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PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO (Blu-ray)

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panthergirlcover

Grade:  C+/C
Entire family:  Yes (with caveat)
1954, 168 min. (12 episodes), Black-and-White
Olive Films
Adventure
Not rated (would be PG for fighting and “monsters”)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio:  Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Old-time serials were shown in theaters in weekly installments as a way of getting people to return to the movies frequently, and the 13-20 minute episodes were especially popular with children. Serials were all about the plot, and the premise behind Panther Girl of the Kongo—a 1955 12-episode black-and-white serial from Republic Pictures—was a doozy:

A mad scientist (albeit a rather understated and sedate one) has set up a lab in the Kongo and is using all his test tubes and beakers to distill jugs of super growth hormones that he’s feeding to crayfish. He’s breeding giant “claw monsters” in an attempt to scare everyone out of the area so he and his two garden-variety henchmen can access secret diamond mines. That means getting rid of Jean Evans, whose work for an international wildlife foundation is less clear than the title the “natives” have bestowed upon her: Panther Girl. She shoots, she swings through the trees on vines like Tarzan, and she rides atop an elephant, all while wearing a mini-skirt outfit that looks straight out of Robin Hood.

The Panther Girl also faints a lot, as women in old-time serials were expected to do, even as the medium was drying up in the mid-fifties. Or she’s knocked silly by such things as hitting her head on a couch cushion, leaving the real fighting to her big-game hunting friend, Larry Sanders (Myron Healey).

panthergirlscreen1Phyllis Coates plays the Panther Girl, and if she looks familiar, Coates played opposite George Reeves in the first 26 episodes of the popular TV series The Adventures of Superman. Before that, she appeared in a string of western movies and TV shows (including four episodes of The Cisco Kid) before first stepping onto a jungle set in 1953 when she co-starred with Clayton Moore (who would go on to play TV’s Lone Ranger) in Jungle Drums of Africa, a 12-episode black-and-white serial from Republic Pictures.

Those connections may delight Grandma and Grandpa, but the rest of the family will smile mostly because of the B-movie conventions that are unintentionally funny by today’s standards. An African tribesman carries a quiver of arrows that have the same look as North American Indians, and one African “native” speaks like the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto (“Me get Bwana”) while the chief sounds as if he attended Oxford and says things like “Don’t mention it,” when thanked. This is a low-budget, man-in-a-gorilla-suit, plot-driven series, and studios just weren’t that concerned about verisimilitude. The attack of a panther is a particularly amusing reflection of low-budget filmmaking. All 12 episodes cost under $175,000 to make, and as was customary the studio reused stock footage (from Jungle Girl, an earlier serial), and the action itself never seems to match the hyperbole of the posters or chapter titles:

  • “The Claw Monster”
  • “Jungle Ambush”
  • “The Killer Beast”
  • “Sands of Doom”
  • “Test of Terror”
  • “High Peril”
  • “Double Trap”
  • “Crater of Flame”
  • “River of Death”
  • “Blasted Evidence”
  • “Double Danger”
  • “House of Doom”

panthergirlscreen2Even if children in the ‘50s didn’t know that Africa doesn’t have any crayfish, they probably realized that the giant claw coming out of a wooden crate would have to belong to a creature much larger than could fit inside. After all, it did look fake, and more importantly, it didn’t matter. Serials were just for fun, and the hokiness was all part of it. Even now, with the hokiness multiplied because of the sophistication of today’s audiences, the serials are still fun if family members turn it into a participatory event and crack jokes during playback.

That’s what our family did, and it’s fun for about three episodes . . . then it starts to get old because you’re joking about some of the same things. Panther Girl of the Kongo is best watched the way it was originally intended: as a weekly teaser before the main feature. It can be a fun idea for today’s families to start a serial tradition and tack on 15 minutes to the movie of the week. Panther Girl may not be as solid as Flash Gordon or even Commando Cody, but it’s laugh-out-loud funny in spots and a good one for savoring serial hokiness and Hollywood’s love of monsters and exotica.

