Movie Review: Chasing Ice

This weekend I had the opportunity to watch Chasing Ice, a new documentary that follows the work of the Extreme Ice Survey. The EIS was founded by noted photographer James Balog in 2007 with the goal of investigating climate change through the automated photography of glaciers in a variety of polar sites.

As a feature film, I think the movie is actually a bit thin. Running 75 minutes, only the final act of the film is really concerned with showing us the payoff–Balog’s pictures and video that clearly illustrate the retreat of glaciers worldwide. These pictures are no doubt striking… but after paying $8 to see the film in theaters I kind of wanted to see them all, not just the few glaciers that are profiled. Call me greedy, but the photos are really where it’s at here.

Aside from the glaciers, Balog and his team also produced amazing photos of meltwater pooling on glaciers, Swiss-cheese holes boring into the glacier as a result of collected pools of dust and soot, and almost otherworldly ice-scapes that may never be seen again. Frankly, a 75-minute slideshow of these amazing photographs with commentary would have made me a happy camper, but given the film’s length I felt it went a little overboard by focusing on Balog himself as a human interest story. I don’t want to sell him short at all because Balog’s project is ambitious and remarkable… but more than anything he came off to me like a perfectionist who places himself and his assistants in some really dangerous situations. A visionary, but maybe not the kind of person you’d want to have for a boss.

In all Chasing Ice is worth watching, but probably not in theaters. The film was produced in part by National Geographic and I imagine it will air on their cable channel in the future. Otherwise, get it on DVD and watch it on the best-quality TV you can find.


Movie Review: Thor

Screen shot 2012-12-01 at 10.04.20 PM(This is a film review of Thor. Spoilers may follow.)

I promise I’ll get back to posting about running, training, etc. in a couple of days. But now for something completely different. I ended up with some free Redbox codes after they rented me a bad DVD last week, so I decided to get some light-hearted flicks as long as I’m renting on the company’s dime. Tonight’s selection: 2011’s blockbuster Thor.

Inspired by some comic books I’ve never read and Norse mythology that I know little about, Thor is the story of the titular “God” of Thunder (who is really more of an interdimensional/interplanetary being, played by Chris Hemsworth), the impetuous elder son of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) who rules over Asgard. As he is introduced, Thor is kind of a butthead who enjoys harassing other civilizations, twirling his magic hammer like a drum majorette, and hanging out with his underdeveloped but smartly dressed clan of warrior friends. Oh, and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, in typical little brother fashion, seems just happy to be there. Their idyllic, peaceful world becomes threatened when Thor disobeys Odin’s orders and provokes a war with a neighboring civilization of snow misers, inspiring Odin to disinherit Thor and leaving Loki to unleash havoc in Asgard. Oh, and there’s also a portal to Earth and Thor ends up saving New Mexico. Huh?

What’s goodCompared to the usual crop of superhero films, this boasts an impressive cast. In addition to Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman plays Earthling love interest Jane, Stellan Skarsgård is Dr. Selvig, Kat Dennings of Two Broke Girls plays Darcy, and Kenneth “Hamlet” Branagh directs. Some of the special effects are good, and the movie is overall mildly amusing. This is also good, though there’s not nearly enough of it:

Screen shot 2012-12-01 at 10.16.08 PM

What’s not good: Unfortunately, most of the film. If you’re looking for character development, don’t get your hopes up. Even at the most basic level, when I get to the end of a movie and can’t name several characters let alone understand what their powers are, the script obviously has some issues. Beyond that, characters seem to behave erratically with no apparent catalyst. Thor falls in love with Jane and undergoes a complete personality transplant with little explanation. Loki also maybe loves, maybe hates the snow misers and maybe loves, maybe hates Odin and Thor. There is an interdimensional gate keeper who watches the vaguely phallic portal to other dimensions, and he is loyal to… who knows? Maybe Odin? Loki? Thor?

