Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category
Tuesday, April 17th, 2012
To celebrate Earth Day, coming up in a couple of weeks, Alliance Films released a few nature documentaries in environmentally friendly packaging (which really means cardboard) on April 10th. One of them is the Blu-Ray of a film called Microcosmos, a documentary about insects and plant life in extreme close-up.
Well…actually, I don’t know if you could really call it a documentary, since it has precious little narration. Almost none in fact. It just lets the camera do most of the talking , zooming in super-close on the coolest beetles and worms and caterpillars and mosquitos and so forth, and just…watching them.
Without narration, my wife found the whole thing super-boring. She wanted to know what every beetle was, and what they were doing. For me, it was actually a really interesting idea, and I found the movie fascinating. The world of Microcosmos is stunning up close, and the only real effects that seem to have been added are changes in camera speed when the snails aren’t moving fast enough or the spiders are moving too fast. It creates an incredible scene that absolutely immersed me from the start.
You remember when there was a strike at the CBC, and they started showing CFL games without commentators or play-by-play guys? It was actually kinda nice to watch, it felt very different. Microcosmos is the same. It takes a second to get used to, then it is an absolute joy as it inspects the insect kingdom in magnificent Blu-Ray high definition. It’s wonderful.
It’s also possible that I just didn’t hit the right “audio” button on the TV.
Saturday, October 10th, 2009
Genre: Nature, Documentary, TV series
Starring: The Earth
Run time: 295 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Related reviews: Galapagos: Les Iles Qui Ont Change Le Monde
Terre: Puissance D’Une Planete comes out October 13th from Alliance Films. And I will get my complaints about it out of the way first. Here they are. It’s in French. And French only. Like Galapagos: Les Iles Qui Ont Change Le Monde, a similar nature documentary released in French only for Francophones in Canada, it was originally a BBC production narrated in English by Iain Stewart. Just about every scientist who is interviewed on the program speaks English. So why make this DVD French only? Why not leave the original soundtrack on as a special feature? Why not at least give us that option, or possibly some English subtitles? It seems to me that Alliance could have doubled the market for the DVD set had they done so.
For me, it isn’t that big an issue. I speak French. I understand French. And even the big, scientific words I had never heard before are similar to English ones. Or, they are words that I would never have heard in English either, not being a geologist and all. But it did affect my wife, who loves nature documentaries such as this one, but became so irritated with the French narration that she didn’t understand that she gave up after one episode. She tried, for a while, to have me pause the DVD and translate, but my translation was even more irritating to her, apparently.
OK. Enough complaining. Because this DVD set has some unbelievably cool stuff in it. There are five episodes of this BBC-TV series on the disc, each one dealing with one of the coolest phenomena of the Earth around us. Volcanoes, the atmosphere, glaciers and oceans, along with a fifth bonus episode about the place the Earth occupies in the universe. Each one is informative, each is fascinating, and the camera work is unparalleled. Like Planet Earth and Earth and other amazing nature DVDs released recently, Terre is packed full of staggering camera work that takes us inside active volcanoes, over the gorgeous ice floes of Antarctica, and all over the world to mountain ranges and underwater phenomena.
What this means is that Terre is best watched on a high-definition television. It is best watched with your family, because kids love to learn about stuff like this (and they might improve their French at the same time). And it’s best watched as soon as possible. When I put in the first DVD, I watched the entire series, right to the last episode, even though the baseball playoffs were on. That’s pretty big for me. And this DVD is pretty big for the Earth. And the Earth is pretty big.
Friday, September 4th, 2009
“These little creatures are here to stay.”
When it comes to meerkats and film, there is a pretty cool and extensive precedent that has been set by Meerkat Manor. It was a TV show, it was a movie narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, and it was darn good. Meerkat Manor showed a complex, fascinating society of tiny little meerkats living together in the African desert. Their interactions and their society and their complex hierarchy is amazing, and watching them live out a year in the desert is surprising and really cool. Meerkats are really cool.
