Cave of Forgotten Dreams


Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Once you've seen one awe-inspiring cave drawing, you've seen 'em all.

(2010) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney, Nicholas Conard, Wulf Hein, Maria Malina, Maurice Maurin. Directed by Werner Herzog

We are merely part of an endless unbroken line of vessels, stretching back tens of thousands of years to our earliest human ancestors. The line between us and them is not nearly so tenuous as you might think.

In 1994, rock climbers in the South of France discovered Chauvet Cave, a cave of unusual beauty and grandeur. That, however, is not why the great filmmaker Werner Herzog bothered to make a documentary. The cave is also home to the earliest known examples of cave art, dating back some 35,000 years.

The paintings are incredibly fragile and access to the caves is thus justifiably limited to only a few weeks a year, and only to scientists. Herzog had to receive special permission to film in the cave, and even then with a bare bones crew with lights that emit no heat and are battery operated as all his equipment had to be. They could only walk on metal planks two feet wide, and couldn’t touch the walls. They had to wear special suits that would prevent contamination of the fragile cavern eco-system and enter through a steel door that is locked electronically.

But the beauty behind that door! Scenes of horses, moving en masse; wooly rhinoceroses battling, the seductive form of a woman with a bison’s head, all drawn on curving walls and projections, giving the illusion of three dimensionality, which is why this documentary was filmed in 3D so that viewers could get the proper effect. It still gives me goosebumps that these are depictions of animals that have not walked the earth for tens of thousands of years but were witnessed by human eyes.

The drawings themselves are surprisingly sophisticated given the circumstance. The animals are shown to be in motion; you can almost hear the horses whinny. The cave sparkles with crystals from the calcification process of limestone stalagtites and stalagmites, adding an otherworldly air to a cave that is already locked in time. It was almost perfectly sealed off from the ravages of the elements when the cliff face collapsed and sealed it shut. That served to preserve everything inside it, allowing us to see these amazing drawings 35,000 years later.

There are a lot of interviews here with scientists, some of whom are a bit quirky (like the German musicologist who plays the Star Spangled Banner on an ivory flute similar to ones found in nearby caves, or the programmer who used to be a circus acrobat). All of them are clearly affected on a very deep level by the cave and the artwork within.

The interesting thing is that the cave wasn’t really a habitation. Cave bears lived in the cave (their scratches, footprints and bones are all over) and humans used it for what appears to be ceremonial purposes. We can only speculate at this point but some of the positioning of stones and skulls in the cave lead some scientists to theorize that religious ceremonies took place there.

This isn’t a scientific lecture however, although obviously scientists play an important role in the cinematic experience (occasionally too much – the movie might have been better served letting the images speak for themselves more often). Herzog isn’t interested so much in explaining things, but letting the audience come to their own conclusions. He is not asking questions like “what did they use to get those colors” or “what manner of worship was conducted there.” He instead asks questions like “When did humans first get their soul?” and “What makes us human?” which in my opinion are far more worthy and interesting questions to ask.

This is the kind of movie that is going to stay with you for a very long time. It will percolate in your head, change color and shape and lead you to examine greater questions about our place in history. Will it change your life? I can’t say that it will and I won’t say that it won’t, but it will almost certainly change your perception of life. A movie that brings out a genuine feeling of awe in the audience is rare enough and should be experienced without delay if it comes to a theater near you.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t help but be awed by the power of the cave drawings, and the scientists interviewed convey that awe.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES: Might be a little too tedious for those with short attention spans but otherwise great for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is co-produced by the History Channel’s motion picture arm, History Films. This is their first feature release.

HOME OR THEATER: This must be seen in a theater for maximum viewing impact.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Paranormal Activity

Appaloosa


Appaloosa

Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris discuss the finer points of Western living.

(New Line) Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henricksen, Timothy Spall, James Gammon, Adam Nelson. Directed by Ed Harris

Without law and order, all would be chaos. But who writes the laws and who maintains the order? When the two are one and the same, is it justice or vengeance?

The town of Appaloosa in New Mexico Territory circa 1882 is living without either. The local sheriff and his deputies all disappeared on a routine trip to a local ranch, run by the ruthless Bragg (Irons). In desperation, the town fathers (Spall and Gammon) hire a notorious gunslinger, Virgil Cole (Harris) and his right-hand man Everett Hitch (Mortensen) to become town marshal and protect the town from the increasingly egregious offenses of Bragg’s thugs.

Cole and Hitch make a mark right away when they have a run-in with several of Bragg’s men in the local saloon. When asked to desist from urinating on the bar, they refuse. When told they were under arrest, they guffaw. When told that if they resist arrest or be shot, they resist. When they’re shot, they die.

