Justice League


Could this be Ben Affleck’s last appearance as Batman?

(2017) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Billy Crudup, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Ingvar Sigurdsson, David Thewlis, Marc McClure, Sergi Constance, Julian Lewis Jones, Salóme Gunnarsdóttir. Directed by Zach Snyder

 

With the critical and commercial success of Wonder Woman earlier this year, expectations were high that the DC Extended Universe – the comic book publisher’s cinematic arm and their version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – was at last ready to turn around after movies that were disappointing to both fans of the comics and accountants at Warner Brothers alike. That optimism proved to be unfounded as the film, though a hit at the box office was not as successful as the studio execs hoped and after another drubbing from fans and critics alike, the DCEU would eventually undergo massive restructuring. The question is was the movie really that bad?

Well, yes and no. The plot is fairly simple – a cosmic baddy known as Steppenwolf (Hinds in full motion capture splendor) is after three McGuffins called Mother Boxes secreted in various places on Earth. Batman (Affleck), ever the vigilant detective, divines that the Earth is about to come under attack but Wonder Woman (Gadot) is aware that the attack is already under way. With Superman (Cavill) out of the picture, Batman realizes they’ll need a team of superheroes to battle the nearly omnipotent Steppenwolf. He gathers the three others he’s aware of; Aquaman (Momoa) who has dominion over the ocean and those who dwell within it, Cyborg (Fisher) who is learning to adjust to his mostly machine body, and the Flash (Miller), a teen speedster very much unlike the CW version. While the latter is eager to join, the first two are reluctant until they are convinced that they are sorely needed. Massive battle sequences full of mind-numbing CGI follow.

I have to say I found the film entertaining for the most part. Momoa and Fisher make excellent heroes and in their first appearances in anything other than a brief cameo show that they are fully capable of heading up their own films – Momoa’s Aquaman is actually next on the DCEU schedule in December. Gadot and Affleck have proven themselves to be strong screen presences and both know what to do with their material and do it well. The one exception was Miller as The Flash; Snyder and his writers inexplicably went the annoying wisecracking teen route with the character which has already been tried with Quicksilver in the X-Men movies; it worked far better there. Miller is actually a really good young actor but he was sabotaged by the character who is just a jarring note that doesn’t fit in well with the rest of the team.

Snyder has a habit of using a lot of kinetic camera movement and that’s okay but given the massive amount of CGI being used in the movie the effect becomes mind-numbing and overwhelming. It’s visual overload and not in a good way. I would have preferred a little less CGI and a lot more character development but Snyder hasn’t shown the latter to be one of his strengths in any movie that he’s undertaken to date.

For me, the biggest problem with Justice League is Steppenwolf. Not so much in Hinds’ performance capture or his voice work but simply the character as written has absolutely no personality whatsoever and he just felt like a cookie cutter villain who is all like “Oh yes, I want to destroy the world because..” *yawn*

Even with all that going against that I still think that this movie gives some hope that the DCEU can turn things around. As I said there’s been a massive shake-up at the top with a new executive overseeing the franchise – Walter Hamada from New Line who helped build The Conjuring into a multi-film universe that has been as successful in every sense of the word as the DCEU has not been. Although the jury is out on whether Affleck will remain as the Batman for any further films (smart money is that he won’t), Gadot is a proven commodity and it appears both Momoa and Fisher have the ability to take a franchise film and run with it. With the Shazam movie on the horizon as well as a sequel to Wonder Woman there is still something to look forward to in the DCEU. I’m not sure they’re ready to equal Marvel’s cinematic success but there’s no reason to assume that they can’t get there.

REASONS TO GO: The film was reasonably entertaining. Momoa and Fisher acquitted themselves well. Affleck and Gadot continue to impress in their roles. There is still hope that the DCEU can turn itself around.
REASONS TO STAY: Miller’s Flash is way too annoying. The camera is too kinetic and the screen too filled with CGI, making everything look overwhelming and busy. Steppenwolf had zero personality which is a massive problem for your lead villain.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is loaded with action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Snyder’s daughter passed away during shooting; at first he and his wife (a producer on the film) tried to stay on as a way to work through their grief but after two months both decided to step down to spend time with their family. Joss Whedon stepped in and completed post-production as well as overseeing some reshoots
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avengers: Age of Ultron
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Kangaroo: A Love/Hate Story

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Into the Inferno


Volcanology is a hot job these days.

