Tag Archives: documentary

Finally! Discovery Channel Does SHARK WEEK RIGHT: Night Five of 2015 Edition

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Five – Shark Planet

on Discovery Channel


(5/5)

Pros: An extraordinary, well-rounded and responsible documentary that’s on par with the best that National Geographic and PBS have to offer


Cons: This’ll be the one show that the majority of Shark Week viewers choose not to watch…

Buried deep in the middle of Shark Week 2015, Discovery Channel finally unleashed the well-rounded, superbly-made, and, perhaps most importantly, respectful documentary about sharks that I had been desiring all along. Let’s not get things confused: I’ve been watching Shark Week since it first debuted some 28 years ago (my dad tells a funny story about how excited I got as a little kid in the lead-up to the event), and I’m probably well aware of not all but most of the information contained in this (and most) Shark Week programming. For the average viewer who maybe doesn’t have that base of knowledge to draw upon when considering this frequently misunderstood species however, a comprehensive, honest and compelling nature documentary of the variety that National Geographic and PBS are known for can go along way in changing public perception about these creatures. Shark Planet is that very documentary.

A co-production between the Discovery Channel and the BBC, Shark Planet is a feature length (two hours with commercials) program that does an exemplary job of covering the bases with regard to the ocean’s most infamous and perhaps most formidable predators. The main gist of this documentary is to briefly chronicle various shark species, accomplished by a sort of tour of the world’s oceans and the sharks that inhabit them. Starting off in South Africa, camera crews travel across the globe, from the Arctic to Indonesia, the Great Barrier Reef to the Graveyard of the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast. Numerous species of sharks are documented during the course of the show, and all the while, Shark Planet makes a dedicated effort to explain various aspects of shark physiology and behavior, even including a segment about mating behavior and birthing. Although previous Shark Week shows have covered aspects of some of these topics throughout the week, I was pleased that at least one “total package” documentary made an appearance since I think it’s important that sharks are (at least for one night) presented not just as the “eating machines” that Richard Dreyfus passed them off as in Jaws, but as a complex and fascinating species that’s worthy not only of respect, but of tolerance.


While the great white (understandably perhaps) gets the most screen time, one of the best things about Shark Planet was that it devoted significant attention to lesser known species, including several that I can’t recall having ever seen during Shark Week before. An early segment in the program examines the feeding habits of the undeniably strange tassled wobbegong shark of Indonesia, a creature that mimics the look of the sea bed, tricking prey into an ambush attack. The show goes on to feature such relatively unknown varieties as the primitive Port Jackson shark (notable for its corkscrew-shaped eggs) and even the epaulette shark (which has adapted to be able to survive for periods of time outside of water). I was also impressed that the production spent a good ten minutes or so on skates and rays, close relatives of the shark that are typically ignored during Shark Week. To be honest, the section of Shark Planet devoted to the giant manta and Mobula rays was about the most breathtaking segment in the documentary.

As great as the information provided during this film was, it was the truly amazing visuals that put the film in a league of its own. Most Shark Week programs are no slouch in terms of providing some truly outstanding camerawork, but Shark Planet took things to the next level, utilizing all sorts of technology to capture unbelievable and frequently mesmerizing images. One such scene was filmed under the icecap in the Canadian arctic, with divers in pursuit of the Greenland shark. Not only were images of this creature and its habitat otherworldly, but the camera crews even manage to document the small parasites which cling to the eyeballs of virtually all members of this species, making them virtually blind. Another phenomenal moment occurs when a crew in Mexico documents the yearly gathering of Mobula rays which culminates in the creatures flying out of the water in a display presumed to be related to attracting a mate. I can safely say that I’ve never seen anything like this footage in all my years of Shark Week, and these two moments are just the tip of the iceberg of what is offered up in the documentary. I’ve really got to hand it to the camera crews who did a wonderful job of photographing all these creatures in some very remote and inhospitable environments, but also to the editors who went through what had to be a mass of footage and made a finely-tuned, very informative and entertaining finished film – this documentary had to take a long time to put together and the end result is magnificent.

One of the things that’s long been lacking from Shark Week programming as far as I’m concerned was a serious discussion about how numerous shark species are being pushed to the brink of extinction due to overfishing. It’s pretty sad when any number of speakers in these programs claim that we’re just beginning to learn more about this species now as many varieties are on the verge of disappearing from the world’s oceans forever. Shark Planet not only acknowledges this dire situation in a sober and responsible manner, but makes a valiant effort to try and change public perception about these creatures. A moment in which the non-verbal communication of great whites is discussed hints at the fact that these animals aren’t the hulking titans of terror they’re typically portrayed as, and the fact that this documentary creates and maintains a sense of wonder about these animals really does more in my opinion for the shark species than any number of the “Look at the big predator!” documentaries that Shark Week seems to specialize in lately.


