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Saturday, Dec 20, 2008

Remakes are like those proverbial Tribbles in the classic Trek episode. Give them a creative inch - or in the case of Hollywood, a recognizable box office return - and they’ll overrun your aesthetic starship, and last time anyone checked, Tinsel Town was plowing through them at warp speed. In a clear case of ‘the new generation needs its own version’, everything from the last three decades is now being restructured to appeal to a tween, PG-13 demo. A rare exception is Death Race, an ‘update’ of Roger Corman’s action spoof that’s been given a gritty, grimy, hard-R polish. Gone are the cross country premise and “people-as-points” fun. In their place is a Rollerball meets ridiculousness ideal that’s, oddly earnest if ultimately empty goofiness. 


In a future overflowing with poverty and violence, the prison based demolition derby Death Race is the most popular online entertainment extravaganza. Run by warden Hennessey and starring masked prisoner Frankenstein, the web event draws millions of viewers - and dollars - for the private penitentiary corporation. When a mishap threatens the spectacle, the stern female steward turns to new inmate - and convicted wife killer - Jensen Ames as her new driver. Once he meets up with chief mechanic Coach, and his main competition Machine Gun Joe, he discovers that there is more to his incarceration than crime. Seems this ex-race car jockey turned steel worker may have been set up specifically to save the three day competition - with no hope of he, or anyone else, making it out alive.


Like big steaming chunks of charred animal flesh, or a fleeting glimpse of a gal’s ample cleavage, Death Race (new to DVD in an “Unrated” version from Universal) taps into something very primal (and very male) about the action movie experience. It’s all noise, bluster, and torque-testing horsepower. When it moves, it travels at unlimited overcranked rpms. When it stops to focus on exposition and depth, it’s like listening to the set-up for a very bad, very superficial pulp novel. That Paul W.S. Anderson, film geek scourge that he is, could find a way to make both elements work is surprising enough. That he winds up delivering one of the year’s shockingly guilty pleasures is indeed ‘fuel’ for thought.


Don’t think this was some project pulled out of a bored executive’s yoga-toned behind, however. As part of the Unrated DVD experience (note, of the five added minutes of material, very little do with sex and/or violence), Anderson is one hand to provide a fun and spry commentary track. He indicates that he’s wanted to tackle Death Race ever since famed indie producer Corman bought the rights to his first film Shopping. That it’s taken 14 years from greenlight to gear box is something Anderson laments, but he’s also glad that it took this long. The special effects necessary to realize his over the top aims would have been far less spectacular than in 1994.


Speaking of Roger Dodger, all those with fond memories of the Corman cult classic from the ‘70s take heed - there is very little here to remind you of that cheesy schlock stunt piece. Paul Bartel’s even if effective direction is nowhere to be found. In its place is a style reminiscent of a poorly designed carnival ride, one where you can anticipate the thrills by the logistics of the layout. When the narrative announces that there will be three stages to the title competition, you’re already aware of when Anderson will turn up the adrenalin. And since the trailer more or less give away all the possible plot twists, what happens during the each and every race is fairly obvious.


Also, at many times during this otherwise engaging Farm Film Reportage that Anderson gets in his own way. You can sense he was striving for something more serious, a speculative fiction that says something about our love of violence, corporate greed, morbid curiosity, and outright love of velocity. In its place however is the satisfying crunch of metal and an equally rewarding sense of mindless mayhem. All the action centers around explosions and bullets, revved up hunks of machinery destroying each other in all manner of logic defying permutations. Characters who we barely know are killed in massive sprays of body parts and blood, and everything is soaked in a sinister despotic aura that demands redress.


Naturally, it’s up to human adrenal gland Jason Statham to supply the permanent five o’clock shadow musk. Making a living out of being buff, unshaven, and incredibly surly, the British thesp provides his accustomed glower power, if little else. He’s always an appealing anti-hero, but this time around his vacant Jensen Ames appears inane. Sure, there’s his baby daughter’s salvation to be considered, and his desire for outright revenge, but none of these motives resonate. Instead, Anderson offers Statham as emaciated male musculature, ripples replacing anything remotely resembling characterization or a rooting interest.


