Monthly Archives: June 2012

Herzog Enters the Abyss, Again—Review of “Into the Abyss”

Werner Herzog outside the prison where much of the filming was done.

German filmmaker Werner Herzog is my favorite filmmaker of all time.  Thanks to Netflix, you can watch many of the dozens of films he has made since the 1970s.  Usually his works are character studies of real humans on the edge, and they are on edges that most people never knew existed in this world.  He’s not interested in big space ships or cartoonish rescuers of our wonderful capitalist Christian culture.  His characters live in this world, but don’t occupy the same mental space as the average American.

Into the Abyss is a documentary about two men guilty of a grisly triple murder in Texas.  One faces a life sentence; the other is scheduled to be executed at the end of the week.  They and their associates, and friends seem to have ice water for blood, and seem to go through life in a trance of their own invention.  Nothing they do in their lives seems to make sense, though they go through it with passion and a remarkable inability to deal with the realities of their terrible situations.

A murderer who proclaims his innocence prepares to meet his Yahweh.

To describe the characters or events will be spoiling the story, because Herzog carefully crafts the documentary to reveal just little bits and pieces at a time, like the best mystery writers.  When you discover what’s really going on, it’s like 110 volt jolt to your brain.  It’s enough to say that every character seems quite normal in the beginning, but as they tell their stories, layers fall away and unspeakable inner tragedies are revealed.  Out of the thousands of murders that are committed each year in the U.S., how Herzog picks this particular one to follow, with such complex levels of deeply hidden events and stricken personalities is amazing.  Or you can come away with the idea that actually maybe everyone is insane, if you spend a little time looking at them, and allow them to reveal themselves.

This is the theme of many of Herzog’s films.  He isn’t content with headlines.  He wants to enter the abyss.  He digs and digs until his fingernails are raw and bleeding, and freely admits that when he sees the entire story, it can be so emotionally scaring that he refuses to burden his audience with it.  He’ll tell you about it, and give you tantalizing little hints, but the sensational is not the point.  It’s how people deal emotionally with the sensational in life that is important.  It is a unique viewpoint, and bless Werner Herzog for taking it.

Into the Abyss is 188 minutes long, twice that of your average movie, and it’s mostly talking heads.  But it is a haunting, shocking journey about strangers in a land that we might think is familiar, but is not.  Don’t miss this masterpiece.

John Waters’ Crybaby- Artifact Alert– Swag Comb

Once again, rummaging through my drawers, I found this piece of Waters paraphernalia.  Even though “Crybaby” was a Universal Picture produced by Brian Grazer, the $9 million budget was cheap by Hollywood standards.  Of course taking away studio overhead, the executive producers and Mr. Waters’ nice high six figure salaries, music, choreography, and other name stars, in some areas the cheapness showed.

As location manager, I can attest they strained to save a bundle in that department, but never mind.  Swag for the crew consisted of ten-cent combs.  No t-shirts, no mugs, no fancy pens– a few plastic combs.  Again, as location manager, they were pretty much the extent of my “thank-you” gifts to cooperative location participants, as I mumbled our deep appreciation and here’s a comb with a misspelling of the film’s title to make up for the grips trampling your prize-winning rose bush.

Toward the end, crew morale sank lower as hours got longer, scheduling became hopelessly chaotic, and the gap between the haves and have-nots grew; a pretty common thing on many films, especially in the lower budget realm.

One particularly abrasive day the producers showed up with a van load of spiffy Hollywood- film crew style baseball jackets with a huge, beautiful likeness of Johnny Depp and the actual Crybaby logo on the back.  They gave one to even the lowliest PAs.  It did the trick.  The crew cooled down, and proudly wore them even in the 95 degree dog days of a Baltimore summer.

I still have my jacket, on extended loan to one of my sons who wears it to many hip events.  Of course I still have a few combs, but with a haircut very similar to John’s (e.g. no hair left), I haven’t been able to use them for years.

Read about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and booksellers around the world.

“Prometheus” Reviewed – A Hunk of Baloney

This laughable poster is of a scene that never appears in the movie and has nothing to do with the plot. It’s an  amazing example of the level of contempt the filmmakers have for their audience.