I admit it: when Shark Planet began with a monologue about how it was going to show “other sides of shark behavior…not just feeding,” I was more than a bit skeptical: I’ve seen my fair share of gnashing bared teeth so far in Shark Week 2015 and those seem to be the go-to images that this event builds itself around. Imagine my surprise then when this documentary, complimented by an appropriately majestic music score, turned out do exactly what it proposed and wound up as a highlight of the programming block. About all I could hope for is that viewers watching Shark Week for the more sensational and/or ridiculous shows stuck with this one: not only was it gorgeous in terms of the visuals and images it provided, but it also was the most factual and level-headed documentary that’s likely to air all week. While most of Discovery’s shark-related programs are enjoyable enough for what they are, this may be one of the few that I’d honestly urge interested viewers to track down. Highly recommended.

 


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The Hypothetical Behemoth Makes an Appearance (or not): SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Four

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Four – Super Predator and Ninja Sharks

on Discovery Channel


(3.5/5)

Pros: A balanced mixture of science and sensationalism


Cons: Neither of these really has the “punch” of some of this year’s other episodes

Another night of Shark Week 2015, another mix of sensational and rational programming. Wednesday, July 8th saw the premiere of one of the more absolutely ridiculous but somehow intriguing shows of this year’s block of shark-related documentaries when Super Predator popped up in the earlier time slot, and also had a show in Ninja Sharks that was perhaps the week’s most straight-forward nature documentary. While I’ve frequently been frustrated by Discovery Channel’s inclusion of programming designed to grab a viewer’s attention rather than be scientifically accurate, these two shows provided about as great a combination of the best of both worlds as could be imagined.

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OK, so I’m up for belief in many things – UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis – but this is kind of a stretch…

Super Predator followed the exploits of one Dave Riggs, Ozzie wildlife photographer who, since coming in contact with an aggressive white shark some years back, has been on the hunt for a humongous predator he believes lurks in Bremer Canyon, a deep sea chasm situated in Australia’s Southern Ocean. After an examination of some basic facts in the case – including the story of a nine-foot tagged white shark that was presumably devoured in the canyon by an even bigger specimen and photographic evidence that suggests a pygmy blue whale had a chunk taken out of it by an absolutely mammoth shark – Riggs sets out on the first documented exploration of an area near the Canyon that he refers to as the “kill zone.” Sea birds, killer whales, and numerous sharks gather in this area during a specific time of year in the hopes of finding food coming up from the ocean bottom, and Riggs hopes that some homemade tech will allow him to locate and film any large creatures prowling the depths.

In the second documentary, cameras followed a pair of research groups on opposite sides of the globe as they attempt to examine the amazing “ninja-like” abilities of a half dozen shark species. While one camera crew in the Philippines tries to capture high-def images of a thresher shark using its tail as a whip to immobilize prey items, a team in Alaska strives to dive with and film the elusive salmon shark, one of the few shark species that’s able to survive in frigid Arctic waters. Meanwhile, in between the stories of these two film crews, the documentary also provides brief segments explaining the often amazing adaptations of such species as the short-finned mako, hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, and bull shark. These adaptations have allowed these species to outlast and outperform their competitors, placing them as the apex predators in the regions they inhabit.

1431115359_great-white-shark-articleProbably not the best way to snap a photo of a toothy friend.

Truth be told, I didn’t know quite what to expect from Super Predator: this program has a plotline alarmingly similarly to those of the faux-documentaries that were a focal point of past year’s editions of Shark Week. Amazingly enough, the story of Riggs and his quest to locate a beast that hypothetically could be – are you ready for it? – 35 feet long, the same size of the absurdly phony-looking shark in Jaws 3-D, appears to be entirely genuine. What is rather strange about this program (or is it, considering all the facts) is that it doesn’t actually feature much shark action: the main thrust of the show details various elaborate and very homemade devices that Riggs constructs to help him in his quest to explore Bremer Canyon.

killer-whale-kills-great-whiteThe Killer Whale or Orca – one of the few creatures on earth known to kill great whites.  Can you guess the other?

For starters, Riggs builds a fully functional submersible, in his garage and out of, basically, scrap metal and fiberglass. Right there, I’d be a little skeptical about getting in this thing in the open ocean, but it actually turns out to be quite seaworthy, and even is able to withstand a rather aggressive attack by a great white with minimal damage. After the sub is deployed near the Canyon with mixed results however, Riggs comes up with an even more elaborate gizmo: a full-sized, illuminated and camera-equipped giant squid decoy that is sent into the abyss in hopes that it will lure in a large predator. Half the appeal of Super Predator is just seeing what this (possibly off his lid) Ozzie will come up with next, but it speaks to the man’s ingenuity, creativity, and genuine knowledge that all of his devices do exactly what they’re supposed to.

WhiteSharkRedTriangle-MainOne of the theories proposed in this year’s Shark Week is that the largest white sharks keep far away from humans in the ocean depths – a remarkable survival tactic if ever there  was one.

I’ve got to say that the possibility of a gigantic shark lurking in the almost entirely unexplored ocean depths is quite intriguing – hell, it’s this very idea that prompted the production of such hogwash as Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives and Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine. In some ways though, I think those sorts of blatantly phony programs have made me infinitely more skeptical about the possibility of unknown monsters lurking in the deep – I’ve simply grown tired of being fed a line of complete malarkey. Still, it’s immensely difficult for science to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that something, be it a giant shark or a Bigfoot-like creature or time travel, doesn’t actually exist or is entirely impossible. Science has a funny way of offering up a major, unexpected surprise just when researchers were about to claim that they knew everything there was to know about a certain subject or topic.