Equally out of place, for different reason, is Joan Allen. Yes, the Oscar nominated lady gets to put on her F-you bitch bomb pumps and play baddie, all in the name of authoritarianism and conglomerate insatiability. With a single personality beat - make dat mon-ey - and a sexless disposition, she’s villainess as placeholder, a fashion plate prop waiting for a better menace to take her position. Do we cheer when its comeuppance time? Sure. Do we really understand the reasoning behind her choice of chump (Statham) and destruction of all that he held dear? Huh? She at least fairs better than Tyrese Gibson and Natalie Martinez, both reduced to obligatory eye candy for the requisite sides of the gender aisle.


Anderson, who is often marginalized by a fanbase that has seen him turn some of their favorite geek obsessions (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) turned into mindless mainstream mush, does a decent, journeyman job here. He doesn’t strive for some kind of dystopic dream state or visual allegory. Instead, it’s all screeching engines, smoking lighting and heavy pedal to the metal thunder. For someone who still manages a paycheck for what he accomplishes behind the lens, Anderson remains an enigmatic cinematic shoulder shrug. But nothing he does in Death Race convinces you that his detractors are wrong…or that his employers think outside a very small, very specific financial box.


The DVD itself spends most of its bonus feature cache on the aforementioned commentary. It also plans to get a lot of digital context goodwill be offering the Rated and Unrated versions. Again, don’t be fooled by this plot - studios often inject unimportant material back into a movie to thwart the original MPAA determination, even if the new stuff is just boring exposition. Here, we get a few more seconds of human combustion, but that’s it for the gore score. Everything else is added plot ticks. The two making-of featurettes are fun, since they give the cast and crew an EPK-lite ability to wax poetic about a big, dumb car crash film.


Thankfully, most of the major quibbles with this film drift away in a cloud of oil smoke and exhaust will stand as this last gasp popcorn pitch’s only hope. In a critical community that rightly targets the mindless and aimless as celluloid sputum, Death Race sure smells like something spoilt. But after a year of angst-ridden superheroes whose complex character complaints drive even bigger narrative ambitions, its good to simply sit back and feel your brain cells systematically shut down. This doesn’t make this unnecessary ‘reimagining’ good, merely tolerable. If you want some real kicks, head back to the original. It’s far more enjoyable. Death Race refuses to take itself seriously - and sometimes, that’s all that’s required. 


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Thursday, Dec 18, 2008
Information on how to purchase this amazing documentary can be found at the film's official website - http://www.singingrevolution.com/

The importance of people can never be underplayed in any form of social upheaval. Good or bad, well-intentioned or anarchic in purpose, the inherent power in the citizenry is what makes change possible - be it organized or organic. America was founded on revolution. Russia rejected the Czar and eventually became a Soviet superpower thanks to armed uprising. China grew to distinction under its “cultural” uprising, while all over Africa and South America, factions and sects are today taking the concept of self-determination into their own often bloody hands.  Violence is indeed a byproduct of most upheaval, the struggle to gain/sustain power taking on ugly, unapologetic means. Perhaps that’s why the thought of revolution, while tempting, is tempered by the potential harms to all side.


Yet this didn’t stop the all important individual from trying. Just look at the fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.


As portrayed in James Tusty’s memorable documentary of the same name (currently available in a deluxe, three disc DVD and accompanying coffee table book by Priit Veslilind), Estonia suffered greatly throughout the course of its harried history. Directly in the middle of the fray between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s armies during World War II, they were occupied by both factions before finally succumbing to Communist control in the ‘50s. From that point on, a nation previously devoted to peace and personal freedom found itself under the heavy dogmatic thumb of Moscow’s ruling junta, and the lack of sovereignty sparked a sense of national pride that lingered, underground, until the 100th anniversary of the annual Singing Festival became the focal point for a call to change. From there, all that was required to unseat Soviet rule was a commitment from brave members of the citizenry, and the use of nonviolent protest in light of a mighty military crackdown.


Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region. While the annual celebration and its symbolic performance grounds did become an aggregate space for spontaneous protests and planned rallies, the backdoor machinations that resulted in secret deals, unusual alliances, and dangerous stands were far more responsible for the eventual change than the actual reliance on traditional folksongs. What the singing did symbolize, however, was the previously unknown national consciousness. People who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as activists could use the cover of communal participation as a means of protest.


Tusty goes into great detail here, speaking with individuals who were actually there on the front lines. As much as story about Russia’s fall as Estonia’s rise, he is careful to include contextual information, how Gorbachev’s calculated move to make the Soviet Union more modern opened a can of free speech worms he couldn’t contain. Indeed, while there are several other factors that helped form Estonia’s break, the ability to freely and openly address the nation’s rich cultural past was the catalyst that many newly formed factions used to advance their call to arms. Even more astounding, Tusty gets everyday Estonians to describe the terror they lived under, the undeniable knowledge that the KGB sat at every corner, recording their every move and word.


Indeed, what a film like The Singing Revolution reminds us is that, unlike life in America, the threat of overthrow by an imperialistic or theocratic system is typically a political campaign away for these minor nations. Even when Gorbachev’s reforms seemed to suggest a lack of reasonable response from Russia, Estonia knew there was still a chance that tanks and troops would sweep across the border and take back control forcibly - and that’s just what happened…almost. One of the most compelling parts of the narrative is the last ditch effort by Communist hardliners to take back the Union. A coup led to Gorbachev being placed under house arrest, and with the Central Committee in the hands of those who’d return power no matter the consequences, things looked grim. It was thanks to two industrious police officers, given the task of protecting Estonia’s radio and television tower, and Boris Yeltsin back in Moscow, that truly saved the day.


As with any political thriller, this is incredible compelling stuff, and Tusty doesn’t amplify or marginalize the material. Instead, he lets narrator Linda Hunt provide the plainspoken facts. Then he will accentuate the ‘you are there’ moments and newsreel/television footage with the voices of those who were actually involved. The humble cop who secured the nation’s sole source of information is relatively down to earth regarding his part in history. Similarly, those who staged the concerts and the rallies are on hand to describe the feeling of seeing hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women coming together for the noblest of citizenry causes.


In fact, if there is one minor flaw in Tusty’s approach, it’s that we don’t get enough of the title element. Songs are indeed sung, but they are only offered in snippets. It would be wonderful to see just one of these important melodies completed all the way through. In addition, there is very little input from the Russian side of things. Though their handling of the matter is not what’s important here, a little more scope would seal the documentary’s importance. Still, it’s hard to deny the human drama that plays out over the course of these mesmerizing 90 minutes. Just listening to the participants casually run off their stints in Siberian labor camps and as political prisoners (some for many years) is inspiring enough.


Such a sentiment is supported when viewed in this deluxe DVD presentation. We are treated to over four hours of additional material, interviews and historical documents detailing the history of the region, the ever-changing maps, and the newsreels that highlighted the major political events from the ‘30s to the ‘50s.  If the devil is in the details, a digital package like this clearly provides the minutia meant to establish the USSR’s ruthlessness since they exerted their force in the Balkans decades before. Vesilind’s book is even more in-depth. There are chapters focusing on the “Birth of a Modern Nation”, the “Push to Independence”, and the all important “Summer of Song”. While it follows the film quite closely, the prose style used captures a kind of urgency and intrigue that the documentary fails to capture. Here, Vesilind can set the tone and atmosphere in our mind’s eye. It makes the entire Singing Revolution experience far more personal, and powerful.