Volcanology is a hot job these days.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer, Maurice Krafft, Katia Krafft, Tim D. White, Adam Bobette, James Hammond, Kampiro Kayrento, Sarmin, Mael Moses, William McIntosh, Han Myong Il, Sri Sumarti, Kwon Sung An, Yonatan Sahle, Yun Yong Gun, Isaac Wan. Directed by Werner Herzog

 

There are few spectacles of nature more awe-inspiring and more terrifying than a volcanic eruption. They are primordial events, part of the continuing growth of our planet. Without them, our planet would be desolate. They are part of what enables life on Earth. It is a powerful reminder of how the Earth created; there are those who believe that volcanoes are the fingers of God.

Studying volcanoes is dangerous work, but it is necessary to understand the forces that shape our world. Volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer met filmmaker Herzog nine years ago when Herzog was filming Encounters at the End of the World and Oppenheimer was studying Antarctic volcanic activity for Cambridge where he continues to work. The two became friends and the partnership between them is well-defined; Oppenheimer acts as an interlocutor as he explains the concepts and science behind volcanology as well as the history of volcanic eruptions and their effect on primitive and modern cultures.

The search takes Herzog and Oppenheimer from the Vanuatu Islands to Indonesia to Iceland and eventually, to North Korea of all places where the communist regime and the dictators who rule it have created a kind of mythology behind Mount Paektu that ties the power of Kim Il-Sung and his successors to the mighty volcano. It is in many ways the most disturbing segment as well as the most amusing.

Throughout there is amazing video footage (some of it shot with drones) of erupting volcanoes; pyroclastic clouds tumble down mountainsides, destroying anything and everything in their path, including the volcanologists who are studying them. This was the fate of the French husband-wife team of Maurice and Katia Krafft who got some of the most amazing footage of magma and lava generally by getting much closer than most of their colleagues would dare to go.

But this isn’t just a film about erupting volcanoes. That’s not Herzog’s style. He’s more of a Michael Moore kind of filmmaker; he inserts himself into the story and acts in  many ways as our avatar. This is not just learning about volcanoes, it’s about Herzog learning about volcanoes and their cultural significance. It’s about learning how the violence of volcanic eruption is one of the cornerstones of life. It is also about obsession as nearly all of Herzog’s films are; the volcanologists are obsessive about their field of study, risking life and limb for it and sometimes, dying for it. Herzog identifies with these people; nearly all of his films both narrative and documentary has some sort of obsession at its center. One can hardly blame him; obsessives make for compelling subjects.

I have to admit that I found more majesty in the images than in the context. While generally I concur that ideas are more important than visuals, here the visuals are so awe-inspiring as to render the ideas almost meaningless. When confronted by a river of flowing molten rock, of plumes of superheated gasses roaring down a hill at hundreds of miles an hour, raging at more than 1700 degrees Fahrenheit, everything else shrinks in significance. Volcanoes are living examples of the power of creation. It just doesn’t get any more primal than that.

REASONS TO GO: The images of volcanic eruption are absolutely breathtaking. Clearly there is an affection and reverence for those who study volcanoes as well as the volcanoes themselves.
REASONS TO STAY: Herzog has a tendency to jump around subject matter a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are adult themes and some graphic images of volcanic eruptions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the third film about volcanoes that Herzog has directed.- Salt and Fire and La Soufriere.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dante’s Peak
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Jackie

Pawn Sacrifice


Checkmate.

Checkmate.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Liev Schreiber, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert, Sophie Nélisse, Evelyne Brochu, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Nathaly Thibault, Aiden Lovekamp, Ilia Volok, Conrad Pla, Andreas Apergis, Katie Nolan, Spiro Malandrakis, Peter Janov, Lydia Zadel. Directed by Edward Zwick

Chess is one of the most complex games ever invented. After just the third move, there are over 40 billion possible combinations that are available. It takes a strong, keen, focused mind to play the game well and to become a grandmaster takes an intellect that most of us can only dream of. To become the world’s chess champion however – well, few ever reach that pinnacle.

Bobby Fischer (Maguire) aspires to that mountaintop. As a young boy (Lovekamp) he developed a passion for the game. His mother Regina (Weigert) raised him and his sister Joan (Nélisse) as a single mom; an American-board Jew who had fled Europe prior to World War II, she had become a communist sympathizer which led to their home being watched by the FBI. Bobby’s chess prowess led Regina to bring him to the attention of Carmine Nigro (Pla), a chess champion who was impressed by Bobby’s skills and even more so by his potential.

