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

10 Billion – What’s On Your Plate? (10 Milliarden)


There are all sorts of hungry mouths to feed.

(2015) Documentary (Under the Milky Way) Valentin Thurn, Liam Condon, Johan Botterman, Andreas Gansie, Gutshof Habitzheim, Felix zu Lowenstein, Bangardswami Soundaratajan, Karl Schweisfurth, Jes Tarp, Bernd Schmitz, Haruhiko Murase, Ronald Stotish, Dawn Runighan, Mark Post, Jim Rogers, Rob Hopkins, Fanny Nanjiwa. Directed by Valentin Thurn

 

There are a lot of scary things happening in the world. The climate is changing; arable land will soon be at a premium. On top of that, the world population is exploding beyond our capacity to feed everyone and deliver drinkable water to them. Less farmland, more people – does anyone see this is a recipe for disaster?

Actually, many do. German journalist Valentin Thurn went in search of solutions to the coming food crisis which one scientist called “the greatest crisis man has ever faced.”

The changes in the weather don’t just affect cellphone reception. Many parts of the globe are experiencing extended droughts while others are getting too much rain. Crops that aren’t resistant to these changes will fail. Scientists are trying to create hybrid seeds that will grow plants that are drought resistant and deliver a more efficient yield. These efforts are being spearheaded by big companies like Bayer and Nestlé. However, it is somewhat disconcerting to learn that just ten corporations control more than three quarters of the world’s seeds.

Most of us are aware of GMOs which have been sold to us as bad things, but some scientists caution that without them we may not be able to feed everyone within the next 20-30 years – yes, that soon. Is it a choice between a rock and a hard place that we’re facing? Well, Thurn doesn’t think so.

One of the big culprits behind worldwide food shortages is meat. Cows, sheep, pigs and chicken require enormous amount of resources to maintain. On top of that, the middle classes of developing countries – including traditionally vegetarian India – are craving more and more meat, copying the demographics of Western nations including Europe and North America. The oceans are also becoming dangerously over-fished. Sustainable sources of meat are almost a must if we’re going to continue to enjoy hamburgers, sushi and McNuggets.  Some scientists are looking to grow meat substitutes in various labs. Alternative sources of protein are also being explored; insects, for example. Don’t turn that shade of green; in several cultures in Asia and Africa, insects are part of the daily diet. Chocolate covered ants, anyone?

Thurn seems to think that the answer lies in thinking locally rather than globally. Big multi-national food providers see food as commodities rather than a human right; food that is grown locally is affordable to nearly everyone as costs in transportation and preservation can be prohibitive. Small, organic farmers who have been practicing the same land stewardship techniques for ages may provide the answers for the coming food shortage crisis.

Thurn admirably keeps ecological sustainability part of his equation; solutions that may provide food but destroy the ecology are not viable and Thurn makes sure we know that. However, he has a tendency to be a bit of a tunnel-visionary; while he explores technological advances, he tends to criticize them with missionary zeal mainly rejecting them out of hand as being too expensive for the impoverished to explore. The thing is about technology is that as it becomes more commonplace, it tends to fall in price. Electricity, indoor plumbing and computers were all once only affordable by the very wealthy; now they are all everywhere used by all but the most impoverished.

Thurn is a very thorough investigator and he tries to look at every aspect of the problem – and it IS an important problem, one that is going to affect all of us. We all need to eat, right? However, there is an awful lot of information being presented here, a lot of it technical and after awhile it becomes somewhat brain-numbing. There is also a scene set in an Indian chicken factory farm in which the poultry is being slaughtered; those who are sensitive to such things may be disturbed.

Still, this is an important topic and anyone who wants to see the human race continue knows that keeping it fed is going to be a priority in the next century. Some of the technology and practices seen here may fall by the wayside but some of it is almost certainly going to become part of our lives. It is inevitable and although we may not like to think about it, we need to consider these possibilities nonetheless Our descendants are counting on us.

