Darwin’s Nightmare

Darwin's Nightmare (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Hubert Sauper
viewed: 06/28/07

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

That is, unless you create a giant fishing industry, funded and run by foreign business and exporting all the fish flesh to the EU.  And what does this proverb mean if you feed the man/people with fish heads and bones and tails. This film depicts the ongoing tragedy of exploitation of the people and resources of Tanzania and other parts of Africa by European and other countries and firms.

Hubert Sauper’s documentary covers a lot of ground of badness, sadness, and, yes,…nightmare.  In an interview attached to the DVD, Sauper points out that everyone knows that there is war in Africa, astronomical HIV infection rates, orphaned street children, exploitation of the people and lands…but how deeply those things are interrelated and how much one thing has causal effects elsewhere.  Sauper was inspired to film this documentary when he had worked with some Russian pilots who delivered both arms and aid to Africa, sometimes in the same airplane.  He said there would be guns in one part of the plane, food in another.  Other times, land mines in one side, prosthetic limbs in another.

But further, this film does address the delivery of weapons to African nations (the import) and the leeching of massive amounts of fish from Lake Victoria (the export), while within the country of Tanzania, there is a famine.  It is shocking to see the kids fighting over a small bowl of rice and fish, while on the banks of the second largest lake in the world, the source for this booming fishing industry that is sending high-priced fillets to the EU.

The EU, the World Bank, and the IMF helped build this industry over the past 15 years, with the intention of helping Tanzanians (hopefully), while creating financial opportunities for established industry leaders in the West.  The result has created a blight, a stark situation in which the resources are gobbled up by the wealthy, who do not even live on the same continent, and the result on the banks of Lake Victoria, farming has been abandoned for fishing, families have separated, prostitution has spread HIV dramatically (80-90% infection rates in some of the fishing “villages”), and children, living off the scraps of the bounty, getting high from sniffing boiled fish bones (bizarre).

The documentary is shot on video, with lots of interviews of people who have strong accents that can be hard to follow, and lacks a dramatic structure that hits home like a ton of bricks, like some films can.  The facts speak for themselves, which I think is Sauper’s intent, not giving any voice-over commentary, “telling” us what is happening.  He speaks to the fact that he (or other reporters) often do not know what is happening all the time.  There are some facts and details displayed in intertitles.  It’s effective, it’s brutally depressing to realize things that I think many of us actually know, but are separated from the facts, the reality, the world of this place to such an extent that it is hard to fully comprehend.

Darwin’s Nightmare is the survival of the wealthiest, more than anything.  Maybe that is the fitness of global corporate culture.

The House on Telegraph Hill

The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) movie poster

(1951) dir. Robert Wise
viewed: 06/25/07

San Francisco noir!  Robert Wise!  These were the appeals of this film that I wasn’t terribly familiar with otherwise.

Robert Wise was one of those solid American directors who made good films through several decades and crossing many genres.  I’ve written about The Body Snatcher (1945) & The Curse of the Cat People (1944), so while he’s not one of the major figures in Hollywood filmmaking, he certainly was a good filmmaker who had some particular high points.

For me, one of the top pleasures of the film is the setting in San Francisco and the many lovely location shots throughout the city, not simply the overused shots of the most familiar sites, most touristy ones, but rather parts of the city that are beautiful, but are neighborhoods, particularly North Beach and Telegraph Hill in the film.  Many San Franciscans, and think of us as you will, have this love for the city which adds romanticism to seeing it captured at different points in time.  This film has some really nice views.

As a film, it’s good.  Following a Polish concentration camp survivor who takes up the identity of a friend who died in Belsen, the film trails Victoria Kowelska who comes to the US to claim the life of her friend as she had nothing else.  When she is told that the whole family is dead in San Francisco, she still travels to the country with nowhere else to go.  She ends up finding that the son of her friend is still alive and is due the estate of the rich aunt who had died and also ends up marrying the man who has become the boy’s guardian.  There is a lot of intrigue around her guilt of lying about her identity and the developing paranoia of the potential that her husband may be out to kill her for the money.

