Saturday, July 5, 2008

"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" review by Ben Kenber

What better way to spend the Fourth of July then watching a documentary on one of the craziest and most original American writers of the 20th century: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. I felt like I could never figure Hunter out. Whenever I saw other films of his, he seemed like some crazed lunatic who was living in a world of his creation and madness. After watching “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” I feel like I finally get what he is all about. Hunter was as patriotic as an American can get, and while he always seemed to be losing his mind, you cannot deny that he was a true visionary in a lot of ways. One thing is for sure, this fucker was never boring!

This documentary was directed by Alex Gibney who has previously directed the Oscar winning documentary, “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Alex managed to get a lot of people on camera to talk about Hunter from friends and family to those he derided in his articles. The fact that Pat Buchanan participated in this is a big surprise considering that Hunter described him as a “half-crazed Davy Crockett running around the parapets of Nixon’s Alamo.” The writings of Dr. Thompson are featured throughout and narrated by Johnny Depp who played the eccentric author in Terry Gilliam’s film version of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Hunter S. Thompson is credited with creating Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories. This made his writings all the more unique, as there was really no one else on earth like him. Hunter would take on assignments given to him like covering a motorcycle event, and then he would veer off into something else like the death of the American dream. Through his writing, he got at the ugly heart of the matter, and exposed it for all its misleading falsehoods.

“He was a reporter with a wild imagination.”
-author Tom Wolfe

“He was not afraid to express himself in sometimes shocking ways.”
-former President Jimmy Carter

We see Hunter take on his first big assignment while he follows along with the Hell’s Angels in California which he looked up to as the last outlaws in the world. This relationship however turned sour as Hunter witnesses the gang of motorcycle riders gang bang a woman at their party. The group later suspected Hunter of simply trying to profit off of what he wrote, and they beat him up severely. This whole experience ended up shaping as a writer as he looked beyond the fa├žade that is sold to the public on a regular basis.

One of the most interesting parts of this documentary is how it shows his love of America and of his sadness over the death of one of his most favorite politicians, Robert Kennedy. It is made clear how Hunter so wanted to believe in the hope of a better future. His sadness only deepens when he is witness to the gas and the beatings at the Democratic convention that same year Bobby died. Hunter ends up berating the democrats for not doing their part to put an end to it.

I got a huge kick out of the section of the film where he runs for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. This part of the documentary really showed how visionary Dr. Thompson really was as he had all these plans for revitalizing the town of Aspen. He called for the decriminalization of drugs for personal use, but wanted to keep a ban on trafficking as he was no fan of people profiting off of selling it. Furthermore, he wanted to tear up the streets and replace them with grassy pedestrian malls, he proposed placing a ban on tall buildings being built as they obscured his view of the mountains, and he wanted to rename Aspen “Fat City” as to deter investors who wanted to commercialize the city endlessly. Of course, Hunter lost the election which was no real surprise to him, but his run for the office was never forgotten.

The documentary also does a great job of looking at the various relationships that Hunter had throughout his lifetime. We get a look at his marriages and learned what it was like living with him. To know Hunter was to tolerate him. Perhaps the most interesting relationship documented in “Gonzo” is that of Hunter and artist Ralph Steadman, who created some of the most insane drawings that accompanied Dr. Thompson’s feverish writings in Rolling Stone magazine. It is interesting to see that Ralph was actually a conventional artist whose work was no different from anyone else’s. Then Hunter turned Ralph on to drugs which he had never done before, and his work evolved into what he is best known for. There is a great moment where we see Ralph at work, and he has this utterly insane look on his face like he is gleefully possessed. Who knows what would have happened to Ralph had he never met Hunter.

Perhaps the most important (and overlong) section of “Gonzo” is when Hunter supports George McGovern’s run for President of the United States. McGovern was the democratic nominee who was running against incumbent President Richard Nixon (and we all know what happened to him). The war on Vietnam was raging on, and hundreds of young American lives were being snuffed out day after day. McGovern ran and sought to put an end to the Vietnam war which the whole country had now gone against. Hunter had a vicious hatred of Nixon, and he saw the possibility of Nixon going on to a second term as President as a possible death blow to this country.

As important as this section of the documentary, I felt it was a bit overlong and could have been cut down some. It gets redundant and that we clearly get the message of Thompson’s disillusionment with politics and with politicians in general. I found myself getting sleepy and restless. Fortunately, “Gonzo” does pick up in the last half as we see how Hunter became trapped by his fame, and how his work suffered as a result. But the McGovern section is still important, especially when McGovern is interviewed in the documentary and says this:

“I desperately wanted to put an end to that senseless war [in Vietnam]. I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Sound familiar? No wonder Hunter got so depressed when George W. Bush got elected, and of when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11th, 2001. Hunter did write about that in Rolling Stone and I remember reading a lot of his work on that. Hunter wrote on that as if he knew exactly what this would all lead, another war overseas with America striking back in revenge mode. The question was which country was going to feel our wrath. This was all another depressing example of how history repeats itself (doesn’t anybody fucking learn?).