So I don’t really know if my review of The Meerkats is fair – I have been spoiled by Meerkat Manor, and I love that show. And this one just doesn’t compare. To be fair, this documentary nature film was made before Meerkat Manor (2007), and perhaps was the inspiration for the TV show. I don’t know. But it is nowhere near as good.
Paul Newman narrates, which is cool, but there isn’t a whole lot going on. There is only one meerkat the movie follows, belying the plural nature of the title. His name is Kolo, and the film follows him from birth until he reaches maturity about a year later. I hate to keep comparing this film to Meerkat Manor, but what made that show interesting was the community. Every character, every meerkat, had a name and a personality and a role.
In The Meerkats, we don’t get that at all. Instead, every meerkat around Kolo is referred to simply as “his brother”, or “Kolo’s mother”. Which means that when “Kolo’s brother” gets eaten by an eagle, I really don’t feel too bad for anyone. Heck, I didn’t know him, and Kolo’s gonna forget it pretty soon anyway. On the plus side – The Meerkats does show meerkats being attacked and eaten, which Meerkat Manor never did. It also shows a lot more of the animals around them in the desert – the giraffes and the lions and the rhinos and zebras and such. I like that too.
But in the end, this is just a story about a small meerkat who grows up a little, gets lost for a while, then finds his way home. There is a dramatic ending which, with some solid camera work and tricks, becomes an intense surprise ending I certainly didn’t see coming. But the things that made Meerkat Manor so compelling are not present. And the documentary suffers as a result. It’s still cute, but it isn’t great. It comes out September 8th from Alliance Films.
Monday, June 29th, 2009
To hear the review
To hear the review
The Galapagos Islands are home to the coolest, most spectacular animals in the world. The majestic scenery, the incredible wildlife, and the stunning ocean are all beautifully realized and filmed in Galapagos: Les Iles Qui Ont Change Le Monde. The DVD, available June 30th from Alliance Films, is in French only. No subtitles, no English narration. It’s too bad, really, because it couldn’t be too tough to get a different narrator to record a different track. It’s not like there’s any dialogue in the movie. Iguanas don’t speak any of our languages.
Then again, it doesn’t much matter what language is featured on the DVD, because it’s the pictures that tell the story, and they’re damn cool. Also damn cool are the iguanas, albatross, penguins, giant tortoises, sea turtles, glow-in-the-dark sea creatures, owls, cormorants and boobies that populate the show. No, not the good kind of boobies. The bird kind. The first disc on the set is called Born In Fire (or, Nees Du Feu, if you will). This disc looks at the volcanoes and the geysers and the natural landscape dotted with crazy animals and a huge variety of plant life. Spectacular.
Disc two is the one that gives the DVD it’s name. It’s called Les Iles Qui Ont Change Le Monde, or, The Islands That Changed The World. Although I really hate documentaries that feel the need to do cheesy human re-enactments of historical events, and this is one, Disc Two is still the best in the set. The cheesy human re-enactment here is of Darwin discovering the Galapagos islands and using the wildlife there to create his theory of evolution. Darwin was a brilliant guy, and here we get to see him observing different varieties of buntings and finches and making surprised facial expressions. “Oh my!” He seems to be saying. “Look at the differences in their beaks!”
But cheesiness aside, this disc features the best nature photography of the three, and the story of Darwin and how he observed the differences in the wide variety of creatures on the Galapagos islands to formulate his famous theory is fascinating. The third disc is called Les Forces Du Changement (or Forces of Change). It’s about the modern Galapagos islands, and the sad influence of human beings on this pristine and magical otherworld. It’s depressing, but it’s important to know what we’re doing there. It’s also important to know that the single biggest destructive force human beings have at their disposal are goats.
And then there’s a fourth disc that’s a bonus disc, about a giant tortoise that is the last of its breed, and it’s 80 years old, and people are trying to keep it alive. That’s fine, and it’s a nice story and a cool extra disc, but I would have appreciated something else in my special bonus features – an English option. It doesn’t really matter to me. I’ll watch this in any language, and I would still enjoy it in Portugese. But not having that option there automatically leaves out about half your audience, and I would like more people to see this remarkable film.