Yeah, the story is a lot to put down here, so I’ll leave it at that.  The DVD has a decent, interesting commentary by Eddie Muller, a Noir historian, who has a deep interest in the film and a passion for the lead actress, Valentina Cortese, who is very good.  He points out several interesting things, such as the fact that the film is not pure noir, but does carry some of the pathos and cinematography and other motifs.  He also notes that the “house” of the title is a facade that was constructed in front of a restaurant and that the outdoor shots meant to be the backyard of the house were actually the gardens around Coit Tower.  I didn’t listen to the whole commentary, but I enjoyed what I skipped around on.

They don’t make movies like this anymore.  Could they?  It’s clearly a post-war themed film, created during the heart of the film noir period in Hollywood.  There is a keen simplicity to the conflicts, to the mysteries, even if the narrative sounds convoluted.  Solid stuff in my mind.

Heaven’s Gate

Heaven's Gate (1980) movie poster

(1980) dir. Michael Cimino
viewed: 06/23/07

I’d been interested in this film for years, one of the greatest Hollywood box office bombs, a failure that destroyed United Artists and changed the free rein that major American directors had grappled for in the 1970’s, it is cited as the catalyst for this wave of change.  It killed director Michael Cimino’s career, which was somewhat short-lived anyways.  After watching the fascinating documentary, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004), about the short lived but inspired cable network that was curated by Jerry Harvey, who had impeccable taste in films, and launched the resurrected “director’s cut” when that concept had real teeth.  Harvey was a huge champion of Cimino and one of the most significant films that Harvey “re-discovered” was Heaven’s Gate, which ended up fascinating me.

The film, which was so legendary in its failure, can be seen with fresh eyes these days, I think.  It’s quite excellent, I would say.  Based on events known as the Johnson County War, a notable crisis in the days of the Wild West, when a group of gentrified land-owners and cattle barons, enraged by cattle thieves, new waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe, and targeted them with an army of vigilantes to hunt them down and kill them.  Some early interpretations of this event sided with the land owners as heroes of American rights but Cimino clearly sees this group as the evil heartless corporate gang that victimized the poor.  Explicity, it was a class war.

The film is epic; its original cut that Cimino brought in was over 5 hours, but this version is the 3 1/2 hour version that was initially released, known now as the “director’s cut”, which was also repealed after its release and a very short, badly edited version was then released.  It’s long.  But I have to say, having just watched El Topo (1970), it felt much more reasonable.

The cast is pretty amazing, Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt, Christopher Walken, and Joseph Cotton.  Sam Watterson is pretty damn unlikeable as the primary leader of the pack of land owners.  And there are some interesting cameos from Mickey Rourke and Willem Defoe.  It’s also beautifully shot, against the Montana mountains and landscapes, often hazing out into near sepia-toned imagery.

The Western is an excellent genre for analyzing culture of its time, its interpretation of history, its meanings and intentions.  Heaven’s Gate is truly a solid and remarkable Western, epic in scope, epic in its production, epic in its commercial and critical failure, epic in its destruction in the filmmaking industry, and yet, it seems it was reviled quite wrongly, though one can only imagine the megalomania of Cimino, as directors so often get to in fighting for the visions of their masterpieces and the battle to make interesting or important films in the Hollywood of any time.

El Topo

El Topo (1970) movie poster

(1970) dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky
viewed: 06/22/07

Man.

This is one of those movies that almost everyone has seen and is typically considered a piece of surrealistic midnight movie genius, as is director Alejandro Jodorowsky.  But not probably by everyone.  And that would include me.

I mean, I like the idea of this.  On the surface it sounds interesting, some bizarre Western with heavy religious/soul-searching themes with juxtapositions of bizarre and humorous happenings, philosophical yet not overly self-serious.

