Saturday, December 31, 2005

Grizzly Man

There's something a little eerie about watching Grizzly Man. Maybe it's the subject matter—the life and death of Tim Treadwell, who spent 13 summers living among wild grizzly bears in the Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve. Maybe it's the morbid ending, with Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amy Huguenard, eaten alive by a hungry grizzly. Or perhaps it's Treadwell himself—one part nature lover and two parts megalomaniac-or vice versa, depending upon your perspective.

But perhaps most surreal is the heavy use of actual film footage from Treadwell's wilderness tours—making Grizzly Man not only a captivating documentary but also a voyeuristic home movie. As the story progresses one begins to suspect that Treadwell had a death wish and his filming was an effort to create his own legend. He seems to be producing a "Hollywood Insider" feature on an underachiever who captured his vainglory by boldly going where no man has gone before—and no rational man is likely to follow. We gradually realize that Treadwell's self-proclaimed efforts to save these bears is really a near-psychotic masquerade for his self-indulgent desire to create an eco-terrorist rock star persona.

Nevertheless, much of his personal footage is touching and remarkable. There is something ethereal about the loving relationship he develops with the wild foxes who nip at his fingers and follow him playfully through the fields. And seeing Treadwell among the grizzlies is both frightening and fascinating. Without a doubt, he truly loved the bears and sincerely thought of them as kindred spirits. He walks among them as if trying to be accepted—striving mightily to show no fear, chiding them at times, and always drawing dangerously closer. As viewers, we know the tragic end from the movie's beginning, and that's what makes it all so compelling, as we ponder how someone could take this perilous journey to its inevitable destination.

Internationally acclaimed director Werner Herzog is known for bold filmmaking and eccentric subjects. In Grizzly Man, Herzog serves as the narrator and commentator, providing personal views on Treadwell and his environmentalism in his self-assured voice and thick German accent. Eschewing the usual charade of documentary filmmaker as an objective chronicler, Herzog sees the world-views of Treadwell and his associates as often naïve and misguided. He would challenge Whitman's gentle pantheism with Tennyson's "Nature, red in tooth and claw." The movie also benefits from terrific music, scored by British folk-rocker Richard Thompson.

The movie drags in parts. Werner interviews a large and often eccentric cast of characters that knew Treadwell, including friends, parents, environmentalists, wilderness experts and even the coroner who handled the bodies. Their reactions to this unique personality range from love and admiration to amusement, pity and resentment. But it is the Grizzly Man himself who provides the clearest, yet the most enigmatic insight, by virtue of his own film. Treadwell coos to the bears. He rants about the National Park Service. And when a drought stifles the salmon run making the bears short on food, he invokes an incongruous prayer on their behalf, demanding rain from a God he insists he does not believe in. And then, sure enough, it pours.

I found Grizzly Man riveting, like when I pick up a National Enquirer and can hardly put it down. So naturally, I'm embarrassed to recommend it. Having said that, I think I'll probably watch it again.

Friday, December 02, 2005


I missed Murderball at Sundance last year, but it got terrific reviews despite very weak box office performance. Murderball is about the highly competitive world of paraplegic rugby and the people who play it. Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro follow Team USA as it participates in international play, culminating in the 2004 Paralympics in Vancouver, Canada.

This is one of the most inspiring movies I have seen, as these remarkable athletes display their prowess and share their stories. To its credit, Murderball does not sugarcoat the players—we see them in their weaknesses as well as their strength. But it is marvelous to witness the sheer joy they get by participating and achieving success in this rather brutal and demanding sport.

The movie focuses on the lives of two participants—Mark Zupan, a heavily tattooed and muscled leader of Team USA, and Joe Soares, a former USA star who changed allegiances to coach the Canadian team, leading to a bitter rivalry for international superiority. It turns out that paraplegic rugby is not much different than any other sport played at the highest levels. It takes tremendous commitment and the best players are often fueled by a single-minded passion that sacrifices other things in life.

Zupan and Soares don't like each other much, and at the beginning of the movie it was hard for me to like either one of them. But both characters grow—Zupan by making amends with an old friend that played a key role in his disabling accident and Soares by suffering a heart attack and reevaluating his priorities in life.

It is truly inspiring to see these athletes deal matter-of-factly with their conditions. But my favorite scene was when Zupan introduces the sport to a recently injured young man at a rehab center. You can see his eyes light up as if he has just discovered a whole new world where only those without fully functioning limbs can participate.

I have the highest regard for movies that change my way of thinking. Murderball falls sqarely in this category. From now on, I cannot help but see people with disabilities differently. And I've got a strong desire to go to the Paralympics!

March of the Penguins

March of the Penguins is an extraordinary film about the annual migration of emperor penguins in Antarctica. It is a moving story about a species and a journey that is filled with so much anthropomorphic emotion that one cannot help but look on in utter fascination.

Every year penguins by the thousands walk 70 miles single file for the sole purpose of bringing to life a new generation. Director Luc Jacquet filmed for 14 months in the bitter Antarctic to bring us so close to these creatures that we recognize their joy, playfulness, devotion, love and mourning. It is also a primer on team parenting and the sacrifices they are willing to make.

March of the Penguins debuted at Sundance last January with three French narrators and English subtitles. Morgan Freeman narrates solo in the U.S. release, and provides just enough commentary to keep things lively. But it is the penguins who are the stars of the show, hiking resolutely, nurturing the eggs and enduring extreme hunger and fatigue to protect and feed the eggs and the young hatchlings.

This movie was G-rated, but does include some very amorously filmed penguin sex. (OK, I know that sounds funny.) But in any event, make it a point to watch March of the Penguins with the family.