Friday, March 13, 2009

Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father

When it comes to movies, I like to keep my ear to the ground and listen for faint rumblings from film festivals. I like to hang out in Internet discussion boards and shoot the breeze with other film buffs, hundreds of ears to the ground being better than one.

I first heard Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father coming a few months ago. And now, during the past few weeks, its faint rumble has turned into a roaring stampede of lucky people-in-the-know rushing to see this incredible new documentary.

Like The Thin Blue Line from 1988 – and every bit its equal – Dear Zachary dwells in the sub-genre of the true crime documentary. It is a tale of murder recounted by a filmmaker who knew the victim since childhood.

Director Kurt Kuenne already had a wealth of footage of Dr. Andrew Bagby. He had dragged him in to star in his little amateur movie epics since he first caught the moviemaking bug. Shattered by the news of his friend’s murder, he set out to interview everyone who knew him and, thus, find a way to see him on screen one last time.

What he learns about Andrew and the woman who killed him and everyone who knew him – and about himself – is quite a rollercoaster ride. There is happiness. There is much more sadness and anger and hatred and desperation. The documentary uses all the devices of fictional movies like plot twists and suspense and withholding of knowledge until the most dramatic moment.

So much of the movie’s effect – the reason it is so engaging – is how these techniques keep us guessing as we’re glued to the edge of our seats. I won’t spoil anything here. I will say though that Andrew was one heck of a great guy who unfortunately had one horribly fatal attraction.

Dear Zachary is the latest in what I see as the future of movies. Shot mostly using a consumer camcorder and then edited on a laptop (from a mound of digital tapes we see piling up in a Styrofoam cooler throughout), the movie is, like 2003’s Tarnation, a deeply personal homemade movie of the very best kind.

These movies are proof that the democratization of movie making by affordable equipment is much more than a mere pipe-dream. People are picking up cameras everywhere and making movies that rival the entertainment value of the very best Hollywood has to offer.

Kuenne has a lot of material and a lot of story to tell and his filmmaking is filled with urgency. One of the side effects of his tearful passion and need to tell the whole story at all costs is that Dear Zachary is edited very briskly. You’ll need to keep your eyes on the screen at all times. Rarely does he hold a shot for more than a second or two, and often less.

This has drawn some criticism with people referring to its “MTV editing.” I don’t agree. MTV editing was all about style and lack of faith in the audience’s attention span. Here, the style is a perfect expression of Kuenne’s urgency. He was a man clearly overwhelmed by all the information he was gathering and haunted by what it all meant.

Dear Zachary is likely to be my favorite movie of the year.

Frozen River

Independent (Indie) films face an uphill climb. They can’t wow us with special effects or engage us with great actors. They can’t adapt bestselling novels. They don’t have the budget. Instead, they must offer an original voice or performances filled with honesty or take us into unfamiliar cinematic territory.

Frozen River playing April 2 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Series offers all of the above. It’s not a great Indie film, but it certainly has a lot of what it takes.

Spanning a few days before Christmas and set in a small town on the border between New York State and Quebec, Frozen River tells the story of recently single mom Ray Eddy. She is struggling to raise two boys and has wild dreams of buying a double-wide trailer house, keeping their flat screen from being repossessed, and getting her younger son the hot wheels car set of his dreams.

Her minimum wage job of course makes all of these hopelessly, well, hopeless. Fortunately – or unfortunately – they live on the edge of a Mohawk reservation that spans the border between the two countries, a border marked by the frozen river of the title.

This narrow strip of land, and perilous strip of ice covered water, offers a lucrative side occupation for those desperate enough to take advantage – human smuggling.

Okay, I’ll pause for a moment. The plot for Frozen River is one of its weaknesses. It is predictable and has some ridiculously contrived passages, the most egregious involving a young couple and their baby. It also contains some acting that has an amateur, regional theater quality.

These are all just part of the low budget Indie game though and easily forgivable here, for two reasons. Frozen River has a wonderful sense of place and Melissa Leo gives an amazing performance as Ray Eddy.

The film’s frozen world of desperate people living in rundown trailers and driving beat up cars feels painfully lived in, authentically heartbreaking. Maybe it’s the winter we’ve been going through, but I identified with every ice-covered twist and turn of the dark country roads. I shivered when Ray was called outside in her robe by a police officer. I felt the icy draft from a bullet hole in a camping trailer door.

This is a key responsibility of an Indie film lacking the money to take us somewhere dazzling or exotic. It must instead take us somewhere believable and identifiable. Forget sets and fancy effects. I’m talking taking cameras into real diners and asking real waitresses and real patrons to please become actors for an hour or two.

