Oceans (2010)

April 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

A film by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud (and no doubt the spirit of Jacques Cousteau) Oceans really does have some remarkable footage that’s well worth the trip to the big screen, ranging from Blue Whales to the Blanket octopus (pictured here).

And without laying it on too thick, the film also takes the time to show satellite scans of pollution making its way out into the oceans in the form of darker, poisonous veins. I guess it’s asking too much of a documentary to end by pointing the viewer towards the kind of special-interest groups that are trying to help, or directing them to complain to a politician or two. Perhaps it’s assumed that just about everything has a website these days.

The narration is about my only other criticism of the film.  I’m fascinated to learn that the Blue Whale is half a city block in length, but just as often the narration voiced by Pierce Brosnan makes vaguely poetic statements comparing fish to dragons, or something similar. The footage is already quite wonderful and enthralling, and there wouldn’t have been anything wrong with narration that provides a little more data to compliment it. The film ends on a half-statement of sorts, along the lines of “Maybe instead of asking what is the ocean, we should ask who are we?”  Um, you mean who are we to pollute it?  Who are we to ignore it? The film is distributed by Disneynature in North America (Earth was also distributed last year), and I’m not sure if the process of translation resulted in narration that seems to want to go a few different directions.

Aside from this, I feel I shouldn’t nitpick too much about Oceans as it’s an impressive film to children and adults alike, and if it does anything to instill a sense of reverence and respect for the planet, it’s worth it. See it while it’s in the theatre, both to support the film and catch the footage on the big screen.

Watch the trailer here.

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash (2006)

November 2, 2008 § Leave a comment

“Oil is the excrement of the Devil,” begins this documentary, and I have to admit,the rest of the film makes a pretty compelling argument to support that statement.

It’s hard to review a film that’s certainly well made when the pressing issue it reveals is so much more important.  The argument the experts provide is basically this: oil is a non-renewable resource, a mineral slime we’ve counted on for a long time, but it’s finally safe to say with the population explosion “demand is on the march, and supply is flattening out,” even as we’re not working as hard as we should be on alternative sources of energy.  Statements like “We are coming to the end of the first half of the age of oil,” suggesting the age of cheap and readily available oil is over do make a kind of instinctive sense, given that the United States has charged out to secure their oil interests more than once since the 1990s.

The idea that we’re counting on oil to last many more decades while we casually work on alternatives, and work even less on implementing them in a practical way is an important enough (and an alarming enough) message for any film.  Add to that, a sputtering end to the oil age without alternatives (hydrogen, solar or wind power) would lead to an economic depression greater than the depression of the 1930s, except it might be harder to recover.  Air travel might be available only to an elite few, and life in suburbia would involve trying to figure out how you’re going to get forty or fifty miles to work (something European cities might have less trouble with, if they were built before the advent of the car).

Regardless of all this, oil is “a magnet for war,” and self-reliance without any need for conflict over dwindling resources is certainly ideal.  So, it’s a well made documentary, yes.  But more importantly it clarified all these ideas for me.  More people should see this film, and needless to say, more people should be pressuring our government about this issue.

Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007)

June 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

Produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows pays tribute to a filmmaker who worked for legendary producer David Selznick for eight years, polishing the script for Anna Karenina or standing around with a stopwatch to determine when Gone With the Wind should have an intermission, before striking out on his own to join RKO and produce low budget films that’d be under his control. Aside from B-movie budgets the studio stuck him with titles like Cat People (not really caring what he did, as long he stayed under budget), but he supervised every aspect of production, rewrote scripts (often without credit) and produced polished films but also “strange, poetic films” that sometimes barely acknowledge the awful titles he was stuck with, films “satisfied the demand for horror, but delivered much more,” a world where “characters slip into a mysterious, troubling grey zone where real life and dream life come face to face.”  He called them his “poor, simple, lucky little films,” and Hollywood never celebrated Lewton during his life — there are no recordings of his voice anywhere — but he made a string of nine films that are all deeply worthwhile, if not small masterpieces that reflect his thoughtful, melancholy nature:

Cat People (1942) is dark and atmospheric, and interesting for having to merely imply so much about passion in 1942.   The 1980 remake has the cat people transforming into leopards after sex, but in 1942 it’s a mere kiss that causes the change. Some of the acting is extremely clunky (and unfortunately, the dork hero is pretty boring) but these performances sit next to some amazing casting of very catlike, elegant people, and the atmosphere is impressive for its tension and great use of shadow.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) isn’t a sequel as much as an unusual fairy tale from the point of view of a lonely child, with the central character showing up as a pleasant ghost.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is incredibly atmospheric, with unforgettable moments, and the zombie in question is simply a sick woman, seemingly oblivious to the presence of others.

The Body Snatcher (1945) is a compelling story about body snatching for medical experiments, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together for a final film. Karloff would later say he felt rescued by Lewton, given that he was able to finally demonstrate he could do much more than the Universal horror films he was already famous for, like Frankenstein.

Isle of the Dead (1945) also has Karloff, and an assortment of characters stranded on an island, and as they’re picked off they can’t seem to clarify if it’s a plague, a vampire, or group hysterics.

Bedlam (1946) again has Karloff as the corrupt head of an asylum refusing to make improvements, even as a courageous woman challenges him.

