(Kanopy streaming, October 2018) You never quite know what you’re going to get when Werner Herzog is behind the camera, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God is as good an illustration of that as any. Something that, at first glance, looks like a historical jungle adventure eventually becomes an ill-fated tragedy, with death striking at any moment and the lead character diving deeper and deeper in madness. The film may have pacing issues, but the final sequence is unforgettable. Klaus Kinski authentically looks insane and dangerous in the lead role, while Herzog lets the landscape do about half the cinematographer’s job. It’s not a jolly film, and watching it often feels like being on an express train to hell with no stops. But it does have a few things running for it, especially once past the tedious exposition and on to the final act. I’m not sure I’m going to put Aguirre anywhere near my list of favourite movies, but it is an experience.
(On DVD, February 2017) At its most basic level, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans shouldn’t be much more than a crooked-cop thriller. You know the drill: bad cop uses gun, authority, aggression to get drugs, sex and money. We’ve seen this film before. But there’s a few things that make this Bad Lieutenant stand apart. First up would be using post-Katrina New Orleans as a backdrop, with signs of catastrophe still corrupting the scenery. Second would be giving the film to veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog, and allowing him to run wild with shots of wildlife, oneiric sequences and just whatever passes his fancy. Capable actors in supporting roles also help; Eva Mendes hits strong dramatic notes as the protagonist’s girlfriend, while Jennifer Coolidge gets a striking dramatic turn. Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Fairuza Balk and Michael Shannon also all show up in minor roles. But Bad Lieutenant’s main asset remains Nicolas Cage, turning in a scenery-crunching performance as the unhinged titular cop, combining his dramatic chops with the grandiose operatic acting style he’s come famous for. Under Herzog’s direction and working from a decent script, Cage’s madness is harnessed to the needs of the film and seems even more remarkable as a result. (Witness the “His soul’s still dancing” sequence.) This is the kind of Cage performance that fans talk about when they celebrate his standing as an actor. I held off on seeing this film partially given my unfamiliarity about the original Bad Lieutenant, but it turns out that this is more a remake than a sequel, and it certainly stands alone. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans is a good example of how an actor with an oversize screen persona and a fearless director can elevate average material.
(On TV, September 2015) As far as difficult adventures go, Rescue Dawn tackles the plight of a Vietnam-era American pilot brought down in unfriendly country. Quickly captured, he plot evasion and escapes through the jungle before being rescued. Director Werner Herzog adapts his own documentary film inspired by a true story about the real-life odyssey of Dieter Dengler, and while the result never rises above the ordinary, Rescue Dawn is a well-made adventure film that gives a credible look into the plight of American POWs during the Vietnam War. Christian Bale headlines as Dengler, once again showing off a feat of physical transformation during the course of the film. Plot-wise, the film has an accumulation of man-versus-man-versus-nature events keeping things interesting from one moment to the next. It may be a bit too long, with some dodgy aerial special effects and a few plot shortcuts along the way. Still, Rescue Dawn remains interesting as a survival story, remarkable for Bale’s performance and impressive for the jungle scenery that wraps up the film.
(On DVD, February 2006) Timothy Treadwell died in 2003, mauled and then eaten by a bear. A self-professed environmentalist with a flair for the dramatic, he left behind almost 100 hours of video footage, showing him in close proximity to the bears he was studying. An easy documentary approach would have been to mourn Treadwell and dismiss the death as a freak accident. But there’s a lot more under the surface, as director Werner Herzog discovers once he starts tracking down Treadwell’s life. A failed actor with problems relating to the human world, Treadwell becomes a study in manic complexity, with perhaps a streak for self-destruction. Herzog doesn’t buy into Treadwell’s own video mythology, and the film becomes a fascinating psychological study shot in beautiful nature footage. Grizzly Man is unique in how it presents a narrative that would be impossible in a fictional format: well worth a look, though some moments are not for the squeamish.