Polar Cares, Bears, Dares And Scares!

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Introduction
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This is a short, but likeable, film that combines knockabout humour with a sobering denouement. It was also made with the honourable intention of heightening our awareness of climate change and the threat to our planet. I am not convinced that this message is conveyed very well, as the comedic antics tend to dilute and flush it away. There are, however, some fantastic shots of the Arctic as our two crazed explorers embark on an unlikely bid to reach the North Pole on foot. The film has been compared to Withnail and I, Touching the Void, and The Office. While not totally in agreement regarding the quality I can detect some similarities here in the means of execution, characters and ,in Touching the Void’s case of course, location.

Plot
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Mark Bark-Jones is something of an eco-warrior and he takes his crusade to another level when initiating a unique bid to reach the North Pole, and also to enter the annals of the Guinness Book of Records. With the help of his friend, Brian, they hope to reach this coveted landmark on the first ‘unsupported,carbon-neutral, organic and vegetarian’ expedition. Mark’s passion is such that he sells the marital home to fund the mission, jeopardising his already rocky marriage in the process. Brian seems a little less committed to the cause, but nevertheless remains loyal and enthusiastic. Not exactly the sharpest knives in the box, our intrepid duo set out on their adventure ill-prepared and not exactly in the peak of physical shape. These three shortcomings combine to produce a comedic, and sometimes scary, cocktail of incidents throughout their icy odyssey. Part way through their expedition they run into competition in the form of a far more professional, gay Norwegian duo of explorers. By wild coincidence they are also going for the very same, unsupported,carbon-neutral, organic and vegetarian record! This new challenge elicits further comedy and desperate measures.
Icequakes, polar bears, blizzards, freezing temperatures, fear of failure and of starvation are just some slight obstacles that rear their heads. When you factor in Brian’s homesickness, Mark’s ever-loosening grip on reality and increasingly fevered mind, we have quite a volatile mixture of unsavoury elements. Will they complete their quest? If so, will they beat the uber-organised Norwegians? Perhaps their most valuable asset is that indomitable British spirit, but is it enough to see them through?

Polar Cares
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As mentioned, our two explorers are committed to saving the environment, particularly Mark. The opening sequence shows typical footage of environmental disasters and meteorological phenomena to the tune of White Riot by The Clash. We then see Mark vainly trying to blockade a car with his push-bike in an urban street, a stance he compares to the infamous tank obstruction in Tiananman Square. He also chides Brian for overfilling a kettle and carries his groceries loose from the supermarket, rather than in carrier bags. You will soon gather that, although honourable in intention, he is a little lacking in common sense. Brian is not much brighter, if at all. We are introduced to the pair donning green T-shirts emblazoned with the legend ‘Don’t be impotent, be important.’
There are some stunning shots of the Arctic’s snowscapes and it was the hope of Director, Williams, that such scenery would move the audience to contribute to saving the planet. We see boulder ice, mesmerising blizzards and a particularly stunning sunset behind an iceberg that brings to mind a giant lemon meringue.
While I applaud Williams attempt to convey the environmental dilemma through non-preachy humour, I feel that more needs to be put into the actual story of the film to emphasise this. This could be something as simple as the two characters wondering aloud at the beauty of the scenery, or at least giving the death of the polar bear (see below) a little more lingering coverage and respect. For me, we have already been spoilt rotten with the capture of our wonderful planet via fantastic camerawork to such a degree that we just take it for granted. This desensitizing of our sensibilities means that it is simply not enough to assail our vision with such beauty alone; it needs further consolidation in the actual content of the film. The juxtaposition of humour with sobering seriousness can be highly effective, and is proved to be so here. The only trouble is that, here, it has the effect of highlighting human selflessness and loyalty, rather than climate change which is shunted in to a dark, forgotten corner.
To be fair to the Director, I can imagine that the visuals would have far more impact on a large cinema screen rather than televisually. Some of the special features are more informative about climate change but who, honestly, would rent or buy a DVD based solely on the peripherals?

