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ANTARCTICA: ICE AND SKY (DVD)

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antarcticaiceandskycoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but….
2015, 89 min., Color/B&W
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: French/English Dolby Digital 5.1 w/subtitles
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Claude Lorius is a glaciologist. Over a 60-year career he has participated in more than 20 polar expeditions—not only to study glaciers and glacial movement, but also to drill deep down into their near-timeless cores to analyze the ice from different time periods. What they reveal is fascinating, and one of the film’s memorable moments comes when we’re taken into an archive of core-drill ice samples all stacked in rows on shelves according to samples dated by their air bubbles—some of them going back 800,000 years. Lorius began his study of glaciers in 1956 as a 23-year-old man, but as early as 1965 his research was telling him something disturbing. Long before the polar caps began to melt, Lorius was predicting that they would because of the appearance of so-called greenhouse gasses in the ice samples he was taking, and the way those gasses altered the composition of the ice.

There’s no denying that the work Lorius does is fascinating science, unless you’re a U.S. politician who denounces anything that gets in the way antarcticaiceandskyscreen2of the economy. But it’s not very compelling as drama. Antarctica: Ice and Sky, a film by Luc Jacquet that closed the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, is a treatise on global warming that’s frankly dull in spots. The dialogue is overwritten and often stilted, and there aren’t enough shots of Antarctica in HD—with far too much of the film relying on grainier archival footage from earlier expeditions. What Lorius and others do may be fascinating as scientific research, but so much of that research is repetitive and the progress so glacial itself that there isn’t anything close to a dramatic structure to be found here.

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2016 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS: CHICAGO CUBS (Blu-ray combo)

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cubscoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 90 min., Color
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Every year, Major League Baseball comes out with a World Series Champions clip-show for fans to relive the series highlights, and this year it should appeal to an even bigger audience than usual. It features the two teams that had gone the longest without a title: the Cleveland Indians of Major League fame and the Chicago Cubs, the lovable losers from the Windy City’s North Side who play in their “ivy-covered burial ground,” as singer-songwriter Steve Goodman (“Go Cubs Go”) joked in a song titled “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.”

Goodman, whose ashes are reportedly buried under home plate, never lived to see the biggest win in Chicago sports history, and neither did a lot of fans. The Cubs last played in a World Series in 1945 and last won a world series in 1908, while the Cleveland Indians haven’t won it all since 1948. This documentary makes clear how generational being a Cubs or Indians fan has been, and the impact a win would have on either city. You couldn’t have written a better script than to have the two teams with the longest droughts squaring off against each other and needing seven games for the winner to finally emerge. The Cubs, who led the majors with 103 wins, went down 3 games to 1, and only four teams had come back from that deficit to win the World Series: the 1925 Pirates, 1958 Yankees, 1968 Tigers, and 1985 Royals. Throw in a rain delay at the end of regulation with Game 7 tied, and you’ve got high drama to rival any sports screenplay to come out of Hollywood.

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AMAZONIA (DVD)

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amazoniacoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2013, 83 min., Color
Lionsgate
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

To describe Amazonia (2013) as a Brazilian-French documentary is to make it seem tedious and dry, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. This live-action nature film is a wonderful choice for family movie night, for a number of reasons.

#1—Amazonia educates while it entertains. Viewers learn all sorts of things about the Amazon rainforest from a script that juggles cuteness and factuality with amazing adroitness. Martin Sheen provides the voiceover, but as Disney did with Perri and a number of other True-Life Adventures,
director Thierry Ragobert opted to combine nature photography with a fictional storyline. In this case, a born-in-captivity capuchin monkey named Saï (pronounced “psy”) finds himself flying out of Rio across the Amazon jungle. When the plane crashes, he’s left on his own to learn how to live in amazoniascreen1the wild for the first time in his life. We’re so focused on the cute little guy and his adventure that the voiceover lessons about the Amazon seem like fun facts rather than pedantic distractions. You’re glad you learned that there are over 2 million species of insects in the Amazon, for example, or that the rainforest provides a full 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen. You get the idea of how important it is to preserve the Amazon, and yet Ragobert doesn’t hit you over the head with an environmentalist message. It’s all about a monkey and his fascinating adventure.