Bottom line:  It’s silly, it’s fake-looking, and it’s unintentionally funny. But Panther Girl is a fun serial to watch, and a representative one at that. One caveat:  every jungle film coming out of Hollywood in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s was racist, and this one is no exception. “Native” warriors run spooked and wide-eyed from danger, they are talked down to by the whites, and their depiction feeds into all the negative stereotypes. At least, unlike some of the Tarzan movies, they used African American actors for most of the parts.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (Blu-ray combo)

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edgeofseventeencoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No (17 and older)
2016, 104 min., Color
Universal
Comedy-Drama
Rated R for sexual content, language, and some drinking, all related to teens
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

More than a few critics have remarked how ironic it is that some 17 year olds might not be able to get past the ticket-taker to see the R-rated film The Edge of Seventeen, which stars 20-year-old Hailee Steinfeld as a teen whose world is turned upside down after her only friend starts dating her only sibling—a brother who is everything she’s not, and who has never shown her any kindness. In fact, the only person young Nadine felt connected to died several years ago, and that’s no spoiler: we see it fairly early in the film.

edgeofseventeenscreen2Nadine and best buddy Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) really capture the behavior of teenager besties, while Blake Jenner as the got-everything-going-for-him older brother struts his stuff—those perfect abs, great hair, and jock standing that make him popular. The gap between the outgoing and accomplished Darian and his introverted and awkward sister is so great that you wonder if they’re really brother and sister . . . until you see more of the mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and realize how incapable she seems of handling life’s problems. The ratings paradox, meanwhile, is the result of another gap: the one between reality and standards of decency. Are today’s teenagers drinking, swearing, and having sex? Not all, and maybe not even most . . . but many, certainly. Do parents feel comfortable admitting this? Not remotely.

The Edge of Seventeen is a film that teenagers would like, and a film that ultimately models the kind of behavior most parents would hope would be their children’s default, no matter how much they experiment or stray (as even the best ones are apt to do). Nadine sexts the boy she’s crushing on and she goes with him in his car to an isolated spot, but her default morality kicks in when it matters most. It’s implied that another couple has had sex, since they’re in bed together, but aside from bare shoulders and a hand moving up and down under the blanket, nothing is shown. Aside from teens making out at a party, that’s the extent of the sex in this 2016 film from newcomer Kelly Fremon Craig. I’ve seen PG-13 films that have had more explicit moments.

edgeofseventeenscreen1So what makes The Edge of Seventeen R-rated? Language, mostly (some of it sexually explicit), plus teenage drinking and puking—the filmmakers certainly don’t glamorize partying. Nadine says the f-word a lot, and her teacher almost matches her. Woody Harrelson makes a small role large as the acerbic Mr. Bruner, who has embraced deadpan understatement as a defense against students who tend to be overly dramatic . . . like Nadine. There’s a certain amount of shock value attached to hearing a teenage girl talking like a phone sex operator, but it’s part of life—at least part of her life while she tries to get it together.

“There are two types of people in the world: the people who naturally excel at life, and the people who hope all those people die in a big explosion,” Nadine says in voiceover. Nadine has issues, to put it mildly. While The Edge of Seventeen isn’t as edgy a film as the title implies, it provides enough space for her to grapple with those issues and emerge by film’s end a better person. It’s not exactly a caterpillar-to-butterfly tale. More like a grub to a beetle—a different kind of coming-of-age story, yet one that’s oh so familiar as Nadine learns to appreciate the people right there at arm’s reach.

The cover says this is one of the “best reviewed comedies of all time” and the trailer makes it seem like it’s going to be a laugh-fest, but The Edge of Seventeen is a drama with comedic moments, some of them laugh-out-loud. Think Juno, but a little edgier. With a lot more F-bombs.