 
The distinctive jaw and bite of the mako.

Speaking of science, biology features prominently in the second of Wednesday’s premieres. Despite its somewhat ludicrous title, Ninja Sharks may be about as close as Shark Week 2015 gets to treading into PBS territory, a straight-faced nature documentary that simply presents some interesting facts about a handful of shark species. While probably not the most exciting program offered up by the Discovery Channel this year, I’m glad Shark Week producers do mix in a few of these relatively “dry” documentaries in with all the “Hunt Down a Monster” programs and “Be Afraid of Sharks” specials. Ninja Sharks actually does a nice job of explaining various aspects of shark physiology, particularly the sensory system, and is especially illuminating in its explanations of how shark species developed specialized traits which ultimately have allowed them to flourish for millions upon millions of years. It’s also pretty cool to see some of the lesser-known species to get some Shark Week love: I especially was awed by (somewhat grainy) footage of the thresher shark in action.

 
This scene, which shows a diver (head visible) being circled by a shark’s dorsal fin, is somewhat alarming…until one considers that the shark in question is the relatively harmless salmon shark.

Though I suppose its inevitable that Discovery Channel would push the envelope of Shark Week 2015 into areas of sensationalism, I’ve been fairly pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of this year’s more “scientifically-oriented” edition. Let’s face it: massive sharks get butts in the seat, thereby giving Discovery more advertising dollars, but I think this year has proven that factual and authentic shows can be every bit as (if not more) exciting and compelling than the obviously fabricated programs that served as the cornerstones of the past few Shark Weeks. I’m going to continue urging Discovery to devote more time during this programming block to genuine shark conservation until they actually do (much as I’m sure the advertisers would hate it, a graphic and therefore realistic program about finning really should be included in each year’s edition – if for no other reason than to explain why certain species won’t be seen on Shark Week ever again) but for a shark enthusiast, the advertisements are correct: Shark Week is the most wonderful week of the year.

 

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A Sobering, but Maybe Too Optimistic, Shark Conservation Doc: EXTINCTION SOUP

EXTINCTION SOUP

or

(4/5)

Pros: Thought-provoking material and a very worthy cause
Cons: Not quite as compelling a film as one would want; ending seems a bit optimistic

Partway through director Philip Waller’s 2014 documentary Extinction Soup, a segment focuses on the way that sharks are represented in popular media. Smack in the middle of 2015’s Shark Week seems about as good a time as any to examine this idea – one that is conspicuously absent from any of the Discovery Channel programming. Truth be told, Shark Week has its own part to play in the misrepresentation of this species: while supposing to generate interest in sharks, Discovery Channel constantly emphasizes the amount of danger their film crew and divers are in whenever sharks are around while honing their cameras in on gnashing teeth and aggressive behavior. Make no mistake about it: sharks are predators and predators kill other living things to survive – but human beings do the same, though most consumers are far removed from the actual slaughter process. That subtle but nonetheless ominous music playing throughout most of the Shark Week documentaries really tells a viewer all he needs to know about what tone is being sought in these programs.

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Just yesterday, browsing news on the internet I was struck and someone disappointed by prominent stories about shark attacks – every time anyone is attacked by a shark it’s major news, which only serves to blow the actual danger these creatures represent way out of proportion. Anyway one looks at it, from statistics (40 million human beings in the ocean every year, 10 fatal shark attacks) to actual underwater encounters, it just doesn’t seem to me like these creatures have any real interest in ending human life – one is more likely to be killed by a tipped vending machine or falling coconut (to say nothing of other human beings) than by a shark. Waller’s documentary attempts to change the way a viewer thinks about sharks, playing in a manner similar to a Michael Moore film since the director himself plays a role in the ongoing action.

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Is this end result worth it?

Extinction Soup starts out by introducing the viewer to director Waller, a former child actor who hit rock bottom after his career stalled out. After discovering a love of surfing, Waller spent some time in Hawaii and became aware of shark advocacy through fellow daredevil Jimmy Hall, who also operated a shark tour business on the side. Following Hall’s death in a base jumping accident, Waller attempts to uncover why his friend became so interested in saving sharks, and quickly comes to realize the splendor of these creatures – and the danger the species finds itself in. A large part of Extinction Soup deals specifically with efforts to curb shark finning, a process by which the fins of these animals are unceremoniously removed, typically with the still-living creature being dumped back into the ocean to die. Asian markets fuel the demand for these fins, as shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in mainstream China and other Oriental nations, but the increasing demand has seen an explosion in the number of sharks killed over the past few decades.

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While any loss of human life is unfortunate, I’m not sure one can justify killing millions upon millions of sharks over a handful of fatal attacks.