As Bobby got older and became renowned as America’s best chess player, he turned his sights to the Russians who were the elite chess players of their day. However, in tournaments the Russians purposely would play Bobby to draws in order to lower his point school, keeping him from qualifying for a championship match with Boris Spassky (Schreiber), then the world champion. Lawyer Paul Marshall (Stuhlbarg), wanting to see Fischer get a shot at the Russians and help America out of its doldrums caused by economic recession, civil unrest and the Vietnam War. He arranged for Bobby to be mentored by Father Bill Lombardy (Sarsgaard), himself a grandmaster.

At last Bobby got his chance to play Spassky for the world championship but by this time his mental illness began to rear its ugly head. Bobby, beset by paranoia and by hyper-sensitivity to sound, began to make increasingly bizarre demands of the chess federation that sanctioned the match. He would arrive late to matches and on one occasion, not at all. His antics would lead him to go down two points to zero in the tournament against Spassky (in the tournament, players get one point for a win and a half point for a draw; a two point deficit is nearly insurmountable). His now adult and married sister (Rabe) is extremely concerned for his sanity.

Unable to maintain any interpersonal relationships because of his increasing paranoia and his poor social skills (he was demanding, uncompromising and often shrill, even to friends) other than with a prostitute (Brochu) with whom he’d had a brief sexual liaison, Bobby is in danger of losing everything he ever dreamed of and worse, being forced to give up the game that made him famous – but may be part of the disintegration of his mind.

The story of Bobby Fischer is a modern tragedy. Zwick, who directed Glory about 20 years ago, has an affinity for tragic stories but he goes a little overboard here. Fischer’s madness, which certainly has to be at or near center-stage for the film, becomes a little MORE than that; we’re subjected to endless scenes of imaginary pounding on his door, voices speaking in Russian, Maguire looking confused or concerned and so forth. I would have been more interested in how he overcame those things to play one of the most memorable tournaments in the history of chess.

Maguire has turned in some notable performances in films both large and small and while this isn’t one of his best, it is far from one that would earn him demerits. It would have been easy to make Bobby Fischer a series of psychotic tics and screaming rage fits but he resists the urge to let those define the character. Maguire actually makes Fischer, maybe one of the most unsympathetic figures in history, somewhat sympathetic here, a little boy lost amid the growing noises in his head that would eventually overwhelm him.

Part of what is fascinating about this story is the enormous pressure that was brought to bear on Fischer; he was playing not just for the championship, but for an ideology. He was playing to show that the West was just as competitive and just as intellectually acute as the Soviets. He was expected to win and the film only touches on that. We don’t get a sense of whether that affected Fischer or not; some accounts say that it did but you wouldn’t know it by watching this.

Schreiber and Sarsgaard are both put in roles that are the sort both actors excel at and they respond with excellence. The former plays Spassky as a man who understands that he is playing a very dangerous game, but knows how to play it very well. He’s a bit of an international playboy but he is also one of the greatest chess players not just of his day but ever. He also works within a repressive system in which he is almost always watched and surrounded by what are ostensibly bodyguards but who are there as much to keep him from defecting as they are to keep him from harm.

&Sarsgaard plays the priest who is also a grandmaster (this isn’t made up; the man really existed) and who served as Fischer’s second, analyzing his game and opponent and preparing Fischer with rapid-fire games. Gentle of demeanor, he doesn’t seem cut out for the cut-throat world of international chess in an era when it was highly politicized. Sarsgaard in many ways acts as the conduit between the audience and the action, letting us know if we should be concerned or overjoyed at Fischer’s various games. The movie spends a good deal of time on Game 6 of the Fischer-Spassky tournament, which many in the chess community view as the greatest game ever played. Certainly to anyone who knows the game, it was a thing of beauty, one which caused even Spassky to applaud his opponent. That doesn’t happen very often; in fact, it’s only happened once.

In fact, this is a solidly acted movie throughout and quite frankly I wasn’t sure if it was going to be; the story lends itself to scenery chewing of the first order, but fortunately we don’t see any of that except for rare instances. Bobby Fischer is a name that probably doesn’t mean very much to younger audiences; people my age probably remember the Fischer-mania that swept the nation, a notoriety the real grandmaster neither sought out nor wanted. The demons that beset the man and ultimately brought him down until he was eventually a man without a country, whom the world had essentially turned its back on. When he died in 2008, it became a sad obituary in what had once been a flame-brilliant career. Is this the movie that could best capture his life? I don’t think any dramatic narrative could. Even the documentary on Fischer scarcely captures the tragic nature of his life and fall and Pawn Sacrifice only hints at the fall.

