Winged Migration (Le peuple migrateur)


In the pink.

In the pink.

(2001) Documentary (Sony Classics) Pierre Labro (voice) and a whole buncha birds. Directed by Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats

There is something about a bird in flight. Given wing, it captures our imagination, symbolizing our ability to break free the bonds of Earth and achieve more than we thought we could. Flight is freedom in our imagination and yet birds are trapped by it. They migrate, sometimes thousands of miles. They can’t help it. They don’t have a choice in the matter. Their genetic disposition is such that their instincts override reason. When the time comes, they head South…or North depending on the time of year and the species of bird.

This particular documentary was nominated for an Oscar (losing to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine which some critics thought an injustice but I can kind of see) and deservedly so. The French documentarians who had previously taken us into the world of insects in Microcosmos had to innovate on the fly (no pun intended) as they figured out ingenious ways to get cameras close enough to migrating birds, using lightweight camera-mounted drones and other sorts of aircraft that would allow them to follow the flocks without disrupting them.

The results are spectacular. We are in the midst of thousands of migrating birds all over the world, from the deserts to the mountains, the shoreline to the city. We see birds of every variety – grouses, puffins, swallows, geese and so on. We see them in their elements, the formations that they adopt in flight and the sometimes stupendous odds they face in getting from point A to point B.

They are attacked by predators both natural (i.e. birds of prey, a broken-winged young tern facing off against scary crabs) and manmade (duck hunters blasting away at birds in flight). They must sometimes fly for days without rest, food or water across the ocean or mountain or desolate desert. We are literally given a birds-eye view of their travel, an annual event for them but still amazing for us to watch them make it unerringly to places you and I couldn’t find without a GPS.

The narration by Pierre Labro (although Perrin does it on the American version I believe) is low-key and occasionally explains what you can see for yourself. I much prefer narration that gives perspective, some kind of background that gives the viewing an understanding of what they’re seeing rather than a description. I can see that the birds are flying in formation. Why do they fly that way? How do they learn that skill?

But this isn’t a nature documentary in the traditional sense. I don’t think the filmmakers intended to educate their audience on ornithology. No, I think the point of this movie was to send the viewer in flight right along with the birds, to create an experience that will allow them to soar spiritually and forget for a short while the troubles of us earthbound mortals.

I sometimes grouse about the IMAX and 3D versions of classic films that make the occasional rounds in the multiplexes. I would much rather see an IMAX version of this someday – now that would really be spectacular! Da Queen and I were fortunate enough to see it on its theatrical run and we have seen it since on DVD. There really is no comparison although there are compensations to seeing it at home – my late dog Peanut was fascinated by the bird cries and watched the screen with an interest and cocked head he rarely took at the television screen. Perhaps that’s part of why I am so fond of this film – it is one of my fondest memories with my dog – but having seen it again recently I can say that this is also a wonderful, beautifully shot film that will fill you up with wonder from the time the show starts until the final credits. If you need to let off some steam and forget about the world for awhile, this is a good place to go.

WHY RENT THIS: Comes as close to giving the audience a sense of flight as any film is likely to. Fascinating and beautiful.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The narration is sometimes obvious and unnecessary; would have liked to have gotten more information about why birds do what they do.

FAMILY VALUES:  While generally safe for all audiences, there is one scene that the very sensitive might have a hard time with.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers attempted to film emperor penguins but weather conditions prohibited it. The next year, a different crew would capture the elusive emperors on March of the Penguins.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While making-of featurettes are generally pretty standard on most home video releases, the one here is noteworthy because it explores in-depth the challenges both technical and human in capturing these images of birds in flight.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32.3M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earth

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: 12 Years a Slave

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Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso)


Cinema Paradiso

Movies are magic!

(1988) Drama (Miramax) Jacques Perrin, Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Agnese Nano, Marco Leonardi, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Isa Danielli, Leonardo Trieste, Roberta Lina, Leo Gullotta, Enzo Cannavale, Nicola Di Pinto, Nino Terzo. Directed by Giusseppe Tornatore

 

Some movies are so personal to the director that you feel like you are getting a glimpse of their very soul. Those movies can be a mixed blessing, but in other cases they become timeless classics that change your point of view forever.