While working to tell its more far-reaching story, a variety of shorter segments play out onscreen: a typical group of marine biologists explain the importance that sharks play in the health of the oceans, Waller and fellow advocate Stephanie Brendl’s efforts to push a bill banning the possession of shark fins through the Hawaii legislature, an examination of the “cultural phenomenon” of shark fin soup. Arguably the most interesting segment of the documentary is the aforementioned one dealing with the misrepresentation of sharks in the world media, and one gets the idea that this topic alone could be stretched out to feature length. Things wrap up with a semi-hopeful ending – would one expect anything else from a conservation documentary? – but it was somewhat difficult for me to entirely buy into the optimism.

shark-finning-in-costa-ricaThis is not only unbelievably disgusting, but immensely sad.

Images of fin-less sharks left on the ocean floor to die are pretty horrible to watch, and the piles of dead sharks in the film let a viewer know that the positive events depicted in Extinction Soup are only the beginning of what would have to be an ongoing process if many species of shark are to survive into the future. Honestly, I think public perception would have to undergo a significant paradigm shift in order for any real progress to be made in the area of shark conservation (to say nothing of overall marine conservation): Shark Week itself points out how little genuine interest there is in (or money to be made from) saving these creatures, and vast amounts of people view getting rid of sharks as a good thing. The film’s main argument is that shark extinction would be catastrophic for the well-being of the ocean and Earth overall: what is needed instead, as one interview subject points out, is an effort that’s “more conservation-oriented, less irresponsibly sensational.” Unfortunately, it’s very clear from this film and my everyday observances that the majority of the media has no interest in such a prospect as they continue to pump viewers full of (mostly, unwarranted) fear.

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That the health of the world’s oceans (and in turn, the well-being of the human race) hangs in the balance should make saving sharks a mission of utmost importance – they literally act as the regulators and sanitation agents of the oceans – and Extinction Soup makes a strong case in favor of this cause. Certainly, this film only presents one side of the case, but I’m not sure one could really argue the other side – is it ever a good idea to exterminate a species? While I could say that this documentary operates exactly as one would expect (consistent with something like ) and isn’t an especially bravura piece of cinema, it’s generally well-made and thought-provoking. I’d also have to call this an important work, accomplishing more with its hour-long running time than any five typical Shark Week specials. It’s amazing that using dramatic (and almost corny) orchestral music from composer Randy Miller in combination with images of sharks gliding through the water completely changes the feel of watching these creatures in action. Discovery Channel should take note and, in my opinion, should have more hard-hitting and genuinely provocative programs like this included in their sometimes stale Shark Week lineups. Extinction Soup does ask the hard questions, and even criticizes the “normal” shark-related documentaries that skirt around issues of conservation, but unless these sorts of issues are explored…soon…there won’t be many sharks around to research at all.

 


This film can be viewed on Amazon and other web streaming services, and also has played on the Fusion Channel.


4/10 : Very disturbing images relating to shark de-finning, including frankly disgusting glimpses of finless sharks waiting to die on the ocean bottom.

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0/10 : Nothing major.

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0/10 : Nope.


3/10 : An important film no doubt, and one that shark enthusiasts should really try to track down, but fairly typical as a conservationist documentary.


“Sharks have so much more to fear from us than us from them…”

from on .

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Shock and Awe in Effect on SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Three

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Three – Bride of Jaws and Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba

on Discovery Channel

(4/5)

Pros: A further, rather suspenseful “monster hunt” documentary along with a genuinely fascinating survey of previously unexplored waters

Cons: No big payoff in the search for “Joan of Shark,” though I’m not convinced that’s an altogether bad thing…

After a lackluster second night of programming, Shark Week 2015 got back on form on its third day, Tuesday, July 7. This evening saw the premiere of two all-new shows, both of which were quite fascinating in their own way despite some vast differences in approach. First up, we had Bride of Jaws which, like Island of the Mega Shark and others before it, covered the search for ever bigger and ever more elusive great whites, this time off the coast of Australia, while second hour-long program Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba examined the creatures inhabiting the essentially pristine and largely unexplored waters off the coast of this Caribbean nation. Mixing a sort of “monster hunt” episode with one that was more level-headed made this a winning night of shark-related documentaries.

maxresdefaultYUMMY! Incoming “chum shower.”

Certainly, the title of Bride of Jaws and its marketing campaign (most of the commercials leading up to the broadcast focused on a single scene in which an underwater female diver is given a “chum shower” – a cocktail of fish heads, guts, and blood that’s used to attract sharks to research vessels) made it seem like a more sensational and maybe even ludicrous sort of show, but the actual premise here was actually quite story-driven and compelling. In 2014, a nearly 18 foot female white shark was tagged in Australian waters and soon created a social media buzz. Nicknamed “Joan of Shark,” the creature was subsequently tracked up and down the southern Australian coast, prompting authorities to close beaches as she came ever closer to shore. Suddenly, Joan all but vanished, prompting photographer and frequent Shark Week contributor Andy Casagrande, former Australian Navy diver and shark attack survivor Paul de Gelder (previously featured in 2014’s Great White Matrix), and fellow attack survivor Elise Frankcom to try and not only locate but also re-tag the behemoth creature.