Language: Pretty much a steady stream that eventually tapers off
Sex: Other than what I’ve written in the review, nothing else
Violence: Nothing here
Adult situations: The Edge of Adulthood is probably a more exact title, as all the situations are adult or borderline adult
Takeaway: Being a teenager used to seem so much easier, and yet some things never change

SEASONS (2015) (DVD)

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seasonsGrade: B+/B
Entire family: No
2015, 96 min., Color
Music Box Films
Rated PG for thematic elements and related images
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: French Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Some people watch nature documentaries to learn about animals: their names, diets, habits, range, and habitats. But if it’s detailed knowledge you seek, you won’t find it in Seasons, a 2015 nature film from directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud (Winged Migration, Disney’s Oceans). Seasons is more of an art-house film than it is an informational documentary, a lyric pro-environmental political statement rather than matter-of-factual nature guide.

“The Golden Age of the forest is over,” a voiceover announces, and it doesn’t require much reading between the lines to understand that humans are responsible for the decline . . . and possible eventual extinction of the deep forest and all its inhabitants, who keep getting pushed more and more into unfamiliar, less hospitable habitats.

Seasons is a film that relies more on nature than narration to tell its story, and that’s good—since a French-language voiceover with English subtitles can be daunting for young viewers. Then again, given some of the footage, we’re probably talking about a film that’s suitable for age 10 and older anyway.

Since some animals are pursued and killed by predators—albeit in a manner that shows the least amount of graphic violence possible—you never really know which ones will survive the chase seasonsscreen2and which ones won’t. It might traumatize horse lovers, for example, to see a feral herd chased by a pack of wolves and one horse cornered, especially since later we see how close those same wolves come to the perimeter of a human campground at night. Lovers of all things cute and cuddly will hold their collective breath as a Eurasian lynx tries to catch and eat the bounciest, slipperiest rodent on the planet, and cringe or avert their eyes when an owl swoops in on a cute hedgehog after the little guy gives away his position in the dark by chuffing in an attempt to dislodge a mosquito from his face. It’s the small things that sometimes matter most, and the two Jacques capture plenty of engrossing footage of such moments—some of which I haven’t seen before.

I’ve seen a ton of baby birds being fed by their moms, but with big spiders and recognizable insects? Not so much. I’ve seen plenty of birds still in the nest flapping their wings, but when different species are all shown doing the same thing, it starts to make sense that they’re trying to master “lift off” before they attempt their first flight. Though shots of the wolfpack and feral boars are pretty impressive, the best shots are actually the subtlest. In fact, this film’s strength is probably the sheer number of frames that are so artistic that they would make for one terrific nature calendar or series of blown-up photographic prints. In fall, for example, we’ve all seen leaves drop en masse, but how often do we get a ground-level shot of one leaf landing on the head of a tiny frog? And see that little guy’s reaction?

seasonsscreen1If your child is a nature lover, there’s a lot of great footage here to appreciate, though it does come as a shock to see humans enter this forest documentary around the 54-minute mark and then pop up several times afterwards. What’s more, the humans aren’t contemporary—they’re at first prehistoric, then time fast-forwarding takes us through the middle ages as well. Count me among those who prefer the silence of the first hour of film—no professorial voiceover, no barrage of facts, no spoken narrative, no attempt to make political statements via juxtaposition of images, just immersive footage of nature for viewers to absorb and interpret on their own. Watching this first hour reminded me of the cathedral-like silence of the forest when cross-country skiing and the only sound is the gentle swoosh of movement.

Which is to say, the first part of the film is superior to the rest, even if the political message is as subtly filmed as the predator kills. But like the deer whose head bobs and who we can hear bleating before it disappears behind a snowy ridge, the message is clear. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that nothing was staged so that animals were put in jeopardy and that “no animals were harmed” during the making of the movie. But while the lyric first portion is the film’s chief strength, the downside is that if you see an animal—an interesting bird diving in and out of a stream, say— and you wonder what it is, this film doesn’t tell you. You have to look it up on your own. Some parents will think that’s not a bad idea. Why force-feed data all the time? Let children look up the things that interest them the most. Just remember that if they are so inclined, look up European animals, as Seasons was filmed in France, Poland, and Norway.

THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (Blu-ray)

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eaglehuntresscoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes, if reading age
2016, 87 min., Color
Sony Pictures Classics
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Kazakh DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Like most 13-year-old girls, Aisholpan likes to paint her nails and hang out with friends. Though she enjoys school and wants to be one of the best students, like a typical teenager she also has a dream that’s more far-reaching.

But Aisholpan Nurgaiv is far from typical. She was born into a family of Kazakh nomads, who break down their tents and relocate based on the time of year, as 30 percent of the population does. She and her family live in the most isolated part of one of the most remote countries in the world—Mongolia—where the terrain is rugged and school is so far away that the children must stay in dormitories during the week, only returning home on the weekends. That leaves plenty of time for hanging out with friends . . . and dreaming.

eaglehuntressscreen1If your children aren’t averse to watching documentaries with subtitles, I can’t think of a better one for family movie night than The Eagle Huntress, a G-rated inspirational film that has a lot going for it: exotic setting, gorgeous cinematography, a likable teenage protagonist, a special father-daughter bond, and a natural dramatic arc that’s the result of Aisholpan’s very specific dream. She wants to become a golden eagle hunter like her father and grandfather, and his father and grandfather, and their fathers and grandfathers. It’s an all-male party she’s trying to crash, but what makes this film heartwarming is that she has the support and encouragement of her family. Elders in the golden eagle hunting community appear on camera to express their displeasure, but that’s not enough to stop Aisholpan or her father, Rys, who takes pride in training her, or her grandfather, who gives her a blessing.

So what is an eagle hunter? There’s both a practical and a traditional/ceremonial side to it. Eagle hunters train a 15-pound golden eagle to hunt foxes during the winter months so the family can use the furs for clothing. To hunt foxes in this manner requires long horseback rides and climbs into the remote mountain areas. It requires great stamina and the ability to withstand icy conditions and temperatures of -40 degrees F. Even getting an eaglet to train is dangerous business, as we see when Aisholpan is captured on camera obtaining hers. But Eagle hunting is also a proud tradition and a celebration of a way of life, and every year eagle hunters gather to compete for the championship. So really, this film has a familiar training-for-the-big-event structure that we see in sports films, only the competition involves eagles. Call it a Mongolian rodeo.

Director Otto Bell and his skeleton crew (and equally skeletal budget) do a wonderful job of capturing life as it’s lived in the remote Altai Mountains and also telling Aisholpan’s story. It may be a documentary, but it’s a dramatic documentary, and it doesn’t end when the competition ends. It ends when Aisholpan meets all the challenges of an eagle hunter head-on—and that includes riding off with her father to try to get her first fox. And since the filmmakers use a Red Epic HD camera, drone, and small POV camera to capture her journey, the production values are as rich as the landscape and subject matter.

eaglehuntressscreen2I said this was an inspirational film, and it is. The temptation would be to call it a film about women’s empowerment, but I agree with Aisholpan and her father. It’s not about men and women. It’s about a person doing what he or she was meant to do, about rising to the challenge, about finding the strength to accomplish what some say is impossible. Yes, it’s about Aisholpan’s dream, but it’s also about good parenting—of being supportive and patient and instructive in ways that uplift and encourage.

The Eagle Huntress is a feel-good movie, whether you’re observing children in a remote school in Mongolia or watching some amazing footage of young Aisholpan as she uses her hand like a cobra to hypnotize a young eaglet before she wraps it in a blanket to take from its nest. If your family likes Animal Planet shows, this film will probably be of interest just because of the main focus on the bond that handlers form with their eagles, who spend a good percent of their lives in the same house as the family. That in itself is pretty amazing to see.

