Film Review: Rescue Dawn (dir by Werner Herzog)


Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) has been obsessed with flying ever since he was a child in Germany.  Towards the end of World War II, while his native country burned around him, Dieter would stare up at the skies and watch the American planes fly overhead and he knew that was not only what he wanted to do someday but also who he wanted to do it for.  Jump forward two decades, to 1966.  Dengler is now a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, an always smiling optimist who is considered to be something of a wild man.  When Dengler is reported as having been shot down over Loas, his fellow pilots are not only convinced that Dengler survived but that he’ll also eventually escape captivity.  Why?  Because they now Dieter Dengler is not the type to give up.

And they’re right.  Dengler not only survives the crash but he also survives in the wild.  After growing up in the rubble of Germany, Dengler is confident that he can survive anything.  Even when he’s finally captured by communist rebels, Dengler remains optimistic that he’ll make it back home.  When he’s told that he can go free if he signs a statement denouncing the United States, he refuses.  Dengler’s not going to turn on the country that allows him to fly.  Dengler soon finds himself being held in a POW camp with four other men, including two other Americans (played by Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn).  The guards are determined to break Dengler but he’s just as determined to escape.  Hearing that it’s impossible to do so only makes Dengler more determined.

The story of Dieter Dengler and his eventual escape from captivity was originally told, by Dengler himself, in Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs To Fly.  That Herzog saw Dengler as a kindred spirit is evident in the fact that, 9 years after the documentary, Herzog again told Dengler’s story in the 2006 film, Rescue Dawn.

On the face of it, a story about a group of Americans escaping from a POW camp might sound like an unlikely topic for a Werner Herzog film but it doesn’t take long for Herzog to put his own distinctive stamp on the project.  As played by Bale, Dengler is another one of Herzog’s obessessive heroes.  Dengler’s obsession is not just with flying but also with being free.  For Dengler, that’s what being an American means and that’s why he would rather be tortured than sign a simple piece of paper denying the existence of that freedom.  Much as how Grizzly Man portrayed Timothy Treadwell as being a man who would rather be eaten by a bear than live a life that’s been dictated by others, Dengler would rather suffer than betray his adopted country.

Rescue Dawn also centers around another common Herzog theme, the pitilessness of nature.  Watching Dengler trying to make his way through the jungle, we’re reminded that nature will always win in the end.  In Herzog’s world, neither nature nor the universe as a whole has any ideology.  Long after every warrior has died, the film tells us, nature will still be there.  The one thing that the POWs and their captors have in common is that they’re all at the mercy of the chaos of nature.  Just as the jungle threatens to swallow up Dengler and the other prisoners, their captors are slowly starving to death due to a drought.  As filmed by Herzog, the jungle is both beautiful and overwhelming.  Even at the film’s triumphant conclusion, it’s hard not to feel that, for all the planning, Dengler’s escape and survival was due to the random chaos of the universe.  How much can we control and how much must we simply leave up to the whim of nature?

Bale, Davies, and Zahn all give excellent performances and Herzog keeps the story moving quickly.  It’s probably one of his most emotionally accessible films and it’s impossible not to shed a tear at that final scene.  That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there’s a good deal of controversy about the way that Rescue Dawn portrays Gene DeBruin, the POW played by Jeremy Davies.  The film often contrasts Dengler with DeBruin.  If Dengler is always hopeful and determined, DeBruin is portrayed as being unstable and unreliable.  However, by most accounts — including the one given by another one of the prisoners — DeBruin was actually the exact opposite of how he was portrayed in the film.  Instead of being selfish, he was a source of strength for the POWs and he actually refused to take advantage of a previous chance to escape because it would have meant abandoning the rest of the prisoners.  Herzog has said that he wasn’t aware of DeBruin’s heroism when he wrote and directed the film and that he now regrets the way that DeBruin was portrayed.  (DeBruin’s brother has said that Herzog refused to talk to the family while the film was in poduction.)  Rescue Dawn is a well-made and wonderfully acted film and it’s one that always brings tears to my mismatched eyes but, while watching it, it’s impossible not to regret the injustice that was done to Gene DeBruin.

Film Review: Cobra Verde (dir by Werner Herzog)


Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog were a legendary team.

Klaus Kinski was the infamously intense German actor who was always in demand because of his talent but who was also reportedly impossible to work with.  So legendary was Kinski for his bad behavior that it’s actually been the subject of two documentaries — My Best Fiend and Please Kill, Mr. Kinksi.  

