Archive for April, 2012

Into the Abyss

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012—Film

Into the Abyss (USA/UK/Germany 2011, Documentary/Crime), Writer/Director: Werner Herzog

Another beautiful, brilliant work from legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, the genius behind the documentary Grizzly Man and the war drama Rescue Dawn, among many more.

Into the Abyss is, as its subtitle spells out, “A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life.” It’s a compelling documentary about the crimes of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, and the aftermath of their actions. Both men were convicted of a triple homicide in 2001 in Conroe, Texas. Perry received a death sentence (which was carried out on July 1, 2010), Burkett a life sentence.

Perry was executed just eight days after Herzog interviewed him. Before and after the execution, Herzog picked up powerful footage of the people who were touched by the murders. We hear from Perry and Burkett, but also near-victims of the crimes, the families left behind, Burkett’s wife and convict father, and, hauntingly, a former Death House Captain who finally forfeited his pension to quit his job early because he couldn’t bear to take any more lives.

Sometimes Herzog shows us imagery, mainly of the places Perry was executed and the victims were murdered. But for the most part, he just steps back and lets the people and their stories speak for themselves. And they do, resoundingly.

Herzog created such an effective film in part because he asks excellent questions. But more importantly, he listens very well. To hear what Into the Abyss is saying, that’s all you have to do.

Everyone who speaks to Herzog’s camera, and to us, demonstrates the importance of compassion, that we are all connected, and that we’re more alike than different. The murderers, the survivors, those who raised them, the people who love them and those who hate them, the people who support capital punishment and those who don’t: Herzog lets us see why his subjects feel the way they do.

There may be evil in the world, but you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll find people, all with different backgrounds and circumstances—some who had the odds tragically stacked against them from birth, and some who dealt with it better than others.

All you have to do to understand is listen.

Outland (feat. Kickass Canadian Rob Cohen)

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012—Film

Outland (UK 1981, Crime/Action/Thriller), Writer/Director: Peter Hyams

I’ve been asking my good pal Rob Cohen (Kickass Canadian, filmmaker, comedian, part-time weirdo) to co-write a blog post practically as long as I’ve known him. So for more than four years now.

This year, the process finally got going when he asked whether I wanted something new (he’d sift through the pile of premium screeners he regularly gets as a member of the Writers’ Guild… sigh…) or something old. I threw him the ball and he offered up Outland, an old-school movie with that old-school charm you just can’t find anymore. There’s a certain quality or timbre to its tone. It’s less about fuss and gimmicks, more about stripping things down to the bare bones to really let the story and characters breathe.

Outland’s plot is straightforward. Marshall William O’Niel (Sean Connery) is assigned to a mining colony, where he keeps shady drug smugglers and other mischief-makers in line, and struggles with missing his wife and son. Oh yeah, and the colony is on Jupiter.

That’s pretty much how the setting is handled; it’s taken totally in stride. Outland is a regular story that just happens to be set in an extraterrestrial context, making it technically sci-fi but, practically, much more about a man trying to do the right thing by his morals, his employers and his family.

For me, that approach is one of the movie’s greatest charms. On top of that, it features solid performances, especially from Connery and Frances Sternhagen as his colleague Dr. Lazarus (Bunny from Sex and the City, Cliff’s mother on Cheers).

So a lot to like there, but I wasn’t sure I’d jump to recommend Outland as a must-see film. Which is where Rob comes in.

ROB: Thanks, Amanda. Well-written, and no-one will know how drunk you are. I like Outland because it is a classic story, aka a Western, but re-done in a new environment.  Even though it takes place in space, in the future, you feel like it could be anywhere. I don’t want to give anything away, but the story is simple, the cast is amazing, and it has all of the elements of a great “who-done-it.” Could be made today, and with the same story.

AMANDA: Thank YOU for not making fun of me for watching Sex and the City. I thought for sure that’d be your first dig. And don’t worry, I’ll edit your typing so no one will know you spell it “no-one.” So you think Outland stands up against some of the great classics? I’m wondering what made you shortlist it as one to recommend, out of all the movies you’ve seen… 

ROB: I think Outland is a classic, but almost a forgotten classic, given that most people don’t remember it. They still think Sean Connery was Bond, then went away, then came back as Indiana Jones’ dad. The storytelling in Outland is classic, and I think the movie holds up today. Maybe some of the technology is cheesy, but a great thriller, with great actors. Peter Boyle is great!

AMANDA: Got it. So you want to pull it up from the caverns and bring it to light so others can enjoy it?