In many ways, this is set up to be a sports underdog drama, but I didn’t leave with the cathartic feeling that many of those films instill in their audiences. Instead, I left feeling sad; sad for a bitter, unhappy man who happened to be a chess genius but never could master the game of life.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes some of the “going crazy” elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic content, a bit of sexuality and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Bobby Fischer was a fan of the Manchester United football (soccer) team.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Me and Bobby Fischer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie

The Final Member


It's grand to be a man!

It’s grand to be a man!

(2014) Documentary (Drafthouse) Sigurour Hjartarson, Tom Mitchell, Pall Arason, Peter Halldoresson, Reynir Hjartarson, Petur Petursson, Hannes Blondal, Terry Gunnel, Ari Karlsson, Marci Bowers, Douglas Mason, Siri Hastings, Shahar Tsabari, Lilja Siguroardottir, Jona Siguroardottir, Hjotur Sigurosson, Thorgerdur Siguroardottir. Directed by Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math

Florida Film Festival-2014

Sometimes the subject of a documentary can lend itself to a certain type of humor, which as a reviewer you want to resist. The documentarian after all deserves a sober and dignified review of his or her hard work. Then again, it can be hard not to be cocksure and by extension, possessed of a stiff adherence to a set of hard and fast rules entered into by the reviewer without understanding what they’re getting into.

But this film with the Icelandic Phallological Museum at its center is like that. The Museum is essentially a collection of penises from every species of mammal save one – homo sapiens. Sigurour Hjartarson, better known as “Siggi,”  is the curator.

This unusual collection began as a joke when a friend gave Siggi a bull penis because as a boy, Siggi had owned a cattle whip made from a bull’s penis. Other members followed from different mammals which he stored in his office at the college where he taught history and Spanish. After he retired and moved the collection home, he began to add more and more specimens to his collection. Eventually his wife Jona encouraged him to house the collection in a museum. At first the museum was a bit of a curiosity, located in Reykjavik, but when Siggi couldn’t afford the rent he moved it to a former restaurant in the tiny Northern Icelandic town of Husavik. The villagers initially viewed the new attraction with some suspicion but once they realized that the museum contained nothing pornographic they accepted it.

From there it went from oddity to genuine tourist attraction. Thousands of people flocked to the quirky museum from all over the world, 60% of them women. Still, the museum lacked the crowning specimen from the top of the mammalian food chain. Siggi was in despair; no longer a young man, he had very real concerns about the future of the museum without him. He had his cousin Petur, a doctor, start to quiz patients to see if they would be willing to donate the organ when they were dead.

The trouble was that Iceland is essentially a very small island in terms of population and not everybody wanted to have their most private part on public display for eternity, even after they were dead. However, two people heard about Siggi’s plight and decided to help.

The first was Pall Arason, who already was famous around Iceland. A nonagenarian, in his youth he had been an adventurer and explorer of the highlands of Iceland. He was also a notorious womanizer and decided that such a well-used member should get its due.

The other applicant was a different case entirely. His name is Tom Mitchell and he marches to his own drummer as well. A divorcee living in the Santa Ynez Valley in California, Tom refers to his penis as “Elmo” (so-named as a young man by one of his girlfriends) and is determined that it become the most famous penis in the world. He has tattooed his penis with the stars and stripes so that museum visitors will know that they are looking at an all-American penis and let’s face it; what could be more American than a schlong?

As Tom got more into the idea, he e-mailed Siggi regularly with ideas and suggestions as to how his penis should be displayed. He also sent dick pics of his penis dressed up in costume (I couldn’t make this stuff up). He also decided that in order to be first, he would have it removed while he was still alive.

For a first feature (which this is) this is an amazing documentary. I was not aware that there was a museum of this sort anywhere in the world and when I first found out about the movie, I was sure that I could have gone the rest of my life without having that knowledge.

