Wonders of the Sea


It’s a squid bonanza!

(2017) Documentary (Screen Media) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Celine Cousteau, Fabien Cousteau, Gavin McKinney, Richard Murphy, Holly Lohuis. Directed by Jean-Michel Cousteau and Jacques Mantello

 

The ocean is the mother to us all. From her depths all life rose including mankind. She absorbs more carbon than any other item on earth. She feeds us, gives us nourishing rain. Without the oceans, life on Earth would not be possible.

We have taken the oceans for granted. We dump our trash into it, leading to floating trash heaps of plastics. Through global warming, we have raised the temperature of the oceans to a degree where certain species have had to retreat further into the depths in order to survive. We have overfished, devastating the population of tuna, cod, octopuses and other sea creatures. In recent years we have begun to understand that the ocean as a resource is truly finite.

One of the earliest researchers into the ocean was the legendary French engineer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, who in addition to inventing scuba gear and the aqualung which allow us to explore the ocean more thoroughly, is an award-winning filmmaker whose documentaries inspired a generation of ichthyologists, oceanographers and conservationists.

His son Jean-Michel has carried on the Cousteau family tradition. On his ship the Pacific Monarch he has continued on the mission of exploration and education. This film is the culmination of his efforts and in many ways it is brilliant. Using cutting edge underwater camera technology, he is able to take breathtaking footage in the great depths of the ocean as well as in the shadows; many of the creatures he turns his lens on (as well as cinematographer Gavin McKinney) are tiny and rarely photographed.

And those images are amazing and breathtaking, from a night dive where bioluminescent creatures prowl the deep, to swarms of mating squid to the great biodiversity of the coral reefs, the images explode with color and wonder. In fact, they almost do their jobs too well as after awhile we begin to experience sensory overload.

If only the narration matched the images. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, not noted for his ecological leanings, does a passable job but the information he is relating is generally available in other films. The coral reef section which takes up almost half of the running time is at least comparable to what you’ll see in the Netflix doc Chasing Coral which has a similar message. There is also some banter from the Cousteau family – Jean-Michel and his two adult children, daughter Celine and son Fabien – that feels forced and a bit incongruous.

Another thing to consider is that this was filmed in and meant to be seen in 3D. I don’t have the capability to watch 3D movies at home and so it feels like I lost a good deal of the impact of the movie. Even to my not-always-discerning eye it appeared that 3D would give the viewer much more of a “you are there” experience.

Technically, this is a marvelous achievement. The images are enhanced by a beautiful score by Christophe Jacquelin. Those with kids in the family will likely enjoy the coral reef sequences, particularly if the kids are devoted to Finding Nemo as there is some really fascinating looks at clownfish.

Preserving our planet is a very important cause and one which should be stressed not only to our young people but to their parents and grandparents as well. As stewards of Earth, we are failing miserably at our jobs. At least Wonders of the Sea has the sense not to politicize the film and point fingers (although we all kind of know where blame lies) and if they get a little shrill from time to time, it’s understandable. This is very much a virtual aquarium with a window onto the deep and there certainly isn’t anything wrong with that at all. I only wish I could have seen it in 3D as it was meant to be seen.

REASONS TO SEE: The imagery is dazzling with a dizzying array of color. Cousteau lives up to his father’s legacy.
REASONS TO AVOID: After a while, it all begins to blur together.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over a five year period.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oceans
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Lavender Scare

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The Biggest Little Farm


Farmer, farmer’s best friend and beautiful farm.

(2018) Documentary (NEONJohn Chester, Molly Chester, Alan York, Beauden Chester. Directed by John Chester

If you are someone who watches a lot of documentaries about farming and food production, you’ll be aware that small family farms are essentially endangered species, being pushed to the brink of extinction by factory farms that loads up their crops with pesticides and growth hormones and practices inhumane (to say the least) practices in regards to the livestock.

John Chester is a cinematographer who started out doing nature documentaries. His wife Molly is a chef, food blogger, cookbook author and advocate for healthy farm-to-table cuisine. The two lived in a cramped Santa Monica apartment but dreamed of farm life. They adopted a rescue dog, a big black Labrador-like guy named Todd. When the two would leave the apartment to go to work, the dog suffered from acute separation anxiety, barking non-stop to the point where the landlord finally asked them to get rid of the dog. Instead, the couple opted to get rid of apartment life. They decided to live their dream instead of just discussing it.

They purchased 200 acres near Moorpark, California – about an hour North of downtown L.A. in Ventura County. Not knowing much about farming, they took the sage advice of Alan York who preached the gospel of biodiversity, raising as many crops as possible instead of just a single one and relying on pesticides. The Chesters wanted to integrate flora and fauna, and York had the know-how to make it work.

The film – largely shot by Chester and directed by him – is a chronicle of the first seven years of their journey into Green Acres territory and all the challenges they faced, from predators such as coyotes and mountain lions attacking their chicken population, or pests like snails and various bugs eating the fruits of their labors (literally). In all instances the Chesters tried solutions that incorporated natural elements, like getting ladybugs for the insect pests and so on.

There are obstacles that don’t necessarily have easy and natural solutions, like a drought that has been proclaimed the worst in 1,200 years, or the destructive wildfires that have beset California the past couple of years. The fact that the climate is changing doesn’t seem to deter the very persistent Chester family; however, it must be said that farms like theirs is part of the solution to climate change.

One wouldn’t think that a farm would be an ideal location for nature photography but Chester certainly has an eye for it and some of the images are absolutely stunning. In fact, they are almost too stunning; sometimes we get so caught up in the beautiful images for the underlying message of biodiversity and ecological responsibility to register. What will certainly register is the personality of the various farm animals, starting with Todd the Rescue Dog on down to Millie the pig, Greasy the rooster and onward.