ROB: Yes. People should know this film. It is cool, and will always be a “hidden gem.”

There’s been radio silence for a while, as Rob is super busy prepping and shooting whatever it is he’s directing these days. He can be vague. So that’s all we wrote on Outland. Fun movie. Worth a watch.

Thanks Rob!

The Hunger Games (feat. Jonathan Walberg)

Sunday, April 1st, 2012—Film

The Hunger Games (USA 2012, Action/Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller), Writers: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray; Director: Gary Ross

Uh-oh, my first post since January… I’ve been neglecting this blog a bit.

I’m back at it with The Hunger Games, courtesy of my brilliant eldest nephew, Jonathan. Only nine years old, he gobbled up the Suzanne Collins trilogy last December over the holidays. So I quickly followed suit to prepare for this joint post.

I’d heard of the books before Jon started talking about them, I just hadn’t gotten around to reading them. Still, I thought the premise was fascinating. The Hunger Games trilogy is set in a post-apocalyptic North America known as Panem. Twelve districts live at the mercy of the wealthy Capitol. Every year, each district pays penance for a rebellion led by the decimated District 13 by offering up one boy and one girl (known as “tributes”) between the ages of 12 and 18 for a televised fight to the death. Tributes are drawn by lottery, and viewing of the Games is mandatory.

Collins says she got the idea for The Hunger Games while channel surfing. She caught flashes of reality shows featuring young people competing at all costs for the given prize (money, weight loss, love, you name it), intercut with footage from the Iraq war. “These two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way,” she said. “And that is where I got the idea for Katniss’ story.”

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the heroine of The Hunger Games. A resident of District 12, she volunteers as tribute when her younger sister’s name is drawn. She leaves behind her family and the boy she loves (Gale Hawthorne, played by Liam Hemsworth) to fight fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson)—the boy who loves her—along with 22 other youth.

The idea is incredibly disturbing, perhaps all the more so because of its timeliness: those in power viciously exploiting others; people with almost nothing forced to sacrifice everything for the bare minimum; children killed for the world to see; people’s lives reduced to entertainment, with viewers playing the odds, hedging bets and even sponsoring their favourite “tributes.” Collins had plenty of source material, and she draws on a lot of it.

I ended up liking the books much more than I expected, particularly the first book. But the power of Collins’ idea was somewhat lost in translation to the screen. That’s largely due to the fact that The Hunger Games is a horrifying story targeted at teens and pre-teens. In her books, Collins found the right tone to capture her dark subject matter without indulging in gory detail that might scare away a Young Adult rating. But when the film shies away from getting too gritty, it winds up being less powerful and disturbing than it should be. I’m not asking for explicit violence, but I think a concept like the one presented in The Hunger Games merits a somewhat heavier treatment. You don’t want to make killing too pretty, after all.

Jon lives in another province, so we didn’t see the movie together. But one of the first things he mentioned after watching it was that his screening started with a warning: “The Hunger Games isn’t recommended for younger audiences.” So I asked if he found the movie scary. “It wasn’t even really that scary, but it was a bit sad,” he says. “Twenty-four people being put in an arena and forced to kill each other is kind of sad.”

Jon also says there wasn’t really anything about the movie he didn’t like. “It cut out a lot of parts, it added in some parts. In some parts you can’t understand the movie as well without the book.”

Generally, I agree. It’s a solid adaptation that loses some details along the way, and throws in others to try to make up for the missing parts, in short order. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

In certain cases, the transition to film brings key moments to life. When District 12 silently salutes Katniss for her bravery, the heavy silence and the mood it creates are captured in a way that can’t be matched in writing. In other cases, there were missed opportunities, like when Katniss and Peeta are first paraded before the Capitol; the glory of their fiery robes isn’t anywhere near what I’d imagined from the book.

One overriding issue for me was that the movie took away too much from Katniss’ perspective; it’s all we have in the book, but the film often leaves her side to listen in on moments between other characters, particularly those planning the Games. It’s too bad, because Lawrence, who was so amazing in Winter’s Bone (see the Winter’s Bone review from August 2010), was perfectly cast and could have carried the piece. But that would have led to a very different film that might not suit its young target audience—especially not if they haven’t been prepped by the books.

At the end of the day, Jon came out a happy camper, which makes the movie a hit in my mind. He liked the costumes and the characters, and had this to say in sum: “People should watch The Hunger Games because it’s quite a good movie. But they should also probably read the books first, because the books have more in them.”

*            *            *

I love you Jon. Keep reading. 🙂