Cinema Paradiso is one such film. It charts the journey of Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita who as an adult (Perrin) gets a phone call from his mother that his childhood mentor Alfredo (Noiret) has passed away. He returns to his home town in Sicily, a small village where the 20th century arrived kicking and screaming.

As a boy (Cascio) he waited in vain for his father to come back from the war. He soon found something to be fascinated by – the town’s only movie theater which is basically the only source of entertainment for the village. He is taken under the wing of Alfredo, who allows him to watch movies from the projection booth. There he learns the language of cinema – of close ups and cross cuts, of montage and flashback.

But the idyllic life of a small town takes a dark turn when a fire robs Alfredo of his sight – and it would have been more had it not been for the courage and quick thinking of Toto. As a teenager (Leonardi) he takes over the projectionist duties with the help and guidance of his mentor. He also develops a crush on Elena (Nano), a blue-eyed blonde who confounds and bedevils him, but also excites and inspires him.

He will reach a point in his life in which he will need to make a decision to go or stay – to remain the conduit of dreams in his little village, or to become a maker of dreams. We know what he chooses but why he goes down the path he takes…well, it is not exactly what you might expect.

This was the 1989 Best Foreign Film Academy Award winner, and deservedly so. Oscar doesn’t always get these things right but they sure did here. This film is a classic, a once in a lifetime movie that not only gives us a sense of nostalgia for why we love the movies but a sense of sadness for the roads not taken.

Tornatore brilliantly cast three different actors for the same role. They don’t really look much alike, but they certainly all channeled the essence of Toto. I don’t know if Perrin, Cascio and Leonardi had much communication before filming began but the performances sure come off as if they did. The three actors are seamless in changing from one to the other – and never at any point do you feel as if you’re seeing the interpretation of a role but three actors playing the same person at different points in his life. It’s amazing to see and critical to the success of the film.

There are moments of pure magic – such as Alfredo projecting the movie on a building across the square after the theater has closed for the night, or a montage of kissing scenes that were cut from the movies at the behest of the village priest who every week meticulously sat through each film, ringing a bell whenever he wanted Alfredo to snip a scene out.

Hollywood has often viewed small town life through a rose-colored lens and it’s kind of comforting to know that Rome has the same lens in place. This is a film that moves you and touches you. Even if you didn’t live a life anywhere near what Toto did you will certainly find elements of the story that will resonate with you. Cinema Paradiso isn’t just about the movies – it’s about life, and maybe that’s why we love the movies so much because at the end of the day, that’s what all movies are about in some way shape or form.

The original cut oddly enough is not the one shown in America initially. The Weinsteins made some cuts and it is that version that won the Oscar. Later, they released it briefly in its original uncut form. Strangely, like Roger Ebert, I prefer the cut version. The original one feels a bit overlong to me although it does give a good deal more insight into the Elena-Toto romance and what happened to it. You should certainly see it if you loved the American version of it, but it requires a more patient European personality I think.

WHY RENT THIS: A marvelous look at the meaning of home for better and for worse and of the place of movies and magic in it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Runs a little bit long, particularly the director’s cut edition.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality on the director’s cut and a disturbing scene of a fire in both editions.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Samples of dialogue from the movie can be heard in the Dream Theater song “Take the Time.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD collector’s edition includes both the theatrical and director cuts of the film as well as recipe cards for dishes inspired by the film as well as the Food Network show in which Michael Chiarello discussed the film and the dishes he created around it. Because the rights to the director’s cut edition lie with a different studio, the Blu-Ray version of the film includes only the shorter theatrical cut and none of the extras (including the commentaries and featurettes) found on the DVD so you might be better off finding the collector’s edition on eBay.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was in all likelihood a hit (as we only have domestic box office figures).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Picture Show

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

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