True Films

Encounters at the End of the World


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What a brilliant film-poem! I like how the marketing puts it: “There is a hidden society at the end of the world. One thousand men and women live together under unbelievably close quarters in Antarctica, risking their lives and sanity in search of cutting-edge science.”

Superficially this is a film about strange other-worldly creatures and ice formations beneath the the South Pole, and about the eccentric people who live in harsh and unappetizing conditions to study them. But musically scored with a soundtrack of eerie religious chanting, this film feels more like a prayer. It has the same mix of science discovery and spiritual awe you might expect if you were accompanying astronauts on a visit to another planet of life. Which they are. You can feel souls being expanded, and that soul expansion is what is captured here, at the bottom of the world, where unattached philosophers seem to collect as they float over unknown species on this planet. Tempering this exaltation are scenes of the brutal industrialization of a pristine place, annotated by a haunting, depressive narration. The film’s title indicates not just the bottom of the world, but also its end in time. It delivers soaring, stunning visions of life made possible by, or in spite of, dirty, mechanical probes into its heart. Somehow this duality of uplift and pessimism works for me. Others may find it too esoteric. I take it as a visual hymn to science.

In fact if there was such a thing as a religion of science, this film would be a good recruitment trailer for it.

– KK

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Encounters at the End of the World
Werner Herzog
2007, 101 min.
$4, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

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Available from Amazon

Posted December 24, 2008 at 5:00 am | comments


Michael Palin’s New Europe


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My favorite travel host, Michael Palin, explores his own continent. With his usual agreeable wit, Palin departs from his home in Old Europe and with BBC crew in tow, he sets off by train to investigate all 20 newly opened European countries which were formerly off-limit to casual travel. Besides the expected classic Eastern Europe destinations, this journey includes the many new tiny Balkan countries, and several breakaway provinces near Russia, and little visited countries such as Moldavia, Albania, Kaliningrad. To present a country Palin mixes the grand and the tiny, the classic shot and the offbeat, the intelligent uplifting interview and the plain goofy stunt. What else would you expect from a former Monte Python member? This seven-part travelogue on Eastern Europe is fun, revealing, informative, and fresh, and made me eager to know more.

– KK

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Michael Palin's New Europe
2007, 350 min.
DVD, 3 discs, $12

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

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Available from Amazon

Posted December 17, 2008 at 9:15 am | comments
| in category Culture


The Power of Nightmares


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The thesis of this three-part cinematic essay from the BBC is complex, but plausible. It begins by observing that after the horrors of WWII people no longer rallied around optimistic Pollyanna visions of a better tomorrow. The sole belief that could unite a country then became fear — fear of communism. A fear that was wildly, if not insanely exaggerated. But when communism collapsed upon itself, a new fear was fanned to keep the electorate united behind leaders. It also is wildly exaggerated. That new fear is “terrorism.” It transformed a tactic into an enemy. Furthermore this new uniting nightmare has been produced by two fundamentalist strands in the world: Islamic jihadists and American neo-cons. Both sides are ideologically dogmatic, both exaggerate the threat of the other, and both work on the power of worst-case nightmares, and in a strange way, both need each other to keep their people united. This film is a very polemic, subjective, extended argument. But it is well done, BBC-style, with interviews of the principle characters in the Islamic jihad world and in the US neo-con camp, and some fascinating deep history. It is smart enough to be worth arguing with. The Power of Nightmares has the potential to shift how you frame the “war on terror.” At least it shifted my perspective, even if I don’t agree with all its conclusions.

– KK

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The Power of Nightmares
Adam Curtis
2004, 180 min.
DVD, $23

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

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Watch all three parts at the Internet Archive Moving Image Archive

Posted December 8, 2008 at 9:03 am | comments
in category Extremists


Up the Yangtze


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Everything in China is leaning towards the extremes, including the biggest fastest transformation into modernity. Nowhere is the relentless push toward the extreme felt more than in the mind-boggling, humongous scale of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze. To make China’s gigantic and impersonal change fathomable and personal, this documentary follows two young adults living in poverty along the Yangtze, and shadows them as they sign up to work on a tourist river boat delivering foreign visitors to the dam. Their story is a remarkable and surprisingly intimate portrait of two ordinary citizens doing what hundreds of millions of their Chinese cohorts are doing — getting a job. Neither protagonist in this film is even particularly likeable or heroic, which makes their lives all the more real. Their faults and failures are universal. You get a very clear picture of how wrenching, how abrupt, how enticing these vast changes are. You have only to multiply this exceptional intimacy into two people’s struggles by a billion to see the country.

So far, this tiny window is the best picture of big change in China that I’ve seen.

– KK

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Up the Yangtze
Yung Chang
2007, 93 min.
$2, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Posted December 1, 2008 at 1:58 pm | comments