14358783221682The real Jaws – “El Monstruo,” which was caught in 1945, weighed an estimated 7000 pounds and measured out at twenty-one feet.

Tuesday’s second hour of original programming, Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba, followed the first official joint Cuban and American expedition as they attempted to document the various shark species that inhabit the waters off the island nation. Cuba has long been known as a haven for large sharks – it was near the small fishing village of Cojimar that a 21-foot great white, known as “El Monstruo” was captured and documented in the 1940s. This specimen still remains the largest white shark ever recorded, and Tiburones not only tries to shed light on this legendary beast (even including an interview with a witness to the creature), but prove that equally ferocious sharks still roam in coastal areas. While somewhat less obviously exciting than the exaggerated drama found in Bride of Jaws, Tiburones has a few moments of suspense of its own while remaining a satisfying if somewhat typical nature documentary.

shark-migration

Almost nothing is known about shark migration patterns or their mating behaviors.  Many Shark Week 2015 programs are striving to change that.

Aside from providing some (vague) insight into shark migration patterns and mating behavior, as might be expected, Bride of Jaws includes a maximum amount of footage of large great whites in action. An explicit demonstration of the power these creatures possess occurs during a moment in which a large shark tears the flotation device on Casagrande’s underwater cage to shreds in a matter of seconds. While this is going on, the camera shows Casagrade being shaken around inside the cage “like he was in a washing machine.” A pair of scenes later in the documentary ratchet the hair-raising intensity up a few dozen notches. One finds double-amputee de Gelder losing his prosthetic hand after a shark grabs hold of a kayak he was about to get into and starts thrashing around: about as alarming a “live” moment as one is likely to see in 2015’s Shark Week. Finally, an eerie scene in which de Gelder and Casagrande swim through a large shipwreck as a shark ominously patrols outside is appropriately scary, virtually recreating a staple scene of “killer sea creature” horror movies like Jaws: The Revenge or Piranha II to name but a few.

hqdefaultWorst thing imaginable for a diver: exploring a shipwreck in the open ocean with a large shark lurking just outside…

Cool as it is to watch as Frankcom comes face to face with the awesome creatures that caused her serious injury just a few years prior, the real jaw-dropping moment during Bride happens when Casagrande, affixed to a sort of rope and pulley system, hangs out over the stern of a research vessel in an attempt to fix a clamping “fin cam” onto live, fourteen-plus foot white sharks. Needless to say, this plan doesn’t quite go as well as might have been hoped and the brave (or is it foolhardy?) researcher finds himself in the drink, caught up in a tangled mess of ropes as large predators swim nearby. Certainly, some expert editing added to the tension in this scene – I don’t think Casagrande was necessarily in as much immediate danger as the program makes it seem – but it still made for some tense and rather hairy documentary footage. I also should add that while the ending of this program didn’t really solve anything or provide a definitive “a-ha!” moment, that’s kind of the way things work with any sort of scientific research: “big payoff” moments are more an anomaly than an everyday occurrence.

Precisely nothing about this moment seems safe to me.

Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba can’t quite measure up in terms of suspense and spookiness with the earlier program, but it’s probably the more rewarding show in terms of the science it reveals. Numerous shark species, including several that typically don’t get much Shark Week screen time, are seen during the program, which culminates in an attempt to apply a satellite tag onto a long-finned mako, a species of shark that’s rarely seen and had never previously been photographed in its natural habitat. Though this tagging effort is pretty wild, there doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot of genuine danger involved in the making of this show…which means it’s probably among the more low-key Shark Week documentaries that will air this year.

mqdefaultThe elusive long-finned mako.

It’s also one of the few that raises some interesting points about shark conservation efforts. Supposedly, the information obtained by the satellite tags deployed during the filming of Tiburones will eventually be used by the Cuban government to establish a shark conservation plan, something that the vast majority of the rest of the world seems very reluctant to develop. I found it kind of amusing that lead expedition scientist Bob Hueter proclaimed that one goal of the joint expedition was to determine why shark species have congregated in Cuba; considering that shark finning operations continue unchecked in much of central and South America – and the fact that Cuba has so much protected marine habitat, including the “Gardens of the Queen” just south of the island where part of this documentary was filmed – it’s a no-brainer that sharks would hang out in the relatively safe – and relatively clean – Cuban waters. It’s pretty sad when one scientist makes a remark that the aforementioned “Gardens of the Queen,” a lush, vibrant habitat for all sorts of marine life, resembles what the Florida Keys looked like “80 years ago…before the population came.” This gives the viewer some indication of what effect human behavior has even on underwater environments.

8934The “Gardens of the Queen.”  This is what a thriving underwater habitat looks like.

I think it’s now safe to say that 2015 is the year that photography accomplished through the use of aerial drones transformed the way that Shark Week played out. The number of stunning aerial shots which provided unique views of live action taking place at water level has risen progressively this week, and while this Discovery Channel staple has never been less than breathtaking in terms of the visuals it provides, drone technology has added a whole new component for Shark Week producers, editors, and directors to make use of. In terms of individual episodes, a viewer now is able to understand the bigger picture of what’s happening at certain key points since the aerial views allow a better grasp of the spatial dynamics in various situations. Undoubtedly, this trend will continue into the future, and I’m hoping the week’s upcoming documentaries remain as scientifically-sound and undeniably interesting as the pair featured on this third night.


