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

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Jodorowsky’s Dune


Space...the way-out frontier...

Space…the way-out frontier…

(2013) Documentary (Sony Classics) Alejandro Jodorowsky, Chris Foss, Michel Seydoux, Brontis Jodorowsky, Richard Stanley, Gary Kurtz, Nicolas Winding Refn, Drew McWeeny, Devin Faraci, Diane O’Bannon, Christian Vander, Jean-Pierre Vignau, Amanda Lear, Dan O’Bannon (archival audio). Directed by Frank Pavich

Getting a film made in Hollywood is a treacherous, heartbreaking process. For every movie that makes it to your multiplex, dozens more fall by the wayside, victims of escalating budgets, script issues or studio indifference – or any of a thousand different reasons. Some movies that might have been great just never get beyond the dreams of a filmmaker.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean filmmaker, became famous in the early 70s for El Topo and Holy Mountain, a pair of surrealist epics that essentially created the midnight movie market. Both were successes in the United States which, given the modern more pedestrian tastes in movies, seems almost impossible. We did a lot of drugs back then though.

His success was such that French producer Michel Seydoux gave him carte blanche to do whatever project he wished and when asked what he wanted to do, he famously blurted out Dune even though he’d never read the Frank Herbert classic science fiction novel. One of the biggest-selling sci-fi novels of all time, Dune was everything that would seem to guarantee box office success; a rabid following, epic scope, sex, violence, monsters and intelligence. Okay, maybe the latter doesn’t guarantee box office success quite so much.

Jodorowsky set out to assemble a crew of geniuses both in front of the camera and behind it. To set his landscapes and draw up the overall look of the film, he enlisted Jean Giraud, better known as Mobius of the underground science fiction comic magazine Heavy Metal. To design his creatures, he called upon then relatively unknown Swiss artist H.R. Giger who would go on to design the title creatures in Alien. The spaceships would be designed by well-known book cover painter Chris Foss. One of his designs graces this review, above.

For the script he picked up Dan O’Bannon, who at the time had finished Dark Star and would later be known for writing Alien among others. He also added Douglas Turnbull for special effects. Jodorowsky wanted a frame by frame storyboard which he collected in a huge book which eventually became legendary throughout Hollywood.

Jodorowsky was no less eclectic for his choices in front of the screen. For the pivotal role of Duke Leto, he cast David Carradine, then at the height of his fame for Kung Fu. The Machiavellian emperor Shaddam IV would be played by painter Salvador Dali, who wanted to be the highest-paid actor in Hollywood for the privilege, demanding the then-unheard of sum of $100,000 an hour. That was a lot more than the budget that Seydoux had envisioned could tolerate, but he figured out a way around it by asking Jodorowsky how much onscreen time the emperor would get. When Jodorowsky told him three minutes, Seydoux went back to Dali and said “we’ll pay you $100,000 for every minute of time your character is onscreen!” which satisfied Dali.

He also enlisted the great Orson Welles as the corpulent villain Baron Harkonen, promising him that they would secure the services of his favorite French chef to be his personal chef during the shoot. He got Mick Jagger to take the part of Feyd Ruatha after running into him at a party. He cast his son Brontis as Paul Atreides, the Messianic hero of the tale put him through extensive martial arts and sword training – six hours a day for two years. That his son still talks to Jodorowsky today is something of a minor miracle.

The movie was at last ready to shoot. When it came time to get a studio to finance and distribute the movie however, every single one balked. They were concerned with the psychedelic nature of the movie and worried that it wouldn’t recoup its high for its time budget ($15 million). The movie wasn’t just stillborn, it died in the womb.

At 84, Jodorowsky remains lively, engaging and intelligent. He still speaks passionately about the project even though it must have disappointed him terribly that it was never made. Watching him speak about the project and about the events surrounding it is worth the price of admission alone but on top of that we get to see the amazing production art that was created for the film by Mobius, Foss and Giger. Some of the images would go on to influence other films in the genre from Alien to The Terminator to Blade Runner to Prometheus to the David Lynch version of Dune that followed (and that Jodorowsky proclaimed to be “terrible,” with some relief).

If the documentary has some drawbacks, there are at least two. First, the electronic score by Kurt Stenzel is annoying. Yes it sounds like the electronic film music of the 70s and is somewhat appropriate given the subject matter but I found it overly loud and unpleasant, which also signifies that I’m turning into my dad.

Secondly, there is a tendency for artists to be a little bit egotistical which is understandable given the nature of what they do but when you throw in condescending into the mix it becomes like nails on a chalkboard to me. It is art with a capital A to some people and they speak of art as essentially license to do and say as they please because, well, it’s Art. I get that this might well have been an amazing film had it been made but it might just as well have been virtually unwatchable. One of the talking heads (I think it was Faraci, an internet movie critic) mused that the movie business might have been changed forever had Jodorowsky’s version of Dune been made before Star Wars, believing that movie blockbusters would have wound up being more intelligent and more adult in general than they became because of the impact of George Lucas.

It is a bit arrogant to presume anything. It’s possible that this version of Dune could have become as influential and as game-changing as Star Wars  became but let’s be frank here: it’s likely that Star Wars would have been made anyway and even more likely that it would have been as big a hit. The era of the ’70s was already on its way out by the time “A long time ago…in a galaxy far, far away” first crawled across movie screens. The temperature of the nation was changing too. One movie wasn’t going to make a difference in that regard. The movies don’t change America; the movies reflect America. Anyone who believes differently is delusional.

