2007_07_arts_rescuedawn.jpgRescue Dawn
(directed by Werner Herzog)

Christian Bale seems to be willing to undergo any amount of physical hardship for the sake of a movie. If you saw his scary transformation into the 120 lb emaciated insomniac in the 2004 film The Machinist you know what he's capable of in terms of "method" realism, but in Werner Herzog's newest fiction film, Rescue Dawn he goes even further. Portraying real life Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down over Laos in 1965 and tortured in a POW camp until he escaped, Bale and his cast mates Steve Zahn (pictured) and Jeremy Davies not only lost a ton of weight but Bale tangles with live snakes, is dragged by his ankles behind a charging buffalo, eats maggots and removes tenacious leeches from his body. Let's just say Rescue Dawn is not for the squeamish. However, it is a movie for anyone who is thrilled by the human capacity to overcome impossible odds.

In 1997 Herzog made an excellent documentary about Dengler's life called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, traveling with Dengler back to his Black Forest hometown where he survived bombings during World War II and also to Laos where Dengler reenacts with locals some of the torture he experienced. After completing this powerful and surprisingly hopeful movie, Dengler told Herzog there was actually more to his story than he'd previously recounted, and his subsequent tales about infighting in the POW camp and his hair-raising escape became the script for Rescue Dawn. Both movies are well-worth a watch as Herzog take his Dengler revisit to explore his continuing theme of nature versus humanity, but within a more conventional Hollywood action film structure. Despite Dengler's experiences he never gets bitter, disillusioned or loses faith in his purpose as a soldier. It's not often you see such a unique person depicted in the movies and Bale is mesmerizing as the perpetually upbeat Dengler. In fact the entire cast (who interestingly arrived on set in Thailand at their skinniest, then proceeded to gain weight while the movie was shot in reverse chronological order) is excellent but if Zahn, as Dengler's compatriot Duane, doesn't at least get an Oscar nomination, it'll be a travesty. Rescue Dawn is a powerful movie about survival and hope in this season of cookie-cutter blockbusters.

Speaking of...the rest of this week's new releases include Michael Bay's big bang extravaganza Transformers, the stultifyingly stupid comedy License to Wed, the creepy family horror film set on the Upper East Side Joshua and Brenda Blethyn's newest Introducing the Dwights.