Tuesday, April 21st, 2009
To hear the review
To hear the reviewThe first thing that struck me about Arctic Tale, when I first saw it, was what it wasn’t. It wasn’t March Of The Penguins, in that it failed to capture that magnificently bleak landscape in the same way, and it was not quite up to the task of conveying the wonders of nature in a similar fashion. It wasn’t Encounters At The End Of The World, in that it didn’t feature the sensational and spectacular camera work that characterized that magnificent film. I was a little disappointed – after all, Arctic Tale is done by National Geographic Films, the same people who produced March of the Penguins. They teamed up with the producers of An Inconvenient Truth, the fantastic Al Gore environmental documentary, Paramount Vantage.
I thought the combination of the two would be an awe-inspiring but educational film about Arctic animals and the impact of human beings on their environment. But I had set my expectations too high. It was only on the second viewing of the film that I realized that it was, in fact, an awe-inspiring but educational film about Arctic animals and the impact of human beings on their environment. At first, it’s easy to dismiss a film like Arctic Tale as one of those movies that relies heavily on cute baby animals to gain an audience, and doesn’t have much substance beyond cute little baby polar bears. But this is not the case.
In fact, Arctic Tale is a thoughtful, terrific film featuring some impressive camera work and Arctic landscapes, that just happens to rely a little too heavily on the cuteness of animals. Except for the baby walrus. The greatest cinematographers in the world could not possibly make a baby walrus cute. Or an adult walrus, for that matter. ALL walruses are hideously ugly. But that kinda makes them the coolest animal going. They are so ugly that they are fascinating, like Steve Buscemi. And although I could do without the Queen Latifah narration, which is mostly good but at moments very intrusive, I really enjoyed Arctic Tale upon the second viewing.
It still isn’t Encounters At The End Of The World, it still isn’t March of the Penguins, and it still isn’t the Planet Earth series. But it’s good, it looks magnificent, and on Blu-Ray it is absolutely mesmerizing. Paramount Home Entertainment releases Arctic Tale on Blu-Ray April 21st, and this is the kind of movie for which Blu-Ray is absolutely essential. And if you like it, pick up those other three movies on Blu-Ray too!
Friday, December 5th, 2008
You can’t watch Orangutan Island, out November 4th from Alliance Films, without immediately thinking of Meerkat Manor. The styles are similar, the concept is similar, and they are both put out by the Animal Planet channel. And when she got home from work, my girlfriend made me watch both series, beginning to end. But Orangutan Island is much different from Meerkat Manor in one significant respect – it is not real. Where Meerkat Manor follows the adventures of a real meerkat colony in South Africa, as recorded by a group of Cambridge University students, Orangutan Island does not document the real-life interaction of orangutans.
Because of (among other environmental factors) deforestation in Borneo, there are no natural habitats for wild orangutans left. The Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Reintroduction Project (NMORP) is an organization dedicated to re-introducing rescued orangutans into the wild. As you might have guessed from the title of the organization. Stating the obvious is one of my strong suits. They rescue orphaned orangutans from, among other things, clear-cut forest areas, the underground exotic pet trade, and in at least one case, a degrading and sad performing career where orangutans put on boxing gloves and fight other orangutans.
But since there are no natural habitats for these creatures left, the NMORP has decided to create one themselves. So they have set up an island in the middle of Borneo as a sort of orangutan refuge, where they release their orphaned little guys as soon as they are old enough and have learned enough survival skills. Ordinarily, in the wild, orangutans are solitary creatures who live a solo existence, moving around completely independantly and having very little contact with other members of their species. However, because of the limited space available for these rescued animals, the NMORP are forced to release them all into the same, small island space.