Polar Dares
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Whatever we may think of Mark and Brian’s hare-brained plan, there is no doubting their enthusiasm and even bravery. Their mundane lives move from tepid to intrepid in one fell swoop. Of course, we could contest that bravery is mistaken for stupidity, which would seriously compromise the implicit environmental message. The specific danger here is that the duo’s madcap portrayal may just reaffirm the sceptics’ notion of the iceberg-hugging, bleeding-heart fruit loop trying to save the planet.
The expedition is a particular risk for Brian who has seemingly more to lose than Mark, in that he is madly in love with his long-term girlfriend Sandra. This is evidenced by his frequent radio contact with her throughout the expedition. Mark, in contrast does not seem to care much about his marriage to Melissa.
Whether we think their quest is admirable or wrong-headed, there is one monumentally unequivocal act of selfless bravery undertaken by one of our duo, which gives the film its truly sobering twist.

Polar Bears and Scares
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Mark and Brian encounter no small amount of hurdles in their Herculean quest. A rampaging polar bear is one such obstacle. When it appeared, I could not help thinking that it looked like footage lifted from a David Attenborough documentary. The subsequent shooting of the animal, not by Mark or Brian I hasten to add, is not afforded sufficient gravitas considering the intended impact of the film. Sure, our explorers protest in outrage at its culling but this, for me, descends into an over-egged ‘comedic’ rant, which only serves to negate the plight of this beautiful creature. The ‘dead’ bear, lies ingloriously on the ice, and from the cursory camera shot it may just as well be a flokati rug wrapped around a couple of wheelie bins.
The explorers face an icequake,dwindling food supplies, perilous crossings and the untimely knowledge that two far better equipped and progressive Norwegians are likely to scupper their dreams. Donned in matching red, technical snowsuits the gay Scandinavian adversaries, Tedje and Ketil, wickedly expose Mark and Brian’s unpreparedness.

I never promised you a Skarsgarden
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I gather from viewing the special features (see below) that the film was a very low budget venture. This may explain why Williams has enlisted his wife, Helen Baxendale, to appear briefly as an investigative journalist in the early documentary-style passages of the film. She is a name, or at least a face, even across the big pond, due to her appearances in Friends. The rubber-faced Stephen Mangan (known for his work in Green Wing) and Rhys Thomas take good parts as the seemingly deluded friends on their increasingly cabin-fevered journey. The funniest parts for me involve Mangan’s growing insanity and disgusted outrage with his ever more reticent, homesick companion. There is also a funny scene with the Norwegian explorers, who offer Brian a biscuit that he just can’t refuse. Mark sees this as a plan by the Scandinavians to de-rail their quest by tempting them with ‘support’. He is also non-plussed by Brian’s willingness to accept the bait. The ensuing argument and scuffle over the contentious comestible is funny indeed, resulting in a bizarre pile-up of grappling snowsuits!
One of the Norwegians is played by Alexander Skarsgard, which could turn out to be a godsend for Williams. Apparently, he was cast here prior to his stellar rise to True Blood stardom and apparent sex god status.  No doubt his appearances here, albeit pretty brief, will no doubt attract a considerably wider audience. His role as a giggling gay explorer is poles apart from his unnerving, pallid portrayal of the womanising Eric in True Blood. I suppose it’s nice to see that he doesn’t take himself too seriously!  
 I feel mention should be made of Rosie Cavaliero who turns in a very good performance as Brian’s girlfriend, Sandra. She provides some truly comic moments, especially from within the confines of ‘Polar HQ’, their caravan radio base in a field!
At the helm of this operation is Mark’s ‘second-best friend’ Graham, played with beer-swilling gusto by Mark Benton.