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Par for the Course: SHARK WEEK 2015 – NIGHT TWO

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Two – Return of the Great White Serial Killer and Alien Sharks: Close Encounters

on Discovery Channel

(3/5)

Pros:  Brilliant photography much of the time, but especially when the action shifts below the ocean’s surface; interesting viewing for Shark Week newbies

Cons:  Mostly redundant for the seasoned shark fanatic

In keeping with the Discovery Channel’s promise of more scientifically-oriented programming during this year’s edition, day two of Shark Week 2015 offered up another pair of brand new, genuine documentaries which carried on stories that had been featured in previous shows. Return of the Great White Serial Killer and Alien Sharks: Close Encounters returned to familiar territory, the former exploring a stretch of beach where shark attacks occur with almost alarmingly predictable regularity while the other furthered the examination of bizarre and largely unknown deep-water species.

CI2m2M0WUAEoyWAWhen I can start recognizing individual sharks seen in these shows based on their scar patterns and physical characteristics, it would seem safe to say that I’ve simply watched too many Shark Weeks.

Every other year from 2008 until 2012, a stretch of California coastline known as Surf Beach has been the site of a great white shark attack. Two of the three attacks, each of which occurred during a roughly one month period from September into October, were fatal, prompting a surfer-turned-shark researcher named Brandon McMillan to investigate. The original Great White Serial Killer episode first aired in 2013, and 2015’s Return of… special begins with McMillan preparing to head to Surf Beach just as October 2014 rolls around. The almost clockwork predictability of the attacks at Surf Beach is indeed alarming, but even knowing the basic premise of this ongoing series, I wasn’t quite expecting the explosion of attacks that occurred during the filming of this latest program: within a three week period, a surfer, two kayakers, and a boater found themselves targeted by aggressive white sharks. This leads McMillan not only to attempt to DNA test some teeth pulled from a victim’s surfboard, but also head to Guadalupe Island off the Mexican coast in search of potential culprits in the series of attacks. Could one huge shark be responsible for all the attacks?

17mxqoek45zubjpgThe sarcastic fringehead as featured in Alien Sharks: Close Encounters – a real fish, though not a shark.

The other premiere on day two was the latest episode in the ongoing and popular Alien Sharks series. Previous episodes in this series focused on graduate student Paul Clerkin, who found himself stationed on fishing vessels trolling the deep seas of the Indian Ocean, but 2015’s Close Encounters episode finds three teams of scientists probing the depths in search of unknown species. While Clerkin and the Pacific Shark Research Center’s Dr. David Ebert sail on a Taiwanese vessel attempting to fit a rare megamouth shark with a satellite tag, a group of researchers in the Gulf of Mexico are working to determine the effects of the Deep Horizon oil spill on the lives of deep sea wildlife. Additionally, a third team based in California examines new species of biofluorescent fish (i.e. fish that harness the reflective light energy in the surrounding water to illuminate themselves) that may hold the key to new medical breakthroughs.

526a2e9e57f39bb84e7b238a9f212a21683629b8Emma, a foul-tempered shark known to prowl the waters around Guadalupe Island, attacks the reserve dive equipment at the bottom of McMillan’s cage.

Compared to the more action-oriented opening night of Shark Week 2015, the second night seemed somewhat toned-down and sober. Return of the Great White Serial Killer played almost as a gloomy murder mystery, albeit one punctuated by some exhilarating footage late in the going that shows 16-plus foot white sharks in their native habitat. Extremely talky for much of its duration, this program to some extent came across as one of those “I was Attacked!” Shark Week programs that typically rub me the wrong way. Considering that the ratio of sharks killed by humans to humans killed by sharks is literally millions to one, I find these hysteria-inducing programs to be largely irresponsible, promoting the sort of human behavior that will eventually result in mass extinctions. That said, Return of the GWSK is actually less obviously mean-spirited and anti-shark than most, simply presenting the facts of the case instead of offering a cascade of gory recreations and tearful victim statements. It’s also refreshing that most of the people featured in the program don’t seem to hold any overwhelming animosity towards the shark(s) responsible for the attacks and deaths – McMillan actually appears to hold an immense amount of respect towards these creatures and seems to merely be searching for closure with regard to the case instead of seeking some form of vengeance.

megamouth-shark-facts1The megamouth shark, only discovered within the last few decades.

If this first program was an interesting continuation of previous Shark Week stories, Alien Sharks: Close Encounters was mostly redundant even if it did offer the viewer some unbelievably gorgeous, dazzling images of light-emitting marine life. The main dramatic thrust of the show focuses on Clerkin’s effort to tag a megamouth shark, an elusive species which was essentially unknown until the late 1970s. Along the way, the program shines a light on various strange sea creatures: newcomers to Shark Week will undoubtedly be amazed by footage of a variety of odd sharks, including the goblin, frilled, gulper, and pocket shark. I was struck by a feeling of “been there, done that” however: in previous years, Clerkin had made some genuine discoveries of previously unknown creatures, but this time around, there’s largely a parade of creatures I’d seen previously in the Alien Sharks series, with the expected talking head marine biologist along to tell the viewer what is being seen.