Werner Herzog is the famously obsessive and experimental West German director, the brilliant filmmaker who specializes in features and documentaries about men battling nature.  Inevitably nature always seems to win.

Along with directing the previously mentioned documentary, My Best Fiend, Herzog made five films with Klaus Kinski.  Herzog often described Kinski as being one of his first muses.  Herzog’s obsessiveness found the perfect reflection in Kinski’s intensity.  Together, they made films about four madmen and one vampire.  As much as Herzog sometimes hated him, he also considered Kinski to be a key part of his early success.

Klaus Kinski, for his part, often threatened to murder Herzog.  There’s a famous photo that was taken during the making of 1987’s Cobra Verde.  In the picture, an enraged Kinski appears to be attempting to drive a machete into Herzog’s neck.  In My Best Fiend, Herzog stated that he believed Kinski was just acting for the cameras.  The photographer, on the other hand, states that Kinski was definitely trying to kill his director.

 

(Herzog, it should be pointed out, often threatened to kill Kinski as well.  In My Best Fiend, Herzog tells a story of nearly burning down Kinski’s house, just to be scared off by Kinski’s dog.)

Cobra Verde was the fifth and final film that Herzog made with Kinski.  Reportedly, it was during this film that Herzog decided that he could no longer deal with Kinski’s erratic behavior.  (Interestingly enough, Cobra Verde was made around the same time that Kinski made Crawlspace, the film that inspired Please Kill, Mr. Kinski.)

In Cobra Verde, Kinski is cast as Francisco Manuel da Silva, a 19th century Brazilian rancher who is forced to take a demeaning job with a mining company.  When Silva decides that his abilities are being exploited to make his boss rich, he reacts by murdering his boss and going on the run.  (Interestingly enough, Kinski often complained that Herzog used him to get rich.)  Silva becomes a bandit known as Cobra Verde and eventually finds himself working as a slave overseer on a sugar plantation.  When Silva ends up impregnating all three of his employer’s daughters, he’s sent to West Africa on a mission to re-open the slave trade.  Silva’s employer figures that Silva will either be killed in Africa or he’ll end up sending him so many slaves that the sugar plantation will become the most successful in Brail.

Silva ends up becoming not only a very successful slave trader but also something of a powerbroker in Africa.  He arranges for one king to be overthrown and another one to elevated to the throne.  But, even as Silva finds success, he starts to grow increasingly obsessive and megalomaniacal.  He’s built himself a kingdom in Africa but he knows that, as soon as soon as the slave trade ends, so will his power.

It’s a bit disappointing that this was Herzog and Kinski’s final collaborations because it’s not only one of Herzog’s weaker films but it’s also one of Kinski’s least interesting performances.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  It’s evident what Herzog was going for, showing how a man went from being exploited to becoming the exploiter.  And, even if it’s not Kinski’s performance, he’s still always watchable.  But, when watching the movie, you get the feeling that, on his way to making an important statement, Herzog got lost and the story got bogged down.  Oddly, Herzog doesn’t seem to be quite sure how to get Silva from one point of his story to another and, as such, the film has an uneven quality.  We never get the feeling that we understand what’s motivating Silva.  In some scenes, he’s a cynical but committed rebel.  In others, he’s a comical libertine.  And then, in others, he’s a fanatical slave trader.  None of the different sides that we see of Silva ever seem to come together to form a whole.  Of course, Herzog and Kinski were apparently at each other’s throats during the making of the film so perhaps that explains why the end result seems so disjointed.

And yet, it’s a Herzog film so, of course, there are isolated moments of brilliance.  An early scene where Silva meets a young man in a room illuminated with candles is dream-like and shows that Kinski could be a subtle actor when he wanted to be.  Another scene, where Silva exhausts himself trying to push a boat to the ocean, takes on an obsessively self-destructive grandeur.  Littered about, there are moments of beauty and unforgettable mania.  It may be a disappointing film but it’s still a Herzog/Kinski film, after all.

Scenes that I Love: The Iguanas On The Coffee Tables From Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans


If you’re in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, please be sure to keep an eye out for the iguanas.

Ever since Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was first released, people have debated the symbolism of the iguanas on the coffee table.  Are they just a sign that Nicolas Cage’s bad lieutenant is totally high or do they have a deeper meaning?  Myself, I’m not even going to try to guess.  All I know is that the lieutenant eventually came to appreciate their presence.

