Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog

Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog

On October, 24 2001, Michael Perry and his friend, Jason Burkett, decided steal a Camaro from the the Montgomery home of Sandra Stotler. Perry entered the house through the garage. Perry shot Sandra Stotler with a shotgun and the two men dumped her body in Montgomery County’s Crater Lake.

The duo then returned to the gated community where Sandra Stotler lived and waited outside the locked gate until the dead woman’s son, Adam Stotler, and his friend, 18-year-old Jeremy Richardson arrived. Perry and Burkett lured the teens to a wooded area and killed Adam Stotler and Richardson. Perry and Burkett, driving the Isuzu Rodeo Adam Stotler had been using, went back to Sandra Stotler’s home and finally stole her Camaro. They kept the Camaro for no longer than 72 hours and were finally apprehended after a gun fight with the police. Perry received a death sentence and Burkett received a life sentence.

Into the Abyss is the new documentary film from Werner Herzog, it focuses on the two convicts and various people affected by the crime. In his documentaries, Herzog always seeks what he calls the “ecstatic truth”, his theory that storytellers should never look away from the truth. It’s not enough that we know that murder exists. You have to look at it face-to-face. Once you do this, you will find a whole well of deeper truth.

That was my experience watching Into the Abyss, on the surface it covers a very depressing subject. At the helm of any  lesser director it would probably be depressing. Instead, it cuts right through and takes you to different places emotionally beyond “hey dude, murder is depressing, so be depressed while you watch this”. It’s emotionally raw, the parts about the victim’s families dealing with the victim’s deaths are powerful stories. We see that it so much more harder to grieve when one’s death was over something so meaningless. Mostly we can say that these deaths are all made from wrong choices. Did these people have a choice? Some seemingly did and some claimed they did not. It would be so much easier to judge and encapsulate how we feel about a person’s actions if we did not look at the whole truth of his predicament.

There is humor at times, but it’s not there to break tension. It comes as part of the ecstatic truth. Herzog greets the father of Jason Burkett, Delbert Burkett, who is also in prison, “How are you?” The sits down and casually snaps a “I’m fine.” Herzog half-scoffs, “How fine (are you really)?” Delbert recounts how he testified for his son in court and pleaded to the judge not to execute Jason. He blames himself for not being there as a father and never gave his son a chance for a good life.

It’s even romantic at times, the wife of Jason Burkett speaks about how she fell in love with her husband and desires to bear his child, despite that they will not be together for 40 years until he makes parole. She holds a sonogram picture of the baby and that was an unnerving moment. As she held up the picture, I wondered if the child is another seed of criminality. That’s what I saw. I think other people will have different interpretations. The film is dense enough for it.

One of the most chilling moments for me was the interview with Fred Allen, the Captain of the Death House Team in Texas, where the prisoners are brought to be executed. He describes the procedure of taking the patient to be lethally injected and his struggle with keeping the job after lethally injecting 125 convicts. A notepad is shown noting the times of the procedure of Michael Perry’s execution: when he arrived, when he was strapped to the bed, when he was injected and when he passed. That struck me still. I did not have an emotion for that.

Herzog does not narrate as he usually does and I think that was a good aesthetic choice. He only conducts the interviews. Herzog’s own views are implied in the film (he is against the idea of capital punishment), but it’s not as loud of a statement as one would experience in a Michael Moore film. It is unlike Cave of Forgotten Dreams where he needed to answer, “Why the hell are we looking at these caves for 2 hours?”  There is no question of why we need to watch this and Werner Herzog takes a step back from telling us his personal views. The viewer is left to decide how they want to judge the actions Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Herzog provides no answers, but asks all the right questions.

Why did these three people die for a car? Why did these two kids kill for a joyride? How does death affect a family? How do you live your life knowing that you will be executed next week? Is there any real purpose to executing Michael Perry? After all, it won’t bring them back. Does anyone, including the state, have any right to take a life? Just because the law says so, does that make it right?

At the end, It left me raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I thought about the absurdity and ironies of life. Into the Abyss reflected the human predicament and how as human beings we think we know everything, but we are not even close to understanding ourselves.

A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something very cinematic about watching the creation of something. In A Dangerous Method, we see the beginnings of psychoanalysis and the intellectual debate about the approach to the mind. Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) treats Sabina Spielrein (played by Kiera Knightley), whom eventually becomes his assistant and one of the first female psychoanalysts. They begin a love affair, that breaks the boundaries of their doctor-patient relationship and threatens Jung’s family and career. Adding oil to the fire is the presence of Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen), of whom Jung seeks approval from but ultimately their relationship turns turbulent as they differ on views of sexuality and religion.

First of all, I liked the 2 lead performances. Michael Fassbender is great as Carl Jung. Viggo Mortensen brings true gravitas to Sigmund Freud, and we experience how Carl Jung is intimidated by his presence. Viggo is our generation’s Robert De Niro. He’s come a long way as an Omish dude sitting at the back of a carriage in Witness. Some actors are good at creating a character internally (i.e. Robert De Niro is always Robert De Niro but is able to create a character)and some actors are good at physicalizing a character (i.e. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka). Viggo Mortensen is both. Any role Viggo is in, he truly transforms into his roles inside-out and always creates a presence to be marveled.