And that is just how Melissa Leo comes across. She is so worn and frazzled and working-class tattooed that she feels like someone found, accidently, as the cameras were about to roll. Her body is a topographic map of hard living and sleepless nights and too many dinners of popcorn and Tang. She is simply a marvel.

While many of the actors around her struggle with the range of emotional notes they are asked to play, Leo glides through Frozen River – scene after scene – like a master. She sneaks up on you and makes you weep. I highly recommend the movie for her performance alone.

It is one of the Motion Picture Academy’s most sparkling accomplishments that it recognized and plucked this diamond out of a mound of otherwise ordinary, everyday stones. Melissa Leo would have earned my vote for the Best Leading Actress Oscar.

Man on Wire

I’m deathly afraid of heights and approached Man on Wire with a certain trepidation. Was I going to be able to sit through a documentary about a man who thrives on walking tight-ropes spanning ridiculously high expanses, without any safety nets?

Well, I made it through it and those heights really were ridiculous. The movie was also ridiculously entertaining.

Man on Wire has a ghostly quality. For the second movie in the row in the Cinema 100 series, the Twin Towers play a role. In Taxi to the Dark Side, their destruction started a terrible slide into a Hell on Earth. In Man on Wire, their construction starts a man down a path toward his dreams, his destiny. The Twin Towers loom large throughout the movie. It’s hard to image they are really gone.

Philippe Petit, a French acrobat, experienced the happiest day of his life when he noticed an advertisement announcing the construction of the World Trade Center in New York City. His life of juggling and street performing and wire walking had so far been unsatisfying, aimless. Now, this promised new structure, just over the horizon, gave his life purpose.

To him, two flat-topped, equally high towers nicely spaced apart – And did I say very, very high? – offered the perfect challenge to a high-wire performer. Now, if he can just prepare himself for the task and figure out some way to rig a wire between the buildings, once they’re built.

The greatest achievement of Man on Wire is that – through the use of period footage and photographs, interviews with Petit and others involved, and beautifully incorporated recreations – it becomes as suspenseful and engaging as any movie you’ll ever see.

Like a great thriller or heist movie, we follow Petit through all of the preparations. We are with him during all the sleepless nights narrowly avoiding port authority police. We learn just how one goes about rigging a wire between two terrifyingly high structures. We learn enough to try it ourselves, although trying this at home is not advisable.

Before his big walk, we get to witness Petit’s warm-up acts. Almost as dazzling – and every bit as dangerous – are his walks between the towers of Notre Dame and between the supports of Sydney Harbor Bridge. I suppose “walks” doesn’t really describe what he does though. It’s more like Gene Kelley dancing down a very narrow street, occasionally pausing to stretch out and take a nap.

Yes, Petit is fearless on a wire and when cops inevitably turn up to watch his performances he is also quite cocky. He taunts them, teases them, and twirls about just out of reach. He drives them mad while he amazes them with his virtuosity and daring.

The big moment of course comes on August 7, 1974 when he realizes his dream, for a breathtaking 45 minutes and eight round trips between the towers – punctuated by a few cat-naps. It’s spellbinding. It’s magical. You’ll have to see it to believe it. Petit is happy as a kid when it’s over, like a man whose life is finally complete.

His feat makes me tremble. At any moment during those 45 minutes, if he’d allowed his concentration to flag for even an instant. Oh man. I can’t even think about it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Sea Hawk

Finally, unless the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies count, I’ve now seen my first pirate movie. And “The Sea Hawk” (1940) with Errol Flynn was a perfect introduction to the genre. I certainly have the taste in my mouth now to experience many others, the way “Stagecoach” encouraged me to check out countless other westerns.

I now know firsthand why terms like “exciting” and “dashing” are so often used when discussing the genre. Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca,” Flynn’s “Robin Hood”), “The Sea Hawk” is an immaculately crafted Hollywood entertainment with the adventurous spirit of Indiana Jones. And the rousing set-pieces are many:

The adventure sets off to a fast start with a sea battle between a Spanish ship carrying wealth and jewels and the beautiful Doña Maria (played by Brenda Marshall) and the pirate ship captained by Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn). Cannons fire and masts splinter, falling crashing to the decks and pirates, led by Thorpe, swing from ship to ship. It is wonderfully choreographed action. The kid in you is sure to love it.