For the most part, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” does a great job of making you understand him better, and to understand where he was coming from in his work. We need people like Hunter in our world, people who challenge authority and to get us riled up about the way the country is heading. His suicide, other than being very selfish and hardly noble, robbed us of a powerful voice that we need in times like these where we have a President who’s make the same mistakes all over again. Hunter was a crazy man at times, and he was probably also proof that if you take enough drugs, they will completely mess up your head. But you had to love the son of a bitch because he was never boring, and he was always fearless. We may not want to indulge in illegal drugs, but I imagine that many of us would love to be as forceful, intelligent and fearless as Hunter was.

This documentary makes me want to read (or re-read) Hunter’s work which is a vision in beautifully cathartic writing. There will never be another man like him.

Also, if you have a chance, rent the Criterion Collection edition of Terry Gilliam’s “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” The commentary track with Hunter on that disc has to be heard to be believed!

***1/2 out of ****

Friday, July 4, 2008

"WALL*E" review by Ben Kenber

You know what I’m sick of? I’m sick of parents not being able to control their damn children while they watch a movie, any movie. This problem reached a hellish peak for me when I saw “Cars” a couple of years ago at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, and there were hundreds of kids in the audience with parents who didn’t even try to shut them up. It put me off ever again going there on the opening weekend of a film. Today, I went and saw the newest Pixar film, “WALL*E” at the AMC Theater in Century City. Just my luck, this man sitting right behind me brought his two young daughters who were probably 3 or 4 years old. They kept talking, asking their dad question after question like:

“Is that WALL*E?”

“Is WALL*E okay?”

“That’s WALL*E!”

“Why don’t these adults leave us the fuck alone?!”

…Okay, I made that last sentence up. When you’re that age, you have no awareness of how annoying you can be. Kids are endlessly inquisitive, and these two had to me inquisitive right over my head. They kept walking up and down the stairs like they owned the place, and many of us had to keep shushing them throughout the first half of the movie. Now I can see why a lot of my friends who love movies have all but given up on going to the movies at all. Why put up with all the noise when you can watch the movie in the comfort of your home?

I don’t know. Maybe this is some sort of karmic revenge on me. I can’t say that I acted any differently when I was young. I remember being an annoying pain in the ass when I saw “Mary Poppins.” Then there was when I was a teenager, and I got into the habit of rolling aluminum cans down the middle of the theater during such cinematic classics like “Death Warrant” with Jean Claude Van Damme. The past always comes back to haunt you, so I guess there is no escape for me.

Anyway, regardless of that nuisance I have to put up with, it didn’t take away from the fact that “WALL*E” is another brilliant achievement from the people at Pixar. Right now, they have the most impressive track record of any movie studio. Of course, this may have to do with the fact that their focus is mainly on quality as opposed to trying to find the next franchise to spawn, or the next classic horror film to pillage in a needless remake. Other studios should be looking up to Pixar in how they make movies because this way, we would have more of a reason to go to the movies instead of avoiding them.

“WALL*E” was directed by Andrew Stanton who has previously directed one of the very best Pixar movies, “Finding Nemo.” It takes place in the very distant future when Earth is no longer inhabitable due to the uncontrollable pollution, and everyone lives in spaceships up in the sky. In the midst of all this pollution and garbage is WALL*E whose name is really an acronym which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-Class. There are many like him, but this particular load lifter has actually developed a quirky personality. While he compacts waste into squares, he also collects things like Zippo lighters, Rubik’s Cubes, and parts from other similar models which he can use as replacement parts on his body if anything falls apart. He lives a very lonely life with no one to converse with except a cockroach who he lets wander around his home aboard a broken down construction vehicle, and he is always watching scenes from the musical “Hello Dolly.”

Then one day, he is visited by a large spaceship which a makes a very loud landing on the barren planet. Released from it is a probe named EVE, and after some dangerous close encounters, WALL*E earns her trust and her friendship. This friendship however gets tested when EVE’s mothership comes back, and WALL*E hangs on for dear life as the ship heads into space and towards a ship where many humans live. What happens when WALL*E and EVE get onboard this ship will end up changing the course of everyone’s lives and change the way they live.

Despite those endlessly annoying thumb suckers restlessly annoying everyone near to them, I was lucky enough to see this movie in digital. Just when I thought Pixar couldn’t top itself, it does yet again. The animation in this movie is predictably brilliant, but now it’s getting to where I can’t tell what’s animated and what’s real. That Rubik’s cube WALL*E and EVE play with looks ever so real. The attention to detail in these movies is so frightening in its precision, and Pixar is always improving upon itself.