Film Review: Queen of the Desert (dir by Werner Herzog)


Last night, I finally saw the latest Werner Herzog film to be released in the United States, Queen of the Desert.

Queen of the Desert has actually been around … well, I was going to say forever but actually, I first started to hear about it in 2014.  It premiered (to less-than-enthusiastic reviews) at the Berlin International Film Festival in February of 2015 and was released in Germany later that same year.  Originally, it was going to get a wide release in America but then IFC acquired the distribution rights and ended up sitting on it for two years.  (During that time, Herzog went on to direct another film, Salt and Fire.)  Only last month did Queen of the Desert finally get a very limited theatrical and VOD release here in the United States.

Despite all of the bad things that I had heard, I was still looking forward to seeing Queen of the Desert.  Why not?  Werner Herzog is one of my favorite directors.  The star of Queen of the Desert, Nicole Kidman, is one of my favorite actresses.  Of course, there was also the Franco factor.  I knew that Queen of the Desert featured James Franco in a small role and, if you’ve been reading this site for a while, y’all know how I feel about James Franco.

Having now watched it, I can say that Queen of the Desert is not the disaster that so many have been insisting.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a great film or even a good film.  It’s a very middle-of-the-road film, one that is too well-made to really be a disaster but, at the same time, is never as memorable as it should be.

Queen of the Desert tells the story of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), who abandoned a safely comfortable but restrictive life in turn-of-the-century Britain so that she could explore the world.  In the film, Gertrude falls in love twice and, following the unhappy (and tragic) conclusions of those affairs, she always returns to the Middle East, where surviving the harshness of the desert and exploring the ruins of past civilizations brings her peace and gives her life a greater meaning.

That’s a theme that should be familiar to anyone who has watched any of Herzog’s documentaries or feature films.  The problem is that, as told in this film, there’s no real spark to the story or to Gertrude as a character.  Herzog’s best work has often dealt with people driven to the point of madness by their obsessions.  Think about Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.  Think about Timothy Treadwell, obsessively living with the grizzlies until one them ate him in Grizzly Man.  Consider the introverted eccentrics who explored The Cave of Forgotten Dreams or even Christian Bale’s refusal to allow himself to be broken in the POW film, Rescue Dawn.  Think about Klaus Kinski in just about every film he ever made with Herzog.  For that matter, just think about Werner Herzog himself is Les Blank’s documentary, The Burden of Dreams.  Nicole Kidman would seem like an ideal choice for Gertrude and she does a good job with the role but, as written, Gertrude never has that touch of madness.  Unlike Aguirre, she’s not looking to conquer nature.  Unlike Fitzcarraldo, she’s not trying to bring “civilization” to the isolated spot in the world.  Unlike Timothy Treadwell, she’s not even trying to literally become one with nature.  Instead, she’s just someone who deals with heartache by going on a trip.  I do that every time I spend the weekend up at Lake Texoma.

(The real-life Gertrude Bell died, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, of an overdose of sleeping pills.  Whether it was suicide or an accidental overdose is not known.  In the film, the circumstances of her death — which seem very Herzogian, to be honest — are glossed over by an end title card that simply informs us that she died in 1926.)

As I said earlier, Queen of the Desert is disappointing but it’s not terrible.  Visually, it’s quite stunning and the scenes of the sand blowing in the desert are often a hundred times more interesting than the film’s storyline.  Whenever Herzog is letting his camera focus on the desert or glide over the ruins of an ancient palace, you can understand why Herzog wanted to make this film.  But, unfortunately, the film keeps returning to a story that’s about as middling as an old soap opera.

Nicole Kidman does a good job as Gertrude but she runs into the same problem that she ran into with Grace of Monaco.  She’s stuck with a script that repeatedly tells us that the lead character is fascinating without ever really giving her a chance to prove it.  (Before I get any angry comments, I know that Grace Kelly was fascinating and I’m sure that Gertrude Bell was too.  I’m merely talking about the way that they were portrayed in their biopics.)  As the men in her life, James Franco and Robert Pattinson are both ideal but Damian Lewis is a bit on the dull side.

All in all, this is not one of Werner Herzog’s best but, with all that said, I’ll still follow him anywhere that he chooses to go.

Here’s The Trailer for Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert!


Spider-Man was not the only trailer to drop today!

