their insight into dealings with this most unusual Soviet leader. Gorbachev does offer his thoughts on the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the tearing down of the wall and reunification. His historic “breakthrough” meeting and subsequent handshake with Ronald Reagan took place at Reykjavik, Iceland, in a building that is now a tourist attraction.

Ever the optimist, Gorbachev still firmly believes the world should be rid of nuclear weapons, and this segment provides some contemporary context as this topic has reared its head again in modern politics. He bluntly offers his take: “People who don’t understand cooperation and disarmament should quit politics.” He serves up a hot take on America after the Cold War ended, but is given little time to discuss Helmut Kohl and the 10 Points of Light.

The 1991 coup where Boris Yeltsin seized the moment is clearly still painful for Gorbachev, and Herzog offers up a soft landing by ending the film with personal and legacy topics … what he terms the tragedy of Gorbachev. The love of his life, his wife Raisa, is ever-present even after her death, and he understands that many consider him a traitor and responsible for the disintegration of the Soviet Union. His idealism for a social democracy remains impressive and is likely the reason his story is more humanistic than political. Looking back, he simply states, “We tried.”

watch the trailer:

LIFE ITSELF (2014, doc)

July 26, 2014

life itself Greetings again from the darkness. Director Steve James is well known for his heralded documentary Hoop Dreams, released 20 years ago. Film Critic Roger Ebert was one of that film’s earliest and loudest champions. Now, Mr. James returns the favor with a tribute to the life of Roger Ebert, based on the memoir of the same name.

James struggles a bit with the film’s structure because there is so much story to Ebert’s life, and the director’s access to the challenges faced by Ebert during his last months of life make for a story unto itself. No punches are pulled, and this is one of the most head-on presentations of illness and dying that we have ever witnessed on screen. Ebert’s cancer took his jaw and his recognizable voice, but this man would not be silenced. He passionately embraced social media and blogging to become even more relevant than ever.

It’s fun to see the love-hate relationship between Ebert and his TV co-host Gene Siskel. This was the best kind of rivalry – one that brought at the best in both. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to them via PBS in 1975, their first year broadcasting together. I’ve said it before, but these two guys taught me how to watch a movie … how to appreciate what story was being told, and how it was being told. Their brief verbal jousts showed me that opinions can vary widely on movies and that it’s not just OK, but actually fun to debate the merits.

As much fun as their show was, what I really enjoyed was reading their full reviews in the Chicago newspapers. My trips to the library were often for the sole purpose of digging out the latest reviews (this was prior to internet). Whle I more often agreed with Siskel, it was Ebert’s stunning writing skills that really hit home with me. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned he won a Pulitzer at age 26, and had grown up as a journalist. His words could translate what his senses took in.

Because of all that, this documentary is very personal to me … as I’m sure it is to the entire community of film lovers that Siskel and/or Ebert inspired. The interviews with Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris (plus others) clearly display the impact of Ebert. But as personal as it is to these men as filmmakers and to me as a movie blogger, that’s nothing like the personal level we witness between Roger and Chaz, his wife. Roger’s health issues and numerous operations and rehabilitation stints show the courage and love of these two. This was heart-warming and gut-wrenching all at the same time … the kind of movie that Roger would have given a big thumbs up.

Here is what I posted the day after Roger Ebert died:

watch the trailer:



THE ACT OF KILLING (2013, doc)

August 14, 2013

act of killing Greetings again from the darkness. To some: a national hero. To others: a monster or war criminal. Co-director Joshua Oppenheimer’s concept was either to re-examine history or study the dark side of human nature. Either way, this is one of the most disturbing, difficult to watch documentaries I’ve ever seen.

The film begins with this quote from Voltaire: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”. We then read text that provides the only historical background provided by the film … the Indonesian coup in 1965 that led to a year long slaughter of anyone deemed to be a communist. In reality, the definition was quite broad and basically included anyone who wasn’t totally onboard with the new power structure.

To carry out the massacre, a death squad of gangsters was employed and Oppenheimer recruits one of the most brutal of these gangsters to an “art” project: recreate your most heinous kills in whatever film genre you prefer. Anwar Congo agrees and even arranges for his accomplices to join in. The result is the most bizarre mixture of classic-type Hollywood crime thrillers and even a surreal musical number with bold colors and a giant metal fish.

That’s the best description I can provide. While I found myself unable to look away, this is not one that can really be recommended as a form of entertainment. There are some stunning moments here, but it’s nauseating to recall. An Indonesian TV talk show host is giddy to have these “heroic” gangsters on her show. Congo gathers his grandchildren to watch a brutal re-enactment of one of his missions. Their discussions of how important movies were to their murderous activities could lead to further analysis of the role of art in violence, but instead it points out why Congo agreed to this project in the first place – his ego is such that he seems himself as a Bogart type hero.

Renowned documentary filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are both listed as producers, but some of the crew is listed as “anonymous” and who can blame them? While there seems to be no regret and no guilt for previous actions, there is an odd, extended scene where Congo’s guttural bellows and dry-heaving leave us wondering if maybe there is a crack in his facade … or is he just caught up in his performance. I’m not sure and I hope to never watch this again.

watch the trailer:


December 22, 2012

jack Greetings again from the darkness. Lee Child has written 17 Jack Reacher books since 1997, and it’s a bit surprising that it took Hollywood this long to latch on to this enigmatic lone wolf drifter who doesn’t so much care about laws as he does right and wrong. Fans of the books were outraged when it was announced Tom Cruise would play the 6’5 hulking Reacher, as much of the character’s appeal stems from his ability to physically dominate a situation while using very few words.

