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An uneasy relationship: Treadwell and alleged friends in Grizzly Man.

Bears Aren’t Our Friends
By Shawn Stone

Grizzly Man

Directed by Werner Herzog

If Timothy Treadwell had simply accepted the fact that grizzly bears were not, in fact, his friends, he’d be alive today. Treadwell spent 13 summers, some alone and some with a girlfriend, in the remote Alaskan wilderness living among brown grizzlies as a self-styled “kind warrior” and protector of the bears. He obsessively videotaped his interactions with them and the other wildlife, bragging that he knew how to live among beasts and not end up dead. In September 2003, at the end of that 13th summer, however, an old grizzly killed and ate both Treadwell and his companion, Amie Huguenard.

If Treadwell hadn’t believed in the bears, however, he would have died years earlier. His passion for them—his mental illness, some argue—saved him from a downward spiral of alcohol and drugs.

This is exactly the kind of deluded, self-created tragicomic figure director Werner Herzog has been making films about for four decades. Treadwell is a classic Herzog “hero,” another Fitzcarraldo. Instead of building an opera house in the Amazon jungle, however, Treadwell tried to transcend the boundary between man and wild nature—something more impossible, more dangerous, and more grandiose.

Herzog sorted through the over 100 hours of videotape Treadwell made of himself in the wilderness, combined these excerpts with interviews and newly filmed trips to Treadwell’s camps to fashion a gripping documentary.

And Treadwell is pretty far out there. His shenanigans among the bears are alternately frightening and amusing; his passion for them is admirable and ghastly; and his relentless self-aggrandizement impressive and repellant. Complex? Yes. Laughable? Absolutely not: What he does may be unintentionally hilarious, but he’s too focused to be seen as a mere clown.

Herzog respects Treadwell, profound disagreements aside. One of the unexpected pleasures of Grizzly Man is Herzog’s narration. Unexpected not because Herzog is an unknown quantity; unexpected because he was allowed to actually do it. Someone, perhaps, pointed out to the producers that Herzog’s DVD director commentaries are flat-out brilliant. (Run, don’t walk, to rent Aguirre: The Wrath of God.) At any rate, falling into the Discovery Channel trap—and this is, in fact, a coproduction between Discovery and Lion’s Gate Films—of having some actorly hired voice prattling away beautifully would have done a disservice to overdramatic actor-wannabe Treadwell, who doesn’t need any help in emphasizing the more absurd aspects of his personality.

But there is also the personal connection that Herzog feels with Treadwell, both as a filmmaker and as a man obsessed. Herzog necessarily picked the most relevant of Treadwell’s videos to tell the man’s story, but also makes a point to show some of the aesthetically lovely moments Treadwell captured in what Herzog refers to as the mysterious “magic of the cinema.”

Herzog isn’t as verbally explicit in his fascination for (and connection with) Treadwell as an obsessive, but let’s face it: Obsession, simply, is Herzog’s great subject. And Treadwell, oddly enough, has received exactly the cinematic memorial he deserves.

Without Magic

The Brothers Grimm

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Underneath its dank cinema- tography and gratuitous grotesqueries, The Brothers Grimm contains such a marvelous conceit that it’s a shame that Tim Burton or Peter Jackson didn’t come up with it. In Terry Gilliam’s version, the real lives of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm—those immortal scholars of medievalist folklore—are bizarrely fictionalized into perilous involvement with a genuine folktale, this one taking place in an enchanted forest in Germany. The forest is devouring young girls from the village. Some of the peasants assume that the curse upon their land was invoked by the conquering French army. As the brothers will discover, however, the evil presence is a vain queen who ruled during the plague. Jacob (Heath Ledger), a naive dreamer, is exhilarated and ennobled at finding himself in the midst of an actual fairy tale; Will (Matt Damon), the practical, worldly one, refuses to acknowledge the existence of magic until it’s almost too late.

The above synopsis was extracted from the squirmy mess that director Terry Gilliam has regurgitated upon the screen with all the restraint of a frat boy on spring break. Instead of crystallizing Ehren Kruger’s intriguing but overwrought script, Gilliam further embellishes it with pathetically unfunny one-liners and an absurdist attitude that’s sloppy rather than satirical. We’re a long way from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, here; even Gilliam’s bloated Brazil seems pointed in comparison. Only Damon, who seems to have ignored the direction (as Ledger should’ve), manages to make his character sane enough to want to follow. The needlessly hardboiled plot—the brothers are forced into service upon pain of death by an outlandish French general (Jonathan Pryce), who refers to them as “ze brothers Grime”—mucks up the more whimsical elements, such as the sly inclusion of fairy-tale iconography. When one of the Marburg girls is snatched by a malevolent tree, her little red riding hood flies into the air like a distress signal.

The Brothers starts out promisingly, with their dispatch of a heinous witch. While supposedly collaborating with a terrified official, the Grimms shoot down the attacking hag with a crossbow fitted out with a vial of tears from an innocent child. It’s a hoax, though: Will is a fraud who debunks superstitions for fame and fortune. Jake reluctantly assists him while he compiles his anthology of folktales (the setting is 1812, shortly before the real Grimms were first published). This visually imaginative sequence is followed by several flights of astonishing fancy and a bravura set piece regarding the reanimation of the evil queen (Monica Bellucci), but mostly, the film is a tedious slog through gross-out humor, more bugs than an entire season of Fear Factor (even Will’s horse gets a mouthful), and Peter Stormare’s intolerably gamy performance as Cavaldi, a “master of the torturous arts” who bogs down the proceedings repeatedly with his impulse to throw the Grimms and their allies into one demented device or another. At one particularly juvenile point, a tiny kitten lands under a rotary blade and is spewed over the onlookers. And who knew that the Gingerbread Man was really the Blob in disguise?