Yeah, but it sucks.  I can say that I didn’t like it from the first few minutes, which is always a worrying feeling to have going into any movie of length.  It often betells of films that I will ultimately despise.  El Topo actually got more interesting in the second half, though by the end of the first half, I was hoping that it was the end of the movie itself.

The first half follows the titular El Topo as a ruthless gunslinger, going around and killing other “gunslingers”, playing with a standard Westerns theme, but these gunslingers are all clearly representational of philosophical tenets or something, playing a series of head games with the man, who is spurred by a woman to fight the fights.  These interactions are ponderous and frustrating in their mix of pretense and nonsense.

The second half has “the mole” as a dedicated monk in a cave with a bunch of deformed and misshapen people, played with several people who could have been the cast for Freaks II or something.  But he connects with a pretty woman who is a dwarf and they strive to save the people in the cave from the crass and horrible townspeople who live nearby.  I guess this part had a bit more of a narrative despite the fact that you don’t really know where its going…

Maybe it’s just lame of me, but I liked the second part a bit better.  Though I was thrilled to see the film finally end.  I read a quote by Jodorowsky that reads: “If you are great, El Topo is a great picture. If you are limited, El Topo is limited”.  I guess that I am limited.  I will say that I could theoretically come around to it, but for now, I am going to cut all the Jodorowsky films from my queue and simply respect its status to others and say that it ain’t my bag.

May

 

May (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Lucky McKee
viewed: 06/20/07

I never heard of this film til I saw it in the video store and on Netflix.  I didn’t know anything about it.  But it just kept cropping up, staring at me.  So, this was the last of my little lowbrow horror fest, even though it fell out of sequence in regards to watching stuff.

It’s a surprisingly endearing little film.  Ostensibly about the quintessential lonely outsider, a girl, the titular May, whose friendless childhood and weird obsession with dolls, sewing, and gore makes her the perfect little proto-goth gal, almost like those little “Emily Strange” images, though far more cutely cheerful.  Angela Bettis really makes the character work, playing a quirky girl with some genuine charm even with much pretense.  This film is in many ways a love story about someone who has never learned how to interact with anyone.

She falls for this guy, who she immediately idealizes but doesn’t completely understand, who is also into some of the same things that she is, but not to her level of intensity.  There is something about this relationship that rings true, as he genuinely likes her and is interested in her, staying sensitive to her even in rejecting her.  As things conspire around her to fail to meet her beliefs in the world, May’s world shatters into pieces and she moves from strange and charming into total mental breakdown.  Again, there is something in this that really strikes a chord of truth.

Of course, though, this is also a horror film, so she flips out and kills a bunch of people, in a flailing attempt at constructing an idealized friend/lover.  The tone that the film takes during her breakdown is where the film falters, I think.  Though, the ending does pull some of the sentiment back together.

In all, I found it a surprisingly sweet and likable film.

The Bridge

The Bridge (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Eric Steel
viewed: 06/20/07

This very controversial documentary, not merely about the Golden Gate Bridge, but more specifically about people who jump to their deaths from it, ultimately is a remarkable and compelling film, whose inherent voyeurism is part of the parcel but certainly pushes far beyond that.  Filmed under some surreptitious pretenses, the filmmakers got their licenses to shoot the Golden Gate Bridge up close in that they were doing something more traditional because the assumption (rightly so due to the outrage it inspired) was that they would never be allowed to shoot the bridge over the span of a year with the explicit intent of catching people jumping to their deaths as happens with great frequency from the amazing landmark.  Certainly, there is something utter morbid and voyeuristic about this.  Catching people on film as they die is one of the most shocking and taboo images that such a medium can capture.