The Leopard Man (1943) has enough atmosphere for several films, as a small New Mexico town isn’t sure it should blame a series of murders on a leopard or a madman.

The Ghost Ship (1943) doesn’t have a ghost at all, it’s a morality tale about a power struggle between a quietly deranged captain and one of his officers, with the idea of a ghost ship used as a metaphor for hopelessness.

The 7th Victim (1943) is an eerie, quietly bizarre film about an innocent woman stumbling across a group of devil-worshippers.

As you can see from the dates, these films were produced quickly, while a particular team that Lewton trusted was allowed to work together. Thanks to a lucky fluke, Cat People was a hit, and allowed Lewton to produce films without much studio harassment for a period of time. Finally, studio changes, evolving trends and a series of heart attacks got in the way of Lewton making many more films he was happy with before he died quite young. It’s a shame he’ll never know how much his films were eventually appreciated, but he’s certainly recognized now for taking charge of a series of small, cheap productions intended only to make money and giving the world far more. There’s a collection out there with all these films in it, and as you may already guess, I’d suggest it’s well worth tracking down.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

Al Gore has made a documentary here that’s as urgent as it is reasonable, as clear and accessible as it is engaging. Some of the myths about global warming — such as the idea that scientists are in disagreement about it — are struck down, and the clarity here is wonderful, though I hope not too late. Some of the demonstrations make it clear just how many people would be dislocated by global warming, and just how uninhabitable the world will be, including one chilling scene that shows how much land, currently populated by millions, will be underwater, even if portions of Greenland and the Antarctic (already showing tremendous signs of stress) were to melt. This includes parts of Manhattan and the world trade centre memorial site. He stresses that there’s hope, in terms of taking on the climate crisis, but we must act now, and the DVD has a half-hour update with Gore, made since the theatrical release of the film.

It’s true that Gore talks about his own personal history a little, but I simply saw it as a way to break up the film so that he isn’t throwing statistics at the viewer the whole time. Having seen it in the theatre, I still plan to buy a copy just to loan around to my friends, and another one to put in the office for people to sign out. Film critic Roger Ebert comment that in decades of reviewing he’s never written these words before, but “You owe it to yourself to see this film.”

Stupidity (2003)

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

Surrounded by a lot of buzz at recent documentary film festivals, “Stupidity” by Albert Nerenberg prefers smugly looking down on people for a lack of obscure knowledge (most Americans interviewed in the town where the term “moron” was invented didn’t know it had been invented there) to real analysis. For a film critical of our cultural three second attention span, it rarely flags from its own music video pace, offering sound bites and quotes out of context: when David Suzuki suggests we’re all in a car racing towards a brick wall, doing nothing more than arguing about where we’ll sit, he’s talking about our lack of action on the environment, not merely stupidity. Cultural references are vague, without anyone mentioning anything as specific as that daily affront to human dignity the Jerry Springer show or Homer Simpson, because Nerenberg seems to prefer endless, quick shots of people tripping (is that not just a momentary lack of dexterity?) teenagers wiping out on skateboards, or someone bouncing on a trampoline, as though silliness and intelligence are completely incompatible. 

While there are undoubtedly clips of people doing stupid things, the film also manages to subtly imply that old, unspoken attitude that if you find joy in anything, you must be naïve. The view that people strictly and stupidly adhere to religious views for comfort and security is presented as though it’s nothing anyone would ever have thought about before, along with a small amount of research into the history of the IQ test. The academic world is criticized for never studying stupidity, without the slightest suggestion as to how you would begin to break down such a massive topic. An interview between the filmmaker and a TV station is edited to make it appear that the station became disinterested and ended the interview in about five seconds. Some valid points are raised, but all too briefly, and quickly washed away in a torrent of style. An admirable idea for a documentary, but a deeper analysis was desperately needed. For a doc that examines its subject, and even follows through with some suggestions on what to do about it, have a look at The Corporation.

Grizzly Man (2005)

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

This is a complex and disturbing story of obsessive behaviour, following Timothy Treadwell, who lived among grizzly bears for thirteen summers before one ultimately killed him, and his girlfriend. Unfortunately, some of the reviews for Amazon seem to rate the behaviour, not the documentary. Yes, he was a recovered alcoholic who found grizzly bears as a replacement, a lost soul who eventually found more comfort among bears than humans. And no, the film does not endorse his actions.

In fact, Werner Herzog has taken over a hundred hours of footage by Treadwell and shaped it into an astonishing portrait, with thoughtful narration by Herzog creating a very different counterpoint to the obsessive behaviour. Treadwell had an idealized perception of nature and sets up the camera to film himself grieving over the body of a dead fox. But Herzog narrates over footage of a bear, commenting, “I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature, and this blank stare speaks only of a half bored interest in food.” The score is as haunting as it is appropriate and the disc includes a 50-minute documentary on the making of the film’s music.

Certainly, it’s a disturbing film, and strangely voyeuristic. I almost worried I was providing retroactive encouragement just by watching. But the simple fact of the matter is that it’s done, it’s over. Herzog shaped this film to be a portrait but also a tribute to Treadwell and I’d encourage you to look for something positive in his life as well. If you look closely at reviews, reactions range from compassionate to a smug dismissal. You might even find this documentary teaches you something about yourself.

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