The lavishly historical production is similarly corroded; every tableau is darkened into depressing blues and browns. Even the slithery trees and a stellar werewolf can’t give this fractured fairy tale a single mote of enchantment.

—Ann Morrow

The Joy of No Sex

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Directed by Judd Apatow

Dude, you know how I can tell that you’re gay? I saw you enjoying a romantic comedy.

That is, after all, what The 40 Year Old Virgin is: Imagine it on the shelf at the end of an arrow that suggests you might like it if you also enjoyed You’ve Got Mail, Say Anything or, for that matter, Along Came Polly. Kinda makes your blood run cold, doesn’t it? That’s the bad news: that you may have to revisit your feelings about this mostly miserable, usually mind-numbingly cutesy-pie genre. The good news is that The 40 Year Old Virgin is not only not insipid but it’s also really very funny and even touching. It avoids both Nora Ephron-style schmaltz, on the one hand, and Farrelly Bros.-style schadenfreude on the other.

The Daily Show’s Steve Carrell is Andy Stitzer, a stock manager at a shopping-mall electronics store who has arrived at midlife without ever consummating any of his comically mishandled or completely bungled romantic liaisons. Passive and polite, Andy is accepting of his chaste fate and fills his time instead with a variety of über-geeky pursuits: He collects action figures, tootles away on his euphonium, paints miniatures, plays video games, performs solo karaoke with a machine in his living room, etc. He leads the life of a tidy, respectful, remarkably well-behaved preadolescent.

Playing the Goofus chorus to Carrell’s gentle Gallant are his coworkers: Jay (Romany Malco), a chronically faithless, self-styled mack daddy; David (Paul Rudd), a morose recent dumpee; and Cal (Seth Rogen), a bearish bong hog. When, through sheer and hilarious ignorance, Andy accidentally outs himself as a virgin at a card game (by comparing the feel of woman’s breast to a “bag of sand”), this trio take it upon themselves to get him laid.

This, of course, sounds like total crap. But Carrell’s performance is winning throughout; he limns Andy’s haplessness with enough dignity that he is never merely the convenient butt of the joke. And the support players are absolutely brilliant. The interplay between the boys in this movie—equal parts competitive, protective, affectionate and unflinchingly cruel—is the best and funniest reproduction of boneheaded male bonding rituals I’ve ever seen. Watching Rudd and Rogen, for example, riffing insults about one another’s sexual orientation while playing Mortal Kombat rings absolutely true: “You know how I know you’re gay?” “How?” “You liked Maid in Manhattan.” “Oh, you know how I know you’re gay?” “How?” “You like Coldplay.” “You know how I know you’re gay? You have a rainbow bumper sticker on your car that says ‘I like it when balls are in my face.’ ” “That’s gay?”

The romance, too, works. Andy falls for a slightly scattered entrepreneur and single mother, Trish (Catherine Keener). Though he is nervous about the eventual effects of his virginity on the relationship, he—and the movie—refuse to follow Jay’s advice that he have sex with enough “hood rats” to practice for a more significant coupling. Instead, the focus is kept, mainly, on the sweet, awkward progress of the relationship between two damaged but well-meaning lonely people. The scene in which Andy accompanies Trish’s teen daughter to the clinic for a crash course in sexuality is a subtle display of comic heroism, both funny and charming—it’s a turning point in the movie, and a scene that would have played far less engagingly had someone like Ben Stiller been the lead.

Huh. Romantic. Comedy. Who’d a thunk?

—John Rodat

Spelunked

The Cave

Directed by Bruce Hunt

In The Cave, a team of world-class “cave divers,” whose highly specialized skills include deep-sea diving, rock climbing, and the ability to deploy ultra-sophisticated equipment, are hired by a scientific expedition to help explore a vast underwater cavern beneath the Carpathian Mountains. This “virgin cave” hasn’t yet been charted, but that doesn’t mean that no one has gone there before: As the team discovers, several explorers met a grisly end within. There are, of course, mysterious predators lurking in the blackness.

The setting is terrifically chilling. The cavern and its fathomless depths of water and soaring chasms combine with the divers’ vulnerability—for all their technology, such as blinding light balloons and hand-held navigational computers, they are clearly out of their element—generates a sense of excitement that doesn’t need any creature-feature clichés. Yet that is what The Cave is almost wholly made of. Its threadbare plot consists of the divers and scientists getting picked off one by one by the primeval kin of Pitch Black’s flying monsters. Director Bruce Hunt is a former special-effects director, and it shows in his athletic use of natural elements such as sheer rock face and underwater rapids. But the characters are so poorly conceived (though Cole Hauser tries mightily as the team leader) that it’s of little interest if they become lunch for a hang-gliding behemoth or get infected with a mutating parasite or are sabotaged by one of their own. And whenever anything happens, even a mild run-in with oversized cave mole, the action is edited into a puree of incomprehensible motion. Long before the motiveless predators fully show themselves, viewers will will realize they’ve been hopelessly trapped by predictability.

—Ann Morrow


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