I was wrong. The filmmakers (and Siggi himself) point out that the penis for whatever reason has become a taboo subject, not just here but essentially everywhere. We can talk about any other body part without blushing more or less but bring up the penis and people start to blush and stammer, yet it is a part of our bodies (for males anyway) just as our heart, our eyes and our hair is. That it happens to be the part of our body which not only urinates but also creates life is simply part of its function, like the lungs oxygenate our blood or our stomachs digest food.

Mitchell doesn’t come out looking too favorable for much of the film, although at the very end we begin to see him as less of an oddball and more of a human being whose motivations for the way he acts and the things he does becomes more clear. I can see how some might view him as an object of ridicule but to be honest I found him to be the most fascinating character in the documentary. To those disposed towards judging him (or anyone else in any documentary for that matter), keep in mind that we are spending (when you tally up all the screen time) less than an hour with these people in order to get a glimpse of a certain facet of their lives. That really isn’t enough time to make any sort of comprehensive opinion on who they are as people.

That said, I found this movie to be something of a celebration of things that are outside our comfort zone. I tend to agree with Siggi that we should be able to talk about the penis without resorting to dick jokes (although a few inevitably show up, not always intentionally) and we should be able to view people who are fascinated with them as something other than perverts.

This is one of the most entertaining documents you’re liable to see this year. I have to admit that I had some trepidation towards seeing this initially – what red-blooded guy will admit to being fascinated by a movie about…well, dicks – but once I sat down and actually saw it I realized this was one of the best documentaries of the year. As a matter of fact, it is one of the most delightful films I’ve seen so far this year.

REASONS TO GO: Uproariously funny. Celebrates the unusual.

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find having so many dicks onscreen a little bit uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: Obviously the subject matter is not for kids. Also there is some male frontal nudity and some mild foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to the two donors in the film, an Englishman and a German both also pledged to donate their members to the museum.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Magical Universe

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Devil’s Knot

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)


Walter Mitty doesn't exactly stand out in a crowd.

Walter Mitty doesn’t exactly stand out in a crowd.

(2013) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, Patton Oswalt, Jonathan C. Daly, Terence Bernie Hines, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Gunnar Helgason, Kai Lennox, Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter, Haroon Nawabi, Marcus Antturi, Paul Fitzgerald, Grace Rex. Directed by Ben Stiller

There is a real difference between the lives we lead and the lives we lead in our heads. In our own worlds, we’re beautiful, smart, popular, courageous, daring, heroic and irresistible to our preferred sex. We are saviors of the weak and protectors of the helpless.

For Walter Mitty (Stiller) the disconnect is more than most. He is a shy and somewhat socially clumsy man who works at Life Magazine as a negative assets manager (i.e. he is in charge of the negatives of the photographs for the iconic magazine) and often his daydreams stop him dead in his tracks. His sister (Hahn) calls it zoning out.

Walter crushes on the lovely Cheryl Melhoff (Wiig), recently hired in the accounting department but is too unselfconfident to approach her. What’s worse is that Life is about to be shut down, as announced by the somewhat petty transition manager (Scott) who also says the very last issue will have a cover photo by the magazine’s most famous photographer, Sean O’Connell (Penn). The problem is that the negative for the cover isn’t with the rest of O’Connell’s submissions.

O’Connell, a rootless sort who travels the world looking for that perfect shot isn’t exactly easy to get hold of – he doesn’t even own a cell phone (the teenagers in the audience couldn’t believe their ears). So the only way to get that cover for the last issue is to go out there and fine the reclusive photographer. However that’s easier said than done. The only clues to Sean’s whereabouts lay in the galley sheet of the same set of photos as the missing negative and those clues are pretty vague at best.

While ostensibly based on the beloved James Thurber short story of the same name, the title, the lead character and his daydreaming conceit are basically all that the short story and this movie have in common. Thurber’s short story is much darker in tone and even the Danny Kaye version from 1947 which wasn’t all that much of a match for the short story either was much less uplifting than the Ben Stiller interpretation. It’s all about seizing the day and living life while you still can.

Stiller is a likable enough lead and he has just enough schlubbiness to invest the characters he normally plays with a kind of underdog situation and that is true here as well. Walter is a good-hearted sort who doesn’t have enough go-getter in him to fill a thimble. He is well-liked but not well-respected if you get my drift. People dismiss him as a hopeless dreamer. Stiller fills this role well.