These gripes aside, this is a fascinating look at a movie that never got made. It doesn’t really give us any sort of insight into the film business – this was being made far outside of Hollywood both literally and figuratively. It does give us insight into a madman slash dreamer who had the audacity and the will to chase his vision even though it never made it into the kind of fruition he wanted it to be. Some things are not meant to be but that doesn’t mean we don’t pursue them as far as we can take them. You never know what unexpected tangents may come of the pursuit and that is always worthwhile to find out.

REASONS TO GO: Jodorowsky is a fascinating interview. Production art is stunning. Definitely has some “what if” moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally gets a bit condescending to its audience.  Annoying soundtrack.

FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of swearing, some drug references and some violent and/or sexual images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming the movie, Seydoux and Jodorowsky reunited and decided to make another movie together. That film, La Danza de la Realidad, was Jodorowsky’s first in 23 years and made its debut at Cannes in the same year as this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 21

The Core (2003)


Hillary Swank suddenly realizes  there will be no Oscar nominations for this one.

Hillary Swank suddenly realizes there will be no Oscar nominations for this one.

(2003) Sci-Fi Adventure (Paramount) Aaron Eckhart, Hillary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo, DJ Qualls, Bruce Greenwood, Richard Jenkins, Tcheky Karyo, Alfre Woodard, Glenn Morshower, Christopher Shyer, Ray Galletti, Eileen Pedde, Rekha Sharma, Anthony Harrison, Nicole Leroux. Directed by Jon Amiel

As far as Hollywood is concerned, the world is in constant need of saving. If it’s not alien invasions, it’s natural disasters or incoming asteroids. Sometimes it’s even the wrath of God. But how do you save the planet from itself?

Weird things are happening all over the world. People drop dead suddenly with no explanation until it’s discovered that all of them wore pacemakers that caused arrhythmia due to electromagnetic interference. The space shuttle’s navigational equipment malfunctions, forcing a crash landing by heroic co-pilot Rebecca Childs (Swank); the culprit – an electromagnetic glitch. Birds start to slam into buildings and into the ground, their sense of direction confused by – you guessed it – electromagnetic interference.

One scientist has figured it out. Dr. Josh Keyes (Eckhart) has come to the horrifying conclusion that the molten core of the planet has stopped rotating, causing the planet’s electromagnetic shield to start to fail. He warns Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Tucci), the Presidential science advisor who at first pooh-poohs his conclusions but then comes to the horrifying realization that he’s right. As he warns the President’s cabinet, in three months human civilization will have returned to the stone age. In a year, all life on the planet will have fried.

There’s nothing to be done but to jump start the planet, but how do you get to the Earth’s core when the deepest hole ever dug is only seven miles? And once there, how can anything withstand the extreme temperatures? No fears there – an eccentric scientist, Dr. Ed “Braz” Brazzleton (Lindo) has developed a craft whose hull is made of the rare (so rare it’s non-existent) metal Unobtanium and uses sophisticated lasers to tunnel through rock like…well, a mole.

Also on the team is Serge (Karyo), a French weapons specialist whose nuclear device will be used to get the core moving, and commanding the mission is Robert Iverson (Greenwood) with Maj. Childs along as co-pilot. Of course, information control will be a key since if word got out there’d be panic the likes of which the world has never seen so expert hacker “Rat” Finch (Qualls) monitors the Internet. In mission control is General Thomas Purcell (Jenkins) on the military side and presidential advisor Stickley (Woodard) for the science.

But there will be many obstacles both known and unforeseen before they reach the Core and once they get there, a secret that explains why the rotation stopped will be revealed. With the life of every living thing on Earth hanging in the balance, this small team literally carries the weight of the world on their shoulders.

This is a surprisingly (although it shouldn’t be considering the cast) well-acted movie for the disaster genre. The premise is kind of intriguing. the science behind it not so much. In fact, most scientists point to this movie as having the most egregious scientific gaffes of any movie ever made. The laws of physics are constantly violated both in plot and execution.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s no entertainment value here. As with any good disaster movie there’s plenty of spectacle as iconic monuments the world over go bye-bye, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the Roman Coliseum. And, as I said, the cast is more stellar than most with Eckhart and Swank turning in solid lead performances, with Tucci, Lindo, Qualls and Karyo getting in some quality support for them, Tucci in particular getting props for his cross between Carl Sagan and Tim Gunn.

So kids don’t see this and expect to be a physics whiz. Real physics whizzes are going to watch this (if they haven’t already) and either tear their hair out and curse Hollywood roundly, or laugh and laugh and laugh until their pocket protectors explode. Disaster film junkies though will probably find this a cut above more recent Roland Emmerich end-of-the-world fare however.

WHY RENT THIS: An entertaining and thrilling popcorn flick surprisingly well-acted. Decent effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the situations they encounter are a tad ludicrous and the science behind the film is really, really faulty.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of swearing and some scenes that are gruesome by implication although nothing horrible is shown.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Dr. Keyes uses a peach as an example to show the Earth, none of the fruit that the producers brought to the set were suitable so an apple was brought in, painted to resemble a peach and a peach stone inserted in the middle.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.5M on a $60M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run although turned a profit once home video and cable sales are factored in.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Snitch