REASONS TO GO: This is a sobering but important topic for a documentary. There are a variety of viewpoints presented.
REASONS TO STAY: A definite case of information overkill.
FAMILY VALUES: The dire predictions may be troubling to some; there is also a scene in which chickens are slaughtered which may upset the sensitive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If current birth rates hold true, the world population will hit ten billion by the year 2050.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Film Platform, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Supper for Malthus
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Unsane

Sushi: The Global Catch


The tasty simplicity of sushi.

The tasty simplicity of sushi.

(2012) Documentary (Lorber) Mamoru Sugiyama, Mike Sutton, Alistair Douglas, Casson Trenor, Hagen Stehr, Tyson Cole, Yasuhara Ida, Kazuo Nazaki, Makoto Nozue, Hiroyasu Itoh, Barbara Block. Directed by Mark Hall

Films For Foodies

It really wasn’t that long ago that I couldn’t understand the appeal behind sushi. Raw fish? White rice? Yeccch. I resisted eating the stuff for a very long time. Then, at a party where that was all that was being served food-wise and I was desperately hungry, I finally broke down and tried it. I loved it. I became an instant sushi freak and have been for decades now.

Sushi started life as a cheap Japanese street food and has morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry. It has become one of the most popular dishes in the world, with places like China and Brazil beginning to discover it. It is insanely popular in Australia and even Europe has embraced the fish and rice delicacy.

In Japan, sushi chefs undergo rigorous training, a seven year process that requires two years alone to learn to cook the rice properly. High end knife stores in Japan supply the highly specialized sushi knives which are required to be razor sharp. Here in the United States sushi has popped up all over the country, even in the landlocked Midwest. The demand for sushi chefs continues to grow almost daily.

Demand for sushi has outstripped supply and entire species of fish are beginning to wobble dangerously towards extinction, primarily the bluefin tuna which is a highly prized species. While some limits have been enacted on fishing the species, the fact that a single bluefin can bring as much as $400,000 at market in Japan means that fishermen aren’t too choosy about following these laws.

This documentary tackles both sides of the subject, with a brief history of sushi and a look at how sushi restaurants operate in Japan, showing sushi chefs making an early morning visit to the world’s largest fish market in Tokyo; from there it moves on to the sustainability issue, how spiking demand for sushi has led to overfishing and overpricing of fish.

The first part of the movie can be a bit dry; the second half a little bit preachy. Both sides have a lot going for them, from the fascinating look at sushi preparation, and how it moved from street food to global phenomenon. This part of the film may indeed give you an appetite for sushi but the second half might well kill it. Hall isn’t able to integrate the two portions of the movie well, despite the smooth transition. Although both sections are interesting and important on their own, for some reason they are jarring when brought together. It’s like one half is saying “sushi has an honorable tradition” and the second half is “sushi has caused a great evil;” it’s sort of schizophrenic.

We do visit with the owners of Tataki, a San Francisco sushi restaurant that uses product from sustainable fisheries exclusively (which a number of other West Coast restaurants have begun to do). We also talk to scientists and oceanographers who warn that the ecosystem of the ocean has already been thrown out of kilter and reiterating grim statistics from other documentaries concerned with overfishing that  by 2048 the supply of seafood will be exhausted at current rates, a catastrophic eventuality that could lead to starvation as many cultures, particularly in Asia, rely on the sea as a main source of food.

The message of the film is not to stop eating sushi but to eat it responsibly. Make sure that your favorite purveyor of the dish gets their supply of fish from sustainable sources; if they don’t, urge them to do so. Of course, not all sushi restaurateurs know for certain if their sources are sustainable; if not, urge them to find out.

It is not too late to reverse the course of overfishing and responsible politicians and fishermen are already taking great steps to do so. Sushi lovers can also do their part by being aware of what they are eating and where it came from. While the movie here makes that important point, some may find that it uses a sledgehammer to make it when a gentle nudge would have done.

WHY RENT THIS: Draws attention to overfishing and the serious peril that bluefin tuna are in. Some nifty info about sushi chefs and restaurants.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The two thrusts of the film don’t blend well together. A little bit preachy.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some fish blood and guts.
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: There is an image gallery included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5,757 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Streaming only; DVD rental coming soon), iTunes, Amazon
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of the Line
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Vacation

Happy Feet Two


It still sucks to be a penguin.