Which means we are not watching orangutans behave the way they normally do in the wild. Instead, we are watching an experiment. A fascinating and entertaining experiment, but it is not reality for wild orangutans, in as much as that reality still exists. So instead we are watching a bunch of young apes learning to interact with each other in a way that is not natural to them. Instead of foraging for their own food, fruits and vegetables are brought in for them, since there is not enough naturally-occurring food on the island to support the number of animals who have been released there.
That being said, the lack of true “reality” in this “reality show” is not really a problem that makes it less interesting. It is merely a fact of life for these wonderful creatures, and as we watch the show, we are constantly aware that this is not totally natural, because of the effect human beings have had on these animals, and that can make one sad throughout the series. But there is more than enough entertainment value in orangutans simply being orangutans to make this show totally compelling and worthwhile.
Orangutans, first of all, are expressive. Madly expressive. In many cases, even more expressive than most humans. Secondly, they are ugly. And cute. They are such incredibly ugly creatures that by the time you have watched them for ten minutes, their ugliness has grown on you and you start to believe that there is something charming about it. And within twenty minutes, you are starting to think of them as cute little beings. Like Steve Buscemi. Or James Carville. I see James Carville now and I just want to pat him on the head. He’s a sweetie.
Also, the stories are entertaining and interesting from one episode to another. As the orangutans are introduced to the island, their distinct personalities and expressions set them apart from one another, and we start to root for certain animals to do well. Personally, I was very much wrapped up in the story of Saturnus, the smallest ape on the island who has a real taste for the ladies. At first, he goes after Jasmine, who appears (although it’s tough to tell with these ugly, ugly animals) to be the island hottie, what with all the male attention she receives. Or perhaps she just smells like a jackfruit. It is never fully explained.
And then he falls for the unfortunately-named “Bertha”, the biggest female on the island. Which is kinda funny too. There are some attempts made to make the orangutans seem more “human” than they really are – there is one episode where a water bottle is found, and treated as though it is the most valuable item on the island – shades of The Gods Must Be Crazy. It feels a little contrived, and that is totally unnecessary. Orangutans are fascinating on their own, they are entertaining on their own, and they need no help from a narrator or a production company to make a viewer smile.
Orangutan Island, first season, is out on DVD now, and it’s worth picking up. Especially for kids. But Meerkat Manor is better, if you’re looking for a Christmas present or something. Both would be good…
Monday, October 6th, 2008
When I brought home Sex And The City on DVD, my girlfriend said “oh, cool”. When I brought home The Visitor, she said “will that make me cry?” and decided not to watch it. And when I brought home The Go-Getter, she said “why do you watch this crap?” (The Go-Getter, incidentally, was not crap – it was very good.) But when I brought home Meerkat Manor: Season Two, she said “oh my God, YAY!” I’m not even joking. And ten minutes later, we were watching the first episode of the second season. And seven hours after that, we were watching the final episode of the second season. Because Meerkat Manor is, really, that compelling. Alliance Films releases season two on October 7th, and it is well worth picking up.
Now, I may just be a morbid guy. Or perhaps I am cruel and mean-spirited. But when I watch nature documentaries, like Meerkat Manor, I want to see animals eat other animals. That’s just what I enjoy watching. And aside from the dominant meerkat, Flower, inexplicably attacking a bird, we see very little of it. There are hard-fought battles between meerkat tribes, battles that leave meerkats dead, and often the babies as well. One of the meerkat babies gets eaten by a goshawk. But we don’t get to see that. The program is all about the “real life and death” events in the Kalahari, but we don’t get to see the cool stuff. I guess it’s a way to keep the series PG-rated. There is even a scene where the group of meerkats surrounds a cobra, keeping it at bay before they finally abandon it to it’s fate as a snake-eating eagle circles overhead. So…what happened to the snake? Did it get eaten? We never find out. Come one Animal Planet. At least show a snake getting eaten.
Despite the fact that the truly violent parts of the show are edited out, this program is still ridiculously compelling. It contains all the cliffhangers and the emotional moments you would associate with soap operas. Only instead of terribly attractive awful actors, this one stars tiny little cute meerkats. My girlfriend is right. Yay!