Thorpe and his Sea Hawks are sent – unofficially and under-the-table – by Queen Elizabeth to the new world (Panama) to steal away Spanish gold and riches. She is a conniving queen and refuses to officially sanction such a mission, but, in private, Thorpe is clearly her pirate. Of course, the Spanish are her equal in deception and a plan to trap Thorpe and his men is hatched.

Learning of this plan to capture Thorpe and knowing it could well mean life imprisonment if not death for him, Maria races by coach to the harbor, arriving too late by mere minutes to warn him. This sequence is gorgeously and breathtakingly filmed and the lingering close-ups of Maria and Thorpe as his ship sails away register perfectly their now fully aware and fully shared love.

The sequence in the new world also beautifully underlines the vast distance separating the two lovers by being filmed in sepia toned color. It’s not as dramatic of a distinction drawn between ordinary and special worlds as was the case a year previously in “The Wizard of Oz,” but the effect is still spellbinding.

After being captured by the Spaniards and being sentenced to row their ships about the sea in chains for the rest of their lives, Thorpe engineers an escape. The sequence beginning with Thorpe’s order to all the men to stop rowing and ending with the Sea Hawks taking control of the ship is a masterpiece, like a step-by-step lesson in how to wage a mutiny. It’s great moviemaking.

I’m at a loss as to why the pirate movie genre died out, even more permanently than the western which still manages re-emergences of popularity every ten years or so. “The Sea Hawk” is remarkably modern and politically relevant. It reminds me of the “Godfather” movies from the 1970s. Queen Elizabeth (played by Flora Robson who nearly steals the movie) is a scheming and maneuvering embodiment of the rich and powerful.

She is someone who can get away with murder. She has the power that Michael Corleone recognizes in American politicians, the all-corrupt power that Corleone will ultimately command as well. You can almost hear Queen Elizabeth uttering the words, “Keep your friends close. Keep your enemies closer” as she lies to the Spaniards and then seductively orders Thorpe to rob them blind.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Taxi to the Dark Side

As a movie critic, I have two responsibilities to you, my reader. The first is to tell you whether a movie is any good – in my well-informed opinion. The other is to prepare you for what you are about to see. Sometimes, that amounts to providing you with information to help you better appreciate the movie. In this case, it is also to offer you a warning.

“Taxi to the Dark Side” is a huge departure from previous “happy” movies in this Cinema 100 series. “An American in Paris” it is not. “Taxi” is a tough documentary to watch. It is brutally frank in its unblinking look at torture and its aftermath. It depicts the very worst things that one human can do to another.

It is a movie about how the unimaginable horrors of September 11, 2001 were answered by the equally unimaginable horrors of Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. And it is a movie expressing great sadness over the United States government and military having chosen that response.

I watched with a mixture of fascination, sadness, and nausea as the movie walked me through a museum documenting man’s boundless creativity. I never imagined how many ways one human could cause another pain. Methods on display include sleep deprivation, forced standing, snarling dogs, sexual humiliation, and something called water-boarding which convinces one he is drowning. The U.S. interrogators depicted make the Marquis de Sade look like Charlie Brown.

“Taxi to the Dark Side” is stunningly well made and always compelling. It weaves photographs and video smuggled out of the prisons with interviews of people ranging from interrogators to victims to experts on the history of interrogation techniques to tell its story. It also includes footage of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld who’ve never looked half as scary as they do here.

A metaphor is used repeatedly to describe how desperate the establishment from top to bottom was to bring someone, anyone, to justice for 9/11. Do whatever it takes to get information, even if it means “taking your gloves off.” This boxing metaphor is later trumped by one of dog fighting. An interviewee says, “If a muzzled dog didn’t get the desired results, someone would take off the muzzle.”

The other point made powerfully is that the young men and women conducting the interrogations didn’t know what they were doing. They were poorly trained and provided with even less guidance and direction from their superiors. One young soldier was chosen for the role simply because he is big and loud and scary. They were just a bunch of young people, college age really, forced into a strange and terrifying situation and left to improvise.

It is the resulting images that will stay in my head forever. A hooded man is forced to masturbate (we see everything) while a woman soldier poses beside him with a cigarette and a wink, like some sorority initiation from Hell. There’s the terrified look of a prisoner as a barely restrained dog is held just one foot from his face. There are images of hooded prisoners chained to the ceiling with handcuffs and deprived of sleep by blaring heavy metal music.

The movie ends with the suggestion that most – or all – of these prisoners were not terrorists before incarceration, but, after the way they’ve been treated, many will become terrorists after their release. That’s the tragic irony. We set out blindly to stop terrorism only to become terrorists ourselves and to become manufacturers of future terrorists. Ooops!