Now, convincing jaded teens to watch a documentary like this might be as much of a challenge as Aisholpan faced, because American children gravitate toward fiction. But it’s really an unobtrusive documentary. Though Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) narrates, the voiceover isn’t constant. Director Bell trusts his subjects to tell the story, with narration used to fill in gaps. My sense is that the best age group for this documentary will be those whose dreams are still being shaped—children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—in part because children always like to watch stories of those who are older than they are.

VICTORIA: SEASON 1 (DVD)

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victoriacoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No, small children will be bored
2016, 415 min. (8 episodes), Color
PBS
Rated TV-PG for some adult situations
Aspect ratio: Widescreen
Featured audio: 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

Recently we’ve seen a lot of TV series telling the stories of royals and nobility—so many that it’s hard to keep them all straight, especially if you’re wondering what’s suitable for viewing if you have children old enough to appreciate the intricacies of a historical drama. I’m reminded of the Three Bears porridge: The Royals (E!), Reign (The CW), and Versailles (BBC2/Ovation) can run a little hot; The Crown (Netflix) can be a bit too cold; but Victoria (Masterpiece/PBS) seems just right. There are no graphic sex scenes here, no language to grapple with, no violence to speak of, and no serious breaks in morality . . . just nicely handled adult situations and complications.

If you have teens, they’ll be most drawn to Reign (with its hip young cast) and this series starring the effervescent Jenna Coleman as young Queen Victoria, with the first season covering her ascension to the throne as an eighteen year old and continuing through her battles with family and members of the privy council. The first season focuses mostly on her growing dependence upon (and eventual distancing from) close advisors Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell) and Baroness Lehzen (Daniela Holtz), and her courtship and first year of marriage to Prince Albert (Tom Hughes)—a cousin from the German royal side of the family.

victoriascreen3In the past, Masterpiece could tend toward the staid or austere, but since the phenomenal popular success of Downton Abbey they’ve grasped the value of the old maxim “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Fans of Downton Abbey will recognize here a similar structure and a number of familiar elements. As in Downton Abbey, viewers get a two-tiered look at life in England: the royals and nobles who live, work, and play in and around Buckingham and Windsor Palaces, and the servants who tend to them and have their own interactions. It’s hard, for example, not to think of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Bates and Anna while watching a maid with a tawdry past (Nell Hudson) pursued by a pastry chef (Ferdinand Kingsley). While the below-deck cast of characters isn’t as compelling as the royals, there’s enough here to provide a nice contrast and introduce side plots that keep the series from dragging.

Some of young Victoria’s problems are peculiar to royalty. Parliament must approve her marriage, she must deal with a power grab, she must find a way to be “an ordinary woman” so her relationship to Prince Albert can work while she also rules as the most powerful and wealthy woman in the world, and she must name a regent in the event that she dies in childbirth. But there is also much here that young viewers can identify with. Overbearing and would-be controlling mother? Check. Disapproving elders? Check. Put off by a young man and yet oddly attracted to him? Check. Feeling awkward around a member of the opposite sex? Check. Trying to live up to expectations while also figuring out how to be yourself? Check.

victoriascreen2Fans of A Knight’s Tale will enjoy seeing Sewell, too often cast as a sinister fellow, playing a warmly sympathetic character. And those who enjoyed the 2009 film The Young Victoria will find it fascinating to see how two different production companies approached the portrayal of Prince Albert, an interesting combination of intellectual-nerd and brooding bad boy. But the big draw is Coleman (Doctor Who), who, as young Queen Victoria, is just as fresh and bubbly and strong and vulnerable and candid and dignified as can be. This is her series, and she is a talented and charismatic enough actress to carry it.

One note: if you’re used to HD, this title is available on Blu-ray and I’d advise you to get that version rather than the DVD, which isn’t as sharp as some standard-res offerings I’ve seen. Some of the CGI work to recreate Old London seems a little two-dimensional, but the soundstage built inside a hangar to replicate the interior of Buckingham Palace is so detailed and the cinematography so beautiful that you’ll want to better appreciate them in HD.