Tuesday, August 19th, 2008
On Tuesday, August 19th, Paramount Home Entertainment is releasing three DVDs in the Growing Up Animals series. Growing Up Wildcats contains four hour-long episodes about baby…well, wildcats. Although “wild” cats might be the wrong word to use. You see, the four episodes centre around baby lions, baby tigers, baby cheetahs, and a baby black leopard. But none of them are wild. The lions have been rescued from abusive owners near San Antonio. The tigers have been bred in captivity at a wildlife refuge in Texas. The cheetahs are from a wildlife breeding ranch in South Africa. And Edie Falco (of the Sopranos) hosts the special episode about the rare black leopard, also bred in captivity.
Not that this is a problem – each of the cats in these programs relies on their human benefactors for survival. So it isn’t exactly like watching animals growing up in zoos. But after a while, I found myself really wanting to see these animals grow up in the wild. I wanted to see how cheetah parents raised cheetah cubs, not how humans raised cheetah cubs. In the end, this is basically like watching one of those shows about babies on Lifetime Network. Only, the babies grow to be 600 pounds and could conceivably eat people. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that tiger babies are far cuter than human babies.
Tuesday, August 19th, 2008
Growing Up Safari is one of three DVDs released by Alliance Films on Tuesday August 19th. These DVDs are part of the Growing Up series from Animal Planet, a series that follows the development of young animals from infancy to the point where they are re-integrated with their adult populations. Growing Up Safari follows the story of young rhinos, hyenas, zebras and giraffes as they grow up. These four animals are certainly not as cute as those on the Growing Up Wildcats DVD. Rhinos are kind of cute, because as babies they’re just so strange looking. But hyenas have a bad rap simply because they’re pretty ugly creatures, baby zebras look exactly like adult zebras, only smaller, and baby giraffes are so gangly and awkward that it’s hard to consider them cute. It’s also hard to use the word “cute” to describe something that comes into the world seven feet tall.
Also ruining the “cuteness” factor for the giraffe – the fact that after it’s unceremonious introduction to the earth – a drop of ten feet to the ground – it is then covered, head to toe, in a life-giving but certainly disgusting waterfall that consists of like sixty gallons of giraffe afterbirth. There was something about seeing this that I found…disconcerting. As in all the other Growing Up DVDs, we see death, birth and disasters befall these tiny animals, and at times the series can really tug at the heart strings, as when we see the caregiver of a young hyena named Homer have to deal with the loss of his young charge. But again, I watch these episodes feeling like I’m not really learning much about the animals themselves, but more that I am learning about the people who raise them. Which is still interesting, but not as interesting as the animals are.
Tuesday, August 19th, 2008
There are three Growing Up DVDs being released on Tuesday, August 19th, from Alliance Films. They are DVDs from an Animal Planet series that features young, cute animals as they are raised from infancy by humans. Often they are orphaned, and left alone, or perhaps they come from abusive owners and needed to be rescued. The three DVDs, Growing Up Safari, Growing Up Wildcats and Growing Up Arctic are pretty much interchangeable, except that the wildcats are cuter and the safari animals are more interesting. But the best of the three DVDs is Growing Up Arctic. Partly because there may be no creature on Earth cuter than a baby penguin – unless it’s a baby seal. And both those animals are featured on the disc. Also featured are the polar bear (also terribly cute) and the walrus (not so cute, but awfully darn cool).
These are some of the only episodes that take place at zoos – the penguins are hatched at the Oregon Zoo, the polar bear cub is given a chance at life at the Toronto Zoo, and the walrus baby grows up at the Indianapolis Zoo. The baby seal isn’t at a zoo, however, as it gets nursed back to health at the Alaska Sea Life Center. Growing Up Arctic is the best of the three DVDs in that it’s slightly more interesting than the others. But, like the others, it’s just cute, and that’s about it.