Bears


Here are the three bears - where's Goldilocks?!

Here are the three bears – where’s Goldilocks?!

(2014) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) John C. Reilly (narrator). Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey and Adam Chapman

We humans have an affinity for bears. Teddy Bears, the Berenstein Bears, Yogi Bear, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Paddington Bear, Winnie the Pooh and of course Smokey the Bear. Cute and cuddly as they may be (and they are most certainly the former although I would think long and hard before cuddling with a bear), they nevertheless have a rough life up there in the Alaska wilderness.

Sky, a mama bear, has two cubs – Amber and Scout. Where is papa bear, asked some critics – far, far away so that he doesn’t try to kill them and/or eat them. I told you they have a rough life. Anyway, their long winter nap is over. While the mountain peaks they made their den in is still covered deep with snow (so much so that avalanches are a problem – more of that rough life stuff), spring is coming to the valleys below.

They haven’t eaten all winter and they are near to starving, but the first order of business isn’t finding food once they get out of the mountains. No sir; that business is keeping the cubs away from predators, like Magnus and Chinook – fellow bears who are so hungry they could eat…another bear. There’s also Tikaani, a wolf who is as sly and persistent as they come. There’s that rough life thing again.

What bears really crave is salmon – loaded in protein and abundant as they swim up river to spawn, bears have to become adept fisherman which is a lot easier than it sounds – they’re slippery little buggers. But getting there is no easy task and until then, they load up on muscles, eels and whatever they can find to put at least something in their bellies to keep the engines going. However, that won’t be enough to build up enough fat to last the winter. Not only do the adult bears live off their own fat, metabolizing it into sugars and proteins, the energy also keeps mama bear’s milk supply flowing. Without enough fat stored, the mama bear might survive the winter but the cubs won’t.

And the odds aren’t in the cubs favor anyway – 50% of all bear cubs born in the wilderness don’t make it to their first birthday, mostly due to predators although disease, starvation and a shrinking habitat all have something to do with it. Did I mention they have a tough life?

DisneyNature has made a niche for itself by delivering nature documentaries with absolutely breathtaking images, following in the tradition of Walt’s True Life Adventures  There are plenty of gorgeous images of the Alaskan landscape, mostly taken in Katmai National Park (the same place where Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell lived for 13 summers with the bears and eventually was killed and partially eaten by one). It is easy to see from the footage why those who live in Alaska love it so deeply. It is truly the last frontier.

One of my ongoing irritations with the DisneyNature series is their repeated need to give human characteristics, motivations and names to these animals. I would maintain that they are incredible creatures on their own without making them more “like us” in an effort to appeal to kids. Not only does this do a disservice to kids by giving them the impression that wild animals have the same motivations as we do (which in some cases they do but not all).

There is at least one glaring factual error in the narration which any naturalist worth their salt would have caught. Bears don’t actually hibernate; they nap. They don’t sleep throughout the winter; they simply stay in their dens, sleeping most of the time but not all. True hibernation is non-stop slumber. If you’re going to be a nature documentary, the least you can do is get your facts straight. I would have liked to have hears some fairly obvious explanations, like the whereabouts of papa bear and why mama bear was looking after the kids alone.

Lest I forget, John C. Reilly’s narration is da bomb. It has the right amount of humor to keep things interested, entertaining and lively but not so much that it overshadows the information and message that the filmmakers are trying to get across. I understand that Reilly had some input into the dialogue, which is even more aces in my estimation.

Still, this is some terrific footage, often so close-up that you can see individual follicles of fur easily. It is oddly intimate and makes you wonder how close the camera crew got (as the end credits show, pretty damn close although perhaps not as close as you’d expect). Bears are insanely cute and make excellent subjects for the camera. Amber and Scout are primarily used as comedy relief although there is some legitimate peril to the cubs; one nearly drowns at one point, and one disappears while Tikaani is stalking them.

This isn’t the best of the DisneyNature films, but it is solid and as beautiful as anything you’ll see on Discovery or Animal Planet – or the BBC for that matter. Your kids will be entranced and maybe motivated to look up more information about bears, their habitat and their behaviors. Worthwhile stuff for kids to be interested in, if you ask me (not that you are). And if the movie motivates some kid to go that route, then it’s a worthwhile endeavor indeed.

One last thing; Disney had pledged to donate a portion of ticket sales during the first week of release (which has now passed) to the National Parks Foundation in order to help protect our National Parks which sorely need it. Some cynical sorts have been sneering that the amount was infinitesimal. According to Disney’s website, they are donating twenty cents from each ticket sold with a minimum of $100,000 going to the Foundation. That’s a fairly substantial amount for which I know the National Parks Foundation is appreciative.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful photography with some amazing close-up shots. Cute and cuddly critters.

REASONS TO STAY: Once again over-anthropomorphizes.   