But the one thing that really makes the Pixar movies so damn good is the stories they come up with, and the characters they create are ever so memorable. WALL*E’s design does remind one of Number 5 from the “Short Circuit,” and he is every bit as quirky as that character from the 80’s. Pixar also takes a lot of risks with their films, and they take a big one by making the movie devoid of dialogue for the first half hour. I imagine this would freak out other studios for no particularly good reason, but not Pixar. The fact that there is no dialogue shows how good director Andrew Stanton is in showing things without saying them.

“What are words for when no one listens anymore?”

“Do you hear me? Do you care?”

-Missing Persons

The movie is undeniably cute without having to be incredibly manipulative, and that’s quite an accomplishment considering how movies for kids can get unbearably cute and manipulative. There were a bunch of trailers for family movies before the movie started, and all of them looked incredibly annoying to me. Especially annoying was that trailer for those three flies who hitch a ride with astronauts to the moon. I don’t care if it’s in 3D, those kind of movies get on nerves in no time. But with Pixar, they are to me today what the Muppets were to me in 1980’s. They appeal to both kids and adults, and that is a truly great experience if you can ever find it.

When the movie moves to the spaceship hovering just outside of the Milky Way galaxy, the movie gets even more amazing on a visual level. The moment where WALL*E is hanging for dear life outside of the spaceship, and he is touching the rings of Saturn is a beautiful moment in a movie that is full of them. The spaceship that he and EVE end up on is called the Axiom, and all its passengers are obese people who sit and move all day long in chairs because being in space for so long has robbed them of most of their bone density. Here’s a movie that doesn’t hide from the horrors of being a coach potato.

In the end, WALL*E and EVE are machines, but you end up caring for them completely. They do make the perfect couple even if one of them is more advanced than the other. The heart of the movie is how these two come together, and of the changes they inadvertently make in everyone’s life.

WALL*E is voiced by Ben Burtt, and he is responsible for some of the most well known sounds in movie history: the lightsabers from “Star Wars” as well as the aliens and droids from those movies, and he created the sound of that rumbling gigantic boulder in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Ben can now add this character to his great volume of work with pride. The character itself manages to convey so much through the use of sound with gestures. Whenever WALL*E tilts his mechanical eyes, he can easily go from emotion to emotion, and his voice adds to that.

EVE is the perfect match for WALL*E, an example of how the old and the more advanced can make the saying of opposites attract seem all the more valid. Beautiful in its sleekness, with two blue eyes to make her emotions all the more real, EVE is also a brilliantly thought out character (and a little too trigger happy for her own good). The moments when these two machines connect are beautiful, and gets you right in the heart in a way that is not at all manipulative (thank god for that).

When the movie goes into the spaceship, it is a wonderful jab at how we humans have allowed ourselves to let technology overwhelm us and have it do all the work. Laziness and complacency is so easy to achieve when you have someone or something else doing all the work for you. As a result, everyone on the ship is always in a chair that continually moves around. Exercise is not a priority, and in fact, you never see any exercising at all. In all fairness, being space for so long has resulted in their bones almost disappearing, and this is something NASA has to think about before they think about sending astronauts to Mars. When the people of the ship rise against the technology that is holding them back, it’s a fantastic moment in the film.

I’m not sure what else I can say about this film other than it’s another home run for the folks at Pixar. I look forward to whatever they end up doing next year and the year after that. “WALL*E” is easily one of the best movies to come out in 2008, and it is now the movie to beat this summer. I also hope to look forward to seeing a movie without two kids hovering over me and talking throughout the movie as though the theater was their own personal playground. Hey! You parents! You can’t treat your kids like the cell phones you refuse to silence and endlessly converse on at the most inconvenient of times!
Anyway, enough of that rant…

**** out of ****

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Encounters at the End of the World" review by Ben Kenber

As a movie buff, I have to admit that it is shameful on my part that I have not seen more of Werner Herzog’s films. The only other film of his I have seen to this date is “Grizzly Man,” a brilliant documentary about Timothy Treadwell and his obsession with the grizzly bears that later turned fatal. And like all brilliant documentaries made today, it did not get an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Hopefully, the Academy will not ignore his latest documentary, “Encounters at the End of the World,” which is an endlessly fascinating documentary on his travels to Antarctica. It is at times an incredibly look at the icy landscape, at other times a bleak look at the inevitable end of the human race, and also a rather humorous and interesting look at the people who risk their lives by living there to study the cutting edge world of science.

