The Chamber (2016)


Rising waters are a bad thing on a mini-sub.

(2016) Thriller (Cinedigm) Johannes Kuhnke, Charlotte Salt, James McArdle, Elliot Levey, Christian Hillborg, James Artaius, David Horovitch. Directed by Ben Parker

 

The ocean remains an enigma for most of us. The last great unexplored space on Earth, it is as alien a landscape as Mars. Creatures that live down there are very different than us and the greater depths you go, the stranger the creatures are. The only way humans can explore down there are in great tin cans pumped full of oxygen – and there is so much that can go wrong.

Mats (Kuhnke) is the pilot of a mini-submersible that is currently leased out to a South Korean corporate entity. The Aurora is aging, nearly obsolete in many ways and held together with crazy glue, duct tape and the grace of God. When a group of American special ops types commandeer the sub, Mats is given no choice but to be their bus driver. Flinty and occasionally hysterical mission commander “Red” Edwards (Salt) tries to radiate as much testosterone as her team; brainy Denholm (Levey) and Parks (McArdle), a bear of a man with a hair-trigger temper.

They are after something on the ocean floor and in the waters of North Korea. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out – everything  Mats who is decidedly non-trusting of the decision making capabilities of this team (and with good reason as it turns out) balks at some of the orders he is given. Despite his assertion that “I know this ship” and assuming that when it comes to crew safety his authority supersedes that of Edwards, he discovers his assumptions are completely groundless when Edwards makes a terrible decision that puts everyone on the sub at grave risk.

Claustrophobic survival tales set on submarines are nothing particularly new and to be really honest The Chamber doesn’t add much to that particular subgenre. The set is pretty unconvincing – it looks like a set, to begin with, rather than an actual sub – although first-time director Parker does a fine job of getting across the claustrophobic surroundings and the rising paranoia and panic that goes along with being trapped in a crippled sub with uncertain circumstances and an unlikelihood of rescue. Most of the movie is just the four characters which you would think would leave some time for a little bit of character development but Parker who also wrote the screenplay chose not to go that route.

Instead we’re treated to a quartet of stereotypes and clichés that run through the usual motions in a film like this. Kuhnke shows some signs of being an excellent leading man. Some might remember him from the disaster flick Force Majeure, the excellent Swedish film from 2014 that was one of my favorite films that year. He shows excellent promise as a leading man; although there isn’t much chemistry between him and Salt.

The American ops are oozing testosterone, particularly Salt and McArdle, the latter of whom is a loose cannon that would never qualify for an elite black ops team. In fact given their reactions throughout the film it is clear that they are reacting to advance the plot rather than as characters actually would. Someone who works on a team for which things can go horribly wrong has to be cool, collected and think rationally on their feet; it’s clear that none of the military characters in the movie are capable of that which is a rookie writing mistake. One needs to research their characters before putting pen to paper.

That’s not to say that The Chamber doesn’t have entertainment value. While none of the situations are particularly innovative, there’s something about a rising water level and a diminishing amount of oxygen that puts the viewer right on the edge of their seat. Parker doesn’t do a bad job keeping the thrills coming and although he has a bit of a learning curve to get through there is definitely potential there. I’d call this a respectable effort and let you decide if this is the type of movie you want to spend some time with – it’s barely an hour and a half long – by all means do.

REASONS TO GO: Kuhnke is a fine leading man. The movie gives a very claustrophobic feel which is perfect for the tone.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few too many clichés. There’s a little too much macho posturing for my tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie score to be composed by James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Abyss
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Concert for George

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

Olympus Has Fallen


BFFs.

BFFs.

(2013) Action (FilmDistrict) Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Rick Yune, Dylan McDermott, Finley Jacobsen, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Phil Austin, Robert Forster, Ashley Judd, James Ingersoll, Freddy Bosche, Lance Broadway, Malana Lee. Directed by Antoine Fuqua 

We’re pretty fat and happy here in the U.S., economic hardships notwithstanding. We’ve rarely felt the ravages of war and terrorism on our own soil. But as 9/11 proved, that can change in a heartbeat.