Footage of light-emitting undersea creatures (this swell shark among them)  is undoubtedly the coolest part of Alien Sharks: Close Encounters.

Perhaps the most alarming thing about this episode was that Clerkin and Ebert found themselves on board a Taiwanese fishing vessel as it trolled the deep-sea trenches of the Pacific. I say this is alarming because the Taiwanese fishing industry is notorious for its deplorable shark fishing methods in which live sharks are “de-finned” then dumped back into the ocean. While the country did pass a law in 2012 which limited this practice to some extent – at least in national ports where the eyes of the world are watching – the lack of far-reaching global legislation has ensured that large-scale finning has continued in international waters. Hell, when one Taiwanese fisherman seen in the episode shows off his megamouth shark catch, the fact that all the nearby fisherman have their faces blurred may say more about the way the fishing industry operates in this country than I could ever speculate. This information being kept in mind, Alien Sharks: Close Encounters’s ending monologue which states that “there are still so many mysteries in the deep sea that have yet to be revealed…” becomes especially poignant and ominous. If human behavior across a wide range of areas continues to endanger sharks and indeed all ocean life, there may not be much left for us to discover down the road as all marine life will be dying or dead.

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I was reminded during the second day of 2015’s Shark Week of a major complaint I had about the 2014 edition: that serious notions about honest shark conservation were conveniently ignored by a channel that claims to be striving to generate interest in marine biology and sharks in particular. It would appear that the Discovery Channel still has no interest in really “making a difference” in this area, content to deliver the usual assortment of agreeable but “safe” programming designed to make a viewer gasp but not necessarily spring into action. The pairing of Return of the Great White Serial Killer and Alien Sharks: Close Encounters is about as concise a demonstration of that point as any: a nicely photographed (particularly in terms of the aerial photography on display) and sometimes exhilarating duo of documentaries that’s interesting but rather forgettable in the long run. As Shark Week programming, this is strictly middle of the road, but it’s undoubtedly better for a viewer than watching the latest reality show.

 

No CGI Sharks and Still Compelling Viewing: SHARK WEEK 2015: Night One

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night One – Shark Trek, Island of the Mega Shark, and Monster Mako

on Discovery Channel

(4/5)

Pros:  Factual information and a large amount of amazing footage

Cons:  Nature documentaries are “dry,” right?

Now in its 28th year of existence, Shark Week, Discovery Channel’s annual block of television shows devoted to the ocean’s most captivating predators, began on Sunday, July 5, 2015 with a trio of all-new documentaries that nicely picked up where previous year’s programming stopped. Truth be told, the last several years of Shark Week have gotten increasingly sketchy as faux-documentaries and “monster hunt” shows overwhelmed the actual science and biology that one would think this event was all about. I was particularly perturbed last year when Shark Week made nary a mention of the , which aimed to eliminate large man-eating sharks…by killing any shark, large or small, that a designated team of hunters came across. Thankfully, this year Discovery Channel seems to have realized that the sensationalized and/or straight phony programs and endless string of “I Was Attacked” recollections wasn’t do much to encourage shark conservation – a glance of the preliminary lineup for Shark Week 2015 shows a focus on –gasp!– actual facts and straight-faced documentaries.

shark-week-2015Shark Week 2015 continues the hunt for bigger and badder sharks.

This certainly was the case with the opening day’s lineup which kicked off with Shark Trek. This hour-long program followed researcher Greg Skomal as he continued efforts to tag and study the behavior of the great white sharks off Cape Cod. In the time since last year’s Jaws Strikes Back, Skomal has increased the number of tagged animals to 56 and has begun to analyze the data being relayed by the tags. Some of the most important of this information relates to the migratory habits of the Atlantic white sharks – in the fall of 2014, several animals were tracked as they moved down the American East Coast to warmer regions in Florida – areas where beaches are substantially more popular than those in Massachusetts. Obviously, this brings the sharks in closer proximity to people, and Skomal’s main goal in the investigation here is to find out what drives the shark’s migration and determines where they wind up.

ea72184cac59c184597cacfaa258fa493fcdfd46Skoval attempting to tag a great white with his specially-rigged harpoon.

The second of the opening night’s programs was Island of the Mega Shark, a semi-continuation of a pair of last year’s programs. This show found Dickie Chivell, who proved his insanity by riding a flimsy white shark decoy in last year’s frankly mind-blowing Air Jaws: Fin of Fury, joining forces with Lair of the Mega Shark’s Jeff Kurr and Andy Casagrande to again search for gigantic whites in the waters around Guadalupe Island, which lies off the coast of Baja, Mexico.   This team attempts to solve some of the riddles relating to white shark reproduction, but one of the main points of this program is to again position Chivell as Shark Week’s resident daredevil. This time around, he finds himself in a so-called “ghost cage” whose four clear plastic sides are virtually invisible underwater – thus, he appears to be a free-swimming meal to any of the fourteen-to-sixteen-foot great whites in the area. Add in a malfunctioning door (literally, Chivell has to hold the cage shut) and you’ve got the formula for some crazy TV, but things get really wild when a heavily-pregnant, twenty-plus-foot shark appears on the scene.

d4f8cf5ca7a1c55960bb5ef1ac6b93ee1eb064efChivell in the “ghost cage.”  Ya gotta give it to him: the man has cojones.