Dancing his way to Asgard

Dancing his way to Asgard

The female roles here are also disappointing, though perhaps unsurprisingly so considering the genre. Jaimie Alexander as Sif is very cool, but gets little screen time. Renee Russo as Frigga does almost nothing. Kat Dennings has some pithy one-liners, but the worst of all of them is Natalie Portman. As female scientists go, she ranks right up there with Denise Richards for believability. Which is to say, she is not believable at all in this role. I say this not just because she’s too young or too pretty, mind you (although anyone who knows anything about academia will tell you just how implausible it is that a scientist in her late 20s/early 30s would be running a major expedition with an established, senior scientist as her assistant and a political science major hanging around for no apparent reason), but it’s because Jane doesn’t seem to do anything scientific. Her research activities appear to consist primarily of moving things around in her lab, squinting at photographs, and chasing extraterrestrial beings. Other than that, she sits around doe-eyed listening to Thor’s tales of nine realms and swallowing all of it. Oh, honey, and you think you’re getting this research published? I was also unconvinced by her chemistry with Thor, which is surprising because I’d have thought that Chris Hemsworth would have chemistry with a cup of tepid water. Instead, their relationship comes off more like a weird puppy love than anything smoldering or passionate.


Science cat displays more scientific knowledge than Natalie Portman does in this entire movie.

On a more cynical level, I also found myself annoyed by the relentless marketing of the Marvel Brand in this movie. It’s not enough that at the beginning of the DVD, the viewer is force-fed promos for the tie-in video game and various other Marvel films; cross-references are embedded throughout to Iron ManCaptain America, and The Avengers. A not-so-secret “secret” scene at the end of the film is all about hyping The Avengers and ensures us that the characters presented here will return. I’m sure the entire audience breathes a sigh of relief. Honestly, I’m glad I saw this movie for free because I’d be resentful if I paid $10 to see this in theaters only to be bombarded with tie-in advertising and not-so-subtle product placement. My sympathy is also with parents who take their kids to these films only to find they’re a gateway drug to a dizzying array of spin-offs, sequels, and merchandising. Yes, I know–It’s a capitalist world we live in and thank goodness folks like Thor are here to protect it. Or, at least to protect isolated its desert towns.

Thor is rated PG-13 and runs about 1 hour 50 minutes. It is available on DVD now.

Movie Review: Argo

If you know me in real life, you know that I have to be really intrigued by a movie to go see it for full price on a Friday night on opening weekend. However, Argo hooked me with great early reviews and a fascinating premise: The story of how the CIA (working with our Canadian allies) rescued six American embassy personnel from Iran during the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981. So was it worth $10 to see the film in theaters? Simply put, yes. In fact, Argo is hands-down the movie of the year for me.

Affleck as Tony Mendez

Ben Affleck (who also directs) plays the lead role as Tony Mendez, a down-on-his-luck CIA exfiltration expert who is initially called in to “consult” with the State Department on rescuing the six, who amazingly were able to walk out a back door as the embassy in Tehran was being stormed. Mendez quickly realizes that State is way in over its head, and lobbies to take over the whole operation with a brainstorm (inspired by his son’s Star Wars obsession) to sneak out the six disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi film. The whole operation takes on a tongue-in-cheek air as Mendez recruits Hollywood types John Chambers (a real Hollywood makeup artist, played by John Goodman) and Les Siegel (played by Alan Arkin, who steals every scene he is in) to make the film–Argo–look like the real deal. Victor Garber also does an excellent turn as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who risks his own life by hiding the six Americans in his residence.

Part of the genius of Argo is that blends tone perfectly. On the one hand, director Affleck creates a genuine sense of danger and thrill surrounding the fate of the six. While they are never fully developed as characters, their terror is conveyed mostly through looks, gestures, and sparse dialogue. Affleck also gives us a glimpse of Iran spinning out of control, an extremist state where people are executed in the streets. The threat to Americans is very real. At the same time, the antics of the Hollywood storyline provide lots of laughs. The whole cover story is ridiculous, and everyone involved knows that, but Chambers and Siegel are in the business of BS and they’re determined to sell it for all it’s worth. The film also deserves kudos for the costume, makeup, and set design, which recreate the era so deliciously that it’s like rolling around naked on a shag carpet.

Those who like politics, thrillers, and spy movies will love Argo. Anyone who follows current-day political events will also note the parallels between 1980 and today: Popular revolutions in the Middle East spinning out of control, American diplomats in danger, and a government trying to keep pace with rapidly unfolding events. Argo also suggests how things have changed. Today, it’s hard to imagine that the press and a president in the midst of a hotly contested election would unite in secrecy and refrain from publicizing this issue. If this crisis happened today, I wonder if the Obama administration and the press would unite the way they did in 1980 to avoid publicizing (and politicizing) a rescue operation in the interest of protecting the Americans still in Tehran.

Argo is the type of movie you leave wanting more. It will certainly spark after-discussions and Internet searches about how much of the story is true, and how it relates to the world today. To me, such curiosity is the sign of a great film. This one deserves a spot at the top of your to-see list.