Superdogs Star In Eight Below

Animal lovers to the alert! Forget about the penguins: A whole new gang of four-legged love makers have arrived to establish squatters’ rights on your hearts. Eight Below, a surprise hit inspired by a true story with the kind of charm, action, adventure and humanity for which I was totally unprepared, is about eight of the most beautiful sled dogs of all time, stranded for six months at the bottom of the earth in the icy wastes of an Antarctic winter, and the incredible things they do to survive while waiting for the people they trust to find and rescue them. This is a movie you will cheer and cherish.

Set in 1993, the last year dog sleds were allowed to work on scientific expeditions in the punishing winds and blizzards of the South Pole (to save the seals from distemper, believe it or not), the story focuses on eight gorgeous canine characters capable of love, loyalty, humor, friendship and heroism above and beyond the call of duty. The dogs have names and personalities, and before this movie ends, you will know them all personally. The people on a mission at the United States National Science Research Base aren’t bad, either.

Hollywood heartthrob Paul Walker gets his first mature role as Jerry Shepard, the skilled and independent-thinking guide who trained the dog team to be members of his own family. Jason Biggs is Cooper, the map maker and comic relief. Moon Bloodgood is Katie, the pretty bush pilot who risks her own life daily to fly the crew to safety. Bruce Greenwood is the scientist with a grant to search for million-year-old meteorites.

Forging across glaciers so deep that one slip could plunge you to the bottom of the earth, Jerry receives orders that the first storm of winter is approaching and he must return to home base. But the scientist he’s escorting doesn’t want to turn back without a piece of meteorite. An accident plunges Jerry’s charge into an ice floe that results in frostbite, hyperthermia and paralysis, and only the dogs know how to save them. The delay plunges everyone into a storm so intense all planes are cancelled and there’s no room for the eight dogs in Katie’s helicopter. Jerry never recovers from the guilt, blame and personal responsibility of leaving his best friends behind. Part of the movie is about Jerry’s efforts to rescue the dogs that saved his life, but the really awesome part is about what the marooned dogs do to feed, protect and save each other to stay alive. Their adventures are exhilarating, gripping and positively inspiring.

The dogs never cease to amaze and delight. They mourn and grieve, just like people. They display the most staggering examples of loyalty and mutual respect. You think your dog is a four-legged Einstein, but these huskies are patient, resourceful and capable of human feelings beyond the telling. (One is a comic, another plays a mean game of poker with the grown-ups.) They have names like Max and Maya and Dewey and Truman, and each one has a face and personality distinctly different from the others. (A book could be written about the bow-wow casting and training of the eight stars, and some day I hope director Frank Marshall publishes one.)

From Washington to New Zealand, Jerry devotes his life to reaching those dogs. The adventurer, who has achieved an exalted place in the annals of science for that goddamn meteor he brought back to Pasadena, feels responsible too. After all, he wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for those dogs. Somehow, after months of sacrifice and dedication, four crew members—Jerry, the research scientist, the lady pilot and the cartographer—pool their money and brains, travel by boat, helicopter and snowmobile, and reach the deserted base in Antarctica to find …. Ah, but you have to see this movie to believe your eyes. At the screening I attended, grown men were blubbering.

Not since Lassie Come Home has there been such a wonderful film about the limitless bonds between men and dogs that triumph over adversity. Unlike a low-budget documentary like the great March of the Penguins, no expensive Disney production unit could afford an entire location shoot in the sub-zero temperatures and howling, razor-sharp 200-m.p.h. winds of Antarctica, but the wilds of British Columbia, Greenland and Norway are majestic stand-ins. In fact, every challenge in a film of this much daunting magnitude is met with unforgettable filmmaking expertise. The result is a movie that will pump your adrenaline, make you laugh and cry, and nourish your soul. I want one of the dogs in Eight Below, and I want him now.

The Anti-Nazis

Not every student in Nazi Germany Sieg Heil-ed and goose-stepped through the streets of Munich and Berlin with the Hitler Youth. A few courageous young people with convictions belonged to the secret underground resistance movement called the White Rose, defying the Third Reich, deploring the bigotry and crime that was destroying their country, and paying for their idealism with their lives. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is the prize-winning German film by Marc Rothemund that is one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign-Language Film. It is powerful, straightforward, utterly without pretense and very, very moving.

Julia Jentsch, one of Germany’s best young actresses, plays the title role, a 21-year-old girl who bravely defied the law to write, address, label, mail and distribute stinging anti-Hitler propaganda that criticized the Reich severely. Sophie was a normal, fun-loving college girl who liked Schubert, American swing records and Hollywood movies. But most of all, she cherished the freedom she saw turning her country toward slavery and war.

