Monday, August 15, 2005

Grizzly Weekend

Over the weekend I saw one of the best films released in 2005 and I’d dare say one of the best documentaries in recent years. The film is Grizzly Man, a brilliant documentary that takes full use of the medium and creates a “video essay” that asserts how powerful a technique this can be. The film gives us a view into the life of the late Timothy Treadwell, an animal rights activist who spent 13 summers living in the Alaskan wilderness with Grizzly Bears until his tragic death at the hands of a grizzly bear in 2003. Treadwell filmed himself during his later summers and left over 100 hours of footage behind with him. Prestigious German director, Werner Herzog, has sifted through this footage and compiled it along with newly created interviews to create an intimate character study at a depth unobtainable by fictional narrative filmmaking. I was initially concerned the documentary might vulgarly take advantage of his death but to my great relief it chooses not to sensationalize his demise but rather explores his life. Despite having evident respect for Treadwell, Herzog is not afraid to portray the darker side of his life and does not shy away from Treadwell’s many weaknesses. We also learn a lot about Herzog himself, as he narrates the documentary and injects his personal beliefs on a couple of occasions creating a very personal piece of work.

In related news, I also rented two recent, rather mediocre films made by talented writer/directors: Bright Young Things (2003) – Stephen Frye and Silver City (2004) – John Sayles. Bright Young Things was entertaining but slight, with a charismatic lead and fun supporting roles by a horde of celebrated British actors. It proved to be mildly interesting in terms of its role as a British “Heritage” film – literary adaptation, verdant landscapes, upper class social comedy, episodic narrative, familiar British actors, painstaking detail in recreating early 40s time period and an emphasis on spectacle.

Silver City was sadly a disappointing bore, made all the worse in comparison to Sayles’ strong work in films like Sunshine State and Lone Star. The most glaring problem is the incredibly poorly chosen lead character played by Danny Huston (The Aviator). Huston could make a good smarmy journalist as a side character but having him elevated to lead is just too much responsibility for this type of character. A much more palatable choice would have been to switch his character with the brief role played enthusiastically by Tim Roth. However all the blame can’t be rested solely on Huston’s misused shoulders, there are a few other major flaws, particularly the meager editing, done by Sayles himself, who lets scenes run on far longer than they should. There are also some issues with tone, the film can never decide if it wants to be a satire, a political indictment on the Bush office or a modern day All the President’s Men-type mystery. While I am often a big fan of genre distortion, as my Brian De Palma love attests, the dissonance between scenes in Silver City is more annoying than enticing.

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