Screens Armchair Cinephile

Walking The Thin Blue Line

It's good to see the press giving so much attention to Werner Herzog's latest comeback, Grizzly Man. After six years of inattention (since 1999's My Best Fiend), one of the world's truly singular filmmakers has found the spotlight again. Hopefully the timing will benefit New Yorker Video, which has just released two of Herzog's first films, the debut feature Signs of Life, and Land of Silence and Darkness. The latter offers an early glimpse of the filmmaker's documentary philosophy, as Herzog takes us to another world: That of the deaf and blind.

Those releases are overshadowed this month by some long overdue DVD attention to Herzog's former pupil, Errol Morris. MGM has in one swoop more than doubled the amount of Morris material available on disc. The three-disc First Person collects episodes of the TV series he made for cable a few years back. And the fantastic Errol Morris DVD Collection contains his first three features - movies that changed the world of documentaries forever: Gates of Heaven, about a scandal involving a pet cemetery; a look at the strange inhabitants of Vernon, Florida; and The Thin Blue Line, a masterpiece of true crime in which Morris discovers that the wrong man is sitting on Texas' Death Row.

Other recent releases include some docs that had a high profile nationally but received little or no exposure in San Antonio:

Bright Leaves (First Run Features) is something of a sequel to Ross McElwee's autobiographical Sherman's March (not that any of McElwee's essay films stray far from the topic of his own life). This one takes a jumping-off point from the legend that an old Gary Cooper film, Bright Leaf, was based on the life of the filmmaker's tobacco-tycoon great-grandfather.

Mondovino (Thinkfilm) should have done better commercially, arriving as it did in the wake of the Sideways phenomenon. Jonathan Nossiter's film chronicles the politics and history of Napa Valley wine making, showing how mom-and-pop vineyards struggle agains billionaires and how standardized product threatens to squash any idiosyncratic flavor out of local wines. On the same subject, Koch Vision offers an unusual pairing of actor and material from the Food Network. John Cleese's Wine for the Confused follows the Monty Python vet as he wanders California vineyards trying to take some of the hot air out of oenophile snobbery.

A more minor new doc, Gray Matter (Docurama), boasts a fascinating subject but is mostly interesting because of who made it: Joe Berlinger, one-half of the filmmaking team behind the celebrated Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Brother's Keeper, and Paradise Lost. Here Berlinger attempts to hunt down Dr. Heinrich Gross, a Nazi war criminal who spent years experimenting on the brains of over 700 children with various handicaps; shockingly, Gross was allowed to prosper in Austria after the war ended. Berlinger tries to explain how such a thing could happen and why it has taken so long for these human remains to be buried.

Speaking of Nazis, this month sees the release of some fiction films based on very real people. Downfall (Sony Pictures), of course, retells the last days of Adolf Hitler. The always soulful Bruno Ganz takes on the most thankless job in Germany, attempting to bring insight to a character most Germans (one assumes) would happily forget.

Revisiting World War II on a far less weighty note, HBO Films offers Kenneth Branagh as Franklin Roosevelt (alongside Cynthia Nixon and Kathy Bates) in Warm Springs, which in the great tradition of TV docudramas focuses on "one person's brave triumph over adversity" - in this case FDR's struggle with polio-induced paralysis.

Illness makes a more compelling subject in My Left Foot (Miramax), in which Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Christy Brown, the Irish author who got by with the use of only one limb. This special edition of director Jim Sheridan's debut comes in advance of Sheridan's latest, which one suspects will indulge in a little more mythologizing of its somewhat-fictionalized real-life subject: Get Rich or Die Tryin', aka "the 50 Cent 8 Mile."

John DeFore on DVD

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