Language: Just a few mild swears here and there
Sex: No nudity, no sex scenes, but Victoria and Albert do kiss and there is implied coupling as she is expected to produce an heir
Violence: A gunshot is fired point blank at someone, a woman is briefly threatened, and a man is taken to a brothel
Adult situations: The whole series is pretty adult in its situations, with one woman a former prostitute, stealing for survival a theme, and the whole idea of cousins marrying something you might have to discuss with your older kids
Takeaway: Downton Abbey is alive and well, reincarnated as a new series about Great Britain’s second-longest reigning queen, and a woman who publicly championed morality

INFERNO (Blu-ray)

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infernocoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2016, 122 min., Color
Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements, and some sexuality
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is confused for the bulk of this action-thriller, and as a result, so are viewers. As he was in The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009), Langdon is on the run—chased by people who want to get what he has, or kill him, or both. And once again he is accompanied/assisted by a beautiful woman (Sienna Brooks).

In other words, there’s a formula at work here, so those who liked the first two films based on novels by Dan Brown and directed by Ron Howard ought to enjoy this one as well. You know who you are, and you know the drill. Along the way you’ll learn more about Langford’s area of specialization—Dante and medieval symbols—and your confusions will eventually be resolved by explanations presented almost as rapid-fire as the action . . . so pay attention!

infernoscreen1In Inferno, Langdon awakens in a hospital in Florence, Italy. He is having major hallucinations of disturbing medieval images—graphic images that are mostly responsible for the PG-13 rating—and he has amnesia. He has no idea how he got from Boston to Florence. But there isn’t much time for reflection. The plot kick-starts when an Italian motorcycle policewoman comes to the hospital, shoots an orderly, and tries to kill Langdon. The nurse, Felicity (Brooks), helps him escape, and from that moment the chases are on. Langdon is pursued by three separate groups of people (who ARE they, and who’s telling the truth?), and on-the-run he’s racing to piece clues together to try to remember how he became involved in all of this, and how big it is.

What’s at stake is the future of humanity, so this high-stakes action-thriller is as intense and non-stop as it gets. There are very few moments when something frenetic isn’t happening. Even in “down time” we get those flashbacks or hallucinations and medieval terrors that torment us almost as much as they haunt Langdon. In other words, Inferno is a tense film that’s unrelenting in its images and action, making it every bit the PG-13 movie. If you know the rating system you know that filmmakers are allowed one F-bomb in a film of this kind, and Howard takes full advantage. That F-bomb is SHOUTED. Then again, when you find out a bio-engineered plague is about to be unleashed on the world—a plague that will reduce the world’s population by one half—such an outburst is probably justified.

Is it as good as the first two films? No. The Da Vinci Code is still the best of the bunch (a B+, in my gradebook), with Angels & Demons (B) coming in second and this one (B-) third. Because of the formula there are still infernoscreen2pleasures to be had, and director Howard does a good job of integrating the medieval images and keeping viewers off-balance. Those who aren’t enamored with the series complain that too much confusion is followed by too much exposition to explain that confusion, and that’s certainly the way that the Brown books work. Some will be just fine with this method of exposition, while others will be annoyed to sit in confusion and then suddenly have a monologue clarify a few things. But that’s the style of the series.

I’m not giving away anything by saying that the villain is a billionaire (Ben Foster) who wants to “save” the world by killing half the people, as that’s revealed pretty early in the film. But I do wonder if the World Health Organization is as heavily armed and tactical as they appear in this action-thriller. If so, they’re some pretty bad asses, as is Hanks-as-Langdon.

