Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rescue Dawn


Directed by Werner Herzog

One of my favorite documentaries of all time is Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams" which documents Werner Herzog attempting to film his epic "Fitzcarraldo" which tells the story of an opera enthusiat attempting to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon. Throughout the documentary, it becomes hilariously obvious how much of a crazy artist Herzog actually was at the time, demanding that scenes be filmed in the most difficult conditions possible, at the risk of everyone's health and sanity. This Herzog is, by all accounts, largely dead and buried, having been replaced with a tamer, more gentle Werner who is now interested in making films that straddle the line between artsy and commerically viable. "Rescue Dawn" is probably the best example of this new Werner, a film that is fronted by Hollywood superstar Christian Bale and is surprisingly conventional in almost every respect.

"Rescue Dawn" tells the story of pilot Dieter, an American whose plane is shot down while flying a mission over Laos. After evading capture for a few days, he is finally nabbed by the local guerillas and brought to a jungle prison where he joins a number of other American prisoners who, Dieter finds out to his horror, have been held there for years. Being a man of action, Dieter almost immediately attempts to hatch an escape plan, an idea which is met with skepticism by his cellmate Duane and utter fear by Duane, a prisoner who is convinced that their release is imminent. The film then focuses on Dieter's attempts at hatching a viable escape plan and at the same time convincing his co-prisoners to go along with it.

Although conventional to a tee, "Rescue Dawn" benefits from strong directing by Herzog and great acting by Bale, Bill Zhan, and Jemery Davies, all of whom do their best to convey the hardships of living with basically no food in awful conditions as well as the psychological toll of being held against your will, unaware of when and if you will ever be released. The film is extremely succesful in establishing intrigue not just in regards to Dieter eventual escape but also in his rapport with his cellmates, many of whom are torn between following Dieter or ratting him out to the guards. "Rescue Dawn" does, however, suffer simply from being ultra-conventional, content with giving us the story we all expected without even a few surprises. In some ways it's a blessing that Herzog simply delivers a film that is enjoyable, intense, and exciting without delving into the politics of the time or trying to wax philosophical on the deeper meanings of armed conflict, but at the same time I expected something more from Herzog who, despite his reputation as a crazy director, is nonetheless immensely talented.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Vengeance is Mine


Directed by Shohei Imamura

The great Shohei Imamura can never be accused of making half-assed films. All of Imamura's cinematic offerings are ambitious, complex, and painstakingly detailed, all qualities that have a distinctly double edged quality to them. In "Vengeance is Mine," Imamura strives so hard for perfection that an otherwardly brilliant character drama is reduced to a stil brilliant but just really, really, really overlong film.

"Veangeance is Mine" follows the crime spree of Iwao Enokizu (played brilliantly here by the great Ken Ogato) as he makes his way through the Japanese countryside, piling up the body count for seemingly no reason whatsoever. The story itself jumps around from his interogation to crucial moments in his life, from his wedding to a woman he eventually abandons to his numerous romantic conquests to his numerous kills and their ramifications on his day to day life. The film is told through a complex series of flashbacks and requires a fair amount of dediction to follow the course of the story since the action skips around from place to place and from one era to the next. Watching Iwao maneuver his way through life, manipulting individuals and killing without a conscience is, to say the least, creepy, but also fascinating in a morbid sort of way.

"Vengeance is Mine" like most of Immamura's films, deals with a marginalized, criminal individual living on the fringes of society, and simply sits back and watches how said individual lives. As opposed to some Immamura films, such as the wonderful "The Eel," where his protaganist, even though a criminal, is imbued with a sense or morality and decency, the hero of "Vengeance is Mine" is buoyed neither by any type of moral obligation to his family or to others and seems to opperate completely outside the bounds of "normal" human behavior. The chracter sketch that results is a fascinating one and is worth watching if nothing else than for the morbid pleasure of watching someone live life with no real moral qualms, interested only in his own survivial and satiating his most basic needs.

The genius behind "Vengeance is Mine" is undeniable and Immamura's legacy as a premier filmmaker is already well established both in Japan and abroad. Despite this, Immamura's tendency to piece together extremely disjointed films that lack any real moral core (this is a debatable stament, I know) has always left me feeling somewhat cold. My favorite Immamura film, the above mentioned "Eel," appealed to me because the main character, although attempting to remove himself from society following a vicious crime, nonetheless found himself compelled to assist those around him in their time of need, leading to a film which ended with an almost shockingly un-Immamura sense community and of the value of compassion between humans. This type of feeling was altogether lacking from "Veangeance is Mine" which made the film, for me at least, interesting without being emotionally resonent.