FAMILY VALUES:  Some bear battling and other bear stuff might frighten the wee ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first four DisneyNature films are among the top five highest grossing nature documentaries of all-time.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Zero Theorem

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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Ewan McGregor dips his toes in the water while Emily Blunt tries to warn him about the sharks.

(2011) Romance (CBS) Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked, Tom Mison, Rachael Stirling, Catharine Steadman, Conleth Hill, Hugh Simon, Tom Beard, Jill Baker, Waleed Akhtar, Peter Wight, Nayef Rashed, Clive Wood. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

 

There are things that we use for metaphors for the unlikely; screen doors on submarines, Hell freezing over and so on. But what could be more unlikely in real life than going salmon fishing, a sport for northern climates, in the middle of a desert?

Well, nothing if you’re a fisheries specialist and that’s just what Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor) is. He works for the British Environmental Agency (their fishing and aquaculture department, to be exact) and is called Dr. Jones so often that you half-expect an archaeologist in a fedora carrying a whip to tear around the corner and punch out a Nazi.

Then you meet Dr. Jones and realize that he’s a pretty milquetoast kind of guy. He is married to the shrill but caring Mary (Stirling) who is more and more putting her career ahead of her marriage. He designs famous flies for fly fishermen and talks to the Koi in his pond in the back of his Chelsea home. So when he gets the e-mail from Harriet Chetwode-Tolbert (Blunt) who works at a large English financial company that she has a client interested in a project that would bring salmon fishing to the Yemen, he responds with incredulity and essentially, some condescending rudeness.

But the times they are a’changin’. A muck-up in Afghanistan which resulted in British troops destroying a mosque gets their Press Secretary (and spin doctor) Patricia Maxwell (Scott Thomas) scrambling to find a feel-good story in the Mideast puts the spotlight on this potential project. Dr. Jones’ somewhat harried boss Bernard Sugden (Hill) nudges the reluctant Doctor to meet with Harriet and while the meeting is inauspicious, Dr. Jones is soon made to understand that this project needs to happen. Forthwith.

He comes up with a plan that’s theoretically possible and is taken to meet Harriet’s client, Sheikh Muhammed (Waked) who turns out to be very different than the pragmatic Dr. Jones expected. As does Harriet who as the project continues gets closer to Dr. Jones. There are obstacles of course; he’s married and she’s engaged to a Captain in the British Army (Mison) but when Mison goes missing and Mary leaves for an extended business trip to Geneva things get a little bit complicated.

Some movies just grab you with the amount of heart they show at their center and this is certainly one of those. Halstrom has a lot of those on his resume – The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News and Chocolat among them. This is certainly the sort of movie that would work for those who love those other films.

Part of the reason the film works is that this is so well-cast. Blunt and McGregor are both very appealing leads and the chemistry between them is genuine. McGregor gets to be full-on Scottish and that works nicely for the character. He is a bit of a prig but not so much that you get irritated. He is actually quite charming in his own way, although his sense of humor is a bit lacking.

Blunt is rapidly becoming one of the go-to women for romance movies. She’s smart and beautiful and sweet, all characteristics that serve her character well. She’s also a hell of an actress, as she proves during the scenes where she must deal with her boyfriend’s situation. There is some real pathos there and she doesn’t overplay it, making her grief real and accessible.

Kristin Scott Thomas is also an adept actress, able to do comedy, mystery, drama, in fact whatever is asked of her. She is mostly comic relief here (some of the film’s funniest moments come during IM conversations between her and the prime minister) and she gives the role just enough stiff upper lip in order to make the character a bit more funny.

The ending is a bit too smarmy and a bit too pat. I always have trouble with people who are in established relationships getting out of them to be with the “right one” even though you’re rooting for them to. It always makes me wonder how (in this case) Mary and Robert (Harriet’s Army boy) are feeling, even though the movie tells you it’s pretty much rotten. I’m not a big fan of two people to be miserable so two people have a shot at a different relationship (and generally those sorts of relationships don’t work in real life anyway – too much guilt).

Then again, I’m being a bit of a pragmatist here and the movie really isn’t meant for that sort of thinking. It’s meant to be enjoyed, experienced with your heart more than with your head. It’s not sugary sweet and yet it makes you feel enveloped with a warm blanket, sipping a nice hot cup of chocolate. This is a hug-from-your-grandmother kind of movie, the kind that makes you feel better coming out than you did going in. You can’t give a much better recommendation than that.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet and full of heart. Not so quirky that it gets irritating. Blunt and McGregor make attractive leads.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit too Hollywood for me.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of violence, a smattering of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Yemen-set portion of the movie was filmed in Morocco.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100. The reviews are very good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holiday

FISH LOVERS: You will learn more about salmon and their breeding habits than perhaps you ever wanted to know.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Dog Soldiers