#2—My daughter dislikes nature films for one simple reason: “They’re sad,” she says. That whole survival-of-the-fittest thing is depressing to her and
often frightening to other children. Amazonia is unique in that there is only one instance of a predator snatching prey, and since it was another monkey you find yourself less traumatized than you are relieved it wasn’t Saï. Though Amazonia is all about survival, it’s mostly upbeat. It’s the gentlest and most fun nature film I’ve seen, in fact. Even when Saï comes across an anaconda that could swallow him whole, the confrontation is quickly ended, but in a positive way. Same with every obstacle or danger the little guy faces along the way. Only when, starving, he eats some mushrooms and Ragobert gives us his version of “Pink Elephants on Parade” does the tone change briefly weird. Otherwise it’s all lightweight adventure and fun lessons learned about the Amazon.

amazoniascreen2#3—It turns out that Disney and BBC haven’t cornered the market on nature photography after all. Gustavo Hadba and Manuel Teran do a wonderful job of shooting in the rainforest and capturing all sorts of creatures in the process. Aerial shots and sequences involving a harpy eagle and jaguar on the hunt are especially impressive, but there are also wonderful close-ups of such creatures as frogs and snails and sloths. Did you know that sloths are good swimmers? We see them doing their thing thanks to underwater cameras, as we do pink river dolphins at play.

#4—Amazonia manages to sustain some credible tension despite the fact that it’s pretty lightweight as a nature film. There isn’t a lot of violence here, or predators tearing prey apart as you’d likely see elsewhere. Yet, I have to admit that I found myself in a state of tension a number of times. That’s a testament to the script, editing, and direction. The filmmakers have really woven together a compelling narrative with documentary footage and voiceover information.

All of which makes me convinced that Amazonia would make for a great first nature film to introduce children to, and even those who don’t respond well to the survival-of-the-fittest world of nature films will find this a welcome change of pace. I have only one complaint: it would have been great to get this in HD.

BARBARIANS RISING (Blu-ray)

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barbariansrisingcoverGrade: C/C+
Entire family: No
2016, 336 min. (4 episodes), Color
HISTORY / Lionsgate
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

HISTORY (formerly The History Channel) has been criticized for focusing too much on American history, and so you’d think that their docudrama Barbarians Rising would be just the thing to silence those critics. But while the subject matter may be international, the production itself is all too familiar. The four-part series tracks the rise of “barbarians” against the Roman Empire, blending voiceover narration, interviews with scholars and (curiously) Civil Rights leaders, and dramatic reenactments. That mixture feels as unbalanced as some of the historical figures we encounter along the way, and the series’ undoing is ultimately those reenactments . . . some of which go on way too long, and feature little in the way of dramatic tension.

barbariansrisingscreen1The first episode, “Resistance,” focuses on Hannibal from the time he is a boy sworn to try to defeat Rome through his famed crossing of the Alps. Nicholas Pinnock (a Shakespearian actor who appeared in a minor role in Captain America: The First Avenger) is fine as Hannibal. The problem is with the scenic construction. There’s no built-in drama to the scenes, which often go on way too long and therefore prevent viewers from finding a comfortable rhythm as the series jumps from reenactments to talking heads and various maps and illustrations that feel more like lectures than integrated enhancements. With shorter reenactments or more dramatic ones, the balance of narrative components might have seemed more fluid and natural.

That’s the series’ chief weakness—other than the fact that Caesar’s Gallic Wars seems to have been ignored. Aside from that apparent oversight, its strength is overwhelmingly the barbariansrisingscreen2subject matter itself, and the fact that it educates audiences about not just well-known figures like Hannibal, Attila the Hun (Emil Hostina), and Spartacus (Ben Batt), whose gladiator-slave rebellion also qualifies as “barbarian,” but also lesser-knowns like Viriathus (Jefferson Hall), a shepherd from western Hispania/Iberia who reached out to other groups in order to build an alliance that could stand up to Roman expansion. His story is fascinating because he survived a massacre and used his knowledge of the Romans to help his people wage what now would be called a guerilla war against the more formal and militaristic Roman army.

Narrated by Michael Ealy, Barbarians Rising might be tonally consistent, but the episodes themselves vary in quality. The series manges to find a foothold with the opening episode, which features the stories of Hannibal and Viriathus, then peaks with the Spartacus and Arminius episode titled “Rebellion,” but then tapers off with “Revenge”—the stories of Arminius (Tom Hopper), Queen Boudica (Kirsty Mitchell), and Fritigern (Steven Waddington)—and fizzles when it should sizzle with the final episode, “Ruin,” which details Alaric’s (Gavin Drea) sack of Rome, Attila the Hun’s sweeping destruction, and, finally, the Vandal king—Geiseric (Richard Brake)—who brought about the end of the Roman Empire.

If it sounds fascinating, the subject matter certainly is. It’s the execution that’s disappointing. These stories could have been told in livelier fashion and with considerably more drama. As is, I found myself leaving the room to get a snack whenever the reenactments droned on too long and returning for the history lessons. Too often those reenactments were just plain dull. I kept wondering what the point was, and that was part of the problem. The reenactments didn’t feel well integrated.