Mike Banning (Butler) is a Secret Service agent with a Special Forces. He’s also a favorite of President Asher (Eckhart) and his family – First Lady Margaret (Judd) and son Colin (Jacobsen).  But a trip on a snowy road leaving Camp David would change that forever

Now Mike toils in the Treasury Department at a desk job he hates. His wife Leah (Mitchell) can’t understand why he seems so distant; she goes to her job as a nurse as he goes to work somewhat like an automaton. Meanwhile the world keeps on spinning; the North Koreans are gathering troops on the edge of the Demilitarized Zone and the Prime Minister of South Korea is coming to the White House to elicit support from the President.

Then all Hell breaks loose. A transport plane outfitted with advanced machine guns and countermeasures to keep it from getting shot down shoots up the Washington Mall, eventually getting hit by a missile from the White House. At length it crashes but not before taking out the top of the Washington Monument. But that was more or less just a diversionary tactic as the President is hustled down into a bunker below the White House itself and the storied residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue comes under attack from crack troops superbly trained and brandishing state of the art weapons. The Secret Service and Marine detachment are decimated and to the horror and astonishment of the World, the White House is taken.

With the President, the Vice-President (Austin) and the Secretary of Defense (Leo) all in the bunker, the Speaker of the House Trumbull (Freeman) assumes de facto control of the Presidency. Not a moment too soon either because the President is betrayed from within, and now he is a hostage along with all those in the bunker with him.

Kang (Yune), leader of the terrorists, is demanding that the U.S. withdraw all its troops from the DMZ and its warships from the Sea of China. But like everything before it, this is a diversionary tactic from his real objective which is far more sinister and horrible than anyone could imagine. But now that the White House is taken by a hostile force, can the President and his family and fellow hostages be rescued before Kang can carry out his nefarious plan?

Well, duh. You see, nobody counted on Banning making his way into the White House during the chaos. And nobody counted on Banning being the badass he was. But is he enough to save the day?

Well, duh. You’d better believe it. But this is one of those action movies that even though you know deep down in your bones how it’s going to come out, you still sit on the edge of your seat throughout because it’s so skillfully set up and directed.

Butler has already earned his action hero spurs in 300. He cements his status here, showing capable fighting skills and doing some pretty impressive badassery in general. Unfortunately, the writers try to turn him into John McClane a little in the second half of the film which really doesn’t work. Butler is no Bruce Willis and frankly we don’t need another one – we’ve got the original after all. That minor complaint aside, Butler carries the movie nicely.

That the movie resembles Die Hard in DC has been commented upon pretty much by every critic who’s commented at all; I won’t go any further with it except to say that if they’re going to choose an action movie to resemble, they couldn’t have done better.

Fuqua is a capable director (see Training Day if you don’t believe me) but the writing doesn’t measure up to his skills. There are a lot of things that had Da Queen and I staring at each other in disbelief – I find it hard to believe that the government of this country would endanger millions of Korean and U.S. citizens to rescue the President, particularly if the Speaker was in charge (and I can only imagine how quickly Jim Boehner would throw President Obama under the bus if he were in the same situation – probably as quickly as Nancy Pelosi would have done so for President Bush). It is my impression that once the transfer of power has been completed, the President becomes an ordinary citizen. It’s the office of the President that is protected, not the person.

The movie is also hellaciously manipulative. I will admit I felt a pang when the White House is taken; it’s not unlike seeing your favorite pet kicked by someone from another neighborhood. You feel outrage not to mention plain old rage. I was surprised how much the scene effected me. Of course, at the end of the movie the Red Staters I live with were cheering loudly. When times are tough, it’s comforting to know that America still kicks ass in the movies, folks.

REASONS TO GO: Solid action film with a nice premise (although this is the first of two movies this year with the same basic plot). Butler is a terrific action hero.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places. Save the kid subplot bogs down the middle third. Extremely manipulative ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence and pretty foul language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cole Hauser and Radha Mitchell previously worked together in Pitch Black. They share no screen time together here however, although Hauser is once again playing a “federal agent” (he played a Marshall in the earlier film).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the critics can’t make up their mind about this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Air Force One

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ceremony

Salt


Salt

Do you get the feeling Angelina Jolie is watching an entirely different movie?

