Wearing miner’s helmets and sterile boots, director Werner Herzog and his small crew tightroped along a narrow metal catwalk inside a cave in southern France last year.
What they came to film were the oldest cave paintings ever found, which until now have only been seen in person by a small group of scientists and scholars. The astounding drawings, some more than 30,000 years old, include an eight-legged bison, rhinos locking horns and lions on the prowl.
Now you too can get a close-up view of this ancient artwork in Herzog’s fascinating 3-D documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”
Herzog is the first filmmaker to shoot extensive footage inside Chauvet Cave, which was discovered by three explorers in 1994. It’s a perilous place with claustrophobic passageways and so much carbon dioxide and radon that visits are limited to a few hours a day.
The film offers an eye-popping tour of the cave and its amazingly realistic paintings of 13 animal species. The pictures on the walls -- drawn in charcoal and red ochre -- are practically in pristine condition because Chauvet was sealed off for more than 20,000 years by a fallen rock face.
In addition to the animal drawings, the cave contains rare fossils, human handprints and a partial Venus figure showing what appears to be a woman’s legs and genitals.
Herzog narrates the film in his guttural, occasionally indecipherable German accent and waxes poetic about the meaning of the pictures.
Seeing the same images over and over can get monotonous, and Herzog sometimes gets carried away with his philosophical musings. The 3-D photography is also a disappointment, rarely adding the promised extra dimension.
Even so, you’ll be astonished by what you see.
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” from Sundance Selects, is playing in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Rating: ***
‘What I Am’
“That’s What I Am,” a tender coming-of-age story set in mid-1960s California, would make a decent after-school TV special. But its cookie-cutter characters and message of peace and tolerance aren’t enough to carry a feature film.
Andy (Chase Ellison) is a bright, timid 12-year-old who gets paired with the school outcast -- orange-haired, big-eared Stanley (Alexander Walters) -- on a class project for popular English teacher Mr. Simon (Ed Harris, rising above the material).
After the school bully is suspended for attacking a homely female classmate, the bully’s father (Randy Orton) blames Mr. Simon and spreads a rumor that the teacher is gay. Mr. Simon reacts with restraint, setting an example for his students and the community.
Orton, by the way, is a professional wrestler for WWE, an entertainment company whose subsidiary WWE Studios just happens to be the film’s producer. And the writer/director of “That’s What I Am” is Mike Pavone, the executive vice president of WWE Studios.
They shouldn’t give up their day jobs.
“That’s What I Am,” from Samuel Goldwyn Films, is playing in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Fla. Rating: **
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)