180° South (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
In “180° South,” directed by Chris Malloy, Jeff Johnson and his friends were inspired by adventurers Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard’s journey into Patagonia back in 1968 so Johnson and company decided to do the same thing. Spending months at a time on a constantly rocking boat on top of some technical difficulties with their mode of transport made their journey anything but smooth. I loved that the documentary started off with why it was important for Johnson to go to Patagonia and climb to the peak of the tallest mountain there. Prior to watching the movie, I thought why not just take a plane to the island and start climbing the mountain? Must they really have to go through months of traveling by sea and risk being stranded? But after Johnson expressed his reasons why he wanted to go through certain steps, even though I didn’t necessarily fully agree with him, I understood where he was coming from. And in a way, just hearing and seeing his excitement for his journey and the passion in his voice made me feel excited as well. I liked the narration as much as I hated the use of soundtrack. The narration made it personal and Johnson offered a lot of insight about how his admiration for nature has shaped the way he’s living his life. However, the use of music just annoyed me. I understood that it was supposed to be soothing and it was supposed to match the tone of the movie but it took away the necessary silences that could give us a chance to think more about what the narrator just expressed. I couldn’t help but think how nice it would have been if the music was taken out altogether and let us just hear the waves crashing on the shore or the tiny pebbles sliding down the incline as Johnson and the others climbed a mountain. It would have been that much more exciting because it would feel more like we were really there. With the addition of songs, the movie felt polished instead of natural. There were also some mention of environmental threats in the film and how factories impact nature and people who rely on fishing for a living. That portion of the movie was a hit-or-miss for me. On one hand, I thought it was a positive thing to acknowledge environmental disasters due to people’s disregard for things outside of their spheres. I also thought it was a good thing to have the environmental angle because it shows that Johnson was not just some adrenaline-seeking junkie. But at the same time, I thought the environmental angle took away some of the focus and momentum from the actual journey toward Patagonia. Still, “180° South” is a worthwhile experience because I got to learn more about people who do things that I could never imagine myself doing in my lifetime.
Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Zana Briski decided to go to Calcutta’s red-light district in hopes of getting a chance to document how it was really like, especially for women, to live in the brothels. But her mission evolved when she got closer to the prostitutes’ children; she realized that the kids needed a chance to get out of the red-light district so she handed the children simple cameras, used their photographs to raise money, get international acclaim and get them into boarding schools. I was really touched by this documentary because the kids offered such insight about their living situations. Even though the kids were very young, they knew the importance of education but at the same time some of them came to accept that most of them would never leave the district. Or worse, they would turn out like their parents. Despite knowing the nature of their mothers’ jobs, the kids were aware of the fact that their mothers had to sacrifice their own bodies and safety in order to support their families. One of the kids that really moved me said that she doesn’t ever see herself becoming rich, that she’ll be happy being poor because life is supposeed to be sad and difficult. I understand the hopelessness of the children because of how and where they’ve been raised, but it’s still difficult for me to accept that nothing better is in store for them because I wasn’t raised in an environment that was even as close to theirs. The realism of this picture was staggering but it’s nice to reminded of the fact that the events that we’ve seen in the movie is still happening today. Briski’s decision to teach the children the art of photography has to be commended. The children were powerless but having a camera their hands was like handing them a special power. It was easy to see the light in those children’s eyes when they would run around in the streets and take random pictures of people and objects. I was surprised with how well some of the photographs turned out and was convinced that some of them just had a natural gift in photography. I don’t know if the children realized it but taking pictures was like an escape from the harsh realities of their lives. And the way they talked about Briski, I could tell that the kids looked up to her so much and probably even considered her as their hero. “Born Into the Brothels,” directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, was a rich and emotionally challenging documentary. The movie may have been shot with a simple hand-held camera (at least from what it looked like) but it was bold in terms of really exploring the sociological and psychological impacts of the environment had on the children.
Winged Migration (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Le peuple migrateur” also known as “Winged Migration,” directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, was a documentary about migrating birds and the dangers they faced as they traveled for hundreds and thousands of miles. I’m one of those people who sees a flock of birds and just can’t help to run up to them in hopes of scaring them away. After watching this movie, I don’t think I’ll be doing it anymore because the birds go through so much in hopes of survival. Having been shot from a bird’s perspective in a span of four years, I thought the images were nothing short of breathtaking. I’ve never seen so many birds in my life. I was most engaged when the birds would fly in a blizzard. I kept thinking how they managed to keep flying despite the biting cold and the harsh winds. All birds of varying shapes, colors and sizes are in this film and I thought it was interesting that it had enough time to observe their many strange rituals. I’ve read some complaints about the film being unexpectedly violent. My response is simply “Get over it” because this was supposed to be a documentary that simply shows what is instead of an after school special when everything is sugarcoated. I get that parents want to protect their children from the concept of death but at the same time I’m annoyed that they don’t actively take responsibility and try to explain to their kids that it’s all a part of life. Birds do get eaten by seals, get shot from the sky and get caught in all sorts of pollution and human activities. From that list, notice that three out of four are a cause of our own actions. It’s never too early to have a talk with kids about life and death. Another element I noticed about this picture was its minimal use of narration. There were extended periods of time when the only thing we could hear were the flapping of the wings and the birds’ calls. It was a different experience–almost zen-like–and it was inspiring. It made me think about how it felt like to be a bird. Moreover, the use of music was excellent. The music captured all sorts of emotions such as sadness when a bird would get left behind and excitement when they would hunt for food or confront each other. I’m not a big fan of birds (I consider them a vector for a number of diseases) but this movie made me appreciate them a little bit more. There’s just something about their endurance of flying through thousands of miles and harshest weather conditions that I can’t help but admire.
