Werner Herzog making a documentary about Palaeolithic cave paintings. It sounds so utterly right: just like Werner Herzog making a film about semi-fictive extraterrestrials (The Wild Blue Yonder), eccentric Alaskan explorers (Grizzly Man) or the scary beauty of Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World). This cinematic mystic’s style is, in the literal Greek-derived sense, “apocalyptic”: he likes to uncover things. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams he and his crew of three, on behalf of a revelation-hungry world, gain access to a French cavern closed off to the public to protect the “oldest cave paintings in the world”.
I put that description in quotes. If the cave and its primitive murals in France’s Ardèche region didn’t exist, the director of the great Aguirre, Wrath of God (still one of my top 10 films of all time) would have invented them. He would have given them substance and reality – as he has – by filming in 3D. The horses, bears, lions and bison curve and swell with the rock contours. The stalagmites and stalactites are vivid, stereoscopic – sometimes, with a camera movement, sailing right up to your face.
“It is as if the modern human soul awakened here,” Herzog narrates in his hushed, insistent, sibylline tones. It is. The images on the walls are overpowering. The horses look like early Blaue Reiter paintings. Other animals appear pre-cinematic, even pre-Muybridge, represented by separate stages of motion. Everything is possible and always was; every past era was instinct with its future: at his best Herzog makes us feel this. An early pentatonic flute is played by someone, an instrument sounding as “modern” as the movie’s own music.
The film wouldn’t be Herzog if it wasn’t also a little batty. A smell expert is subpoenaed for olfactory comments on the cave, a parfumier with a prehistory hobby. Another expert demonstrates, intriguingly and irrelevantly, ancient spear-throwing. (“His efforts may not look very convincing,” Herzog says, forestalling our response.) Meanwhile, the handheld 3D camera wobbles away, giving us moments of seasickness, or possibly preparing us for the filmmaker’s final, greatest disorientation. Albino crocodiles exist near a nuclear power plant 20 miles away, enjoying the spreading “biosphere” created by warm-water outflow. Weird, atavistic, minatory, they are just like the caves, which they may soon reach. There is no limit to the collateral follies and richnesses – perhaps they are the same thing – of human genius.
In The Eagle, we end in another cave torch-lit by history. We are in bygone Britain, or the disputed part north of Hadrian’s Wall. Nineteen centuries ago, as now, the place was inhabited by wild folk with funny accents, their mission in life to express hostility to those from the south. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), filming Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth (title changed to keep out golfaholics), pitches them into battle with a beefcake Roman legionnaire (Channing Tatum) and his British slave (Jamie Bell). This duo seeks the gold-sculpted standard – the eagle – lost when Tatum’s legion-commanding father vanished with his troops years before.
The Ninth did vanish from history. Was it slaughtered? Did it go native? The possibilities are explored, though the expressive menace of early scenes – crispy dawns at the edge of empire, a fort marooned amid guerrilla rustlings and sudden assaults – gives way to painted barbarians rioting and rhubarbing, and chases across the Highlands. Tatum’s acting, or lack of, is a major problem. Facing each fresh adventure challenge, he wears the sullen, lockjawed look of Gordon Brown cornered by a cabinet crisis.
The accent-distribution is fine (American for Romans, Anglo-Saxon brogues for the Brits), except when sabotaged by English actor Mark Strong’s stateside twang – truly awful, as if culled from a Teach Yourself Damon Runyon disc – in the key role of a Ben Gunn-like Ninth survivor.
The hero of the whole production is cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. This gifted Anglo-Scot lensed the Danish Dogme movies before teaming with Kevin Macdonald on The Last King of Scotland and Danny Boyle (winning a Best Cinematography Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire). His picture-painting here is dazzling. Early scenes are all eerie half-light, flickering with torch flame or the burnish of metal. Later, the earthen russet colours give us a countryside pinched with cold yet seamed with the promise of gold: a place at once bleak and beatific.
In Country Strong Gwyneth Paltrow is Kelly Canter, a singer in crisis. She has been in rehab. She can’t get a recent miscarriage out of her mind and heart. (She toppled drunkenly from a stage, five months pregnant.) Sex isn’t happening with her long-suffering husband-manager (Tim McGraw). Returning to showbiz, she meets competition from two whippersnapper warblers (Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester). Then there’s the pet fledgling she keeps in a box, eerie twin of the dead-baby doll sent by a fiendish “fan”. It’s all too much. It’s enough to bring on a country and western song.
“Oh little bird in little box,
Oh Kelly you are on the rocks,
Remember if you love acclaim,
You cannot have both love and fame.
You won an Oscar for the ‘Bard
In Love’, you wept so very hard,
And now there’s one more on the way,
Oh Gwyneth it won’t go away…”
(All rights reserved).
I hated, loved, hated the movie. In that order. The start and end are awful; the middle so daft you want to hug it. It will probably – lay bets now – be a big hit with the Academy.
This is the moment in the calendar when Lent intersects with early spring. Moviegoers must expect warnings – or colourfully conflicting signals – about birth and death. The perils attending the first are presented in A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures. Digitally animated hatchlings race from their sand-holes, hoping to beat the swooping gulls, in a first scene resembling the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan. Only difference: this D-Day is in reverse. Sammy and pals aim for the ocean to fight greater battles with leaky oil tankers and big-net fishing vessels. The kid-flick charm of early reels, narrated with a folksy rasp by John Hurt, gives way to a ponderous eco-fable.
Wake Wood is Irish horror from reborn Hammer Films. What happens if you are a bereaved parent and can get back, for a short span of life, your deceased child? Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle find out in the titular village. The main industry here is resurrection, a grisly business involving surrogate cadavers. Corpse-crushing, finger-lopping, primitive Caesareans … do not try this at home. It is bad enough knowing it goes on here, under smiling squire Timothy Spall, though our horror is reduced by a sneaking awareness that the film is making up its grand guignol ground rules as it goes along.