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

Chasing Ice


Ice, ice baby

Ice, ice baby

(2012) Documentary (Submarine Deluxe) James Balog, Svavar Jonatansson, Louie Psihoyos, Adam LeWinter, Kitty Boone, Jeff Orlowski, Tad Pfeffer, Suzanne Balog, Dennis Dimick, Emily Balog, Simone Balog, Sylvia Earle, Jason Box, Synte Peacock. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

The world is changing. That’s a given – our lives are sometimes too short a span to really notice it but I think most of us have noticed that the climate has been changing. Storms are becoming more severe; the summer of 2012 is one of the warmest ever recorded. Wildfires are becoming hotter and more frequent.

James Balog is a nature photographer with the National Geographic Society. He is one of the best in the world at it, having won numerous awards for his work which have for the most part dealt with deforestation and endangered species. He has recently become intrigued by ice and on a photo shoot in Iceland watched a massive glacier calve before his eyes.

Aware that scientists were recording that the glaciers were melting at a faster rate than previously recorded, he decided to document the event. To that end he set up the Extreme Ice Survey which raised funds through grants and Balog’s own personal  funds to set up cameras in Montana, Alaska, Greenland and Iceland (and eventually the Himalayas).

The challenges of doing this are severe. The equipment is delicate; setting up cameras designed to shoot photos once an hour for six months at a time in conditions that are as severe as any on the planet requires some innovative engineering (which doesn’t always work). Setting those cameras up requires sometimes precarious mounts which required some climbing skill. To make matters worse, Balog had some serious knee problems which eventually required four surgeries just for him to function.

But the results are worth it. Balog takes some stunning still photos of the ice which are just breathtaking while the video footage shot of the EIS team in these various locations show the stark beauty of the ice. Most importantly the time-lapse photos of the glaciers are terrifying and convincing – if you didn’t believe the scientific warnings before you will now. Of course if you listen to the airheads on Fox News you still might not.

Even more convincing is a massive calving sequence that was caught on videotape by the EIS of a glacier losing ice the size of Lower Manhattan and ten times the height of the Empire State Building. Watching the sequence literally took my breath away and left me with a pounding heart. It’s beautiful yes, but the implications for our world and our species is disturbing.

This is a movie that needs to be seen, to be shown in high schools and shown to government officials. The commentators at Fox News need to be nailed down into chairs and forced to watch it. America is the only industrialized nation on the planet that hasn’t adopted stricter carbon emission laws and it is our job as citizens not just of this nation but of the world to demand our congress do so. It behooves us to remember that we are stewards of our planet – not for those who came before but for those who come after. James Balog and Jeff Orlowski are well aware of that – and the evidence is on the screen.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible photography. Presents the argument for reducing carbon and carbon dioxide emissions concisely.

REASONS TO STAY: Only if you’re making a fortune in the oil industry and others that benefit from emitting carbons into the atmosphere.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words uttered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balog was the first photographer ever to be commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to create a full set of stamps.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100. I would call it a critical success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Inconvenient Truth

ICE AT NIGHT LOVERS: There is a sequence near the end of the movie when Balog takes pictures of ice on a bright moonlit night (he cheats a little with some well-placed lights) that is simply stunning.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Vicious Kind

An Inconvenient Truth


An Inconvenient Truth
“As a matter of fact, I DID invent the Internet and I’m very nearly as tall as the planet.”

(2006) Documentary (Paramount Classics) Al Gore. Directed by Davis Guggenheim

I have to admit not being the biggest Al Gore fan in the world. In all honesty, I was put off by him because of the actions of his wife Tipper in the heyday of the PRMC. Her heart might have been in the right place (as a parent, I don’t object to labeling material that might be offensive to some – parents have a right to know what their kids are listening to) but it seemed to me that she seemed more intent on effectively driving the edgier material out of the marketplace than in providing a needed service to parents. I found her methods heavy-handed, and in some ways, I probably migrated my dislike of her over to her husband. I was truly happy when George W. took the oath of office. Given my 20/20 hindsight, I might not have been had I known then what I know now.

Nowadays, he is the poster boy for climate change and in the process, he’s re-invented himself. Once ridiculed for his somewhat stiff manner, he seems a lot less stiff these days stumping for the planet. The documentary An Inconvenient Truth has won the Oscar, but is it really about global warming?

Yes and no. In some ways, it is about the former Veep and how he came to be so passionate about the subject. Quite frankly, this is a film with an agenda and if it doesn’t apologize for it, it doesn’t attempt to hide it either and it has at least the courage of its own convictions. That climate change  is a reality is incontrovertible; as to the more current debate on whether it is a natural occurrence or not I won’t take sides. I don’t pretend to be expert enough to do that. Let me just say that I have my own opinions and leave it at that.

This is a movie that essentially preaches to the choir; if you were a Gore-hound in 2000 or are an eco-warrior at all now, you won’t be introduced to anything new. If you were a Bush-head in 2000 or are an economic warrior now, you probably won’t be watching this movie. I will say it does make compelling viewing, particularly when Gore is onstage delivering his slideshow (which is enhanced here by additional footage you won’t see in a live Gore presentation).