Under the Sea 3D (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’m sure everyone had seen movies they wished would last for hours and hours. “Under the Sea 3D,” written and directed by Howard Hall, was one of them because of its great ability entertain and enlighten. In just a span of forty minutes, the deep sea documentary was able to capture lives of sea creatures ranging from small harmless fish, creepy sea snakes, turtles that love to feed on venomous jellyfish to rare sea dragons and cute sea lions in New Guinea, Indo-Pacific, Southern Australian waters. The movie was also able to comment on humans’ impact on the environment. However, it didn’t feel heavy-handed because the focus was really more on the animals and how they depended on their respective habitats (and vice-versa). What I liked best about this film was its ability to create suspense by creating danger for certain animals. For instance, in one scene the innocuous creature was the cute-looking one that you just want to pet but in a few minutes, it turned out being the predator with an amazing speed in terms of capturing and swallowing their prey whole. The film’s technique of turning our expectations upside down made the movie consistently interesting and engaging. It was unpredictable in the best way possible. I even caught myself thinking “What’s next?” with such enthusiasm. I felt like a little kid again who just had his first lesson in grade-school Biology. The living things under the sea were so magical-looking (to say the least), it sometimes reminded me of “Finding Nemo,” especially the coral reefs. I thought it was amazing how much the creatures relied on each other in order to survive. Concepts such as symbiosis, mutualism and commensalism were illustrated nicely, especially how one of the crabs used a jellyfish as “a hat” (as Jim Carrey, the narrator, puts it). Although they were quite simple concepts, the way they actually worked made me feel like everything had a purpose. “Under the Sea” was also one of those movies that made me feel humbled. I couldn’t believe some of the creatures existed even before the age of dinosaurs. Realizing their resilience and effective hunting techniques, it made me want to learn more about the different creatures–creatures that are thriving now and those that are not thriving now but might thrive in the future. I think this is a great film for kids because not only did it have bright colors and strange-looking animals, it was able to educate and inspire. I wish I saw it in the big screens (IMAX or 3D) because it was already stunning on television.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Ponyo” (also known as “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”) tells the story of a princess goldfish (Noah Cyrus) who truly wants to become human. After escaping from her father (Liam Neeson) whose job is to maintain balance in the natural world, she meets a five-year-old boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) and instantly falls for him. Although I very much enjoyed this latest film from Miyazaki, I don’t think it’s his finest work. The story is beyond cute, the characters’ motivations are easy to understand, the world has a sense of wonder, and the situations the characters are put in have enough danger in them to make the audiences want to root for the characters to succeed. In a nutshell, it’s the perfect movie for kids and adults because it’s highly entertaining. However, I wasn’t as emotionally invested in it as I was when I saw “Spirited Away” for the first time. It must be noted that I saw the dubbed version of this animated picture in theaters so perhaps some of the dialogue was lost in translation. But I wanted a more insightful story regarding the characters. Earlier in the film, there was this tension between Sosuke’s mother (Tina Fey) and father (Matt Damon) because his father was always away at sea. There was a certain innocence and genuine comedy when the mother and father were trying to communicate in morse code by using lights. I wanted more of those situational family moments because then the film becomes that much more personal. What I really liked was that the message about the environment and how we must do our best to take care of it but it the message was never heavy-handed. Such messages were simply shown on the screen as tons of garbage were being collected from the ocean floor and ocean creatures were suffering in more ways imaginable (including the title character). Despite some of the very small negatives I mentioned, I still think this is a very strong film about a creature who tried her best to reach her dreams. “The Little Mermaid” comparisons are justified because of the premise but one shouldn’t imply that it doesn’t rise above the template. In fact, Miyazaki’s signature style of being unbound by realism was constantly at the forefront here. Therefore, every image we get (and the emotions that come with them) is very inspired and it’s very difficult to resist its charm.
Happy Feet (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
An emperor penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood) was born without a knack for singing, but his talent lies in tapdancing. His colony, aside from his childhood friend (Brittany Murphy) and mother (Nicole Kidman), doesn’t like the fact that he’s different and one of the oldest penguins believe that Mumble was a curse because ever since he was born, food became more scarce. (Talk about correlation does not mean causation.) Determined to prove that his tapdancing has nothing to do with the famine, Mumble, his short penguin friends and Noah the Elder (Hugo Weaving) went on a journey to search for the “aliens” (they were actually humans but they didn’t have the term for it) and kindly ask them through whatever means to stop taking their food. I like children’s movies but I hated the singing and dancing in this movie. I believe those elements took away some of the power (and time) to produce a well-developed story. The message about the humans’ destruction and disruption of the food chain was apparent but there were far too many extended singing and dancing sequences. (And it didn’t help that they weren’t that great to watch or listen to.) My favorite parts in the picture were the scenes that involved real danger for the penguins, such as being chased by a hungry seal, killer whales and birds. Yes, the animation was nothing short of spectacular but it doesn’t make up for its too light a tone about death and destruction. There were definitely some darker moments, especially in the second half when Mumble reached “heaven,” but I felt like George Miller, the director, could have pushed the envelope a little further by showing the audiences certain realities. After all, the point of the picture was the show that animals in the South Pole were struggling for survival. In fact, I think this film would have been far superior if it had ended in a bittersweet tone instead of a typical living-happily-ever-after note. Having said all that, I would have been harsher with this film if it was not intended for children. Given its flaws, it was still pretty entertaining because it had other messages such as tolerance, self-esteem and true friendships.