It still sucks to be a penguin.

(2011) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Hank Azaria, Alicia Moore “Pink”, Sofia Vergara, Common, Hugo Weaving, Brad Pitt, Anthony LaPaglia, Matt Damon, Ava Acres, Carlos Alazraqui, Magda Szubanski, Benjamin Flores Jr., Jeff Garcia, Johnny Sanchez III, Lombardo Boyar, Meibh Campbell, Richard Carter, E.G. Daly. Directed by George Miller.

The first Happy Feet, directed by George (Mad Max and sequels) Miller held some interest despite a message shift from being yourself and overcoming obstacles to a global warming warning which led to a half billion dollar box office take and an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, one of the few non-Pixar movies to have won one. The bar was obviously set pretty high for the sequel.

The hero of the first move, Mumble (Wood) has married his sweetheart Gloria (Pink) and they’ve had a son of their own, Erik (Acres). In the land of Emperor Penguins, dance has take over from singing as the means of expression of one’s heart but there’s a lot of both. It’s like an unholy cross between March of the Penguins and Glee. Erik, who can do neither and disgraces himself by wedging himself into a hole in the ice headfirst, urinates on himself in embarrassment and winds up running away.

He makes his way to Adelie Land where his dad’s old friend Ramon (Williams) is from and is now ruled over by Sven (Azaria), a penguin whose people had been forced to leave when their fishing grounds were overfished. He had escaped only by learning to fly – but he’s not actually a penguin but a puffin, although nobody notices the difference. Sven sends Erik home with his dad but not before Erik has fallen under Sven’s spell of “if you can believe it, you can make it happen” philosophy.

However, the climate change issue is being felt most here in the Antarctic as Emperor Land calves away and becomes a gigantic bowl with no way in and no way out. Mumble and the boys are unable to return home and their family and friends are facing starvation. They do all they can to feed them but it will take a lot more than the four of them can provide to save the Emperors.

The plot is actually much more convoluted than that, with a side plot of a pair of krill named Will (Pitt) and Bill (Damon) who have ambitions of being more than a snack for whales and break away from their swarm, as well as one involving Bryan the Beachmaster (Carter), a seal whom Mumble saves.

Certainly the ecological message of climate change and its consequences remains here although the original message of self-reliance and being your own person seems to have fallen by the wayside to be replaced by a “we’re all in this together” theme with a side of “when we work together we can do anything.”

The animation, as with the first film, is nifty and colorful; your kids will love it, as well as the cuddly penguins who are as in the first movie, adorable. However if you are setting this up on the Blu-Ray player, you might want to leave the room; as I said the story is pretty confusing and frustrating. There really isn’t anything here that will persuade you that your time with the kids kind of out of the way won’t be better spent taking care of things around the house or better yet, having a bit of me time.

Sadly, this is unoriginal and uninspiring, a combination that non-discerning kids might be able to get past but most adults are going to wind up fidgeting like a four-year-old at a Merchant-Ivory screening. With the abundance of really quality kid-friendly animated features that appeals to adults as well, there isn’t a good reason to put this on your list unless you either love listening to Robin Williams do his thing (and admittedly he does it very well) or if you just like the pretty pictures.

WHY RENT THIS: Nicely animated. Very kid-friendly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A jumbled mess. Lacks originality and adults will be squirming throughout.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rude humor and a bit of peril which might upset the really young but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pink, who sang a song (“Tell Me Something Good”) during the opening credits of the first film, replaces the late Brittany Murphy who voiced Gloria in the first movie. The film is dedicated to Murphy and to Steve Irwin, both of whom voiced characters in Happy Feet but had since passed away.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Includes the Looney Toons short I Tawt I Saw a Puddy Tat which preceded the theatrical showings of Happy Feet Two. There are also four (count ’em) music videos including Pink’s latest single (at the time), as well as three sing-a-long tunes from the film. Finally there is an app which you can download on your iPad Touch or iPad which allows you to view additional content while the film is playing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $150.4M on a $135M production budget; the box office performance was disappointing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Last Holiday

The End of the Line


The End of the Line

The bounty of the sea isn't endless.