Language: One shouted F-bomb, plus a handful of lesser swearwords
Sex: Nothing except a couple briefly kissing, fully clothed
Violence: Lots of gunfire, graphic stabbing, attempted drowning, etc., with wounds shown and violence one main reason for the PG-13 rating
Adult situations: The medieval images are pretty intense, and the entire film is an adult situation: people running for their lives as they race to save lives
Takeaway: Amnesia plots always seem like low-hanging fruit, but this Dan Brown story unfolds in interesting-enough fashion

ANTARCTICA: ICE AND SKY (DVD)

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antarcticaiceandskycoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but….
2015, 89 min., Color/B&W
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: French/English Dolby Digital 5.1 w/subtitles
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Claude Lorius is a glaciologist. Over a 60-year career he has participated in more than 20 polar expeditions—not only to study glaciers and glacial movement, but also to drill deep down into their near-timeless cores to analyze the ice from different time periods. What they reveal is fascinating, and one of the film’s memorable moments comes when we’re taken into an archive of core-drill ice samples all stacked in rows on shelves according to samples dated by their air bubbles—some of them going back 800,000 years. Lorius began his study of glaciers in 1956 as a 23-year-old man, but as early as 1965 his research was telling him something disturbing. Long before the polar caps began to melt, Lorius was predicting that they would because of the appearance of so-called greenhouse gasses in the ice samples he was taking, and the way those gasses altered the composition of the ice.

There’s no denying that the work Lorius does is fascinating science, unless you’re a U.S. politician who denounces anything that gets in the way antarcticaiceandskyscreen2of the economy. But it’s not very compelling as drama. Antarctica: Ice and Sky, a film by Luc Jacquet that closed the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, is a treatise on global warming that’s frankly dull in spots. The dialogue is overwritten and often stilted, and there aren’t enough shots of Antarctica in HD—with far too much of the film relying on grainier archival footage from earlier expeditions. What Lorius and others do may be fascinating as scientific research, but so much of that research is repetitive and the progress so glacial itself that there isn’t anything close to a dramatic structure to be found here.

I found myself liking the “making of” feature almost as much as the film itself. That one man would dedicate his life to the study of glaciers under such extreme conditions all but boggles the mind—almost as much as the idea director Jacquet had to tell the story of Lorius’s research and dedication by taking him back to the place he loves. That’s right: taking a frail, 83-year-old man to the Antarctic again, where the temperatures are the coldest on earth. The lowest temperature recorded at Vostok Station, the base camp where a good deal of the film was shot, was -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The altitude alone—12,800 feet—is enough to tax younger men, let alone an octogenarian.

Seeing Lorius in the present-day talking about his work is inspirational. There is much to admire in the man, and what the vintage footage does and antarcticaiceandskyscreen1does well is to show details of life as scientists live it in extreme isolation while working under extreme conditions. It’s a rare glimpse into everyday life that this film provides, and that’s a big plus. Another plus is that the film has a social conscience. It pays proper tribute to a man who has dedicated himself to studying glaciers and sharing his results with a world that too often denies science when it gets in the way of business. This film is recommended for families with children who are interested in becoming scientists, and for those lawmakers who seem to think that they know more than someone who’s spent 60 years doing meticulous and documented scientific research.

But Antarctica: Ice and Sky is not recommended for those who enjoy travel and place documentaries—though there are some amazing shots of night sky. Nor is it for those who enjoy nature films and hope to see plenty of the pole’s famed penguins. Though Jacquet also directed March of the Penguins, and though penguins do make a few appearances, Antarctica: Ice and Sky is mostly about the pursuit of science under the most horrible conditions imaginable. It’s a film about a man and his work and others who share his passion and his commitment to research. As such, it’s worth watching, but the man himself is more compelling than this film. If you are concerned about climate change (one reason why, one supposes, current female researchers protested Trump the day after his inauguration), Antarctica: Ice and Sky does a good job of explaining and illustrating how scientists are able to draw their conclusions. And if you aren’t? Then you might as well rent Frozen. In the future, animation might be the only way you’ll see a landscape like this.

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