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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Penguins of Madagascar


Skipper and company, sneakin' around.

Skipper and company, sneakin’ around.

(2014) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Danny Jacobs, Sean Charmatz, Werner Herzog, Stephen Kearin, Nicholas Guest, Angie Wu, Ava Acres. Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith

There seems to be a trend in animated features these days to put in a group of support characters that are almost more popular than the main characters. You’ve got Skrat in the Ice Age series, the Minions in Despicable Me and the slugs in Flushed Away. In the Madagascar series, there are the Penguins.

The four feathered friends have been popular enough to spin off a successful animated TV series of their own. It has allowed further development of the characters who while funny were always a bit lacking in the personality department. Now we have a good idea of who they are. Thanks to this movie, we’ll have a better idea of where they came from.

Out in the Antarctic, the penguins are marching. A documentary film crew led by an unscrupulous director (Herzog) is filming. However, three penguins aren’t like the others. They march to their own tune. One is loquacious, one is voracious and one is sagacious. Skipper (McGrath) is their leader, who believes in a military-like precision. Kowalski (Miller) is the brains of the outfit, Rico (Vernon) the demolition expert who uses his stomach as a storage locker. The three of them chase after an egg that has gotten loose and is rolling away. The other penguins refuse to go after it because, after all, they’re marching. Skipper and cohorts chase after it and in doing so are put in a situation where they are separated from the others permanently on a floating iceberg. The egg hatches, revealing the terminally cute Private (Knights).

Years go by. The Penguins become mainstays at zoos around the world but they’re more about escaping and going on missions. However, those missions can be dangerous. As it turns out, there’s a megalomaniac out there trying to kill them – Dr. Octavius Brine (Malkovich) who has a personal axe to grind with them. The Penguins fall under the protection of the North Wind, an elite fighting force dedicated to saving defenseless animals. They are led by Classified (Cumberbatch), a wolf. The rest of his team includes Corporal (Stormare), a bear; Eva (Mahendru), an owl and Short Fuse (Jeong), a puffin.

However, Dr. Brine has some very nefarious plans for the Penguins. Skipper doesn’t tend to work well with authority figures and the North Wind in turn disdain the Penguins as rank amateurs, although to be honest Kowalski thinks the gadgets the North Wind employs are pretty cool and let’s face it, he has a bit of a crush on Eva while Corporal thinks Private is the cutest thing ever. Can the two work together to stop the maniacal Dr. Brine?

I think it’s fair to say that the Madagascar series hasn’t really impressed me much to date. However, the penguins were always a highlight of their movies. I confess I haven’t seen the TV show but then again, I’m not a big fan of modern animated kids shows. Based on the trailers and my enjoyment of the Penguins in the Madagascar movies I was hopeful that this would be that rare spin-off that improves on the original.

To a degree, it is. Spy spoofs when done right can be way fun. Kids seem to appreciate that genre given the Spy Kids movies and the Bond elements in Pixar’s The Incredibles. Kids, apparently, love spies and why not? They can be tons of fun when they’re done right.

Most animated features are intended for the entertainment of children and most critics, myself included, have a hard time getting into the right mindset. Children, after all, have a different set of standards than most adults. Therefore I tend to write my reviews for the parents who will inevitably accompany the kids to the multiplex. Kids will generally have a good time as long as the movie isn’t boring and keeps on moving at an appropriate pace because kids, as those of us who have them or have been around them for any length of time, have virtually no attention span whatsoever.

Adults require a little bit more than that and for the most part, Penguins of Madagascar delivers. There are some genuinely funny moments and a few that will fly over the heads of the wee ones in the audience. There are also a few groaners which aren’t in and of themselves a bad thing. The movie does drag a little bit in a few places but for the most part maintains a pretty good pace.

Other than Malkovich and Cumberbatch (which sounds like a European law firm) there isn’t a lot of star power here which is unusual for studio animated features these days which seem to rely on celebrity voice work more and more. That can sometimes be distracting when you hear a distinctive voice coming out of a cartoon character’s mouth.

Still in all, this is solid entertainment for all ages and in a year that has been a box office disappointment for family films – and this one hasn’t been pulling particularly high numbers – it stands out somewhat amid a fairly unspectacular bunch.

