Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Review: Grizzly Man (2005)

Grizzly Man
105 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Grizzly Man concerns the life of one Mr. Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 of his 46 summers in the Alaskan wildlife, living among the population of brown bears. His occasional filming of these creatures (and himself) provides the bulk of this film, with narration provided by director Werner Herzog. It is no secret that, in the summer of 2003, Timothy Treadwell and his then-girlfriend Amie Huguenard encountered one bear who was, perhaps, smarter than the average bear. This bear killed and ate them both. The fact that I just made a Yogi Bear joke here pretty much sums up my feelings about the character of Tim Treadwell and the quality of the resulting film on his life.

Grizzly Man is a long, slow, torturous journey through the last few years of the life of a very unpleasant and off-putting individual, whose naivety, ignorance, and paranoia are glossed under the disguise of genius or misguided romanticism. He claims to love these animals and respect them, yet he treats them not as awesome creatures to be respected and admired, but as little pets to be coddled and taken care of. He constantly talks to the bears (and several foxes) in baby-talk type syntax, like how one talks to an infant or their pet puppy. His naivety towards the world of nature shows throughout, most amusingly in his stated confusion when one bear fights another, or when a smaller animal is killed by a larger one. His world is a utopia where every animal lives in peace and no one ever needs food.

He also grows more and more paranoid about the humans around him, and his rage is constantly at the surface, a rage against a world that he seems to have abandoned, a rage against girls that wouldn’t date him, a rage against the park officials who really have no fault except daring to suggest that maybe Treadwell shouldn’t actually touch the bears on the nose so much.
At the film’s end, we are left with two disturbing questions. Would his rage have eventually been turned on the very bears he idealized? And, did his rage at humans, and rage at women, play a part in his own death and Amie Huguenard? Although Huguenard’s parents and friends refused to speak for her on this film, so our knowledge of her feelings and life are limited, we learn that she was scared of the bears, and that she was vocal about leaving the bears soon and leaving Timothy soon after. Draw your own conclusions about the coincidental timing of the death of a self-proclaimed martyr and the girlfriend who was about to scorn him.

So we are left with a 105-minute biography of a sad, pathetic crazy person, whose entire contribution to society amounted to several film clips with bears. We are told that he spoke to classrooms, but we never hear or see what he spoke about, and watching this movie one would be at a loss to figure out what wisdom about bears or life he could impart. It is telling that we, the viewers, will exit this film not a drop wiser about bears than when we entered. We learn nothing in this film, for this film has nothing to teach us.

Almost as frustrating as the naïve, pseudo-liberal rantings of a paranoid, self-loathing, narcissistic bear lover (these are the kind of ignorant fools that makes the rest of us progressives look bad), is the shockingly stilted and unprofessional construction of the film itself. Herzog’s editing choices are baffling, his constant narration is contradictory and undermining (if this man’s life is so interesting and worthwhile on its own, then why must every clip be explained in proper context?), and his interviews are horrid in their staginess and writing. The ‘performances’ of the participants genuinely feel staged, with ‘bad acting’ and showy emotional displays that seem to arrive 3 seconds after the proper cue (a scene in which Treadwell’s former girlfriend is given a watch is shocking in its un-lifelike presentation). Ironically, the only interview subjects who come off natural and comfortable are the few that openly criticize Treadwell and his ideology and lifestyle. And Herzog’s questions are easily the most leading questions that I have ever seen in a professional documentary.

Most shocking is Herzog’s insistence that Treadwell’s friend burn the audio from Treadwell’s violent death. We may not need to hear it (we don’t), and his friend may in fact be better off burning it, but for a researcher, a historian, a person searching for truth, to advocate and promote the destruction of evidence, evidence that probably invalidates my thesis from above (that we don’t hear any of the tape is part of what set my imagination running), is shameful and contradictory to his chosen role as a passive observer of truth.

So we have a poorly constructed film, about a hateful, boring, naive human being, who I disliked within 3 minutes of the film’s opening. Gene Siskel once said that no good movie is ever too short and no bad movie is ever too long. Well, Grizzly Man is very long. I have never walked out of a movie, but I stayed because I was seeing this film as a critic, and not as a casual moviegoer. For that, you all owe me a great debt. I sat through Grizzly Man, so you don’t have to. Instead, take the time to see any of the following far superior documentaries that you may not have seen: Hoop Dreams, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders Of Robin Hood Hills, Control Room, Super Size Me, Brother’s Keeper, or Four Little Girls. Of course, if you take my recommendations, you’ll then owe me twice, but I’ll let that last one slide.

