Thursday, December 4, 2008


What an endlessly fascinating film ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (****) is. Engrossingly directed (as usual) by the legendary Werner Herzog, this is a film of stunning, haunting beauty, that does something that so few films are capable of these days: show you something new and different. Herzog and a crew of less than five (including long time cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger) traveled to Antarctica and documented life on the South Pole. You get to swim under the frozen slabs of ice, which have been staggeringly captured by brave underwater cameramen, and what you get to see under the ice is nothing short of transfixing. Mixed with the eerie, otherworldly sounds of communicating seals, the footage provides an extraterrestrial quality; it's like you're looking at life on a completely different planet. You also get introduced to the many eccentric people (scientists, workers, environmentalists, cooks, etc.) that populate the South Pole. While there aren't that many people who live there in total, each and every one of them interviewed by Herzog seems like a surreal piece of work. Herzog, a filmmaker known for his brazen sense of humor and a subversive sense of irony, is appalled by the presence of such commercial items as an ATM machine and a gym/spa on the icy tundra. He is a filmmaker, like Malick, who has always been interested by the ways that man and nature interact and intersect. Herzog has gone to great geographic lengths throughout his career. Whether it's the Amazon (AGUIRRE, FITZCARRALDO), Laos (LITTLE DIETER, RESCUE DAWN), Alaska (GRIZZLY MAN), Kuwait (LESSONS OF DARKNESS) or at the McMurdo Research Station in ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, he seems entranced by the many exotic qualities that different regions can provide for him as a filmmaker. There are visual and thematic references to two earlier Herzog docs, THE WHITE DIAMOND and THE WILD BLUE YONDER, as well. Herzog, who operated one of the two high-def cameras on the shoot, emphasizes how desolate, alone, and brutally cold the South Pole is. He didn't go there to make a warm and fuzzy penguin movie ala MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (he even states so at the front end of the doc) but yes, you do get some penguin footage. You also get to hear Herzog ask a penguin specialist about the potential existence of gay penguins. Trust me, it's priceless. ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD is one of my favorite films of the year.

Adam McKay's STEP BROTHERS (***) is an interesting outing for Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. Mean-spirited, pretty cruel, and often hilarious, the film is so asinine that you can't really question the plot or the logic and set-up of the story. It's not anywhere near as good as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY, but I'd say that STEP BROTHERS is on par with the last McKay-Ferrell-Reilly outing, TALLADEGA NIGHTS. Ferrell is just such a goof ball that it's hard not to crack up just by looking at him. And Reilly, who began his career with mostly dramatic roles, is really finding his way as a comedian. His work in last year's underrated DEWEY COX is also worth seeking out. STEP BROTHERS revolves around Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (Reilly), two slacker clowns still living with their parents who somehow haven't yet been thrown out of the house. When their parents (Richard Jenkins, perfect, and Mary Steenburgen, unexpectedly funny) get married, the two morons become step brothers, much to their chagrin. They are both knuckle-heads, very stubborn and very much the definition of the phrase "ass-hole." At first, they see themselves as bitter enemies. Then, they are forced to team up. Then they fight. Then they make up. Repeat this process a few times, thrown in some standard plot hi jinks, and populate the film with some great cameos, and you're left with a noisy but amusing comedy which really plays off the estimable improv strengths of the entire cast. But stealing the entire movie out from under the two stars is the actor Adam Scott (THE AVIATOR, HBO's TELL ME YOU LOVE ME), who plays Ferrell's older brother. Scott, the ultimate type-A dick-head older bro, kills every single line, scene, and moment in STEP BROTHERS. And Kathryn Hahn, playing his wife, also steps up to the plate big time. The first time you're introduced to their characters (which has them singing aloud in their car with their children), the scene is so funny that it's almost impossible to even laugh. It's like those moments on THE OFFICE where the humor of the scene is just so high that you, as the viewer, can only stare at the screen and just say to yourself: holy shit that's funny. STEP BROTHERS isn't in the same league as PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and TROPIC THUNDER, the two class-clown winners from 2008, but it's definitely got enough funny material to warrant a rental.

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