REASONS TO GO: Really funny in places. A decent enough spy spoof.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit lackluster in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of rude humor and some mild action scenes; acceptable essentially for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In both the previous Madagascar films and in the television series John DiMaggio voiced Rico. This movie, with Conrad Vernon voicing the role, is the first appearance of Rico with a different actor voicing him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars 2
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Theory of Everything

Life Itself


Two big thumbs up,

Two big thumbs up,

(2014) Documentary (Magnolia) Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Martin Scorsese, William Nack, Werner Herzog, Stephen Stanton (voice), Errol Morris, Gregory Nava, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rick Kogan, Marlene Siskel, Thea Flaum, Bruce Elliot, Steve James. Directed by Steve James

It has to be said that for most film critics, it is difficult to be completely impartial when reviewing a documentary about Roger Ebert. His influence on modern film criticism is enormous both directly and indirectly and while he may not have the intellectual cachet of a Pauline Kael (a critic Ebert himself admired tremendously) he certainly was the most populist film critic of his day.

Steve James, whose documentary Hoop Dreams was championed early on by Ebert and his Sneak Previews/At the Movies partner Gene Siskel, originally was tasked with filming a documentary about the film critic’s battle against cancer as a means of telling his story as laid out in his memoirs Life Itself, a book given to me as a Christmas gift in 2012. As it turned out, we would see Ebert facing the final days of his life and we are given almost intimate access – the suctioning out of his throat, the painful physical therapy recovering from a broken hip, seeing how he managed to keep his sense of humor despite losing most of his lower jaw and his voice to thyroid cancer.

James, at Ebert’s insistence, leaves no wart unseen. We hear about Ebert’s womanizing as a younger man, his alcoholism and his occasional control freak-ness. Marlene Siskel, wife of his close friend and rival, recounts how he once stole a cab from her on a rainy night while she was very pregnant.

But we also get a glimpse at his love affair with his wife Chaz, her amazing strength and support even when he is petulant and mulish, and how he adored her family. I do have a bit of a quibble here – James identifies her granddaughter as Roger’s “step-granddaughter” and while the term may be essentially accurate, I get the sense that neither Roger nor any child of Chaz’s previous marriage thinks of their relationship as step-anything. My own son is not my biological child but a product of my wife’s first marriage which ended before he was born. He has never known another father and neither one of us thinks of each other as anything but father and son. I suppose these times may require a redefinition of the term, but I digress.

We get a sense of Ebert’s importance to the art of film criticism through testimony by Richard Corliss (who once wrote that the thumbs up/thumbs down criticism of Siskel and Ebert “dumbed down” film criticism overall), Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and New York Times critic A. O. Scott. We also get a sense of his importance within Chicago through the recollections of his friends writer William Nack, columnist Rick Kogan and tavern owner Bruce Elliot.

It can be said (as RogerEbert.com editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz did) that he had two main loves of his life – Chaz and Gene Siskel. His relationship with Gene was complex. At first, Gene was the enemy – the film critic of the Chicago Tribune whose hoity toity attitude contrasted with the blue collar vigor of the Sun-Times where Ebert worked. The two barely acknowledged each other at first. They grew competitive, each attempting to sway the other through the virtue of their well-thought out opinions. While Ebert was the populist who understood that entertainment value was at least as important as artistic quality, Siskel had more of a cosmopolitan attitude towards cinema. Together the two introduced America to movies they might never have seen otherwise and as home video became popular and movies that rarely played outside of art houses found their way into video stores and eventually, streaming services, people who might not have become movie buffs got the opportunity to explore independent, foreign and alternative films in addition to the studio films they had previously been limited to.

Overall the film is very moving. We see Ebert deal with his illness with a firm sense of humor and great courage. He was in great pain but rarely seemed disposed to complaining about it. Excerpts from Ebert’s books are read by actor Stephen Stanton whose warm timbre is similar to Roger’s and captures his Midwestern cadence nearly perfectly. I must admit that I do miss Ebert’s physical voice much more than I thought I did, hearing him in clips from talk shows, interviews and of course with Siskel and listening to the two bicker and one-up each other is one of my favorite parts of the movie.

There are plenty of talking head interviews and archival footage that make up what documentaries are these days, but the access we have to Roger’s rehabilitation gives us more of an emotional bond with the man.