Herzog narrates the documentary and it allows us to go inside his head on how he views the icy wilderness he went to, and of how views the people and the wildlife there. He makes it clear from the onset that when he was asked by Discovery Films to do this, he agreed to it on the condition that he would not be forced to do a “fuzzy” movie with penguins in it (a little jab at “March of the Penguins”). The first 10 or so minutes deals with the McMurdo Research Station on Antarctica which is full of buildings and tractors constantly moving all over the place. Werner finds himself wanting to get away from McMurdo right away as if we are corrupting the Antarctic island with our own self interest, and he remarks of the horrors there like “yoga classes.”

Eventually, he ventures out of the encampment and into the far off research facilities removed from the town. We see him and others there being put thru safety drills and emergency preparations to deal with the worst of circumstances. The group leader speaks of how the wind can get so bad that you can’t see your hand in front of your face or even hear yourself talk. This lends a chilling effect to an already chilling environment, and while it is exciting to be there, you feel the danger of it all throughout the documentary.

The best part of this documentary, and the reason I wanted to see it based on the trailer, is the underwater footage where you follow divers underneath the glaciers of Antarctica. The visuals on display here are both beautiful and extraordinary to see here, and there is a unique beauty to the underwater landscape that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. This is all reminiscent of James Cameron’s documentary “Aliens from the Deep” in which he went with scientists in submersibles down to the bottom of the ocean to see what lives down. While that was a fascinating documentary, this one is not encumbered with 3D effects and of looks at where the future will take us. It deals with the world right now, and doesn’t hide from how all this will disappear in the far off future.

I also just wanted to find out how these scientists were able to dive down into waters where they would not be expected to stay alive in for more than 5 minutes. They wear special suits that are heavily insulated to protect them from the cold, and they wear gloves that threaten to make them look like aliens from another planet. Director Herzog points out that the water they are diving in is -2 degrees Celsius, and that the divers go in with no ropes attached to their bodies to give them more room to move around. Still, this is very dangerous work they are doing, and if they get lost underneath the glacier, they will become a permanent frozen resident. You feel the danger of what they are doing, but you end up getting overwhelmed by the spectacular visuals they find underneath it all.

Another fascinating moment in the movie is when some scientists on the island play recordings of the sounds the local seals make underwater. The seals themselves steal some scenes from the human actors as they lie back lazily in the sun and look too tired to get up and acknowledge anybody. The underwater sounds of the seals sound so unreal, and you cannot help but feel that they are all computer generated. But they are indeed the real thing, and you experience the sounds along with Werner and the scientists as they put their ears down to the ground and take it all in. It’s an amazing moment in the film.

The other thing I really loved about this movie was how it was just not another average science documentary with a lot of talking heads telling you all the things you need to know about the environments that they are studying. There is science talk throughout the movie which is fine, but Herzog also looks at the individual personalities that he comes in contact with throughout his journey. Along with Herzog, you also wonder what could make all these people come to one of the most isolated places on the face of the earth, and how they stay there for so long. This makes “Encounters at the End of the World” all the more interesting to watch.

Among the people that Herzog meets throughout the journey are a philosopher who has a great quote at the end of the movie of how the universe is looking at itself through our eyes, and how we give life to everything in the way we view it. We meet one of the scuba divers who has a pensive moment where he takes in the fact that this is the last dive he will be making. One of the most powerful moments is when Werner meets up with a Russian who had escaped the Soviet Union after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and he almost loses it emotionally when he tries to describe how bad it was when he left. We also see that he has an escape plan at the ready with a big pack of supplies in case he needs to flee once again.

There are a couple of other people that documentary that just talk and talk about themselves and the adventures they have been on. Herzog cuts them off in his narration and says:

“To make a long story short…”

The documentary does have a bleak view of the future of humanity, and the scientists are fully aware of this as temperatures continue to rise, and the ice will eventually melt way off into the future. This is also shown as we see a group of scientists sitting around watching “Them,” a 50’s B-movie about radioactive ants that have grown to an enormous size. It turns out to be one of many apocalyptic movies they show to each other each week. I wonder if they have ever gotten around to watching John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” That’s what I used to think of when someone mentions Antarctica.

At the center of this movie is not just Antarctica, but Herzog himself. His narration throughout could have been annoying in a grandstanding way, but it serves to illuminate what a funny and interesting person he is. Clearly, he is attracted to madness in various forms throughout the world as is shown here and previously in “Grizzly Man.” I imagine that this is a big theme in all of his movies. We discover all there is to see through his eyes, and of how he views the beauty of the ice and how it forms. It does make me want to see more of his movies.

“Encounters at the End of the World” is currently in limited release, but I doubt that it will go beyond that to a wider release. This movie will most likely find its audience on DVD, and I imagine it will be an incredible viewing experience on Blu-Ray. Just remember what one of the men out there said in the movie and remember it always:

“Global warming is real.”

**** out of ****