Volcanoes and the nature of humanity 

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Pompeii opens this week at the Village 8 and I can imagine the studio pitch now — "OK, it's a period piece mashed-up with a disaster picture. Think the action of 300 happening on the set of 2012."

Which doesn't sound that bad right? A swords-and-sandals flick about a muscular and handsome underdog-turned-asskicker who must slow-motion fight his way through fiery chaos to save his true love — a beauty who's been unwillingly betrothed to a corrupt politician. And all the while literal fire and death rain down from the skies as Mount Vesuvius erupts and the city of Pompeii crumbles into ruin.

The problem is there were no pre-screenings for the press and the trailer really fails to impress. Director Paul WS Andersons has action chops (Resident Evil, Death Race), but he's yet to elevate beyond that. Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington and stunning Aussie actress Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) look the part at least, but this is a CGI effects film with no notable CGI effects in the trailer. I worry Pompeii is gonna suck ash.

This is no surprise because we're deep in the cinematic doldrums of the Awards Season right now. The Oscars take place on March 2 and very few film studios ever put out bangers until after the golden statues have been handed out.

Thankfully, there is the Internet. The download of the week is The Act of Killing, an early favourite for the Best Documentary Oscar and probably the most bizarre film about genocide ever made.

When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, street thug Anwar Congo and his friends were suddenly promoted to death squad leaders to help the army kill over half a million alleged communists and ethnic Chinese (and anyone else who looked at them funny). And a lot of those killings were very hands-on.

Now, 50 years later, American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer is following Anwar and his friends around as they bafflingly recreate some of their most violent murders in Hollywood-style home movies. The criminals are still in control in Indonesia and Anwar and his cohorts can be very open about their crimes because the regime that supported them is still in place. But "acting" out their brutality in everything from dance numbers to Westerns to the classic Film Noir gangster clips brings a level of trippy, meta-sorrow to the film as well.

The Act of Killing is straight up bonkers. War crimes are defined by the winner and even as Anwar begins to realize the true terror he has inflicted over his lifetime he struggles to understand why none of the Communists' children ever came out for vengeance. "We were never punished," he says. "Because what we were doing was legal." The Act of Killing is a gonzo, not uplifting, at times hard to watch documentary with a narrative that is not particularly easy to follow, but it's a unique and powerful look at what we are capable of and the chilling charisma of human evil.

Another depressing but important film, Blackfish is a doc about Sea World-style theme parks and the black market for Orcas (killer whales). Watching baby whales get kidnapped and enslaved to a life of entertaining tourists is heartbreaking, more so than the genocide movie, but Blackfish is also a must-see. With the technology and filmmaking talent we have on earth right now, there is no need for zoos, aquariums or any facility that imprisons animals under the guise of "education." Blackfish plays on Wednesday, Feb. 26 at Millennium Place as part of the Whistler Arts Council's Doc Series.

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