I cannot say I wouldn’t have become a film critic without Roger Ebert – I had already started down that road before I knew who he was. However, it is accurate to say that he inspired me to be a better film critic. He set standards that while i have no illusions that I meet I can at least aspire to them. He could excoriate a filmmaker and rip a film a new one with the best of them but it was never with malice or viciousness. He didn’t do so with any joy. The joy in his writing came in finding movies that inspired him or provoked empathy. He lived for movies that he could relate to in some way, and his writing in spelling out that relation allowed us to see a bit of his soul. For all his faults he was also a compassionate man whose progressive politics rarely entered his film reviews but whose wisdom and kindness did. His criticisms were usually valid (although he did have difficulty with horror films that he felt denigrated women as well as videogames as an art form) and while I didn’t always agree with his assessments, I usually did. As Scott remarks, he “didn’t condescend, didn’t pander” while his friend Martin Scorsese (who executive produced the movie and who credits Siskel and Ebert with giving him the self-confidence to continue directing during a particularly low point in his career) accurately added “He didn’t get caught up in certain ideologies” that film critics are prone to getting caught up in. The landscape of film criticism is a far bleaker place without him.

This is a movie that leaves me wishing I had known the man personally (the closest I came was sharing a cruise ship with him during one of his Floating Film Festivals several years back). While this movie may resonate more fully with film critics and film buffs than with general audiences, even those who don’t particularly care much about movies may well be moved at the heartfelt admiration the filmmaker has for the man. The title of the movie may sound a bit arrogant at first; movies aren’t life itself, are they? There’s life and then the movies are fantasy. But in a real sense, movies are a reflection of life itself and a good movie and sometimes even a bad movie can give us the opportunity to reflect on life and that’s never a bad thing. Roger Ebert understood that, perhaps better than any critic before or since.

REASONS TO GO: Affecting and moving. Great to hear Ebert’s voice, even artificially. Illustrates his place in popular culture.

REASONS TO STAY: Glosses over some elements of the book.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild foul language, brief sexual images and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the autobiography of the same name that the film is based on, Ebert states that he met his wife Chaz at a restaurant introduced by Ann Landers. In the movie, Chaz reveals that it was at an AA meeting, a fact that she had preferred to keep private which her husband honored.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Obvious Child

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)


Jiro dreams of airplanes.

Jiro dreams of airplanes.

(2013) Animated Feature (Touchstone/Studio Ghibli) Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Hertzog, Jennifer Grey, William H. Macy, Zach Callison, Madeleine Rose Yen, Eva Bella, Edie Mirman, Elijah Wood, Darren Criss. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The French poet Paul Valery wrote in 1922 “The wind is rising, we must try to live.” As with most symbolist poems, the concept can be taken in a lot of different ways.

Jiro Horikoshi (Gordon-Levitt) is a young man who has dreamed of airplanes ever since he was a schoolboy (Callison). He had dreams in which his idol, Italian aeronautical engineer Count Giovanni Caproni (Tucci) shows him fantastic creations filled with family and friends, floating above endless sunlit grassy plains and meadows. In this dream kingdom shared by Caproni and Jiro, the wind blows ceaselessly. In fact, that wind blows through Jiro’s life events both tragic and wonderful.

As Jiro is travelling to university in Tokyo from a visit back home, the train he is riding in is stopped short when the Kanto earthquake of 1923 devastates Tokyo. He meets a young girl named Naoko (Blunt) who is travelling with her maid. Her maid breaks her leg in the incident and Jiro carries her back to Naoko’s home, along with Naoko. He leaves without giving the grateful family his name. When he goes back to inquire about the two girls, he discovers their home has burned to the ground in the fiery aftermath of the earthquake.

After graduating, Jiro gets a job at Mitsubishi along with his close friend Honjo (Krasinski). They work on a design for a plane commissioned by the Japanese Navy. The project is overseen by Kurokawa (Short), an unpleasant and energetic height-challenged person who turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Overseeing Kurokawa is the more kindly-natured Hattori (Patinkin).

The project ends up in failure but his superiors recognize that Jiro is a budding innovator and sends him to Germany to study their impressive efforts. Jiro, accompanied by Honjo, is disturbed by the increasing militarism of Germany and frustrated by their unwillingness to share anything but the most basic information. Jiro recognizes some of the same militarism emerging in his own country.

Once back Jiro is given another Navy plane project but on its test flight the plane crashes. Disheartened and exhausted, Jiro is sent by his concerned employers to recover at a mountain resort. In a bit of serendipity, it turns out  that the hotel is owned by Satomi (Macy), the father of Naoko who Jiro falls deeply in love with. However, she has contracted tuberculosis, a disease that also killed her mother. The outlook for Naoko looks bleak but in an effort to fight off the disease and get healthy, she agrees to go to an alpine clinic to get better.

