Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Grade B


Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste; Writer-Director Werner Herzog.

Iconic director Herzog somehow gained permission from the French government to film the painted walls inside the famous prehistoric Chauvet cave discovered in southern France in 1994. This 3D documentary is stunning as a technical achievement and because of the cave drawings themselves. The drawings and etchings on the cave walls were made by humans living at the end of the ice age, about 32,000 years ago. There are horses, reindeer, rhinoceroses, bear, lion, mammoth, bison, hyenas, and much else. It’s difficult to imagine that world, with all those animals living alongside humans in France at that time.

Some of the drawings, made with charcoal, are incredibly sophisticated and beautiful by any artistic standard. The 3-D effect gives you a compelling sense of place. In all, the headache is probably worth it, because this film is really about the artists who made the pictures, not the pictures themselves, so you want to have a feeling for the spatial layout of the cave, which the 3D gives.

On the down side, the tone of the documentary is academic but not very scientific, so the information given, mostly in Herzog’s voice-over, is mildly interesting but not too informative. There are interviews with scientists who show what the ancient humans wore, how they hunted, and how they played tunes on a tiny, carved ivory flute that was found in the region. But there is little scientific information about climate, diet, trade, migratory patterns, housing, ecology, and so on. There is not even much technical information about how the pictures were actually made.

Instead, Herzog shows a nearby heated biodome housing albino alligators and suggests that maybe they are not really alligators but ghosts, mere reflections of the real alligators, just as the cave paintings are reflections through time of a way of life we can no longer understand. That’s a stretch, but I indulge it, because he is Herzog. So even though I am grateful to glimpse inside the Chauvet cave (which is sealed up to avoid the kind of damage that occurred at Lascaux), I would have better enjoyed a proper scientific documentary, as opposed to this sentimental approach which tries to convey the eerie mystery of our prehistoric ancestors. Still, there’s no denying that the cave is mysterious, and the drawings are incredibly beautiful.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Get Low: Grade C


Get Low

Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black; Director Aaron Schneider.

You should see this movie because Duvall has never been better. The man is a master of the art of acting. He just possesses the screen whenever he is on it, even when most of his face is hidden by the long, ratty beard of the old hermit who is his character. And you should see the movie because Bill Murray is a great comic actor who does not need to tell jokes to get a laugh. All he needs to do is raise an eyebrow at the right moment, or toss an offhand remark. Put together Murray with Duvall, and you have an entertaining movie.

But that’s all there is. The rest of the actors do not perform well. Black in particular struggles unsuccessfully against something, maybe the director’s instructions? The story itself is exceptionally weak. The old hermit (Duvall) wants to throw a funeral party for himself, ostensibly so he can learn what people say about him. Funeral director Murray agrees to set it up, but then the old guy changes his mind after the invitations have already gone out. Anxiety follows, but predictably, the big event occurs, at which time, for reasons unclear, the old hermit reveals a dreadful family secret that does not amount to a hill of beans, but Sisssy Spacek cries, so it must be important. That is consistent with the poor writing that substitutes cheap sentimentality for characterization.

On the plus side (besides the great acting mentioned above), the bluegrass music is quite good and the costumes, sets and props for early 1930’s rural south are thoughtfully done, even though everything is brand new and shiny. But since the story line is so weak, the movie is, alas, instantly forgettable.

The Dukes: Grade F


The Dukes (2007)

Chazz Palminteri, Robert Davi, Peter Bogdanovich; Co-writer and director Robert Davi.

It is generally not worth my time (or yours) for me to review movies that don’t meet minimum standards of watchability, but this one is interesting because it clearly demonstrates how bad directing (assisted by bad writing) can ruin a movie that looks promising. Chazz Palminteri is one of my favorite B-list actors. He is an archetypal Italian mobster, has a great sense of comic timing (e.g., Analyze This), and some pretty good dramatic chops too (e.g., Yonkers Joe). Bogdanovich, acclaimed director and actor in his own right, is enjoyable too. Lay on a plot of three old former doo-wop singers pulling off a safe-cracking gold heist, and what could go wrong? Writing and directing, that’s what.

The writing wants to be comedic but is so lame it could not appeal to anyone over 5 years old. Have the three men dress up as tomatoes to sing a commercial ditty. Har, har, what could be more funny? The safe was open but they accidentally locked it? Omigod, hilarious! The dialog is so stilted it doesn’t sound remotely like real people, and the principals are reduced to hammy overacting because there is nothing else for them to do.

The directing is so clunky that the actors sometimes actually stand there like mannequins waiting for their cue. The cameras alternate among straight head shots according to who is talking. It has the stink of television, only not as good. Plotting is jerky and hard to follow. Secondary characters are confusing and irrelevant. And tragically, the doo-wop music is terrible. So even though the film is unwatchable for entertainment value, it could be instructive to students of film who are interested to see how badly wrong filmmaking can go.