The Bridge‘s power and impact certainly is tied to these images.  In many ways, the images themselves are not graphic in the sense of traditional violence.  It is their verity that makes them so shocking, so upsetting, so strange.  The film would still be nothing but this if it wasn’t for the care and sensitivity that it attempts to bring to the subject of suicide, the interviews with some of the friends and families of the people who are captured jumping to their deaths.  Mental illness seems prevalent in the stories, and for most of the people interviewed, there is some sense of inevitability to the stories of the jumpers, long battles with depression or schizophrenia, tortured lives, led to this dramatic spot that offers a simple step to oblivion.

The bridge is dramatic itself.  Having lived in San Francisco for many years, I, as many do, have a deep love for the engineering and design of the magnificent span and its dramatic setting, crossing the inlet to the San Francisco Bay, connecting the gorgeous hills of Marin County to the Presidio of San Francisco.  Shot from a multitude of angles, sides, in weather, in sunlight, in its classic shroud of fog, the bridge itself stands, a silent steady image, deeply beautiful and profound, whose own beauty and character, as well as its ease of access, has made it the site of the most suicides of any place in the world, so much so, that these deaths are not reported in local news, though their frequency of occurrence is profound, 24 recorded in 2004, the year that this film was shot.

The local angle in some ways makes this compelling film even more so for me, and I have the weirdest thing to liken it to, though it is totally, utterly different.  But it resonated with me in a similar sense to 24 Hours on Craigslist (2005), which also captures a point in time in our city, a snapshot, if nothing else.

Additional to this, for me, is my own experience with depression which actually hit its lowest points in 2004, here in the city.  I never went to the bridge or really considered the bridge at the time, but the stories of people who face these thoughts and challenges are much like other friends and acquaintances who I met through the time dealing with similar problems, not unlike these people in many ways.  It resonates in ways therefor different from others most likely.

My experience with this film is as profound as any that I have had in a long time.  I think its power has a lot to do with its imagery, with its shocking simplicity, the knowledge of people who drop to their deaths — that these images are real, tragic, sad, and strange.  I do not know how I completely feel about this film, but I think it is a complex and challenging document, a film that I think is successful in its intent, but must not forget its exploitative and voyeuristic nature as well.  I certainly recommend watching the short film about the documentarians included on the disc as it gives some perspective on the film’s intent and production.

Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Mark Steven Johnson
viewed: 06/18/07

Man, I go and dis on Nicolas Cage, laughing in his virtual face about his immensely bad choices for movie roles, which I really emphasized after seeing him in the horrible re-make of The Wicker Man (2006), and then seeing trailers for Ghost Rider and Next (2007), which also looks laughable.  And I go and make Ghost Rider a top choice for my little litany of bad horror movies (yes, I know it’s more of a “comic book superhero” movie than a horror film, but it fits in for assumed badness), and then I go and watch it, ready to lap up the oozing badness.  I mean, it got panned and made it from the silver screen to DVD in four months.

But then I go and stick it in and I find out that it’s actually pretty good, low-brow fun, and Cage clearly knows this throughout his performance, playing off humor and archetypes, and even self-referencing his past performances and all sorts of stuff.  This certainly doesn’t legitimize everything he’s done, but you can’t certainly hold this film against him.  It’s pretty entertaining stupid fun.

Now, I never read the comic books, though I often liked the covers, so I don’t have any preconceptions to be blasted to bits as “fans” might have of the character.  The only thing that was clearly off was the age difference between him and his teenage/grown-up love, Roxanne, played by the very striking Eva Mendes, who is in real life 10 years his junior and looks it.  It’s only goofy since they are supposed to be in the same age bracket.

Anyhoo, this flick about a deal with the devil that turns the son of a carnival motorcycle stuntman into the devil’s bounty hunter has some weaknesses in its classic devices…in fact, I was somewhat humming “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” through parts of the beginning.  It’s a classic pretense that feels weak, but then it gets going.  The villains are kind of entertaining, but in some ways perhaps could be low-grade fellows out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Charmed, though I am only saying that from occasionally skipping past them on the dial.