On the issue of Kiera Knightley convulsing and making spastic movements… given that it is a factually-accurate portrayal of mental distress, she’s performing the psychosis as if she were in a theatrical play. She has yet to learn how to use a close-up on film. In my opinion, it’s not her fault. The director should have cut around her or toned her actions down. Watching her face as she does them, it feels very performed. I think less is more in this case and this was somewhat of a miscalculation on Cronenberg’s part. However, Knightley does fares better in the latter half of the movie.

I can see why David Cronenberg was attracted to do this material. There is a mental violence underneath the relationships between Freud, Jung and Spielrein. At times it is about manipulation, most of the time, it is all about power. The main problem is the mental violence is not violent enough. That may be because these are true events with real-life historical figures. You end up with a dramatic replay of historical events. There is no prominent theme underneath that does not say anything about life that you can take away from.

Is it worth seeing for the performances? Not really. It would also require an interest in the foundations of psychoanalysis (which I do have an interest in) as well. But even with that, that’s still pushing it because there is nothing more beneath it’s surface to offer. In the end, I’m glad I saw it but A Dangerous Method is a bit unremarkable.

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale by Wei Te Sheng

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale by Wei Te-Sheng

I watched both Warriors of the Rainbow Seediq Bale Part 1: The Flag of Sun and Warriors of the Rainbow Seediq Bale Part 2: Rainbow Bridge. I am aware that it has been cut short and released as one film in the United States. Nonetheless, I’m going to write about it as one feature film.

This is a historical story based on true events. The film Seediq Bale depicts the Wushe Incident, which occurred in central Taiwan during the Japanese rule. When the Seediq Bale (Taiwanese Aborigines), believing in the Rainbow, and the Japanese, believing in the Sun, met one another, they fought. The leader of Seediq Bale, Mona Rudao, led 300 warriors fighting against 3000 Japanese troopers.

How much do you love your homeland? What would you do to preserve the sanctity of your own culture?

This film is cruel and brutal on two levels – it’s setup and payoff. First, let’s discuss the setup. It’s disheartening to see the Japanese enslave these Aborigines and use them as workers on their own land. Women work as maids in Japanese homes or make clothes. The men works as hard laborers and are forbidden to tattoo their faces, which is a rite of passage ritual for boys to become real men (a real man is a “seediq bale”). The Japanese think they are helping them and improving their lives with technology, but the Seediq do not see it that way. They are humiliated from the lost of their own land and cannot bear to see the death of their own culture. Every tree they cut down from their own land is a step closer to total ethnocide.

Part One spends a lot of time covering an entire cast of 15-20 characters in this land. The story does not even cover the story of one tribe, it covers and develops multiple characters from 3-4 tribes. It’s quite an achievement how much story they manage to put in without seeming overstuffed. And this is why I strongly urge people to go out and view the two-part version.

There are many little stories that set up for the grand finale: there’s a Seediq who works as a police officer for the Japanese, a Seediq who married a Japanese woman, a Seediq child who’s been taught by a Japanese teacher who ostracizes him from the other Japanese children and general mistreatment of the Seediq men at work. All these little side stories fuel the central story of the tribe leader Mona Rudao (played by Lin Ching-Tai, who gives a great performance as a leader who can’t help watching their people suffer no longer and must take a stand), this all builds to his final decision to revolt and take their land back from the Japanese.

And man, do they fight! When the Seediq fight, they do not anything hold back.They have to be fast and effective as they are fighting against an enemy with better technology. They throw spears, slice throats and are lopping off heads left and right. Yes, there are many scenes of people losing their heads.

Wei Te-Sheng is a competent director who is disciplined in telling his story on a big scale. My favorite scene is the cliffhanger in the first film where the Seediqs have taken an armory. Mona Rudao the tribe leader, withholding all the rifles, carries them over to a square and takes a sit-down break by a Japanese flagpole, contemplating what’s to come. The camera pans up and we see the entire place full of corpses and you feel the foreboding of what’s to come. Another noteworthy powerfully disturbing scene is where a group of non-fighters voluntarily commit ritual suicide to save food rations for the warriors. It’s emotionally powerful as you see the lengths the Aborigines go to to fight for their land.

The scale of this film is epic in the highest order. They seemingly built every Japanese village, Seediq settlement and a working suspension bridge. There are shots of the Seediq workers looking over to the mountains and we literally see every single settlement (the CGI render of the land are more obvious in this movie, and that shot looked real). It works on the level of Seven Samurai as we learn the geography of this land in early scenes, which all plays in and pays off later in the battle scenes, particularly because the Seediq are utilizing guerilla tactics against the Japanese.

I know what you’re thinking, this sounds awfully similar to Avatar. They even sold it as the Asian Avatar on the movie posters. Warriors of the Rainbow gripped me on a much more emotional level and took me places, some of them are thrilling and some of them I plain did not want to go to, but respected it nonetheless. The native Aborgine soundtrack was moving and powerful.

The film is mostly in Seediq with some Japanese. There are at most 15 lines of Mandarin being spoken during the movie by one Taiwanese merchant living in the village. If you’re going to be snotty about reading subtitles, then you’re really going to miss out. Please just learn to enjoy a movie with subtitles! I doubt the Americans can remake this one.

This was one of the best movies I have seen in 2011. It towers in its epic scale and emotionality. It’s … it’s… it’s decapatastic!