We’ve also got the new trailer for Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert!  Queen of the Desert has gotten mixed reviews from those who have seen it but you know what?  Werner Herzog can do no wrong.  Suck it, toadsuckers.

You can view this film for yourself on April 7th.  I will.

Never Nominated: 16 Directors Who Have Never Received An Oscar Nomination


It’s a sad fact of life that not everyone who deserves an Oscar gets one.  For instance, Alfred Hitchcock received five nominations for best director but never won once.

That said, at least Hitchcock was nominated!  Some of our greatest directors have never even been nominated!  This list below is hardly exclusive but still, these 16 directors have somehow never been nominated.  Ten of them could still be nominated in the future.  Sadly, for six, the opportunity has forever passed.

  1. Dario Argento

Sadly, Dario Argento will probably never be nominated for best director.  None of his films — even the early, acclaimed work — were typical Oscar films.  But, consider this: Argento is one of the most influential directors of all time.  Regardless of what might be said about some of Argento’s more recent films, his earlier films are classics of their genre.  Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebrae — his work on any of these films would have been worthy of a nomination.

2. Andrea Arnold

This British director is responsible for two of the best films of the past ten years — Fish Tank and American Honey.  She deserved a nomination for both of them (and a win for American Honey).  Hopefully, she will be recognized in the future.

3. Tim Burton

I’m not the world’s biggest Tim Burton fan but he has a fan base that will follow him almost anywhere.  It seems like every year, we hear that Burton has finally made the film that will win him some Oscar recognition.  Remember Big Eyes?  As I said, I’m not a huge Burton fan but, if I was to nominate him, it would probably be for his work on Sweeney Todd.

4. John Carpenter

Carpenter deserved all sorts of nominations for his work in the 70s and the 80s.  Being the rebel that he is, Carpenter will probably never get the Oscar recognition that he deserves.  (He did win an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short.)

5. David Cronenberg

It’s hard to believe that this Canadian director has never been nominated.  While it’s obvious that the Academy would never recognize Cronenberg’s earlier work (even if he did deserve some recognition for that exploding head in Scanners), it still seems like he’s destined to be nominated eventually.

6. Terry Gilliam

Much like Tim Burton, Gilliam sadly seems to be destined to be one of those directors who will have to be content with a devoted fan base.  Sadly, as of late, Gilliam’s become better known for the film projects that were canceled than the ones that were actually produced.  I would have nominated him for Brazil.

7. Werner Herzog

How has Werner Herzog gone his entire career without receiving at least one nomination for Best Director!?  I would nominate him for the chance to hear the acceptance speech alone.

8. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is another director who I’m shocked to realize has never been nominated.  He certainly deserved a nomination for Inception.  Maybe, just maybe, he’ll finally get some recognition for Dunkirk.

9. Lars Von Trier

With his controversial aesthetic and his talent for offending the masses, Lars Von Trier will never be nominated, no matter how much he might deserve it.

10. Joe Wright

Personally, I think that Joe Wright is responsible for two of the best films of the past ten years, Hanna and Anna Karenina.  Unfortunately, both were left out of their respective best picture races.  Even when Atonement was nominated for best picture, Wright did not receive a corresponding nomination.  Fortunately, with Darkest Hour, Wright will have another chance this year.

Best Director Joe Wright

And here are six directors who are no longer with us.  Sadly, these six will never have a chance to receive their first Oscar nomination:

  1. Mario Bava

Much like Dario Argento, there was never really any chance that the Academy would actually honor Mario Bava.  That’s a shame because Bava truly was one of the greatest directors of all time.  Check out Black Sabbath and Shock for proof.

2. Stanley Donen

It’s hard to believe that Donen wasn’t even nominated for Singin’ In The Rain.

3. John Frankenheimer 

It’s also hard to believe that Frankenheimer never received a nomination.  While he directed his share of bad films, he also directed Seven Days in May, The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, and Ronin.

4. John Hughes

Not even for The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off!  Hughes may have been snubbed by the Academy but his films practically invented an entire genre.

5. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

This directing team was a major influence on Martin Scorsese.  Black Narcissus remains one of the most visually stunning films of all time.  The Red Shoes was nominated for best picture but Powell/Pressburger were snubbed.

6. Nicholas Ray

Everyone knows that Ray directed Rebel Without a Cause.  Personally, I think his work on Bigger than Life was even more worthy of a nomination.