Veteran Shirley MacLaine makes a rare but welcome screen appearance as Walter’s mom but isn’t really given a lot to do – still, she’s always worth the added effort to see her. Comic Patton Oswalt also puts in an appearance as an eHarmony phone representative (mostly we hear his voice in phone conversations) and I’m reminded at how good he can be onscreen as he was in the Charlize Theron black comedy Young Adult.

Stiller the director also makes some interesting moves, nicely going from reality to fantasy and uses graphics within the film to advance the story. It’s a visually clever film. The soundtrack is awfully nice to with Swedish indie artist Jose Gonzalez supplying songs. So why didn’t I like this movie more?

The movie lacked soul, in my opinion, which is a different thing than heart which it has a lot of. I just didn’t get that spark of joy that the film should have produced. Sure one roots for Walter to find Sean and to get the girl but there are too many cliché moves and not enough genuine passion to make the movie more memorable. That’s not to say that it isn’t a pleasant diversion – you can do worse than to spend your entertainment dollar on Walter Mitty. It just let me down a bit so I feel justified in rating it perhaps lower than I would have liked given the source material and the talent involved.

The overall message of doing instead of dreaming is a tricky one to navigate. There is nothing wrong with dreaming big – every action begins as a dream more or less – but it shouldn’t happen at the expense of living life to the fullest. Not all of us can get on a plane to the middle of nowhere and embark on an epic adventure but that doesn’t mean we can’t embark on the epic adventures that are already around us.

REASONS TO GO: Inventive use of graphics and effects. Always a joy to see MacLaine.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks spark.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of crude language and some action violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the fishing boat lands in Iceland, Walter is urged to grab the lone bicycle before a group of “horny Chileans” from a different trawler gets the bike to use to get to the strip club. Those Chileans would be sorely disappointed because strip clubs have been essentially illegal in Iceland since 2010

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bedtime Stories

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Her

Chasing Ice


Ice, ice baby

Ice, ice baby

(2012) Documentary (Submarine Deluxe) James Balog, Svavar Jonatansson, Louie Psihoyos, Adam LeWinter, Kitty Boone, Jeff Orlowski, Tad Pfeffer, Suzanne Balog, Dennis Dimick, Emily Balog, Simone Balog, Sylvia Earle, Jason Box, Synte Peacock. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

The world is changing. That’s a given – our lives are sometimes too short a span to really notice it but I think most of us have noticed that the climate has been changing. Storms are becoming more severe; the summer of 2012 is one of the warmest ever recorded. Wildfires are becoming hotter and more frequent.

James Balog is a nature photographer with the National Geographic Society. He is one of the best in the world at it, having won numerous awards for his work which have for the most part dealt with deforestation and endangered species. He has recently become intrigued by ice and on a photo shoot in Iceland watched a massive glacier calve before his eyes.

Aware that scientists were recording that the glaciers were melting at a faster rate than previously recorded, he decided to document the event. To that end he set up the Extreme Ice Survey which raised funds through grants and Balog’s own personal  funds to set up cameras in Montana, Alaska, Greenland and Iceland (and eventually the Himalayas).

The challenges of doing this are severe. The equipment is delicate; setting up cameras designed to shoot photos once an hour for six months at a time in conditions that are as severe as any on the planet requires some innovative engineering (which doesn’t always work). Setting those cameras up requires sometimes precarious mounts which required some climbing skill. To make matters worse, Balog had some serious knee problems which eventually required four surgeries just for him to function.

But the results are worth it. Balog takes some stunning still photos of the ice which are just breathtaking while the video footage shot of the EIS team in these various locations show the stark beauty of the ice. Most importantly the time-lapse photos of the glaciers are terrifying and convincing – if you didn’t believe the scientific warnings before you will now. Of course if you listen to the airheads on Fox News you still might not.

Even more convincing is a massive calving sequence that was caught on videotape by the EIS of a glacier losing ice the size of Lower Manhattan and ten times the height of the Empire State Building. Watching the sequence literally took my breath away and left me with a pounding heart. It’s beautiful yes, but the implications for our world and our species is disturbing.

This is a movie that needs to be seen, to be shown in high schools and shown to government officials. The commentators at Fox News need to be nailed down into chairs and forced to watch it. America is the only industrialized nation on the planet that hasn’t adopted stricter carbon emission laws and it is our job as citizens not just of this nation but of the world to demand our congress do so. It behooves us to remember that we are stewards of our planet – not for those who came before but for those who come after. James Balog and Jeff Orlowski are well aware of that – and the evidence is on the screen.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible photography. Presents the argument for reducing carbon and carbon dioxide emissions concisely.