(New Video Group) Ted Danson (voice), Charles Clover. Directed by Rupert Murray

Fish are a staple of the diets of many regions, including ours. Accordingly, the sea has always been a source of bounty, a necessity to many of our cultures. Entire civilizations have grown around our ability to catch fish. We have always considered the ocean to be a near-limitless source of food. That belief was naïve to say the least.

This documentary, based on a book by Charles Clover, looks at the overfishing and the non-regulation of factory fishing that has brought us to the point that if things go unchecked, there will be no seafood of any kind left by the year 2048. That’s right, 38 years from now Red Lobster could be nothing more than a fond memory.

Rather than just give dire warnings, the documentary looks at things that have already happened and are happening currently. One of the first things the film examines is the disappearance of cod from Nova Scotia. In 1992, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney declared a moratorium on cod fishing which enraged the region’s fishermen, many of whom had relied on the industry for generations. However, it was a case of too little too late; the cod population still hasn’t returned to the Maritimes 18 years later.

The film looks at practices like bottom trawling, in which huge ships drop huge nets that dredge the bottom of the ocean (doing irreparable harm to the seabed in the process) and bring up entire schools of fish. Entire species are being decimated to sate our insatiable appetites for seafood.

The Japanese continue to hunt whales to near-extinction despite near-universal condemnation of the process. They call it a part of their culture, which is absolute crap – human sacrifice was a part of certain tribal cultures, that doesn’t make it right. Wrong is wrong.

The movie has the sad tendency to preach a little bit, and gets repetitive in its message. Still, the message is important; the ocean’s bounty isn’t limitless and like any finite resource, it is our responsibility to steward it logically and reasonably.

Fortunately, as the documentary informs us, the problem isn’t irreversible even now. Sustainable fisheries are not only possible, they are thriving. Responsible fishing practices such as those used in Alaska set reasonable quotas that if adhered to can keep the industry thriving indefinitely. Establishing marine preserves that are no-fishing zones will give the oceans a place to heal and species a place of refuge to build up their numbers again. In several Caribbean countries this practice is already paying big dividends.

Individuals can also contribute by questioning where their fish are coming from, free range sources (bad) or sustainable fisheries (good). Make sure that the tuna you’re eating isn’t bluefin tuna (an endangered species). Refuse to patronize restaurants and grocery stores that aren’t adhering to responsible and reasonable fish purchasing.

There are already encouraging signs; Wal-Mart is pledging to obtain their fish from sustainable sources and McDonalds already obtains 90% of their fish from such sources. Still, there are some disturbing and discouraging stories, such as Mitsubishi (yes, the Japanese car giant who also have their fingers in other pies) stockpiling bluefin tuna and fishing for as much as they can get their fat, greedy hands on in order to make a killing on their frozen tuna once the species disappears forever. If true, that may very well be the most reprehensible story I’ve ever heard.

One of the true tests of a documentary based on a book is whether or not it acts as a supplement to that book, or if it merely reinforces that book. Unfortunately, The End of the Line is the latter, juxtaposing Oceans-like scenes of schools of fish swimming placidly in the ocean and dolphins playing in the waves with piles of dead fish in a Tokyo fish market and pollution floating in the open ocean. The message is an important one and it deserved a better film to deliver it; most audiences would be far better reading the book, although I’ll concede that some of the images are riveting here. Either way, it is part of our responsibility as custodians of our world to sit up and take notice before once again we collectively shoot ourselves in our collective feet.

WHY RENT THIS: An important message that should be heard.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie tends to be on the preachy side and occasionally belabors their points.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images might be a bit disturbing for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book’s author, Charles Clover, is seen in the movie trying to get Nobu, one of the world’s high-end sushi chains, to refrain from using bluefin tuna on their menu.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are six webisodes further exploring the issue, as well as three different versions of the movie of varying lengths.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button