Wild world

Return of the River

Wildlife films are known for sweeping shots across jungle landscapes where animals swing from trees and do battle on the forest floor. Each year, the International Wildlife Film Festival screens up to 60 films featuring bold cinematography and breathtaking animal acts. Besides dramatic images of exotic places, it's the oddball films that often capture audience's hearts. This year's Poached deals with illegal egg collectors; the 5-minute Potty Time follows a sloth going to the bathroom; and Mine Detection Rats follows rats that seek out underground explosives.

The 38th annual festival, which runs Sat., April 18–Sat., April 25, will also include special events like NextDoorPrisonHotel live-scoring the Dust Bowl movies The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River. Besides the Wildwalk, kid-friendly band The Whizpops! release their book, Stream That I Call Home, about the life cycle of bull trout.

As always, our reviewers watched some of the more anticipated films, including the stellar Return of the River, which screens to audiences for free. As for some of the sweeping, high-budget films—they weren't so impressed. Splashy cinematography doesn't always include a good story. But with so many movies on the docket—and not just about egg swiping and sloth poop—what shakes out as the true favorites might come as a surprise.

Return of the River

Upon hearing about a documentary that is solely on the 100-year history of two dams along a river that you have never heard of, your first instinct is probably to, well, simply not watch it. But wait! What if you knew that you'd also learn about the history of the Pacific Northeast, salmon runs, river ecosystems and the largest dam removal project in history? While the movie is worth watching for the awesome footage of exploding dams alone, it is a must-see for the story it tells of an unlikely but hope-inducing environmental restoration project.

Co-directed by John Gussman and Jessica Plumb, Return of the River chronicles the creation and eventual destruction of two dams located in Olympia National Park on the 45-mile-long Elwah River. The story begins at the turn of the 20th century, when the river flowed freely, the super-sized salmon numbered above a million and the settlers' overarching view of nature was to tame it and profit from it. It ends decades later, after environmentalists, scientists and native tribes convince both the local population and the federal government to return the river to its natural state after two dams have drastically altered the landscape and the ecosystem.

At the heart of the film is a tough lesson: We first used intellect and technology to alter the river for profit. Now we have to use our intellect and technology to restore it for the sake of our future. The movie is specifically about the Elwah River and the communities that surround it, but there is much to take away about how to approach larger but similar highly political environmental issues—like climate change, just for starters.

The film suffers from sometimes-corny first-person narration by the river itself, but is bolstered by well-edited interviews with a wide range of experts on both sides of the dam removal issue, including members of the Lower Elwah Klallam tribe, politicians, Port Angeles community members and the dam operators. Thoughtful cinematography and fascinating stills complete the inspiring story. (SA)

Return of the River screens at the UC Theater Tue., April 21, at 6 PM.

Love Thy Nature

Unfortunately, not even the sonorous, Irish-tinged vocal talents of Liam Neeson could make this documentary a standout, especially during a week filled with so many other interesting and worthy films. Love Thy Nature explores the relationship between humans and nature, progressing from our initial harmony in ancient times to our current conflict to a possible future of reconnection.

The film features generic footage of nature and humans with a voiceover by Neeson, who is "sapiens"the collective voice of humankind. Interspersed are interviews with an assortment of experts, some interesting (such as evolutionary biologists) and some a little odd (such as a mind/body healer and yoga instructor).

Director Sylvie Rokab strives to offer her audience a sweeping and powerful story, but the material falls short. It feels more like an infomercial for nature than a rousing cinematic experience. Probably due to the large scope of the movie-length project, a fascinating topic becomes much too simplified. A better viewing recommendation might be the "Cosmos" television series, which takes its time to explain interesting natural concepts to viewers without dumbing down or glazing over the material.

The film ends with the famous (and famously overused) Gandhi quote, "Be the change that you wish to see in the world." The choice of that quote is a good summary of the movie as a whole: it sends a good message, but it's such a basic a message we've heard so often that it barely registers and almost annoys. (SA)

Love Thy Nature screens at the Roxy Sat., April 25, at 3 PM.

Enchanted Kingdom

I have yet to watch all of the documentaries in the world, but I'm going to risk the last shreds of my reputation and say there's nothing out there quite as visually spellbinding as Patrick Morris and Neil Nightingale's Enchanted Kingdom. What this film offers the eyes is so dramatic, so intimate and so trenchantly adept at skating the fine slope of the uncanny valley, that it took a half hour for me to stop wondering whether this was really a nature film or if I'd mistakenly been given the CG reel for Tim Burton's next fantasy production.

Enchanted Kingdom is an 82-minute ocular Swedish massage, is what I'm saying.

The documentary's format resembles that of BBC's well-known "Planet Earth" series, in that it surveys plant and animal life across a variety of terrain. But as much as this film rivals "Planet Earth" in its spectacle, the narrative structure of Enchanted Kingdom is a hot holy mess.

From the outset, the narration is boring yet tolerable. But then information gaps start springing up, and the words and pictures grow increasingly disparate and arbitrary.

This culminates in a complete breakdown of coherence during the final six minutes of the film. Swinging entirely out of left field in a desperate attempt to impose some sort of moral or thematic focus, Enchanted Kingdom's finale feels like something plucked randomly out of a giant jar of previously rejected documentary endings. Leaving the wilderness we are beamed to a metropolitan fountain park where white middle-class children splash around in slow motion as Coldplay's "Life in Technicolor II" accompanies the disjointed and hackneyed conclusion that nature is not only "all around us," but also "in every one of us."

If you go, prepare for the visual cortex seduction of your life—especially since it will be in 3Dbut consider bringing your own soundtrack. (JW)

Enchanted Kingdom screens at the Roxy Sat., April 18, at 6 PM.

Planetary

Guy Reid's Planetary blasts vigorously off the launch pad, but winds up drifting blindly through empty space. Though clearly well-intended to address themes of urgent ecological significance, the film's entire approach comes off as so shamefully lopsided and uninspiring that it ends up depleted of any vitality.

The first half hour is fairly solid. Moving footage of Earth as seen from space accompanies interviews that drive home what our first experience of this external perspective meant to global consciousness. Then there's a chilling anecdote about how the 1980s discovery that modernization was bringing about a mass extinction, killing off thousands of species per year, only made it to page 26 in The New York Times. The last moment I found myself caring about this film was during a passionate appeal for a paradigm shift in activist storytelling, and for wisdom to supplement technological advances.

But it soon becomes clear that this movie isn't really going anywhere. Planetary's soundtrack is the kind of maddeningly meandering synth pad progression that Enya might have composed on a Nyquil infusion. The cinematography, a gyration of urban and nature shots, fails against the endless barrage of eco-apologist talking heads, all posed against the same blue background, rattling off pseudo-philosophical narratives, reinforcing the worldview of people who already agree with them.

I hope that despite my personal experience of Planetary, the people who watch it are moved and inspired. I really do. But I spent most of my time fantasizing about all the ways their production budget might have gone toward actually making the world a better place. Or at least making a better film. (JW)

Planetary screens at the Roxy Wed., April 22, at 7 PM.

The International Wildlife Film Festival runs Sat., April 18–Sat., April 25. Visit wildlifefilms.org for a full schedule and ticket information.

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