REASONS TO STAY: Only if you’re making a fortune in the oil industry and others that benefit from emitting carbons into the atmosphere.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words uttered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balog was the first photographer ever to be commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to create a full set of stamps.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100. I would call it a critical success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Inconvenient Truth

ICE AT NIGHT LOVERS: There is a sequence near the end of the movie when Balog takes pictures of ice on a bright moonlit night (he cheats a little with some well-placed lights) that is simply stunning.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Vicious Kind

Inside Job


Inside Job

The scene of the crime.

(2010) Documentary (Sony Classics) Matt Damon (voice), Eliot Spitzer, Glenn Hubbard, Barney Frank, Paul Volcker, Lee Hsien Loong, Domnique Strauss-Kahn, Gillian Tett, Sigridur Benediktsdottir, Satyajit Das, Jerome Fons, Andrew Lo, William Ackman. Directed by Charles Ferguson

 

There is no doubt that the financial crisis of 2008 was completely avoidable. Regulations that had been in place since the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash had been systematically removed, first during the Reagan administration but continuing through the Bush, Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations. The government that was supposed to protect us from the sharks of Wall Street had in fact aided and abetted their feeding frenzy which led to the crisis.

Most of us have been affected in some way by the crisis. Some of us have lost jobs or homes or know someone who did. Nearly all of us have paid with a drastically adjusted lifestyle that is nowhere near as affluent as it was in 2007 (unless you’re one of the 1%). Most of us feel angry and helpless against the prevarications of the banks and financial institutions that precipitated this mess. What most of us aren’t aware of is that they weren’t the only ones who deserve blame.

Filmmaker Charles Ferguson knows. At one time a dot com millionaire himself, he has become a documentary filmmaker and a fine one – his first film, No End in Sight, showed how disastrous decisions made after the fall of Saddam were leading us to utter disaster – and the Iraqis as well. This movie is even better.

He approaches the crisis calmly and rationally, explaining the steps that led us to the situation we’re in starting in, of all places, Iceland. That country had a robust economy until deregulation (pushed for by the banks and greedy investors) led them to near economic collapse well before our own crisis. Even with that warning in place, few noticed or cared that we were headed in the same direction. Anyone who did raise the alarm was condemned as a Luddite or a socialist. Of course we could trust our bankers and financiers to do what’s best. They’re all interested in a healthy robust economy ahead of their own short-term financial gains aren’t they?

They aren’t, clearly. Not only that, they actively campaigned for deregulation, even given the examples of history where deregulation would lead – not only in Iceland but in 1929 as well. It is in fact somewhat chilling how similar the two crashes were and Ferguson points out those similarities like a prosecutor.

He questions participants in the freefall, from academics paid by Wall Street firms to write “impartial” papers on the soundness of the system to politicians who were hornswoggled into believing that deregulation would be beneficial to the economy short-term and long. He also points out that nobody has seriously been prosecuted for their roles in manipulating the economy nor have the laws essentially changed. That’s just as true in 2012 as when this movie came out two years ago.

Inside Job won a Best Documentary Oscar in 2011 and it deserves it. If your blood isn’t boiling by the conclusion of the film, you need to get your pulse checked. We are made to understand that we have all fallen asleep at the switch and allowed the government, business and academic sectors to collude for the profits of a few. It is up to us, as narrator Damon points out at the film’s conclusion, to make ourselves heard (as the Occupy Wall Street movement has attempted to do). We have to understand that those who got us in this fix feel like they can afford to wait us out but we can’t allow that to happen. We need to learn from our mistakes, make those people responsible for this accountable and re-establish those regulations that prevented this sort of thing from happening for fifty years – the years which coincided with our nation’s greatest prosperity, not too coincidentally. When is our ADHD nation going to take notice of the important things rather than be distracted by more lurid subjects? Not soon enough, I fear.

WHY RENT THIS: A very capable explanation of the financial meltdown and its lasting consequences. Non-partisan (relatively).  Some gorgeous cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dry stuff and lots of talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity as well as some drug and sex-related material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffrey Lurie, one of the owners of the Philadelphia Eagles and one of the richest men in the United States, was an executive producer on the film – which is a study in irony in itself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed, although if you want to see a few extended interviews with some of the participants you’ll find that here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.9M on a $2M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Made in Dagenham