Michael Bergeron
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Film Facts 10.27.16

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“I have to thank God on my knees that Oppenheimer’s book did not exist at the time I made my decision to become a filmmaker. I might have become a volcanologist instead,” Werner Herzog is quoted as saying. The book Herzog references is “Eruptions that Shook the World” (Cambridge Press, 2011), the basis for Herzog’s newest documentary Into the Inferno.

Into the Inferno may be the easiest and the hardest film to see this weekend. It opens on a couple of screens in NYC and LA while also premiering on streaming service Netflix.

Actually it’s a week for synchronicity where coincidence means very little but abounds. There’s two Ron Howard directed films opening in Houston this week – Inferno opening wide, and The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, debuting at the MFAH.

And yes, that’s two films with inferno in the title. There’s also a prime example of international cinema, Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden, a handcrafted version of erotica shaken with stylistic excess.

Into the Inferno takes the viewer on a typical Herzog look into any given subject; there’s an emphasis on the subject of volcanoes, but also a practically ethnographic study of the people who either live near or are attracted to the various sites. As is typical with Herzog, there are a couple of zingers as he narrates finding both emotional depth and humor in bizarre circumstance. For instance, we see children from an Endu Village on Ambryn Island in the Republic of Vanuatu acting out a ceremonial dance where they recall previous generations of tribal cannibalism. But it looks like kids mugging for the camera and imitating television zombies.

One villager insists that the volcano has spirits that talk only talk to locals. Another villager swears that loyal believers have the cigarettes lit by a mysterious fire. Belief systems are unique the world round and yet this isolated island lives hand in hand with the spirt in the volcano.

Herzog culls the existing archive of volcanic footage, including landmark contributions from pioneer explorers of incident and image the husband/wife team of Maurice and Katia Krafft. The couple would dress in flame retardant silver suits and film each other in front of magma explosions and lava flows. The shots are spectacular showing the team juxtaposed next to spewing magma and river-like cascades of lava.

Herzog incorporates footage from his 2007 Antarctica doc Encounters at the End of the World, where he first met Oppenheimer, at the rim of the Erebus volcano. Mount Erebus is one of three active volcanoes where you can observe real time magma activity.

Into the Inferno contemplates the largest volcanic explosion in the last two-million years, Lake Toba, which we see in a NASA satellite photo because it’s so large and that exploded approximately 74,000 years ago. The massive eruption is considered a near extinction event. Before you can recover your breath from the beautiful slow-motion photography of lava rivers, which borders on fetish level visual satisfaction, Herzog switches gears and sends the audience to a research site in the Afar region of Ethiopia where scientists search for the bones of hominoids. In a half-hour, compressed into a few minutes film-wise, after dusting the thin layer of soil in that area they have collected a hat-full of bones, including an orbital skull segment and major pieces of a femur.

Another one of the three active volcanoes that display active magma emissions, Erta Ale in northern Ethiopia, provides an excellent counterpoint to what has proceeded and for the gentle folk who live within. Despite the dry scientific nature of events, Into the Inferno blasts forth with wit and imagination enhanced by an all seeming attitude that there are few protective bunkers from an extinction event.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones star in Columbia PIctures’ “Inferno.”

Inferno closes a trilogy of Dan Brown adaptations that use classic tourist destinations mixed with historical conspiracy theories to good effect. In the latest installation Tom Hanks, Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code, awakens from a bout of amnesia to find himself embroiled in a new adventure that involves a worldwide pandemic designed to take out half the world’s seven-billion plus population.

Inferno gets really involving after repetitive exposition that reveals Hanks/Langdon forgetting the events of the last forty-eight hours. Then the chase begins and Hanks and Felicity Jones run through hidden corridors in Florence, Italy, Venice and Istanbul. A pounding score by Hans Zimmer balances the genre juggling that director Howard brings to the game. Hanks has comfortable running shoes but Jones has boots and the streets of Florence are elevated. Later in Inferno we see Jones has donned a pair of tennis shoes and we know her character has arced.

Inferno opens wide this weekend.

The Handmaiden (original title Ah-ga-ssi) shows Chan-wook Park operating at full speed ahead. Adapted from a licentious novel by Welsh author Sarah Waters, Park places the action amongst decadent Korean aristocracy in the 1930s.

A woman is employed, on a scale somewhere between indentured servitude and slave, as the reader of erotic literature to her master’s refined friend. Her words are so arousing and the men are such statues you wonder if they can be aroused.

Soon she empowers herself in front of her own servant. There are castes of society on display as well as both Japanese (in yellow) and Korean (in white) subtitles, sometimes in the same sentence.

Our heroine soon finds herself in a plot to scam her tyrannical master, but is conflicted by her growing love for her own maid. Here’s where The Handmaiden goes into overdrive.

Park offers some of the most explicit cunnilingus sequences shy of Blue is the Warmest Color (2013). There’s a lesbian subtext running throughout The Handmaiden that will be emulated in the future and yet seems just a rehash of 70s era De Palma films like Carrie. Not to worry, Park comes up with a couple of point-of-view head and tongue between legs shots that are at once provocative yet strangely non-arousing in a scenario that cries out for equality. In the end, the women go off on their merry way while the cuckolded husband tortures the man that forced his hand. After all, a little bit of the old ultra-violence from the director of films like Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is de rigueur for such a visionary cinematic indulgence. The only question is why Park waited so methodically for the lyricism to burst crimson red.

The Handmaiden plays exclusively at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park starting today. The Handmaiden also unwinds in exclusive engagements at the AMC Studio 30 and the downtown Sundance Cinemas Houston.

Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years was made to satisfy hardcore Beatles worshippers yet also appealing to fans of slickly made documentaries that bring the story together through previously unseen archival clips and judicious editing. Howard wisely keeps the momentum moving by concentrating on interview clips we may not have seen and constant references to songs and LPs that were concurrent with their touring years.

The Beatles last concert was in San Francisco on the evening of August 29, 1966, yet that was their only ’66 American date in a list on concerts that covered the UK, Germany, Japan and a near-deadly appearance in The Philippines that Howard glances over but has been covered in detail in essential Beatles biographies. Essentially, then-manager Brian Epstein snubbed a meet and greet invitation from Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos and by the time the Fab Four were leaving they were under the gauntlet of airport scrutiny.

The large stadium venues had lousy sound. It’s a lesson in roadie sensibility. The sound systems at the best baseball stadiums, where The Beatles’ live performance was being piped out on, was tinny and designed for voice-over color commentary of baseball, not for the kind of sophisticated sound mix now common in concert venues a half-century later.

Howard adds current interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr that go a long way in making Eight Days a Week a very official documentary.

Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years plays four times over the next month, once a weekend, from Saturday, October 29 (4 pm.), until Sunday, November 27 (2 pm.) at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.