Ice Flaws
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Despite the admirable intentions of the film, I am afraid that their desired execution fails to materialise. I feel that the important environmental message is lost in the mix of knockabout humour. From watching the special features, I gather that the beauty of the scenery is intended to jolt us into signing up to an environmental pressure group. I’m sorry, and I hate to appear negative here, but this is naïve. Many other films have dazzled us with natural beauty but, apart from being aesthetically pleasing, rarely light me up enough to make me engage in a personal crusade to save the world.
In fact, without seeing the special features I would not have guessed that the film carried such a message. You could quite easily take the opposite view, that it is a parody of the worst kind of eco-warrior stereotype. The fact that Mark and Brian are so plain daft hardly helps the sceptic to get away from the fact that all such environmentalists are mad as a box of frogs. I fully appreciate Williams’s intention to capture and educate a whole new audience through comedy, but such a task is very tricky and, regrettably, I think he fails here.
More specific to the story, I would have liked to see a little more of the frictional relationship between Mark and his wife. I feel that, in contrast, there is a top-heavy concentration on Brian’s relationship with his girlfriend.
Furthermore, despite their expedition being purportedly ‘unsupported’ we discover an extra member with them at the outset, in the form of Scottish cameraman, Steve. As you will see, he more than supports them with a potentially life-saving intervention. Curiously, Mark does not flag up this action as amounting to ‘support’, but goes ballistic on another occasion over the aforementioned proffered biscuit!
As Steve’s involvement is later cut short, our explorers continue to film themselves in his absence, which begs the question ‘why was the cameraman needed anyway’?
I think that some of the scenes, particularly with the Norwegians, seem like extempore, one-take affairs. The spontaneity works to a degree, but is barely ‘acting’ in the true sense of the word, and seems superfluously trivial.

Polar-Iced Opinion
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Critical opinion seems to be polarised, with some of the ‘serious’ press readily downgrading the film in contrast with a more positive response from others. I am not easily influenced by such film reviewers these days, as I come to learn that the medium is often a personal experience. I do tend to have a mistrust of many highbrow reviewers as I feel that they are afraid to risk their reputations by admitting to a guilty pleasure. I do tend to concur with them here though.
Having said that, the film has earned several gongs and nominations at various, fairly low-key, civic film awards across the world, ranging from Nashville to Warsaw.

Here is a blend of the blurb:

“A satirical breath of fresh air”  Variety

“Faintly absurd run-ins with polar bears and a rival expedition go as you’d expect, while the mockery of the men’s unwitting hypocrisy plays second fiddle to the endearingly silly buddy act. ”  Total Film

“Perfectly pitched”  Future Movies

“This is a small British mockumentary with some good laughs and two likeable leads in Mangan and Thomas, but you can’t escape the feeling that it is best seen at home on DVD, with a nice takeaway. ” Sunday Times

“Exceptional”  Empire

“Buckets of charm”  Little White Lies

Conclusion
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I would certainly recommend this as a film to rent rather than buy, not least because of its scandalously short running time. It is very funny in places, chiefly at the expense of Mark and Brian’s ineptitude and stupidity. There are moments of gravity and poignancy that do offset the silliness, but I feel these are more about the human condition than about the perilous state of our planet. The expansive snowscapes are very pleasing and calming on the eye, but are not enough on their own to raise our awareness about climate change. I also feel that the soundtrack could have been better chosen and applied more appropriately to the beautiful scenery. This seems like just one of many missed opportunities by the Director to accentuate the poignancy of our planet’s plight, in order to forge a better connection with his intended audience.
For sheer effort in making and publicising this low budget venture, allied to its laudable intentions, I would have no hesitation in granting Beyond the Pole five stars. But because it misses the mark with its message, amongst other things, I believe that three out of five is a fair rating.

Cast
*******

Mark Bark-Jones /Stephen Mangan
Brian Tongue/Rhys Thomas
Becky/Helen Baxendale
Sandra/ Rosie Cavaliero
Graham/Mark Benton
Melissa/ Zoe Telford
Steve/ Clive Russell
Terje/ Alexander Skarsgard/
Ketil/ Lars Arentz-Hansen

Director
******

David L Williams

Year
****

2009

Certificate
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15

Running time
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The DVD actually states that the total running time is 128 minutes. This is misleading as I timed the actual feature at just 82 minutes. The rest of the time is padded out with special features. I find it a bit rich that someone trying to convince its audience to take a moral stance, subjects them to such deception and sharp practice!

Special features
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Running time in brackets expressed as minutes: seconds.