It’s the kind of confrontation that makes one question their own commitment to country. The United States has been incredibly lucky in that no foreign nation has ever literally tried to invade and take over. We’ve stood by across decades as other countries claim rights to and overthrow empowered governments for completely incomprehensible or selfish reasons. It’s clear that there’s authority in the voice of dissent, and when matched to a tune that proclaims native roots and right to self-determination, the force is strengthened further. Without its annual proclamation of music, Estonia might still be a Russian stronghold today. But thanks to The Singing Revolution, it’s a proud, prosperous democracy. It proves that power always remains where it begins - in the people. 


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Sunday, Dec 14, 2008

Sometimes, the cinema can be a lot like oil and water. Certain facets of a film can struggle to stay together, eventually separating like the fabled proverbial liquids. While it’s possible to try and force them to gel, hoping they coagulate long enough to fool the audience (and the occasional know-nothing critic), the telltale signs of disconnect soon become self-evident. Take the massive international phenomenon known as Mamma Mia! Based on the boffo jukebox musical featuring the fabulous ear candy of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, otherwise known as the songwriting duo behind ‘70s supergroup ABBA, this surefire smash has been taking worldwide theaters - and now Cineplexes - by storm. But if you look deeper, as the new DVD from Universal points out, the element that makes this movie watchable is in constant conflict with aspects that threaten to fracture it into a billion baffling pieces.


For those unfamiliar with the clothesline plot, it goes a little something like this: Sophie, the daughter of former rock star and current resort owner Donna Sheridan, is getting married to her studly UK boy toy Sky. Hoping to meet the father she never knew, our heroine sends out three letters to three men she reads about in her mother’s diary - American businessman Sam Carmichael, Swedish adventurer Bill Anderson, and British banker Harry Bright. All feel compelled to attend the nuptials, if only to find out if they are the father of Donna’s child. All still have a mad crush on the middle aged maverick. With the Greek Isle locals along for the ride, and Rosie and Tanya, a pair of former backup singers/Donna’s best friends in attendance, it promises to be a wild weekend filled with revelations, revelry, and resplendent sing-along songs.


At first, it’s easy to forgive Mamma Mia!‘s many flaws. Director Phyllida Lloyd is a newbie when it comes to making movies, having gained her name and fame as a worker of theatrical wonders. By all accounts, her staging of this very show is not to be believed. However, working in the 3D space of an auditorium and transferring that to a 2D piece of celluloid clearly perplexed the novice auteur. Even though she sounds relatively confident about the movie she made, there are giveaway comments (found on the Special Edition DVD) which indicate that she’s poorly versed in the realm of motion picture musicals. During “Super Trooper”, Lloyd states that her “gut” told her that the camera should always be moving during the songs. Even though decades of standard cinematic style argues that a series of static shots and forward flowing edits make for more successful showpieces, she decides to track, dolly, and circle the actors like they’re quarry for a particularly famished predator.


Proof of what this film could have been had Lloyd ignored her off-base instincts arrives in the form of a DVD extra - a deleted scene for the song “The Name of the Game”. Here, our heroine Sophie confronts potential father Bill beneath a windswept ocean side moon. As the song’s lyrics look for answers and acceptance, Lloyd basically shoots reactions. That’s it. No random pans. No sweeping photographic gestures. Just two talented individuals, acting and reacting. That’s what makes the music important - letting it, not the camera trickery around it - speak to the story. This is ably illustrated toward the end, when Lloyd’s lunatic tummy makes its most aggravating appearance during the powerhouse ballad between Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, “The Winner Takes It All.” Here, decades of pent up love and frustration pour forth in a performance truly stunning in its power. But then Lloyd starts looping the set-up, our duo becoming enveloped in an unnecessary moviemaking maelstrom. Where once we could sense the connection between the couple, now we’re just nauseous from all the motion sickness picture making.


