Eight Below

Eight Below is a film about survival in a place where nothing stays alive for long.
The film takes place at the bottom of the world – Antarctica. “Any further south and you’d fall off the Earth,” cartographer Cooper (Jason Biggs) says. There’s a reason no one lives in Antarctica, a reason why not even Wal-Mart would touch this wasteland – it’s too much for the human mind to comprehend such nothingness.
Dr. Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood) rolls into an arctic base as winter approaches with a plan to head north looking for space rocks. The ill-advised expedition to search for meteorites comes as the worst storm of the season pulls into the region, and the resident guide, Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker), isn’t thrilled about the trip.
But the pair leaves with a team of eight sled dogs. When they get to a barren mountain McClaren convinces Jerry to stay an extra few hours while he pokes around. After the doctor finds what he was looking for the team breaks camp and tries to head back to base before the storm overtakes them. A mishap leaves McClaren in a stretcher and Jerry snow-blind, and if not for the courage of the fearless crew, they would all be lost. But by the time the doctor, Jerry and the eight sled dogs are back the storm has overtaken the base, and there isn’t enough space to pack the pups.
Vowing to return to pick up the dogs, Jerry and his fellow homo sapiens leave the base, the dogs chained to a pole. Only after he wakes up in an infirmary after three days of unconsciousness does Jerry realize that he’s sentenced his four-legged friends to death.
The military officer in charge refuses to allow another plane to fly into the storm, and when he’s sent back to America Jerry goes knocking door to door looking for a way to rescue the dogs that have saved his life. He begs McClaren for help, appeals to politicians and commercial interests, even eventually flies back to Sidney, Australia, where he hopes to beg passage to the base on a fishing boat.    
Meanwhile the dogs face winter in Antarctica without a supply of Alpo or the benefit of a human to haul out water. They devise strategies for corralling seagulls – possibly the stupidest form of life on the planet – and somehow survive the bitter weather as screen credits give us a countdown of days they’ve spent alone.  
The dog pack offers a viable social arrangement, caring for its ill, working together instinctually, as though nature itself was pro-union. Dog life seems legitimate and authentic when measured against the slow-moving bureaucratic maneuvers of governments and universities.
A stunning visual film, Eight Below brings us to the dark side of the earth to show us the significance of life, be it canine or otherwise. A more blank canvas would be difficult to imagine, and there’s a quiet intensity to the dogs’ struggle for survival. The land swallows them up, making their fight against the elements appear simultaneously absurd and noble.
The eight left below stand in for all of us wandering above; all the beautiful, stupid, inane creatures of the world making our way between the two poles.

*Warning for parents*
Although it’s rated PG, it is difficult to understand if Eight Below is intended for children or adults.
The movie is too much for many kids –during my viewing children broke down in tears repeatedly and one unexpected Sea Lion attack will even find its ways into my dreams – but it is also a bit too soft for most adults. The innumerable implausible Lassie scenes are not enough to dull the emotional intensity of the movie, but they do strike a false note in an otherwise fine work of realism.  
There was a time when it was considered good parenting to expose children to harsh reality – when Phil Donahue recommended Blue Lagoon as sex education and kids were expected to attend funerals so they would understand mortality at a young age – but now it seems cruel to drag children into the adult world before they’re prepared for it, even if it’s filled with a little wonder.


The Matador

The most unexpected thing about the new film The Matador is not that Pierce Brosnan has a middle-aged paunch or that he’s unusually hairy, or even that he has the skill necessary to distance himself from his most famous role as James Bond.
The most amazing thing about The Matador is that Brosnan is able to create a character we sympathize with, even when we know what a repulsive creep he is, even when all traces of international espionage have been wiped clean. Despite all the film’s pomo cynicism, The Matador is a buddy film of an extraordinary level and Brosnan carries the film. 
Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) has had a couple of bad years. He was laid off, his son died in a tragic accident, and a tree falls through his kitchen on the day he’s set to fly to Mexico City to secure a big deal that could lift him out of his slump. Things could be worse. Danny could be a middle-aged lounge lizard / international assassin, like the man he meets at his hotel’s bar after a bender.
Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) has changed identities so often for so many jobs that he hasn’t made any lasting friendships. While on assignment in Mexico City he and Danny meet and seem to connect over Margaritas. What begins as just a few semi-coherent bar-side conversations develops when Danny stays over to finalize the deal.
The two loosen up at a bullfight over cigars and beer. Danny is drawn to Julian’s coarseness – his no-nonsense masculinity – and the killer seems genuinely interested in Danny’s domestic life. They plan a mock execution and Danny is thrilled with his new, exotic friend, but he bristles when Julian asks for his help on a job.
On one level The Matador is about ambiguity over masculinity. Having lost their only child, Danny and his wife are unable to produce another, and his unemployment has left him feeling shaken. His life seems beyond his control and Danny wants desperately to regain his composure.
Julian, on the other hand, is all about control. He is the man, even when he’s drunk and whoring in the city; even when the film suggests he’s bisexual. His job demands nerve and unwavering discipline and there’s almost a Hemmingway-esque quality to the hit man’s philosophy of the bullfight.     
It’s natural for Danny to feel attracted to the power of this army of one. Julian is the embodiment of all things macho: He is a loner, seeks females only to satisfy his sexual hunger, and is id incarnate. The assassin is able to cut a swath of bodies in a world that seems overly complex and arbitrary to Danny.
From Julian’s perspective, however, Danny’s life seems simple and straightforward. A life of debauchery has left him feeling exhausted and he’s begun to fray at the edges. The last straw comes a day before he meets Danny, when he celebrates his birthday alone in a hotel room, making calls to former contacts using fake accents and names.          
It turns out that it’s difficult to make friends when you kill people for a living. Something about being a globe-tripping gangster puts people off, but Julian would be alone even if he was a career philanthropist. He’s a pervert, for starters, and ogles catholic school girls, but there’s something even more unpleasant about the guy.
Like Billy Bob Thorton in Bad Santa, Brosnan has tapped into something truly loathsome in the human animal with Julian, something so repulsive and undignified that we all find him vaguely familiar. 
Playing against type, Brosnan has created a character so icky that you can almost smell him when he enters a room. Julian is a callous killer, sure, but he’s also a creep, the type of guy who kills his body odor by covering it in cheap cologne and tosses out phases like, “I’m as serious as an erection problem” without any self-consciousness. The only thing more amazing than “007 Pierce Brosnan” pulling this off is the fact that we somehow grow to like Julian.   
And so does mild mannered Danny.
Whatever else The Matador is, it’s most certainly a buddy film. And like all great buddy movies – Sideways comes to mind – the point is really to reveal why we stick with pals who are basically jerks. It’s amazing how the bond of friendship allows us to forgive personality defects in those closest to us when we judge strangers so harshly.

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