Bragg is, to say the least, displeased and a wary standoff exists between the vile rancher and the deadeye lawmen. Into this mix comes a young ranch hand who witnessed Bragg murdering the previous marshal in cold blood and is willing to testify. A more devastating development comes in on the stagecoach, Miss Allison French (Zellweger), a widow of limited means and resources who is neither a schoolmarm or a lady of the evening. Instead, she plays piano – and not very well. However, she knows how to use her considerable charms to her own advantage and has the unerring instincts of a survivor. A showdown is inevitable, and the world of Appaloosa will never be the same afterwards.

Harris, one of the finest actors of his generation, hasn’t sat in the director’s chair on a feature length film since 2000’s Pollack and this film couldn’t be more different than the other. There are elements of the old school western to this, but it is firmly New School western as well. It isn’t as violent and brutal as say, Sam Peckinpah might have done it and it isn’t as iconic as Clint Eastwood might have done it.

Instead, this is a movie that is extremely character driven. Virgil is less educated, prone to using words he has difficulty in pronouncing or even remembering; Everett is smarter, quieter, and content to be second banana to Virgil but is as dangerous as a rattlesnake in his own right. Bragg is a steely-eyed villain of the traditional Western, evil because he can be. All three actors in these roles do fine jobs.

At the core of the movie is the relationship between Virgil and Everett, and it is a friendship that is totally believable. Certainly Virgil is not without his flaws, but Everett never questions his boss openly and when he does, only because he sees danger coming. Otherwise, he is fine with letting Virgil do his thing, which sometimes can be unhealthy for those who cross him.

Unfortunately, Zellweger’s Allison is less easy to get a handle on. In these more enlightened times she might come off as manipulative and disloyal, but she is really a pragmatist. She gives her loyalty to whomever can best protect her and provide for her and if something better comes along, she gladly takes it. It’s not a flattering role, but Zellweger bravely assumes it, warts and all.

The big problem with Appaloosa lies in its pacing. Harris is content to let the characters drive the plot rather than the other way around. The advantage to that is that it allows the characters to become real people in our eyes; the disadvantage is that the plot moves along at a fairly majestic place, making the movie feel longer than it actually is. The fact that there are a couple of false codas in place before the final denouement doesn’t help matters.

I will admit to having a soft spot for Westerns. Not because I’m a particular fan of them mind you but because I have a soft spot in my heart for underdogs and no genre fits the description of underdog in Hollywood better than Westerns. They are archaic in many ways and a throwback to a different time and maybe that’s what I like about them most. When well-executed, they are wonderful entertainment. I wanted to like Appaloosa much more than I did, and in some ways, despite its flaws, I still admire it. Unfortunately, I can’t in good conscience recommend it completely because of the egregiousness of its flaws. However, I can say that lovers of good Westerns will find a lot to like about the movie. Those who aren’t so fond of Westerns should mosey on to another choice in the video store.

WHY RENT THIS: Westerns are few and far between these days and ones that give you pause to think even more so. Strong performances by the cast and wonderful cinematography make this a solid effort.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing drags in places, making the movie seem longer than it actually is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a modicum of harsh language, just enough to make this for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Mortensen both worked on David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are four featurettes here but two worth noting; one on the historical accuracy of the film, mostly to do with costume and set design, and an interview with legendary cinematographer Dean Semler.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

Leaves of Grass

Note: While I saw this at the Florida Film Festival, it isn’t scheduled to be released until a to-be-determined date this summer. A full review will be posted on its theatrical release date or DVD release date. In the meantime, here’s a mini-review.

Edward Norton stars in the dual roles of Bill, an uptight but brilliant academic and Brady, an Oklahoma pot grower who is equally brilliant but pot-addled into a life of lesser accomplishment. When Brady gets into trouble with a drug distributor, he lures his identical twin brother Bill home by faking his death. Once there, Bill gets subjected to a life he left behind on purpose and in the process discovers the family he’d turned away from. With a barrel full of excellent performances led by Norton but including director Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfus and Josh Pais, the movie takes a startling left turn about two thirds of the way through that is unexpected but delightful. It’s a very well made movie that will grow on you, pot references aside. See it at a film festival near you or at your local art house, or if not, on DVD when it comes out in that format.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Waking Sleeping Beauty

Flicka


 

Flicka

Maria Bello and Tim McGraw contemplate the suckiness of kids today.

(20th Century Fox) Tim McGraw, Maria Bello, Allison Lohman, Ryan Kwanten, Daniel Pino, Dallas Roberts, Kaylee DeFer, Jeffrey Nordling, Dey Young, Nick Searcy, Buck Taylor.  Directed by Michael Mayer.

I guess it would be easy to take shots at a movie I was loathe to see in the first place, but Da Queen insisted because she’s a huge Tim McGraw fan and loves the song (“My Little Girl”) that serves as kind of a theme song for the movie and so I went, grumbling and complaining. Da Queen was adamant I go into the movie with an open mind, so I did my best, but I have seen My Friend Flicka and as much as I liked Roddy MacDowell in it, I didn’t have much hope for the modern remake.