In the meantime Jiro has resumed working on a radical new design that will make his planes lighter, more maneuverable and faster. However, his conversations with a German pacifist (Herzog) at the resort have attracted the attention of Japan’s secret police who want to take Jiro away – so Mitsubishi hides him at the home of Kurokawa and his wife (Grey). Naoko realizes she’s not getting any better so she decides to go to Jiro and marry him, spending whatever time she has left with the man she loves. While Jiro is realizing his dream to create beautiful aircraft, he is troubled by the eventual use of his planes, knowing that this militarism will eventually destroy his own country. However, he labors on, trying to get the most of his time with Naoko who encourages him even as she weakens.

First of all, this is a gorgeous movie with beautiful curved lines nearly everywhere. The aircraft portrayed in the movie are largely fantastic. Adding a bit of whimsy to the proceedings, nearly all of the mechanical sounds are made by humans, from the roar of the earthquake to the sputter of engines turning over. It’s a marvelous touch that is delightful to both young and old.

Unlike Ponyo which was aimed squarely at the very young, this is most certainly a movie for older audiences. It moves at a stately, majestic pace which the younger crowd will be far too restless to tolerate. In fact, some older audiences may have the same problem – the middle third of the movie is almost glacial as it moves from the terrifying earthquake/fire sequence to the love story.

There are those who are criticizing Miyazaki and the film because Jiro is designing a fighter plane that would be used to take lives (I thought mistakenly that it was the Zero that he was working on and while he did eventually design that plane, the one shown in the film is its predecessor the A5M. The movie does to an extent gloss over the carnage Jiro’s creations unleashed on the Allied forces in World War II. Left-leaners have tended to opine that Miyazaki should have at least criticized the militaristic nationalist leanings of Japan and questioned whether someone who designed weapons should be glorified with a feature film. Ironically, conservatives in Japan have labeled the movie “anti-Japanese.” What’s a venerable animator to do?

I find the criticism to be invalid. Miyazaki damns the militarism by showing its affects on Japanese society without making comment on it. He allows people to draw their own conclusion – the success of which can be inferred by the many differing opinions about the movie’s message. I have to admit that as an American I was very aware that the “beautiful machines” that Jiro was designing would be used to take American lives and that felt a little strange to me. I also found myself able to put that part of me aside and take the movie as a whole without allowing my prejudices to influence my ultimate opinion. War is a terrible thing, as some of the images near the end of the movie show – but Miyazaki recognizes that it is also the catalyst for technological advance.

The imagery is gorgeous, flowing and sweeping across the screen. The early scenes of early 20th century Japan are bucolic and lovely, the earthquake sequence terrifying and beautiful and the scenes at the resort pastoral and also lovely. The colors are bright and harmonize beautifully together and the score enhances the movie subtly. It is not Miyazaki’s best – I still think The Princess Mononoke is and Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service are both superior to this, but it is definitely up in their category. While I did like Frozen when I saw it late last year, this should have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Period.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously rendered. Innovative and clever. Wonderful love story at the center of the film; Jiro is an amazing character.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long. Drags in the middle third a bit. Somewhat low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of fantasy and war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 72-year-old Miyazaki initially announced that this would be his final animated feature but on December 31, 2013 he withdrew his retirement during an interview on a Japanese radio program. It is said he is considering a sequel to Ponyo as his next project.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aviator

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 3 Days to Kill

Jack Reacher


A picture guaranteed to please both men (big gun) and women (wet Tom Cruise).

A picture guaranteed to please both men (big gun) and women (wet Tom Cruise).

(2012) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, David Oyelowo, Jai Courtney, Robert Duvall, Alexia Fast, Vladimir Sizov, Joseph Sikora, Michael Raymond-James, Josh Helman, Susan Angelo, Julia Yorks. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

There is an axiom that when a solution to a problem is handed to you on a plate, take a look at the plate first. That is especially true when it comes to solving crimes. Rarely are cases open and  shut so when it appears that way, it is natural for a good investigator to be suspicious.

Pittsburgh is rocked by a heinous crime; a sniper has taken out five people seemingly at random.. The Pittsburgh police put this one at the top of their list, and quickly found enough evidence to put a suspect, one James Barr (Sikora) into custody in what looks to be an open and shut case. While being interviewed by Detective Emerson (Oyelowo) and District Attorney Rodin (Jenkins) Barr says only one thing – “Get Jack Reacher.”

