Sunday, September 7, 2014

Retro Trio: The Most Dangerous Man in America (2008); The Triplets of Belleville (2003); Cronos (1995)

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009)

Director: Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmith

I can't believe I had never heard of Daniel Ellsberg.

Maybe in the mid-1970s, his story was as huge as this film made it out to be. I'm not sure since I was hardly a twinkle in my pop's eye at the time. Whatever the case, this documentary lays out a fascinating tale of personal, internal conflict that has ramifications that reach the highest magnitude.

The original TIME magazine cover that
contained one of the biggest stories
of the 1970s.
The short version is this: Ellsberg was a brilliant strategist and former Vietnam vet who worked for the Pentagon for a number of years. He basically supported the presidential regimes under which he had worked, somewhat blindly faithful that he was doing the right thing. Then, he got the keys to the secret documents. Once he found out exactly what past and current presidents had known and still knew, he started to doubt everything he had previously believed.

Ellsberg's personal struggles are engaging enough on their own. When they are told within the context of a United States in some serious turmoil, they take on much grander significance. This documentary, though now six years old, has timeless themes. By looking at exactly when a person should start to take personal responsibility for wrongdoing, even if it may be a small part of a wrong, this documentary is just what the genre is all about.

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Original French Title: Les triplettes de Belleville

Director: Sylvain Chomait

It's weird and I loved it.

All you have to do is look a still frame from the movie to realize that this is not your typical animated film. The visual style is very quirky, and even jarring at times. Once you start watching, you realize that the film itself is just as idiosyncratic and skewed. The oddity that runs the course of the film is certainly amusing enough, but I'm not one who enjoys oddity for its own sake.

The grandmother and the dog, hot on the trail of their
beloved cyclist grandson. Two of the most endearing
characters you're likely to ever see in a film.
What I enjoyed so much about this movie is how the oddity adds an exotic spice to what is, at its most basic, a traditional tale of love, loss, and recapture. It's the details, though, that are hilariously strange. And there are countless little details to absorb. An old Portuguese woman living in France raises her grandson to be a competitive cyclist. He competes in the Tour de France, but when he falls far behind the leaders, some extremely strange things begin to take place. His supremely dedicated and stubborn grandmother winds up dragging their obese dog along on an odyssey to find the boy, running into no end of bizarre characters along the way.

The best thing? There is no real dialogue to speak of for the length of the 89-minute film. Sure, there are sound effects, music, and some grumbles and gutteral noises made by the characters. But mostly, it is all visual storytelling and humor, from start to finish. This is something that is difficult enough to do for five or ten minutes. To do it for a full, feature-length movie is the very reason the medium exists.

For an animated movie, I doubt that very young children would like all of it, though many would enjoy some of the sillier moments, especially with the dog. Anyone else who has an appreciation for the slightly peculiar and isn't too proud to watch a cartoon as an adult should give this one a watch. It's undoubtedly one of the most unique animated movies you will ever see.

Cronos (1993)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

I'm not exactly a del Toro "fan," but I've certainly enjoyed several of his movies. I really enjoyed the Hellboy films, and I thought Pan's Labyrinth was captivating. Pacific Rim was fun, even if I didn't geek out over it like many people did. I even thought that his earlier film, The Devil's Backbone, was a really novel story that showed some excellent technical skill and narrative creativity.

The kindly Jesus Gris inspects the cronos device, sending
him down a dark and tragic path along which his
granddaughter is courageous enough to follow him.
Going back and watching Cronos, del Toro's very first feature film, was mildly interesting. It's a vampire story unlike any that I've come across. An old antique dealer, Jesus Gris, comes across a statue that encases an intricately-decorated gold scarab. In examining it, the device activates several blade-like appendages which cut into and draw blood from Gris. Soon, Gris learns that the device, known as the "cronos device," was the work of an alchemist in the 16th century. The cronos contains some form of vampiric insect, which not only sustains itself with human blood, but conveys the same immortality upon its host. Thus, Gris begins to show symptoms of vampirism. This is ghastly enough, but also seeking the cronos are an uncle/nephew duo, the former of whom is seeking a cure from a terminal illness.

As with several of his films, del Toro inserts a young child into a place of prominence, which adds an atypical perspective on a horrific set of circumstances. In this case, it is Jesus Gris's granddaughter, whose love for her transforming grandfather becomes his only link to his mortal life. This is the real novelty of the film. Also impressive is the prowess of the cinematography, given that the budget of the film was clearly limited.

Cronos is not a great movie, but it's a decent enough one that gave several strong indications that its creator would be capable of far more when given more resources.