Grade: D-

POST NOTE - after my review was written, additional screenings followed, and most of the critical community lavished astounding praise on this film, calling it among the best of the year, one of the best documentaries in years, etc. The common theme is that it was in fact a 'probing study of madness, a haunting story of a singular life, etc'. For a new critic, this was quite unnerving, as going against the grain on such a film could hurt longtime credibility. Ironically, the film fared so poorly at the box office that my review was never published and you are the first mass audience to see it. If you choose to watch this film (it will be on DVD soon), ask yourself this: "would this man's life been worth discussing at all if he hadn't gotten himself killed, thus failing at the one thing that made him even slightly interesting?"

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Review: Thumbsucker (2005)

96 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

In the last several years, an entire sub-genre has emerged, that of the ‘disaffected young adult’ drama. They usually involve a unique and quirky teenage or young adult male, trying to find himself with a community that doesn’t understand him, parents that don’t nurture him, and usually an attractive girl that would gladly be with him if he had the courage to talk to her. They are usually smarter than the normal teen films, they aren’t filled with WB and MTV tested youngsters, and, alas, they often have a certain air of pretentiousness about them. Thumbsucker isn’t the best of this genre (still Rushmore), but it’s not overly quirky for the sake of quirkiness (the vastly overrated Garden State) nor is it too darn preciously geeky and emotionally empty for its own good (I’m looking at you, Napoleon Dynamite). It is a triumph. Often bending the rules of the above sub-genre, and playing its mild quirkiness as much for drama as for comedy, it contains several wonderful performances and several moments of well-earned emotional resonance.

Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) is our disaffected teen in question. He isn’t reaching his academic potential, and his shyness hinders his communication skills. He also still sucks his thumb, which annoys his father Mike Cobb (Vincent D’Onofrio, in a terrific, painful performance full of words not said), since he sees it as a probable sign of weakness and a sure sign of escalating orthodontist bills. Keanu Reeves plays hippy-ish orthodontist Dr. Lyman and proves again just how naturalistic he can be. Of course, Reeves is always low-key and never becomes bigger than the role; which is why he, along with Harrison Ford and Kevin Costner, is often accused of being wooden. In an era where Roberto Benigni is an Oscar winner, naturalistic acting is often considered not trying hard enough. Yes, there is a girl (the normal looking Kelli Garner), but that story does not develop in anyway like one would expect.

The story kicks in after Dr. Lyman hypnotizes Justin into breaking the thumb sucking habit. That backfires, which leads to another solution, which also takes its toll on everyone around him. The revitalized Justin finds a potential calling on the debate team. This causes unspoken feelings of resentment for his Mr. Cobb, whose ego struggles with a son who may be ‘superior’ to him.

This middle act also involves Vince Vaughn with a brief, effective role as a slightly nerdy, but genuinely caring and smarter than he lets on debate-team coach. He’s ‘cool’ enough to buy his team beer before a big debate, but tough enough to rightfully scold the team when they abuse his generosity. The third act involves potent truths divulged; harsh realities laid out, but desperately needed confessions unuttered. What it really means if Justin breaks his habit I leave for you to discover, but this is not a film that claims to have all the answers about life, and that is one of its strengths. The film is inherently a character study where everyone gets a moment to shine.

Unlike other ‘disaffected young adult’ movies, Justin’s parents are completely supportive and loving, and are given full sympathy for their own mistakes, problems and discontent. This core relationship is strained; though there is obvious love for all, including the obligatory little brother Joel (Chase Offerle, who gets an incredibly honest and potent climactic confession about his role in the story). His father mourns over a high school injury that prevented his football dreams, and he struggles with feelings of spousal inadequacy. His wife Audrey Cobb (Tilda Swinton, understated and potent) tries to hide her feelings of general discontent by indulging a juvenile crush on a TV star (Benjamin Bratt, gently ribbing his onscreen image, and even he is given a scene of potent humanity). This bothers Justin, as he feels his mother is demeaning herself. There’s a sweet scene near the end where father and son share their admiration for Audrey; “How else could I get a woman like that to notice me, except by being her son?”

It is to the film’s credit that all of the problems are not resolved, even some of the more important ones. But by the end, we know that eventually, somewhere down the line, these issues will be resolved in a positive way, and the movie ends with completely earned optimism. Thumbsucker is a sweet, potent, emotionally rich character study, and it ennobles the sub-genre in which it is contained.

Grade: A-


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