The trouble is, they can’t find the man. He used to be a crack military investigator but after being discharged took himself off the grid. He’s a man who doesn’t get found – he finds you. Fortunately for them, Reacher (Cruise) walked right into their office. To their surprise, he’s no friend of Barr’s; in fact, he wants to put Barr away for good after getting away with a very similar crime in Iraq when he took out four civilian contractors.

The trouble is, he can’t talk to Barr – he’s in a coma after being beaten up during a prison transport. Barr’s lawyer happens to be the district attorney’s daughter Helen (Pike) and she smells something really fishy. She wants Reacher to be her investigator which would give him access to the evidence, something the DA is not inclined to give him. Reacher only wants to catch the next bus out of Pittsburgh but he needs to put paid to this and move on, so he hangs around.

As he looks into it, he begins to get more and more suspicious and the police’s open and shut case begins to look more open all the time. Pretty soon it becomes obvious that Barr is just a patsy and that sinister forces are at work as Reacher gets closer and closer to the truth and the man who set all of this in motion – a man known only as The Zec (Herzog).

Reacher is a character invented by author Lee Child who has turned it into a series of novels that numbers 17 to date (with number 18 scheduled for publication in 2013). The Reacher in the book is a hulk, six feet five inches tall and massive. That is certainly not a physical description of Tom Cruise.

The reason that Cruise was cast and why Child approved of it is that Cruise captures the essence of Reacher. Reacher is certainly a force of nature when it comes to violence but he is also whip-mart, super observant and a true student of human nature. He understands not only what people do but why they do it.

Cruise is in remarkable shape for a 50-year-old man. He handles the physical aspects of the character well and a scene in which he takes out five thugs in a bar fight is believable, which you wouldn’t expect from a one-on-five encounter. In fact, all of the action sequences are pretty well done. McQuarrie doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel and given that he’s a first time director (after an acclaimed writing career that includes The Usual Suspects) is probably a wise decision.

While the climax drags a bit (which is a bit of a drag), the rest of the movie is surprisingly good. Herzog makes a pretty great villain (he orders a minion to chew off his own fingers after messing up) and Pike is a lovely and radiant heroine. I had thought that the movie would be a pretty typical action movie but it does rise above, thanks to a compelling story and a smartly done script. One can’t ask for more than that.

The timing is unfortunate as the first scene depicts a mass shooting (the film was released less than a week after the Newtown tragedy) and so that’s going to color some perceptions. Those who were particularly disturbed by those killings may want to think hard about seeing this – at one point in the film’s opening sequence the crosshairs of the killer’s rifle lands and lingers upon a young child. That’s meant to heighten the heinousness of the crime being committed, although in this case Hollywood doesn’t hold a candle to reality when it comes to human cruelty.

REASONS TO GO: Tautly plotted and well-written. Action sequences are quite satisfactory.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie Jack Reacher is much different than the book Jack Reacher. Climax is dragged out a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and some foul language with just a hint of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was originally titled One Shot after the novel the movie is based on which is actually the ninth in the series.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100. The reviews hover from mixed to good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Marine

QUARRY LOVERS: The film’s conclusion takes place in a quarry and the landscape is used to good effect in the action sequence.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mystery Men

Encounters at the End of the World


Encounters at the End of the World

In the sea, in the sea, in the beautiful sea...

(2007) Documentary (THINKfilm) Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser, Kevin Emery, Ashrita Furman, Douglas MacAyeal, David Ainley, William McIntosh, Peter Gorham, Regina Eisert, Clive Oppenheimer, Samuel S. Bowser, Ernest Shackleton, Jan Pawlowski. Directed by Werner Herzog

 

At the bottom of the world there is nowhere more desolate, more cold. It is a land without sunrise for six months, without sunset the other six. It is an alien world, inhabited by creatures found nowhere else who can survive in this harsh environment. It is also inhabited by people, people with great courage and also big dreams to sustain them in an unforgiving wilderness.

These are the sorts of things that draws in filmmaker Werner Herzog. With such documentaries as Grizzly Man to his credit, Herzog has a history of being drawn to people with big dreams that the rest of the world might term as odd or unusual. You won’t find anyone quite as unusual as those willing to live in Antarctica.

Herzog was originally drawn there by video taken of the area by his friend avant garde composer, musician and filmmaker Henry Kaiser. Kaiser had himself been brought there by a grant from the National Science Foundation for a writers and artists program in the Antarctic. Herzog got a similar grant but warned the Foundation that he wouldn’t be making a typical wildlife documentary. “No fluffy penguins,” he huffs on the narration. To their credit, the NSF agreed.