Still, I have to say, the whole thing is sort of goofy fun, including little allusions to Wild at Heart and Raising Arizona, which ironically enough were part of Cage’s oeuvre when he was still cool and it wasn’t so embarrassing to appreciate him.

Turistas

Turistas (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. John Stockwell
viewed: 06/17/07

Gotta love a film titled like a Spanish term for diarrhea.

Yet another new sub-genre arises from the horror realm.  Target audience: backpackers in second or third-world countries, getting caught up in butchery.  You know, American, English, Australian (whitey-white) tourists (preferably with Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue-clad bodies) are perfect fodder for poor, desperate, ruthless people of foreign countries.  And you know that the American government advises warnings about traveling!  Hey, if you haven’t seen Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) or its sequel, then maybe you don’t know what I am talking about.

This time, we have a bunch of sexy travelers in Brazil and instead of butchery for pleasure (as in Hostel), we have butchery for organ mining.  Kidneys, livers, hearts.  And there is this attempt at social commentary, in that the killer doctor is targeting foreigners for some sort of justice in the exploitation of his country and its people.  Of course, he’s evil.  The other natives, his zombie-like minions, are simply working for money.  And the film has to show that Brazil is not just populated by heartless villains.  There are good guys, too.

Ultimately, it’s pretty fucking predictable.  You can figure out who’s gonna get it and the order in which they will get it as typical of these types of films.

The depiction of Brazil is pretty negative.  The only thing that I’ve seen that was worse was The Simpsons episode in which they went to Rio.  The Brazilian government even protested that.

So why did I rent this?  I have been on a dirge of bad movies, preferably bad “horror” movies.  It’s something I have to go through from time to time.  It’s not over yet.  I still have a couple lined up.

Blood and Chocolate

Blood and Chocolate (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Katja von Garnier
viewed: 06/15/07

Teen angst, doomed love, Bucharest, Romania, werewolves.

Adapted from a book of the same name, which is a pretty awful name if you ask me, we have a movie about werewolf teens from a long lineage of super-humans and a romance between a pretty “wolf girl” and a goofy American artist human.  Of course, there is some tension between the clan of wolves and the human guy.  Romeo and Juliet with only one faction actually at odds since no one on the human side exists except for the beau.

I think that this film could be most interestingly looked at as either through the lens of the “teen” movie romance or through this new subgenre of werewolf/vampire secret sects that run behind the scenes of life.  Ultimately, there is a bad guy within this “noble” race.  Underworld (2003) and Night Watch (2004) come to mind.  This would be a weak entry in either genre, but genre studies often are built around the genre’s population of mediocre-to-bad examples of genre, which help to demonstrate trends and characteristics that define the genre itself.  If this is your bag,  then go for it.  If not, let the film’s title tell you what little it does and direct you elsewhere in the video arena.

Primeval

Primeval (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Michael Katleman
viewed: 06/15/07

Based roughly (very roughly) on the legendary, though real crocodile, Gustave, who inhabits Lake Tanganyika, Burundi, and is rumored to be over 23 feet long and weighs in at nearly a ton, Primeval is a strange mix of Anaconda (1997)-like horror film about a monster man-eating predatory animal and a weak attempt at political commentary about the ruthlessness of the humans in the country of Burundi as well.  There is “little Gustave”, a blood-thirsty, cruel leader of a murderous faction, and I suppose that there is meant to be some comparison, monster to monster.  This is really not done with any real art or skill, and ultimately deflates the film’s chance at being a silly thrill-ride.

Interestingly, this film was marketed weirdly, too.  The campaign promoted a film about a “real life serial killer” who was more prolific than either the Zodiac killer and other inhuman human murderers.  No real mention of crocodiles.  For whatever reason.  Probably because they realized what a turkey they had on their hands.

It’s pretty insipid, but is entertaining enough.  Certainly not worth the effort.

Heck, just read the National Geographic article: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/news/gustave-primeval/article.html.   It’s probably a lot more interesting anyways.