I saw Prometheus recently in a large theater, something I rarely do anymore.  It is such a crock, alternating between ridiculous to silly to patently unbelievable. First, this lame effort didn’t seem like it could be a Ridley Scott film.  He is now at least 75 years old, and has about 12 films in “pre-production.”  My guess is that Mr. Scott has lost the brilliant touch of Blade Runner and Alien, but is enjoying life immensely by selling his name to squads of  Hollywood CGI animators and overpaid bean counters whose idea of a good movie is judged by how many explosions per second trigger the theatre’s sub-woofer—(that give me only the sensation of letting out a big fart).  Some observations on why I dislike Prometheus so much:

  1. It discards all known laws of physics, biology, and chemistry just like a Porky Pig cartoon.
  2. It demands you ignore absurd plot element like a ship’s crew that doesn’t have a clue about even the most basic security measures; like characters who have hideous things happening to them but neglect to reveal them to anyone; like high-tech geographers who get lost in a cave;  an incompetent and a collection of bland and uncurious characters who would never qualify for a trillion$ space mission.  I didn’t believe one iota of the film was based in any sort of reality.  If you believe in virgin births, turning water into wine, and re-incarnation, you are the target of this film.
  3. The slightest noise triggers a sonic boom from the sub-woofers, and each sounds exactly the same—shooooooooopBOOOOM!  Ludicrous, predictable, and tiresome.
  4. There is no creative use of 3D at all—I mean why bother when most of the film is dialogue?  It looked basically the same with or without the glasses.
  5. Geiger’s brilliant design influence is sadly minimal.  His original stuff really makes you believe in the bonding of organic and inorganic.  This design is 5th generation rip-off.
  6. The coincidences used in the story are so unlikely they are laughable—I don’t want to spoil anything here, but you’ll know them when your brain repeatedly says WTF?

Prometheus is an example of the Hollywood big budget EFX movie gone amok.  To prep, the theater played endless trailers of astonishingly cookie-cutter-like Hollywood summer adventure films that all look and sound the same:  spectacular car crashes, huge, improbable guns, and big explosions every ten seconds with that same shooooooopBOOOOOM! that Hollywood sound effect editors must all “secretly” share to add that real-expensive-Oscar-in-sound-design touch.  It is used in everything from derringer shots, to car doors closing… I mean what world do these people inhabit where every little percussion has to shake the seats in the exact same way?  Do they ever get out of their sub-woofer studios and into the real world?

From now on it’s Blu-Ray DVDs at home where I control the sound, and don’t bother me with 3D until you learn to use it for more than a gimmick to promote in the advertising.  I’ll spend the $20 for the movie ticket and popcorn on a good bottle of wine and a genuinely engaging and believable little foreign film, courtesy of Netflix.

“In Darkness” on Netflix a Real Chiller


“In Darkness” was a Polish film nominated for an Oscar in 2011, but strangely rates only a 7.7 on IMdB.  It is the true story of a group of Jews hiding from Nazis in the decrepit sewers of a large Polish city at the end of WWII. Many people complained because it’s (yawn) “just another” Holocaust rescue film like Schindler’s List.  It only grossed $1 million in its U.S. run.  Another shameful comment on American movie-goeers, as if you needed another.

To me it was on the level of “Das Boot.” It is a terrorizing 2.5 hours of relentless horrors and ugliness that won’t let you look away.  It presents the bold sexuality of people who don’t know if they’ll live another minute– a generally undiscussed topic.  Most of it takes place in a sewer so real that you can smell it when the characters puke.  The director, Agnieszka Holland is a master at handling a wide range of actors, fascinating character development, narrative pacing, and gut-wrenching cinematography, not to mention a horror show of sets, make-up and wardrobe.

The editing sometimes has jump cuts that  challenge you  to fill in the gaps– like a dream, but genuinely reflects the chaos of running for your life in a dark confusing and terrible place.   If you’re interested in the art of cinema that twists you around its little finger, this is it.  It makes “Hugo” and all the other recent big Hollywood films look like Mr. Rogers’ pablum.

Crybaby #001 – Artifact from John Waters’ Crybaby Jail Scene

Found this ID card in some old papers today.  It was required of all cast and crew by the Maryland House of Corrections (MHC), where we shot Crybaby’s prison scenes.

MHC, in Jessup, Maryland, was selected because it had a working prison license plate factory.  It was famous because Maryland bad boys were threatened by the juvenile authorities with a career making license plates at “Jessup” if they didn’t straighten out.

We shot on a Sunday because that was a day off for the prison workers.  All the working plate-making machinery and thousands of plates-in-progress made it a priceless location.  Without the card, the prison authorities joked we might never get out.

As location manager, I was responsible for getting the 100+ cards from the prison office for those who worked behind the locked gates, including Johnny Depp, who had spent several days with us shooting behind the bars. As first in line, I got #001.  I put on my best Elvis Jail House Rock face and glared into the camera.

Read about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and booksellers around the world.