Still in all, it has an impact that is hard to argue with. While there are those who say that this is less about saving the Earth than it is about saving Al Gore’s career, there is no doubt that the movie is still as relevant five years later as it was when it first debuted – maybe even more so, given the climatological effects we’ve been seeing of late – brutal winters, weather-related disasters and vicious summers. There is no doubt that our planet is undergoing a profound change and that we are either going to have to change our habits now or learn to live with the consequences later. It seems likely that the planet and weather patterns we know now are going to be drastically different for our grandchildren.

I sure hope that a few centuries from now, our descendents – what few remain – aren’t cursing us. I hope they aren’t in despair in some cave, knowing that we had the ability to make some changes and chose not to do so. I hope we are a much wiser race than it appears we are. I hope we have the smarts to listen and the will to make a difference. Otherwise our species will be as thriving as Al Gore’s presidential aspirations.

 WHY RENT THIS: The slide show is impressive. The information here is vital.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Al Gore is a less-than-compelling speaker. A case could be made that the goal here is less to promote ecological awareness than to reinvent Al Gore.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the thematic material here might be a bit adult for smaller kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first (and so far only) documentary film to win two Academy Awards.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD also offers additional tips on how to reduce your own carbon emissions and help with the climate crisis on a local level. Whether you like Gore or don’t like him, this is a problem that isn’t going to go away. We need to act and act now, and the filmmakers provide a service in giving you ideas and motivation to do precisely that. There is also a Melissa Etheridge music video as well as an update on what’s transpired since the film was released.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49.8M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Boogie Woogie

Oceans


Oceans

Underwater, turtles become sprinters.

(DisneyNature) Narrated by Pierce Brosnan. Directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud

The oceans are vast, covering nearly three quarters of our planet and yet humans have laid eyes on only 5% of it. It makes up the largest territory of our planet and yet what we know about what lives there is infinitesimal compared with what there is to know.

As our technology has evolved, so has our ability to study the creatures of our seas. Some, like the bottle-nose dolphin and the blue whale, are creatures who swim close to the surface and as a result, we’ve been able to study them at some length. Others exist at greater depths, or swim in places that are more difficult for humans to access. Even these remote places, however, are becoming more and more reachable with submersibles that can withstand greater pressures, high-tech scuba apparatus and underwater cameras that can take amazing footage.

This is the second in what is slated to be an annual Earth Day event by Disney’s nature documentary division (last year, they released Earth to much acclaim). While Disney is distributing these movies, it should be noted that both Earth and Oceans were made by documentarians in England and France, respectively and were financed and produced outside of the Mouse House.

Still, the images here are magnificent, from the stately blue whale migration to the antics of sea otters and dolphins, from the weird and mysterious spider crabs to the serene and beautiful jellyfish. There are orcas and sharks, to be sure, and gulls dive-bombing for sardines, clouds of krill and schools of yellowfin tuna. There are squid-like creatures undulating through the liquid world with scarf-like streamers trailing them like a Spanish dancer, and tiny eels dancing in a strange ballet on the ocean floor. There are beautiful clownfish darting in and out of the Great Barrier Reef and penguins in the Antarctic, clumsy clowns on the ice but graceful and sleek in the water.

In its own way, Oceans is a beautiful movie but I’m wondering if there isn’t a bit of overkill here. After last year’s Earth and the latest BBC/Discovery Channel epic nature documentary series “Life”, Oceans feels almost like too much of a good thing.

The other quibble is with the narration. Pierce Brosnan is a fine actor but he doesn’t make a great narrator; his voice lacks the gravitas of a James Earl Jones or even a Sigourney Weaver. In all fairness, the narration he is given to read isn’t very inspirational and lacked the humor Disney nature documentaries are known for.

Still, that’s not what you come to a movie like this for. You come for amazing images and to see things you’ll never be able to see with your own eyes. The way to approach a movie like Oceans is to let the images sweep over you, wash you away and take you to the deep blue. It is as alien a world as anything George Lucas has ever devised and yet it is on our doorstep.

Asking the question “What is the ocean,” as the narration posits at the movie’s beginning, dumbs down the movie. Unless you’re a very young child, you know what the ocean is and clearly Disney is going for parents with very young children. While young children will ooh and ahh over the pictures, they don’t have the attention span to last the entire 90 minutes of the film. The trick is to get the same sense of wonder from adults, which they do nicely. It then becomes unnecessary to talk down to the audience by asking them “What is the ocean” because the questions you want them to ask are “What more is the ocean” and “How can we help save it.”

There are sequences that are powerful, with a forlorn shopping cart sitting on the ocean floor (which led me more to wonder how on earth it got there) and garbage floating on the ocean’s surface sending the requisite ecological message which should have been stronger; a segment that showed species that are now extinct was excised for the American version. Perhaps Disney didn’t want children to dwell on the harsh realities, but then why show baby turtles being picked off by frigate birds if that’s the case?

The co-directors were responsible for the much-superior Winged Migration and to their credit to capture some amazing sequences, but quite frankly I wasn’t wowed. Oceans turns out to be less of an educational tool than a new age video, and to my way of thinking our oceans deserved a better movie.

REASONS TO GO: Some very spectacular and beautiful footage, as well as amazing behavioral mannerisms of creatures both familiar and unfamiliar.

REASONS TO STAY: Perhaps a victim of Earth’s success; didn’t stack up favorably. Brosnan’s narration didn’t carry enough gravitas.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfect viewing for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Perrin narrates the French version; his son Lancelot makes an appearance as the young boy in the movie’s framing segments at the beginning and the end.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the magnificent footage should be seen on a big screen for full effect.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Express