Lloyd is also in love with everyone who made her Mediterranean locations and surreal studio mock-ups “work” so “seamlessly”. Clearly, she is looking at a different version of the film than the audience is. During the commentary track, she speaks of how “flawless” the transition is between Greece and some interior backdrop. All we see is glowing, greenscreen digitalis. During the title number, Streep scrambles around the top of her hotel, and the editorial whiplash we get between real life splendor and obviously faked scenic simulations is painful. Sure, Robert Altman suffered mightily when he outfitted the Isle of Malta into a working soundstage for his production of Popeye. But in that woefully underrated film, we never once doubted Sweethaven. Here, Skopelos looks like something straight out of a computer’s conception of a travelogue (extensive CG imaging was used).


No matter the wealth of added content extras or Electronic Press Kit praise heaped on the filmmaker and her cast and crew faithful, no matter the joyful noise made by untrained actors giving the words and music of ABBA their very, very best, nothing can eradicate the fact that Mamma Mia! is a very badly directed film. Little can take away from how finger-snappingly fun it is either. Obviously, viewers have been more affected by the way in which the songs celebrate life and love than care about issues like mise-en-scene or narrative logistics. The mega-millions aren’t bothered by the cardboard cutout characterization or “moon/June/spoon” sentimentality. These songs, so formative for many (even though few would be willing to express such adolescent appreciations), work like an enjoyment elixir, providing the subtext and strength the movie’s makers fail to find. For something to look so unprofessional to feel so polished is pictographic prestidigitation indeed.


Besides, an underserved demographic doesn’t like to be told that its prepackaged and programmed product is anything less than stellar. Call it the ‘Bridges of Twilight County’ Syndrome, or anything satisfies a borderline old maid, but Mamma Mia! has so many amazing things going for it (all the actors, no matter the vocal limits of some, are wonderful) that it shouldn’t have to suffer because of some first timer’s filmmaking naiveté. The ability to crossover from one medium to another is never easy - ask the bevy of wannabe thespians who got their start as musicians, and visa versa - but one should also recognize the inherent differences between the two before jumping in. Phyllida Lloyd will always be a wondrous West End Girl. She should simply give her regards to Broadway, and leave the moviemaking to those who have a cinematic clue.


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Saturday, Dec 13, 2008

If aspirations and ambitions were all it took to make a good movie (or at the very least, a merely entertaining one), there’d be no reason for critics. We lowly members of a dying print and public consciousness medium would be parking cars or pumping gas, the ever-present noble goals of the world’s filmmakers constantly saving their projects from utter failure. As part of his commentary track for the recent summer snoozer The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, director Rob Cohen offers up numerous scholarly excuses for his less than satisfying film. To hear him tell it, this third installment of an already dead franchise is rife with chronological wonders and visual splendor. He must be talking about the movie that’s still in his head. What’s on screen is just dull and dopey.


While really not enjoying their post-War retirement, adventurous couple Rick O’Connell and his wife Evie are content to try and live as normal, everyday people. All that changes when the British Government gives them a chance to return a precious artifact to Shanghai. There, they run into Evie’s brother Jonathan, their college aged son Alex, and a new supernatural threat - Emperor Han, cursed leader of a long lost Chinese dynasty. Along with his terracotta army, this petrified pariah will take over the world if he is resurrected, and sure enough, the item the O’Connells are trafficking is the key to his rebirth. It’s not long before the reunited family is scrambling to prevent such a catastrophe, a local Asian girl named Lin providing much needed guidance - and a mysterious knowledge of long past events.


There is no greater crime committed by a film like The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (new to DVD in a two disc Deluxe Edition from Universal) than being no damn fun. We’ll accept lame characterization, narrative hogwash, and an overall aura of cheesiness. We’ll even accept your uninspired idea of over the marquee casting. But when you can’t make massive CG battles entertaining or exciting, you’re clearly out of your popcorn movie league. No matter the extent of extras, not matter how you explain away the special effects, the actual historical context, or the specialness of working with Jet Li and Michele Yeoh, blockbuster boredom is the worst kind of tedium. This third go-round for the franchise even fails to deliver in the familiarity department. Gone are Rachel Weisz (clearly too big and award winning to be involved in such silliness anymore), our bandage wrapped Egyptian villain, and a sense of supersized kitsch.