Kate (Lohman) is a free-spirited teenager who just doesn’t fit in at the expensive private school she attends. She may be there physically but her mind and her soul are far away on the western Wyoming mountain ranges, where her father’s (McGraw) horse ranch is. So centered on it is she that during an important English final, she writes not a single word down on her paper.

When she goes home, it is with a heavy heart. She has been asked to leave the school and she knows her dad will hit the roof when he finds out. Still, she hopes her mother (Bello) and her sympathetic brother Howard (Kwanten) might run some interference for her. In the meantime, she sets out on a dawn ride into the mountains to clear her head, avoid her dad and maybe think up a way to break the news.

While she’s in the mountains, she encounters a mountain lion, causing her horse to throw her and leave her behind. She also encounters a magnificent wild mustang who saves her from the mountain lion before running off. Excited, she scampers back home, breathlessly telling her family and the laconic hands Gus (Roberts) and Jack (Pino) about what happened. Trouble is, her father knows about her problems at school. See, there are these things called fax machines that work pretty much anywhere there’s a telephone line, and they have plenty of those, even in the mountains.

To say Kate and her father are at odds with each other is putting it mildly. She still is a bit of a daydreamer, only now her focus is on that mustang she saw. While the men are out herding the…herd, she sets out to flush the mustang out and by gaw she does just that. Her father manages to capture the spirited mustang and pens her up. Kate names her Flicka, which is apparently Swedish for “pretty girl” (or so Gus says).

Kate feels an intense bond between her and the mustang, and means to ride it, but the mustang is having none of that. Her father leaves strict orders that nobody is to go into the pen with the wild creature, but Kate willfully disobeys, trying to gain the trust of the horse. Eventually she does, but the horse gets spooked and runs off with Kate aboard…well, briefly.

Her father is furious. Her daughter is disobeying direct orders and putting herself in jeopardy. Taking care of the problem is simplicity itself; he sells the wild horse to a rodeo owner (Searcy) who is making a killing on wild mustang races.  Such an inconvenience isn’t enough to stop Kate. She determines to ride Flicka in the race at the rodeo. The prize money would be enough for her to buy Flicka back, and then the horse would truly be hers. Of course, things go terribly awry…

This is based on a classic children’s novel, as I said, and if Mary O’Hara were around today, she’d be kicking somebody’s backside – real hard, too. As I remember it, the lessons that came out of the original book had to do with respecting nature, remembering always that your family loves you no matter what and believing in yourself even when nobody else believes in you. The last part Kate has down pretty much from the get-go. Lohman plays Kate as a kid who is mule-headed, obsessive, whiny and bad-tempered. She’s supposed to be spirited, but comes off being arrogant, selfish and flat-out petulant. Eventually, of course, her passion wins over her father in the movie but in real life, her passion would win her an appointment behind the woodshed. At least, I think they still have woodsheds in Wyoming. They’re pretty much gone everywhere else.

Since I can’t get behind the main character, I have to get behind the parents, and if someone told me back in the day I’d be identifying with the parents over the teenager, I’d let loose a loud, piercing shriek and faint dead away on the spot. Afterwards, I’d regain consciousness, get up and get behind Mary O’Hara in line. Be that as it may, I have to admit – and the next sound you’ll hear is Da Queen letting out a triumphant squeal – that Tim McGraw does a much better job than I expected him to. In fact, he really does carry the movie and acts more as the emotional center, which isn’t easy when he has to play the stern disciplinarian and hard-headed father figure. Still, he pulls it off and quite frankly, I shouldn’t be surprised – if you’ll recall, he did a superb job in Friday Night Lights too.

Maria Bello as the long-suffering mom spends most of the movie acting as a mediator and urging her husband to “talk to her!!!” It’s not a great role, and quite frankly its written mainly to present a picture of a stable two-parent family; otherwise, she really doesn’t have much to do but make pancakes. There is a nice scene where she and her husband go riding where you get a glimpse of what lies inside the character, but those moments are fleeting indeed; I don’t blame Bello, who does a credible job, but the writing which was kind of lazy and cliché.

It has to be said that they got the location right; the vistas of the western Wyoming mountain ranges are magnificent and you get a sense of why these people love this land so dern much. Unfortunately, much of the action doesn’t live up to the scenery it takes place in. I went through this movie feeling flat and unmoved. Granted, this is clearly aimed at tweener girls and their moms, but a better movie would have involved those not tweeners, girls or from the Rockies. This isn’t terrible, mind you. It’s just mediocre.

WHY RENT THIS: Tim McGraw gives a surprisingly good performance and proves himself to be a credible actor as the true emotional center of the film. Spectacular Wyoming vistas make this easy on the eyes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is aimed squarely at tweener girls and their moms and if you are neither you may not find anything worthwhile here. Alison Lohman’s Kate is written as spoiled more than spirited.

FAMILY VALUES: Nothing that I wouldn’t keep a young pre-teen girl from seeing.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The part of “Kate” in the book was actually male, and was named Ken. Roddy McDowell played him in the best-known movie adaptation, My Friend Flicka (1943).

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Departures