I’m sure history nuts will still gravitate toward shows like this, but for families looking for an educational program that’s also entertaining, well, there are better options out there—though the transfers are top-notch, with two episodes per disc in this two-disc set.

ISLAND OF LEMURS: MADAGASCAR (Blu-ray combo)

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IslandofLemurscoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
2014, 39 min., Color
Rated G
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray version, DVD, Digital HD
Bonus features: B-
Trailer/Amazon link

Island of Lemurs: Madagascar is a nature film made for IMAX theaters, not for a PBS viewership—meaning it’s geared for a popular audience rather than one looking to learn every detail they can about animals and their environment.

IMAX movies are typically experiences—movies shot in higher definition on 70mm film that can then be shown on screens way larger than anything you’d see in a standard movie theater, and with no loss of detail if you sit in the front rows. Shots have tended toward the dramatic—aerial panoramas, whales breeching, fires blazing out of control, and wilderness adventures—with early short films including The Eruption of Mount St. Helens!, Fires of Kuwait, and Alaska: Spirit of the Wild. So it’s somewhat of a deviation for a less naturally dramatic nature film like Island of Lemurs: Madagascar to get the IMAX treatment.

Featured primatologist Patricia Wright worked tirelessly to establish a 107,000-acre national park on the island of Madagascar to protect the 12 species of lemurs that live there. Maybe she has connections (or fans) in high places, because there isn’t a better way to raise awareness of a cause than with a 3D IMAX movie.

Wright and her work are showcased in Island of Lemurs, but the stars are, of course, the lemurs themselves. Lemurs tend to hop and jump a lot, using their strong hind legs, and there’s amazing footage of Sifakas, who naturally hop sideways so that it looks like they’re dancing, hopping across a beach. We also see Brown Mouse Lemurs, a little tinier and pudgier than the others, fearlessly flinging themselves from tree to tree. And we watch Indriids and their peculiar way they have of “singing.” You can look up information on these and find that their calls can be heard more than a mile away, but you won’t get that kind of specific information here. IMAX is a celebration of exotic places and phenomena, and the emphasis here is on these amazing creatures themselves.   More

BEE PEOPLE (DVD)

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BeePeoplecoverGrade: B (what else?)
Entire family: Yes
2014, 102 min., Color
True Mind
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Trailer

I don’t know of too many families that say they sit down and watch documentaries together, but I do know plenty that watch reality shows on TV, and this title is for them.

Bee People looked like a film that was going to tell me more about something that I already know: that honeybees are in steep decline, and that anyone who appreciates the little things in life (like flowers, fruits, vegetables . . . trees) ought to be worried. In other words, I expected a documentary with the usual blend of voiceover narration, “bee-roll,” and talking heads.

We get some of the information, but really, Bee People comes closer to a reality show like Treehouse Masters, where you follow an amiable and fun-loving expert (or two) as they go about their business—in this case, answering calls to remove beehives from unwanted locations, relocating “swarms,” establishing new hives for people willing to host them, visiting schools and conventions, mentoring new beekeepers, and shadowing other bee people to see how they do it.

Bee People does have a thesis: if these creatures who’ve survived millions of years without much evolution are going to continue to survive and provide the help with pollination that’s essential to life, it’s going to take more beekeepers. And rather than a small number of beekeepers with huge numbers of hives it’s going to take a village of beekeepers, one every two square miles.   More

DISNEYNATURE: BEARS (Blu-ray combo)

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DisneyNatureBearscoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes (but with a grain of salt)
2014, 78 min., Color
DisneyNature
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

DisneyNature: Bears is an accomplished bit of filmmaking that would have been an unqualified success were it not for narration that periodically insults the intelligence of viewers over the age of eight.

The screenplay and voiceovers are, as my teenage son said, simply “childish” in places—meaning that Bears is clearly aimed at very small children, the way an adult will make funny faces to try to make a toddler laugh. The question is, why? Why narrow your audience like that, when the subject matter has such broad appeal?

The Alaskan cinematography in Bears is breathtaking, and the sometimes extreme photography really adds both epic sweep and intimacy to our understanding of these beautiful creatures. Couple that with perfectly paced scenic construction that builds suspense as we follow a family of Alaskan brown bears from the birth of two cubs through their first year of survival and you have a nature film that’s every bit as good as what Disney produced in the past—or, for that matter, what other studios are producing now.

I suspect that director Alastair Fothergill (The Blue Planet, Earth) is still trying to find the right balance to give Disney what their audiences want: a nature film that’s not as austere as the BBC Earth productions and that has some life, some zest, some whimsy—to imbue the animals with personalities and tell their story in human terms, as the old True-Life Adventures did. So far, Fothergill has done that most successfully with Chimpanzee (2012).   More

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