When Stephen Sommers took on the task of revitalizing the classic Universal creature a few years back, he opened up his overstuffed brain and clearly said “Yes” to each and every excess. From the first film’s attempted epic-ness to the follow-ups proclivity toward pygmy mummies, Sommers understood the inherent goofiness of his charge. While allowing star Brendan Frasier to mug like a monkey on crack, he provided some certified genre brashness. But the idea of taking this kind of approach never got to new helmer Cohen. Instead, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor flounders in fake historical accuracy, an Indiana Jones meets the Temple of Tools wannabe-ism, and a fundamental lack of Li/Yeoh martial artistry. These two Hong Kong powerhouses should light up the screen, especially when fisticuffs are involved. Instead, their confronts are crap.


Maybe it’s the basic premise that undermines this third Mummy. Here, Li’s Han is your standard undead megalomaniac. He’s not some heartbroken shaman sent to sleep with the scarabs because of a forbidden tryst with the Pharaoh’s lady. There’s no sexiness here, no golden skinned cat clawing between Evie and some otherworldly babe. Instead, Maria Bello bumbles around like a bad parlor trick, her interpretation of the character cause for concern and utter contempt. Frasier seems to sense his co-star’s flop sweat, and ups his eye-popping panto to outrageous levels. Even John Hannah, whose whining drunkard brother Jonathan was never a subtle facet of the first two films, goes elephantine in the performance caricature department.


When it came to theaters back in August, many critics complained that, even though its scope suggested something spectacular and larger then life, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor was probably better suited for the small screen. As an amusement, it was a TV, not a theatrical party. Well, they were wrong. Dead wrong. Details that at least looked likable in 35mm are lost on the DVD, while other aspects blurred in the cinematic shuffle are emphasized now. Sure, it’s kind of neat to see how Cohen’s concept of “liquid stone” was realized during the Chinese New Year chase, and the Yeti’s lose some of their randy ridiculousness ratcheted down to boob tube size. But even with an outlay of deleted and extended scenes, cast and crew interviews, and numerous behind the scenes insights, this third installment in the franchise just lays there, dormant and uninvolving.


None of this matters to the ambitious filmmaker, however. During the course of his commentary, Cohen makes it clear where storylines were left purposefully ambiguous to make room for a few more films in the Mummy series. “As long as the fans want them” he says, suggesting that ticket sales and strong DVD sell-through will somehow sway Tinsel Town into taking on the material yet again (sure, like Hollywood is ever persuaded by a title’s commerciality before considering a sequel. Right.). If money is any measure of success, then this Asian update of the series earns a presupposed second chance.


But cash almost never matched creativity. In some cases, the amount of dollars earned is inversely proportional to the quality of amusement on the screen. Judged by those studio slicked standards, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a rock solid return on the investment. It’s also a sloppy stink bomb. Here’s hoping the next few installments find a way to balance ambitions with actual entertainment value. One senses, however, the motion picture maxim remaining in effect for the foreseeable future.


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Thursday, Dec 11, 2008

Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who works in two distinct arenas. The first can be categorized as ‘man vs. his inherent nature’, the struggles of a being against his or her own psychological and biological predispositions. This is seen most clearly in such important films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Stroszek, and Fitzcarraldo. The second is ‘man vs. nature’ itself. Unlike many directors who stay comfortably in the fictional zone, Herzog loves to explore the real world around him, focusing on such unusual subjects as handicaps (The Land of Silence and Darkness), heroism (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), and human frailty (Grizzly Man). Now comes his amazing exploration of Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World. But unlike most travelogues, Herzog is more interested in the people than the place.