Turned in by a school janitor for distributing agit-prop with her handsome brother Hans, Sophie was arrested one day in 1943, handcuffed and taken to Gestapo headquarters for interrogation. Eventually, she was tried for treason and executed by the Nazis, just as the Russian and U.S. allies began to bomb Munich. Sophie was not Jewish. To historians, her tragedy has become a symbol of Nazi cruelty, ruthlessness and indifference to human dignity and freedom of speech against every independent thinker in Germany, regardless of race, religion, age or gender.

The film is deliberately unspectacular, which is right, since it takes place during the time when Hitler’s Sixth Army was decimated and forced to surrender at Stalingrad. The horrors of the concentration camps were just beginning to surface in European headlines. But the laughable kangaroo courts in Munich were working overtime, just like the nearby ovens at Dachau. Instead of capitalizing on the sensational, the director has wisely chosen to center his narrative on Sophie herself—frightened for the safety of her boyfriend on the Eastern Front, yet at the same time ignoring the advice of her instructors at Munich University that it would be better (and safer) for her to produce Aryan children for the Reich than pursue her education.

Facing the consequences of high treason, she refused to incriminate her friends and fellow liberals in the resistance or betray the brother she adored. An interesting conflict is mirrored by her odd relationship with her interrogator; he was enraged by her reluctance to cooperate, but when their ideals clashed, her strength and persuasive point of view proved challenging. The oddest irony of her case was that her guilt was almost a minor infraction. In the end, her refusal to compromise her ideals, admit she was wrong and turn informer in order to save her life is what sealed her fate.

And so the trial of Sophie Scholl began, in the hands of a prosecutor who was a fanatic without scruples. The long final sequence in the so-called “People’s Court,” where German citizens had no hope for justice, is terrifying, and so melodramatic that it would seem implausible if the shocking court records and previously unpublished trial transcripts didn’t exist to verify the scene’s accuracy. It’s one of the most wrenching German courtroom sequences in any film since Judgment at Nuremberg.

At the center of this remarkable, sobering study, the purity of Ms. Jentsch’s performance is riveting. I was transfixed by her transformation from a radiant, clear-eyed student hoping to wake up Germany’s lobotomized masses to a calm, reserved, self-assured prisoner, and finally to a pale shell of her former self as she faces the guillotine. But she’s no Joan of Arc. Admirably, Ms. Jentsch avoids making a cinematic martyr out of Sophie by showing her fear, confusion, trepidation and, most importantly, her doubts about the results of her own sacrifice. Looking amazingly like a young version of the American actress Diane Baker, Ms. Jentsch has an arresting range and depth. The measure of her performance is underscored by Mr. Rothemund’s camerawork, which never strays far from her expressive face in the second half of the movie. Somehow, her very ordinariness lends the film an honesty that renders her fate all the more devastating.

Movies about the consequences of the blackest period of evil in human history will consume, inflame and agitate filmmakers to the end of time. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is a noble effort to tell one of the most tragic of them all. For people with both a conscience and an insatiable appetite for historical footnotes, this is a required viewing experience, not an elective.

Take a Pass

Peculiar little “vanity” productions pop up every year in film festivals. These hapless flops are pointless indie-prods designed to show off the egos of writers, directors and actors with more nerve than talent, who want to make movies even if they have no clear idea what kind of movie it is they want to make, and who luckily latch onto producers looking for tax deductions with more pocket money than brains. (Did I fail to mention none of them have any taste?) Such a movie is a thing called Winter Passing. After a dull debut at last year’s Toronto Film Festival that was forgotten faster than a sandal on a beach vacation, it is now making another brief stop on its way to a shelf at Blockbuster.

To an abstract house in what looks like the Black Forest transported to Michigan comes a sulking, mean-spirited and unemployable Off Broadway actress and part-time bartender (played by the mopey Zooey Deschanel, a strange-looking girl with an appalling lack of charisma and fingernails chewed to the quick) to convince her father, a reclusive and half-mad lion of American literature on his death bed (Ed Harris), to turn over his private love letters from the past. A tough, aggressive publisher (Amy Madigan) has offered her $100,000 for the collection, and you know what they pay Off Broadway bartenders. For that kind of lettuce, she’ll steal them if she has to. But first she has to win over her rotting father’s surly, introverted and mentally challenged caregiver (Will Ferrell, desperately going dramatic).

As the morphine-addicted takeoff on J.D. Salinger, Ed Harris wears a long white wig and a beard, like Santa Claus on crystal meth. As his zombie roommate, Will Ferrell wears eyeliner, violently evicts curious fans from peering into the garage, speaks in colorless half-grunts and plays guitar in a Christian rock band. He’s funnier trying to act serious than he ever was doing pratfalls. Eventually, the girl finds not only the letters but also the secrets of her parents’ passion and misery and becomes the outsider in her own childhood home. Adam Rapp, who wrote and directed this ordeal, overloads a synthetic storyline with more complex and hard-won epiphanies than such a fragile little movie can support. It eventually collapses, 98 minutes too late. Crucially unbearable.