"The simple truth is that there aren't many images around now," Werner Herzog once told Wim Wenders back in 1985 in Tokyo-Ga, yet the great German director keeps finding them. His pilgrimages across the globe, from jungles and oil fields to deserts and volcanoes, have supplied the medium with its most indelible visions in the past few decades, yet Herzog to many a modern audience is best known for last year's Grizzly Man succès d'estime, a rich personal meditation that, like his lesser-known Wheel of Time and The White Diamond, is rather limitingly labeled a "documentary." The wildly divergent elements of The Wild Blue Yonder could be a response to reviewers eager to box his works into facile categories, if they weren't so clearly keeping with the director's restless exploration of poetic chaos -- the picture is a "science-fiction fantasy," the raw materials are mingled with staged performance, context is scrambled, all of it is transformative. The opening segment is a "requiem," with Brad Dourif, channeling Klaus Kinsky's glare, regaling the camera in front of a garbage-strewn burg, gesticulating like a street corner nutjob while asserting his extraterrestrial status: he's one of many "Andromedan" aliens, who've journeyed to flee a dying planet only to be find themselves uselessly stranded on Earth. "We suck," he says of his intergalactic comrades, as mankind arranges a colonizing trip to their ice-covered homeland (the Wild Blue Yonder) in hopes of finding a second habitat for humans.
A ranter's goof? An artist's put-on? Herzog is the most guileless of filmic explorers, and he documents the turmoil of the universe in all its lyrical-ominous flowerings -- it makes no difference whether Dourif actually comes from another galaxy, for everything is alien (that is, unique, otherworldly, alive with mystery), filmmaking above all. The footage he draws from includes a 1989 NASA mission and an arctic marine expedition by Henry Kaiser, the score blends cello-playing by Ernst Reijsiger and Wolof singing by Mola Sylla; scientists illustrate theories of cosmos-traveling chaotic tunnels in chalkboards, the camera lingers long enough following one of the lectures to record a sneeze. The weightlessness of the anti-gravitational "secret mission" has a bizarrely dreamy euphoria, until the astronauts reach the liquid atmosphere of the alien planet ("played" by the wondrously green ocean underneath the polar crust), where one of the divers shoos away a drifting, bobbing jellyfish. One of the chapters is named "death of a dream," yet the somber, ecstatic indescribability of The Wild Blue Yonder is ultimately enlivening about the baffling beauty of life. The whole world is unearthly to Herzog, who ends with an operatic track over mountains of prehistoric splendor in "Andromeda," a movement that salutes Murnau's Faust and, via an oblique gag-homage, Planet of the Apes: we've been in Earth all along. To Herzog, the transcendentally alien breathes in humanity's own backyard.
Eric Steel's The Bridge, meanwhile, is a straight documentary, closer to Herzog's friend Errol Morris than to the German filmmaker. Indeed, Mr. Death, the title of Morris' distressing meditation on execution-technician Fred Leuchter, might be an apt name for Steel -- how else to justify planting cameras on Golden Gate Bridge (the world's preferred suicide spot, reportedly), recording people leaping over the edge and molding his footage into a muted mood piece? "A surreal experience," one dazed witness notes, another spells it out: "The juxtaposition of celebrating life and ending a life." The anchoring composition is a majestic vision of the bridge, red steel and dark blue sky, creeping mist and a tiny splash in the corner of the frame; it suggests a portal into the afterlife acting as a magnet for troubled souls. The contrast is between architectural vastness and human frailty, though the director's Olympian stance is inhuman -- Steel interviews friends and families of jumpers while teasing our ghoulish instincts by not merely shooting the suicidal dives, but also editing them for suspense. (When Gene Sprague's jump into the void is built up through delay, the director's claims of "accidental" recording turn fishy.) None of the insights justifies the queasiness of the project.
In a season full of regents vying for the Oscar, Helen Mirren's Elizabeth II in The Queen walks off with the most regal wit. Surrounded by the lachrymose frenzy of Princess Diana's untimely death, the tough old bird insists on treading "quietly, with dignity," yet Mirren's performance is a roaring one, her dowdiness radiant, privately melancholic, subtly and triumphantly comic. Cooped up in Balmoral Castle, England's royal family (the "retarded nutters" include Alex Jennings's Prince Charles, Sylvia Syms's Queen Mum, and John Cromwell's Prince Philip) watch Diana's image paraded all over the media; new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) knows a turning point when he sees one, and spots in the mourning masses growing angry with the royals' silence the moment for "modernizing" the British monarchy, and thus saving it. A brisk comedy of manners, filled with entrapping media and familial-societal dysfunction, the drollery staged nimbly by Stephen Frears, who charts the various power plays here with almost as much wryness as Preminger dissecting the U.S. Senate in Advise and Consent. The livid crowds demanding Elizabeth's display of grief are no less serious than the starving plebs coming to claim Marie Antoinette's head, yet Mirren's Queen, more aware of the implications of her role than Kirsten Dunst's, feels the crown weighting more heftily on her emotions. The Queen trenchantly stages its climax around the passing of an era, and the grand actress makes it sting.
Blair's comment on the daft royals ("What a family!") certainly applies for the repellent Running With Scissors, a far more derisive sitcom. Annette Bening gives another twirl in the American Beauty merry-go-round as a short-circuited '70s suburban diva with foaming poetic aspirations and plenty of assorted wackiness to provide her teenage gay son (Joseph Cross) with ammo for a mocking memoir some decades later (it's an adaptation of the very popular Augusten Burroughs book, directed by Ryan Murphy). Brian Cox, the quack-psychiatrist, arrives in an image from The Exorcist to take the young protagonist to a lair of noxious eccentricity -- Jill Clayburgh snacks on doggie kibble, Evan Rachel Wood offers to play doctor with electroshock therapy, and Gwyneth Paltrow tells her sister "you're so oral you'll never get to anal" over dinner. A witches' brew, strictly for the Anderson-Baumbach crowd of privileged idiots who learn about life through Murmur of the Heart and cream at the very mention of The New Yorker. Really, enough to send you for a stroll on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Reviewed November 2, 2006.