After seeing some astonishing footage of divers under the massive ice flows of the South Pole, filmmaker/provocateur Werner Herzog decides to visit the desolate continent to see the wonders of Antarctica firsthand. He soon discovers that the pristine mountains and overwhelming snow banks house an eclectic group of drifters, scientists, and individuals simply looking to escape from the so-called civilized world. There’s the former businessman who now drives a huge transport bus. There’s the biologist making his last dive ever. There’s the linguist whose PhD was destroyed when superstition literally forced the language he was studying to become extinct, and the researcher whose spent most of her life hitchhiker around the planet. In between we get breathtaking looks at the Antarctic vistas, an insider guide to McMurdo Station, and enough classic Herzog philosophizing to put everything in ethereal perspective.


Leave it to Werner Herzog to take the mainstream memory most have of the wintery landscape of Antarctica and purposely piss all over it. As part of his remarkable motion picture, Encounters at the End of the World, the aggressive auteur finds a hermetic penguin expert and proceeds to deconstruction the entire March of the Happy Feet myth. “Are there gay penguins?” he asks, curious if these loveable little family film icons are “depraved” and “amoral” at heart. When the scientist sits back, stunned, he jumps into another line of attack. “Are there insane penguins?” he chides, some future footage suggesting that a few of these birds go off their nut and chase imaginary oceans far away from their breeding and feeding grounds. This is typical of Encounters. As with most of what he does, Herzog takes his title quite literally.


It’s the same when he meets a journeyman maintenance man who proclaims his Aztec/Incan heritage, his elongated rib cage and oddly matching middle and index fingers providing the proof of lineage. Instead of focusing on his job as part of the continent’s community, he simply lets the man marvel at his possible regal heredity. Elsewhere, a former prisoner from “behind the Iron Curtain” shows off his combination adventure/survival kit. Weighing no more than 20 kilos, it contains everything from food, a tent, and a sleeping bag, to an inflatable raft and a paddle. “I am always prepared,” he claims, asking Herzog to stop filming so he can get his pack back together before he’s “called” off on another incredible journey.


With its focus firmly on the individuals inhabiting this massive slab of ice and frozen soil, many may think that Herzog misses the point of Antarctica’s inherent grandeur. But all throughout Encounters at the End of the World, the filmmaker finds images that actually reflect back on the people we meet, and help us make the connection between their apparent eccentricities and the reasons they stay so far from the rest of civilization. During the final dive of a noted researcher, we see a stunning alien underworld, ocean floor riddled with sci-fi sea life and other jaw-dropping discoveries. Discussions of a nearby glacier also prove awe-inspiring, as the sheer size and scope of the flow confounds common thought.


This is not new terrain for Herzog. He is the king of taking private passions and obsessions and juxtaposing them against the actual elements the characters inhabit. Here, a pair of scientists celebrate a major discovery by playing blues-based rock-n-roll at maximum volume, their outdoor concert sweeping across the vast flat white locale. Yet when a group of visitors are forced into a two day survival camp to test their wilderness mantle, we see them struggle to complete the most basic backwoods techniques. Herzog argues in the film that it’s a crime for places like Antarctica and Mt. Everest to be stained by human interaction. To him, some places in nature deserve to stay untouched, though he also acknowledges that, nowadays, that’s next to impossible.


So in some ways, Encounters at the End of the World is Herzog’s time capsule for a continent rapidly changing. While exploration and education are still the area’s leading lures, many are now trying out their South sea legs in a mad gasp to see those fuzzy flightless birds that made their Animal Planet viewing so satisfying. “Global Warming exists” argues one particular interview subject, the serious look on their face ready to circumvent any argument from Northern Hemisphere blowhards. As a document to a land pre-exploitation and the people vowing to preserve - or at the very least, understand it, this is yet another definitive documentary in Herzog’s infamously feathered cinematic cap. As with much of his work, he takes an unconventional approach to get the obvious last word on a subject. The marketing tagline suggests we “Go Somewhere Cool”. As long as we can go with Herzog, the latter part of that sentiment is a guarantee.


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