This Morning Interview (8:41)
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This interview is conducted by Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby where they ask Helen Baxendale and Stephen Mangan about the film, their on-set experiences et al. To me, Baxendale seems like a classic candidate for recipient of the alternative OBE (Other Buggers’ Efforts). Her role of Executive Producer seems to be very much a nominal one, handed to her by hubby Director David L Williams. She does however give us the background, namely that the film was adapted from a 6×15 episode Radio 4 series and that she knew one of its co-writers, Neil Warhurst. Mangan by contrast is more affable, as he expands on some of the challenges arising from the low-budget shoot. We learn that the film was shot in Greenland in temperatures touching -30.  Baxendale also enlightens us regarding the inclusion of Alexander Skarsgard which she describes as a ‘risk’; it seems the premise for his recruitment was the fact that he had been voted Sweden’s sexiest man three times. We also learn here that he was cast here, before he rose to prominence with True Blood.

On Set (10:41)
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This comprises a few shots of filmed scenes but is mainly an interview with Director, David L Williams, who expands a little on the choice of location and the latent environmental message behind the film. I’m surprised to learn that the script took 3 or 4 years to write. Without wishing to be entirely mean, I felt like this script could have been banged out over a few pints in the pub. It is nevertheless interesting to hear why Greenland was chosen over Iceland due to its varied and ever-transient landscape. But  we also learn that it is not without its challenges. For instance, we learn of its unpredictability whereby one day the crew could happen upon an endless expanse of water, only to return the following day to be met by sheer compacted ice. Williams also points out a wonderful iceberg on set, which looms like an albino Ayers Rock in the mid-distance.

Norwegian Impro (2:06)
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This short clip shows Skarsgard and Arentz-Hansen engaging in some on-set tomfoolery in their roles as the gay Norwegian rival explorers. This consists of Skarsgard in an apparent anti-English rant, although I can’t be sure as it’s all in Swedish….I think!

LA Q&A (9:17)
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This is quite an enlightening feature as Director, Williams, fields questions during a Los Angeles press release. He manages this with some aplomb, humour and erudition, which begs the question why he fails to push the environmental message though in the film itself. Amongst other things, he admits to guilty pleasures in liking Spandau Ballet’s Gold, which is one of the three songs that make up the soundtrack. Furthermore, he goes on to curl more toes by confessing that he used to keep the lyrics to Gold under his pillow! He does a good job in explaining the genesis and underlying purpose of the film. However, his attempt at clutching at filmic comparison is a little less successful as hardly anyone in LA seems to have heard of Withnail and I. Overall, he has the audience eating out of his hand with ad libs and a winning tale about defecating huskies!

Trailer (2:17)
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This begins by comparing our intrepid duo’s quest to the expeditions of such exalted worthies as Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong. We are then whizzed through a visual synopsis of the eco-warriors’ odyssey. Their optimism is nicely framed by one of their catchphrases “we’re not going there to die, we’re going there to live!”.

Online Ad (1:59)
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This brief, and rather superfluous, clip shows Stephen Mangan attempting to summarise the film in 10 seconds, failing and then doing re-take after re-take. This is interspersed with positive blurb cut from various reviews.

Don’t be Impotent! (4:42)
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The title of this feature refers to the pair’s T-shirt slogan ‘Don’t be impotent, be important’, and the content is of a more serious nature. Williams and Baxendale are joined by the Head of Friends of the Earth, Andy Atkins, to discuss global warming or ‘runaway climate change.’ Atkins makes the case for people power and the need to join an environmental pressure group. He states that the biggest contribution we can make is to get in touch with our MPs to voice our concerns. You may be surprised to learn that, as a result of others doing this, the UK is the only country in the world to have a law committing the current and future government/s to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps this is something we should be very proud of, amid our fug of self-critical gloom. Williams also explains that Beyond the Pole was put out there to, hopefully, reach a different audience. Different, that is, to those who would actively seek out harder-headed documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth. His intentions are wholly commendable but I don’t think he will succeed; I hope I am wrong. It may have been better to run this particular feature with Atkins immediately prior to the film, as it would have reached the cinema audience. Furthermore, in my experience, few people actually bother to watch special features on DVDs, so this helpful message would be typically overlooked in this format too.

Brian and Mark deleted scenes(2:55)
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More superfluous out-takes with Mark and Brian intent on some in-tent lunacy!

*This review has also been posted on Ciao under the username FLOCKOFSEAGULLS

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