(Columbia) Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl, Andre Braugher, Hunt Block, Olek Krupa, Daniel Pearce, Cassidy Hinkle, Yara Shahidi, Jordan Lage, Vladislav Koulikov, Olya Zueva. Directed by Phillip Noyce

It is somewhat emblematic of the flaccid crop of movies this summer that this movie is one of the best reviewed of the season, with some critics heaping critical praises on it that it scarcely deserves. Let’s get to the salient facts.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a spy; let’s get that straight first off. It’s not much of a spoiler, since the trailer tells you she is. She is evidently not a very good spy, because when we first meet her she’s been captured and is being tortured by the North Koreans.

She is eventually released and returns back to the CIA – or at least the petrochemical company that fronts for the CIA – and is preparing for an anniversary dinner for her arachnologist husband (Diehl), complete with intricately folded napkins. Nothing says romance more than linen folded into origami after all. However, dinner is going to have to wait; a Russian defector has walked into the CIA front building – apparently the CIA isn’t very good at hiding in plain sight either – and it is up to Evelyn to interrogate the guy since, well, nobody else in the CIA can do it, right?

Her boss Ted Winter (Schreiber) is eager to catch a plane, she wants to get to her anniversary dinner and the by-the-book agent Peabody (Ejiofor) just wants to take over because he apparently is the special agent in charge of Russian defections. Unfortunately, their plans are all thrown for a loop when Orlov (Olbrychski), the defector in question, informs them that a sleeper agent is planning to murder the Russian president on U.S. soil at the funeral of the Vice President the very next day. The name of the sleeper agent? Evelyn Salt.

All Jason Bourne breaks out right about then. Salt, knowing that her husband is going to be targeted – apparently this has happened before – decides she doesn’t have time to wait around to be interrogated and escapes. Orlov, channeling Rosa Klebb of From Russia with Love, boots himself out of an elevator. This would be the perfect time for a car chase, don’t you think?

There is certainly plenty of action here, some of it pretty nifty. Noyce, who directed the two Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies, has a steady hand when it comes to action sequences, and while he doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, the action comes at you thick and fast, with Jolie leaping out of moving vehicles, out of helicopters and onto moving trucks and vans. She beats up everybody she can get her hands on, and a few that she can’t.

My problem with the movie isn’t so much the action but what lies between. I was never able to connect to Salt and there’s a reason for it. The whole is-she-or-isn’t-she theme of the movie only works if you aren’t sure if she is or she isn’t, and so she has to be enigmatic by definition, which makes it difficult for us to relate to her. Quite frankly, it should be fairly obvious early on whether she is or isn’t, and those who aren’t sure, look to the extraneous characters to help you figure it out. You know the ones; they only exist for a specific plot point that will become critical later in the film. These are the kinds of characters that are usually found in bad movies.

I know I’m being a bit harsh on Salt and I should temper it by saying that there are a lot of things in the positive column. Jolie, for one thing, is a terrific action hero, maybe the best female action hero not named Sigourney Weaver. Reportedly, she did a lot of her own stunts, which would make her one kickass broad, based on what I saw here. Certainly some of her parkour-like fighting moves were spectacular.

I never really was able to fall in love with the movie, and I was kind of hoping to. I am fond of action movies in general, but I felt like this was Jason Bourne with boobs channeling James Bond, only without being able to capture my rooting interest. It’s really not an awful movie, but it isn’t a great one either.

Sometimes, you can distill your feelings for a movie down to a single word. Concerning my feelings for Salt, that word would be meh.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the action sequences are breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: You never get a reason to care about any of this; they’re so busy making Salt a cipher that she never connects with the audience.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, a smattering of bad language and some implied sexuality, but nothing the average videogame wouldn’t pack in.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead role was originally written for a male; when Tom Cruise was attached to the movie, it was titled The Mystery of Edwin Salt but when Cruised bowed out to do Knight and Day, Jolie stepped in and the part was substantially rewritten.

HOME OR THEATER: I will have to admit some of the action sequences would be enhanced by the theatrical experience.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Kids Are All Right