Unfortunately I can’t ease the minds of those fans of the pulpy series, but rather to encourage them to give this a shot. Author Child was probably ecstatic when Mr. Cruise took an interest in the character, despite the obvious conflicts. Very few actors can command screen presence like Cruise, especially in action sequences. That’s where this gets a bit jack2dicey. This is not an action movie. It’s an investigative mystery thriller that includes 3-4 action sequences.

The film has a real 1970’s feel to it along the lines of Billy Jack or Walking Tall mixed with Dirty Harry and numerous westerns with strong, silent types, and of course, the timeless pulpy detective stories. See, Reacher is a former military investigator with a mind that is always a step or two ahead of everyone else. He looks at the obvious evidence and immediately notes a list of doubts where none previously existed.  So, he is smarter than you.  He can fight better than you.  And he is travels much lighter than you.

jack4 A seemingly random sniper attack is a bold way to begin a movie given recent real-life events, but the opening sequence is executed with methodical precision and daring so that we can quickly believe in Reacher’s conspiracy theories. In the blink of an eye, Reacher has appeared out of nowhere (his usual address) and is in the middle of the investigation being conducted by the lawyer of the wrongly accused James Barr (Joseph Sikora). The defense lawyer is played by Rosamund Pike, whose character is the daughter of the District Attorney (Richard Jenkins). The police detective is played by David Oyelowo and it’s easy to tell something isn’t completely right within the walls of city hall.

Reacher roams the beautiful city of Pittsburgh asking questions and piecing together the puzzle left behind by creepy villain The Zec (Werner Herzog) and his henchman Charlie (Jai Courtney). We get three Reacher fistfights, a Bullit type car chase in a muscle-bound 1970 Chevelle, and some military sharp-shooting from the depths of a quarry. What we don’t get is the Hollywood jack5tradition of a Cruise sprint. Not once do we see his trademark all-out dash to or from something. In fact, his attempt at moving like a larger man often reminded me of his Stacee Jaxx strut from the recent musical Rock of Ages.

Director Christopher McQuarrie won an Oscar, and my ever-lasting respect, for his The Usual Suspects screenplay. This story is infinitely less-complicated, but it does offer some fun moments thanks to the Reacher character. Maybe things would be a little better if a guy like Reacher really existed … totally off the grid and taking down the bad guys that the cops can’t quite catch. Sounds a bit like “Dexter”, only Reacher’s code includes doling out physical pain and then moving on to the next town … with a new set of Goodwill duds and a fresh toothbrush.

Caleb Deschanel (Director of Photography) provides a really sharp look to the film and, thankfully, doesn’t cheat on the action scenes. Herzog (a highly respected director) has a great look for a bad guy, but is painfully under-utilized here. Rosamund Pike jack3may simply be my least favorite actress working today. Bug eyes and long legs do not an actress make.  Even Reacher had little “interest” in her. Robert DuVall makes a colorful appearance as the late-arriving character that breaks open the case, and he seems to relish the reunion with his Days of Thunder co-star. The most interesting character and actor to me was Jai Courtney (pictured, left), who will be seen next as Bruce Willis’ son in A Good Day to Die Hard.

If you haven’t read the Lee Child books, you will probably readily accept Cruise as Reacher. If you are a fan of the franchise, your eyes and brain will have massive conflicts for the first hour, but then acceptance creeps in, and you’ll probably agree that it’s a simple, effective piece of entertainment … far superior to most Nicolas Cage movies these days!

**NOTE: don’t miss Lee Child as the policeman who releasaes Reacher’s personal items back to him.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of investigative thrillers that are sprinkled with actions scenes and car chases OR you just want to see and hear a very cool ’70 Chevelle

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are such a devoted fan of Lee Child’s books that you refuse to accept the 5″7 Tom Cruise as the 6’5 Jack Reacher OR like me, you hope the kidnappers had struck much earlier on Rosamund Pike’s character.

watch the trailer:


June 27, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This time it’s the darkness of Chauvet Cave in southern France, which was discovered by accident in 1994 by three spelunkers, including the cave’s namesake. Discovering a “new” cave must be incredibly thrilling. But what about one that houses the earliest human cave drawings ever found?

The French government quickly recognized the importance of this find and installed an electronic metal door to seal off the cave to all but a few scientists who spent years carefully mapping every square inch of the cave. Protecting the air and the type of intrusion will, hopefully, protect the 400 or so wall drawings. These drawings are beautiful and cause the imagination to run wild. We see animals similar, yet different than those we know today. Why is there a difference? Well these drawings have been dated to 32,000 years ago! Thousands of years prior to any other human drawings previously discovered.

Director Werner Herzog and his crew are given limited access and are severely limited on the type of equipment they can use. They are confined to a very narrow walkway and are not allowed to touch the drawings. In fact, these limitations work to provide an ethereal look and feel … it’s as if the flickering torches of the original artists are guiding us.

Mr. Herzog is well-known for his unique voice and approach to filmmaking. If you have seen his Fitzcarraldo or his documentary Grizzly Man, you understand what I mean. Here, he spends much time narrating what could have been, speculating on the inspiration, and wondering why so little proof of humans exist here. We see a footprint and some palm prints, but really the drawings are the only sign of human intrusion. Instead fossil remains of cave bears and other wildlife are present. Then again, it has been at least 20,000 since the cave was sealed by a natural rock-slide.

 I am sure this will show up on the History Channel and an argument could be made that TV would have been the proper display for this piece. I will say that the big screen does allow for greater appreciation of the artwork, even if some of the interviews come across as filler and the pacing is quite slow. As for the epilogue featuring a French nuclear reactor and and the introduction of warm waters perfect for breeding mutant albino alligators that “may someday reach Clauvet Cave”, I say … oh, Werner.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a dedicated anthropologist, archealogist, paleantologist, spelunker OR would like a glimpse into an ancient world that you will probably never see first hand.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you appreciate the historic significance of this find, but would just as soon check out the website