Film Reviews


By • Sep 17th, 2004 •

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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
94 mins / PG-13

Dwelling blissfully in the long shadow cast by THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, Zak Penn’s intelligent, witty and crafty homage to so many things cinematic is a unique (despite its debt to BLAIR WITCH) treat for starved US filmgoers. Penn, whose screen credits have thus far been Hollywood oriented, throws caution to the wind with this mind-bending mockumentary, stocking it with real film people portraying themselves, directing the procedings as straight as possible, all the while casting a sly, sustained wink at those in the know.

The narrative concerns a producer of progressively more dubious ethics who convinces a director renowned for both arduous projects and temperamental crises to head a documentary journey onto the Loch Ness in search of…

Werner Herzog, whose itinerary of adventurous indies includes such valuable and outrageous films as AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD, FITZCARRALDO, and the remake of NOSFERATU in two versions, English language and German (I prefer the English version, and I don’t think it’s for obvious reasons), here essays a complex self-portrait and, like John Huston, whose acting career started in earnest at the advanced age of 57 in Otto Preminger’s THE CARDINAL (1963), so Herzog could immediately begin augmenting his income with further acting excursions. Utterly dominating every frame he’s in, the 62-year-old director runs a great character arc even while remaining himself more or less (I assume), passive-aggressive, eccentric-intelligent, quietly demanding yet naïve enough to be taken advantage of, for a while, by a buffoonish-if-doting producer played by (director) Penn in a portrayal I imagine is farther more removed from his real persona than is Herzog’s.

Herzog is the heart and major success of the film. Around him swirl a gaggle of friends (like Jeff Goldblum) playing themselves, technicians eager to work with him (like Gabriel Beristain, the brilliant cinematographer of BLADE II, playing himself), and his own documentary team, who we don’t see until nearly the end, featuring John Bailey (THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY, AS GOOD AS IT GETS).

Penn’s duplicitous producer, eager for the validation of someone like Herzog on board, but ultimately pandering to the boxoffice, occasionally oversteps the reality of his performance into parody, as does the otherwise effective actor portraying a silly crypto-zoologist, and these moments strain the docudrama’s credibility: it’s only in their interview snippets that I would have trimmed perhaps a minute or so from an otherwise expertly edited montage.

Kitana Baker, as a buxom ersatz sonar expert brought on board by the producer to spice up the documentary, makes the most of a relatively small role. She’s part Barbara Steele, part Caroline Munro, and part Gila Golan, but none of those comparisons are meant to take away from her abilities. As displayed here, she’s as good or better than any of them, fleshing out her character not only via her swimsuit, but in the way she gradually sheds her bimbo attitude, growing more sober-minded and useful as the plot’s crisis unfolds.

I love movies, I make them, and I review them, and it’s a little difficult for me to separate what I’m feeling about these real-film-people-within-the-film, and how the film is succeeding on its own. I loved SUNSET BOULEVARD in part for its use of real filmmakers like Buster Keaton and Cecil B. DeMille, and I loved WES CRAVEN’S NIGHTMARE for having Freddie visit his horrors on Wes, the actors, and even New Line’s Bob Shay. I loved this film for much the same reason, but also for its more intricate manipulation of the fictional narrative under, around, and through the reality of the cast. In balance, the film is a reflexive delight, wonderfully staged and well worth a visit.

Roy Frumkes & Kitana Baker

At the party after the screening, I found myself looking up at five foot ten inch Kitana Baker (and I’m six feet tall, last time I looked, so I hope she was wearing high heels), one of the few actors not portraying themselves in the film. I commented on her resemblance to Barbara Steele, though her beauty is less satanic. She wasn’t familiar with Ms. Steele’s work, but took it as a compliment. With Zak Penn I shared a few ‘six degrees’ connections. His story for THE LAST ACTION HERO, was very close in some ways to a film I associate produced called THE PROJECTIONIST (on DVD from Image Entertainment); so close, in fact, that Harry Hurwitz, the 1971 film’s director, considered suing the studio for plagiarism. Penn had never seen THE PROJECTIONIST, but I piqued his curiosity.
Also, as he contributed the story to X-2, we had Bryan Singer in common. Bryan was a former student of mine at the School of Visual Arts, and appears briefly in my new film, STREET TRASH REVERIE, his interview shot, coincidentally, on the set of X-2. On that topic, both of our experiences with Bryan were good ones.

Roy Frumkes & Zack Penn

I’d hoped to chat with Herzog, and to ask him if some of his films were intended as perverse modern reimaginings of the German ‘Mountain’ films of the ‘20s. But he was wrapped up in conversation with Marty Scorsese, so the opportunity never presented itself. If you want more of Herzog, and if you want to learn where more of the in-jokes of INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS come from, you can acquire the bulk of his career from Anchor Bay, which has released his films with Klaus Kinski as one collection and, more recently, a second collection featuring the non-Kinski classics such as STROSZEK, THE ENIGMA OF KASPER HAUSER, HEART OF GLASS (in which all the actors save one are hypnotized!), LESSONS OF DARKNESS (shot on the decimated oil fields of Kuwait), and FATA MORGANA. Most of both collections feature fascinating commentaries with the director, and also, in one instance – EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL – with actor Crispin Glover (!?) as well, who also appears in INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS.

Werner Herzog
Zak Penn
Kitana Baker
Gabriel Beristain
Jeff Goldblum.

Written & directed by Zak Penn
Produced by Zak Penn & Werner Herzog.

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