What we have here is not only a look at the penguins but also the creatures that exist below the ice, the microscopic life forms who lead a surprisingly violent existence but of more interest to Herzog is the men and women who live at McMurdo Station (the main settlement in Antarctica).

These are an eclectic bunch, some of whom are there mainly for the scientific discoveries in zoology and microbiology (which give insight as to how life evolved here on Earth and, potentially, on other planets), but also gives a front row seat at the apocalypse. The climate and ecological changes man has wrought upon the Earth manifest themselves first at the bottom of the world and the news here is pretty grim.

The images are incredible, particularly of the dives into the Ross Sea. Divers must drill a hole in the ice and then into the dark waters of the ocean they go. They wear no lines in order not to restrict their mobility and range and must trust that they can find the hole again to resurface before their oxygen runs out. However, while the life in these frigid waters is sparse and a little alien, it is beautiful in its own right.

So too is the desolate Arctic wilderness. There is a particularly compelling scene in which a penguin leaves the safety of the nesting ground, walking off the wrong way into the barren interior of the continent. Certain death awaits it, but it trudges on. Earlier, Herzog had asked marine ecologist David Ainley if there’s insanity among penguins; there is certainly some with suicidal tendencies.

There is also a passageway beneath McMurdo where “souvenirs” of those who have lived there before are stored; perfectly preserved by the cold, dry air. There’s a sturgeon from waters far from Antarctica, tins and other human debris, put into alcoves in the ice and left for future generations…assuming there are any.

Me being a history buff, one of the segments that appealed to me was the examination of Ernest Shackleford’s cabin, one built for an expedition almost 100 years ago – perfectly preserved. That expedition ended in disaster and one of the most heroic incidents of the 20th century – but that’s for another day.

Herzog has an obsession with the dreams of men (not in the nighttime sense) and labels those who toil at McMurdo “professional dreamers” and he has a point. However, Herzog often has a tendency to put himself front and center in the documentaries, making himself a part of the stories – he also has been known to stage incidents in his documentaries which I’m fairly certain he didn’t do here but one never knows.

That puts him at direct odds with documentarians like Errol Morris, who rarely get on-camera and take great pains to let his subjects tell their own stories. Herzog is instead more like Michael Moore, who like Herzog has a definite point of view and uses his camera to bolster it. Calling these films documentaries is a little misleading; there’s elements of propaganda to them as well (and I have to point that out, even though I agree with much of the points of view that Herzog and Moore take).

Still, this is a film that pleases the eyes quite a bit, even if some of it is unsettling when you think of the ramifications. There is a lot to think about but one wonders that since the politicians of most of the developed countries can’t see beyond their own narrow self-interest if they really have the ability to see the survival of the species long-term. Kinda makes you think.

I wish Herzog had been a little less in the camera eye and ear here; he’s a great interviewer, yes, but there are times that I wondered if the documentary was about him and not so much about who he was interviewing and what he was filming. Never a good sign.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the great documentarians on the planet, which he is. He makes some very valid points here, takes some incredible pictures and finds some interesting, clever people to chat with. Normally, all that would add up to a much higher mark in my books, but I couldn’t help thinking that a little less Herzog and a little more silence would have done this film more justice.

WHY RENT THIS: Some gorgeous and desolate footage. Lots of quirky interview subjects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Herzog and his obsession with dreams is front and center, perhaps a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s nothing remotely offensive here or unsuitable for small children; however they may wind up being a bit fidgety and the animals and landscapes may not appeal to them much.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is dedicated to critic Roger Ebert, an early supporter of Herzog’s work.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an abundant amount of extra footage shot by Herzog and Kaiser, as well as an interview of Herzog by filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood made its budget back but probably not much more.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Good

New Releases for the Week of December 2, 2011


December 2, 2011

INTO THE ABYSS

(IFC) Michael Perry, Werner Herzog, Jason Burkett, Jeremy Richardson, Adam Stotler, Sandra Stotler. Directed by Werner Herzog

Michael Perry is a convicted murderer scheduled to die in a Texas prison in just eight days. Master filmmaker Werner Herzog explores every angle that he can of the case, interviewing the convict, relatives of both the victims and the perpetrators, as well as prison officials and a pastor who has given comfort to those about to die in their final hours. It is a fascinating look into the soul of humanity as Herzog asks why do people kill as well as why do people allow states to kill.

See the trailer, clips and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material and some disturbing images)