The farm does offer tours (we see one near the end of the film) and there is a URL at the end of the film for which you can follow the Farm where, as they say, the story continues. Those who don’t want to wait to see the film to check out the farm and their activities out can go here.

Watching this simple yet heartwarming film is going to get some viewers to long for a simpler life. Maybe you too will be motivated to start a farm of your own although watching this might convince you that the very prospect is nothing short of crazy. This was a big hit at the recent Florida Film Festival and will be making a run at the Enzian in the coming weeks. Keep an eye out for it; this is truly chicken soup for the soul.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is absolutely extraordinary. Nature photography on the farm – also extraordinary. Makes one long for a simpler life. Very sweet and inspiring.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes the message is lost in the beautiful pictures
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of animal peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Winter, Spring
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Charlie Says

Crude


Don't say anything crude.

Don’t say anything crude.

(2009) Documentary (First Run) Pablo Fajardo, Sting, Judge German Yanez, Kent Robertson, Dr. Adolfo Callejas, Steve Donziger, Ebergeldo Criollo, Alossa Soltani, Joseph Kohn, Maria Garafolo, Sara McMillen, Ricardo Reis Veiga, Diego Larrea, Alejandro Ponce, Rosa Moreno, Amy Goodman, Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez, Lupita de Heredia, Trudie Styler. Directed by Joe Berlinger

In 1993, lawyers in Ecuador filed a class action lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 indigenous dwellers of the Ecuadorian rain forest for damages done by Texaco’s (who were acquired by Chevron in 2001) Lago Agrio oilfield operations. The lawsuit alleged that poorly maintained pipelines and waste disposal pits had infiltrated the water supply, leading to a variety of cancers and other diseases that afflict the people of the region, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island.

The lawsuit dragged on for 18 years, following a change of venue from New York to Ecuador after American courts dismissed the case because they didn’t have proper jurisdiction. This documentary, helmed by Joe Berlinger who has been Oscar nominated and also won Emmy and Peabody awards for his work, followed the case during 2006 and 2007 as the lawsuit drew international attention.

Berlinger admirably allows both sides of the story to air their opinions; certainly his sympathies lie with the plaintiffs as he tends to present more of their point of view, but certainly Chevron cannot complain that he didn’t give them if not equal time at least enough time to present their case. It’s hard to argue with the images that we see of scandalously polluted holes in the ground, children with heartbreaking rashes and illnesses, and the evidence of the cultural destruction of a people who had inhabited the area safely for centuries until the oil companies came along.

Chevron’s argument that Texaco had cleaned up the area that they were involved in before turning over the oilfield to the state-run Petroecuador corporation who, according to Chevron, were responsible for the lion’s share of the environmental destruction is hard to ignore. Berlinger was given access to Chevron executives as well as their legal team and quite frankly they don’t come off as profit-mad monsters. However, the plaintiffs do argue that Texaco wouldn’t have done any cleaning had they not been compelled to after an earlier lawsuit and their argument that Texaco didn’t uphold their share of the agreement is also hard to ignore.

The status of the people affected by the extraction of oil is truly heartbreaking; nobody should have to live in those conditions, particularly considering the biodiversity of the region which has likely been irreparably damaged by the somewhat cavalier safety precautions of all of the oil companies involved. While the documentary does spend some time with the natives, more emphasis is given on the legal teams of both sides which in a sense is justified because as a legal drama this case is compelling, but like most real-life legal dramas, can be kind of boring to watch.

The Ecuadorian courts rendered a decision in 2011, ordering Chevron to pay just under $10 billion in reparations and clean-up costs, a decision upheld by the Ecuadorian supreme court. In turn, Chevron litigated in the United States, alleging that improprieties by the American and Ecuadorian lawyers of the plaintiffs and corruption in the Ecuadorian judicial system had led to a decision that was unjustified. An American court found in favor of Chevron in 2014, a decision that the original plaintiffs are appealing. To date, none of the people affected by the drilling for oil have received a penny in compensation.

Watching Donziger, the lead American lawyer who is somewhat arrogant, it is easy to believe that he behaved improperly, which has been borne out by documentary footage not included in the feature as well as through his own journal entries and internal memos. Sadly, while the cause was just, those who fought for the cause didn’t behave in a manner that reflected the justness of that cause. And to their detriment, Chevron has launched an aggressive course of punitive litigation against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and their lawyers. It is somewhat ironic that a company that complained that they were being sued because of their deep pockets are now using those deep pockets to go after those who sued them, who are now suing Chevron once again, this time for $113 billion, claiming that Chevron has failed to comply with the original decision.

Chances are the case will continue to churn in the American and international legal systems for years to come, maybe even decades. My gut feeling is that if Chevron ends up paying anything out, it will be much less than what they were initially ordered to pay and if they do pay anything out, most of it will likely go to the lawyers and little will make its way to the Ecuadorian Amazon where people continue to live and die. This is the human cost of our insatiable need for oil and the insatiable greed of those who supply that oil. It’s the kind of tragedy that would have delighted Shakespeare – and turned his stomach.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably balanced, allowing both sides to present their points of view. Beautifully shot. Fascinating interviews.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those who love the law may be disgusted by the behavior of lawyers on both sides. The struggle between the lawyers overshadows the plight of the natives.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Following the release of the film, Chevron had the case tried in an American court, claiming fraud and corruption; raw footage from the film, not included in the final cut, was submitted as evidence in the case.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Interviews with director Joe Berlinger and activist Trudie Styler, festival and premiere coverage and a resource guide.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $185,881 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You’ve Been Trumped
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Transit