Finally, we had a program in Monster Mako that focused its attention on one of the lesser-known shark species, one which is rumored to reach speeds in excess of 30 MPH underwater and breech the surface in amazing fashion when stalking its prey. Despite a sensational title and a more dramatic approach (replete with a gruff-voiced narrator and moments of questionable tension), this program was actually fairly scientifically sound and quite interesting, as two groups of scientists attempted to document not only the speed of the mako sharks which inhabit the Gulf of Mexico, but also their ability to shoot missile-like from the ocean in pursuit of prey. The program eventually makes some interesting observations about the behavior and habits of these creatures, even though the majority of its running time plays as a sort of hunt which finds the two teams attempting to lure in specimens suitable for their research.

08be66c388Monster Mako attempts to distinguish fact from fiction about this shark which, with its streamlined body and distinctive teeth, resembles a torpedo.

Clearly, one of the best things about this block of programming is that it avoided the types of frankly ridiculous mockumentaries of the Shark of Darkness variety. Everything included in Shark Week 2015’s opening day was based in actual fact and – surprise surprise – was far from boring. Sure, the average couch potato might grow tired of the “dry” documentaries featured here, but those honestly interested in sharks – arguably the crowd that Shark Week should be marketed towards in the first place – would eat them up. Even without the addition of giant CGI sharks, this opening night had its share of harrowing moments – particularly when Chivell had to literally push great whites out of his enclosed “ghost cage.” Additionally, there were even a few heartwarming “Aww!” moments provided by the appearance of a nine-year-old shark advocate who joined Skoval in his mission to tag various sharks. The hosts of these various programs are obviously enthusiastic about what they do, making the action they get involved in more compelling to watch.

shark-week-lair-of-the-mega-shark-bNow THAT looks like a big shark.

I’ve always found actual footage of sharks gliding through their marine environments to be stunningly beautiful, and the camerawork throughout these three programs was generally astounding. Especially cool were several sequences filmed near Guadalupe Island which showed the shallow coves where the native seal population attempts to hide from the lurking sharks – with their gently swaying and multicolored undersea plant life, these environments look otherworldly. Additionally, there were numerous aerial shots which showed both individual sharks and an enormous group of black tip sharks migrating off the Florida coast. Amazing as it is to see individual creatures breaking the surface, watching thousands of sharks just offshore around a populated area was jaw-dropping. It was also downright ominous to see huge sharks lurking just on the edge of visibility range in many of the underwater shots – particularly during the numerous dives featured in Island of the Mega Shark. The three shows featured here certainly emphasized the fact that groups of smaller sharks disappearing quickly signaled the arrival of a true monster, and these moments were captured perfectly through the actual camerawork and slick editing of the programs.

This.  Looks.  Dangerous.

On the downside, though both the Shark Cam (from last year’s Jaws Strikes Back) and the “Shark Eye” unit seen in Monster Mako attempted to provide underwater views of the sharks in action – sometimes from the perspective of the shark – neither of these devices really worked as well this time around and didn’t provide quite the unique perspective that one would have hoped for. I would have to say then that camera work through this opening trio of shows, while undeniably excellent (as I’d expect from Discovery Channel), was somewhat conventional and not as outwardly flashy as what I’ve seen in other, similar shows. Again, this didn’t really bother me – I’d rather have authentic representations and actual facts than a continual barrage of flashy visuals with sketchy information tacked alongside.

remus sharkcam topShark Cam – big hit of last year’s Shark Week, didn’t so much as get deployed this time around.  Bummer.

Overall, Shark Trek, Island of the Mega Shark, and Monster Mako provided a wealth of solid information that would appeal to both the Shark Week veteran and newcomer.  There was a nice amount of generalized information in these programs, as well as a chronicle of more individualized efforts to learn more about various shark species.  The variety of topics covered here and fascinating overall presentation made for a strong opening night of Shark Week 2015.  Since there’s no Megalodon in sight, I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what the rest of the week offers.  This year’s edition of the Discovery Channel staple might not create intense water cooler discussion or ignite a social media firestorm, but I think it’s commendable that a more low-key approach with dedication to facts has been applied.

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An Unsatisfying Documentary on a Pro Wrestling Legend: THE AMERICAN DREAM – THE DUSTY RHODES STORY

THE AMERICAN DREAM: THE DUSTY RHODES STORY

(3/5)

Pros: Covers the bases pretty well; DVD package includes a ton of extra footage and is generally outstanding

Cons: Documentary is unimaginative and fairly weak in explaining the whole story of Rhodes’ career

Note: my rating and review applies specifically to the The American Dream: The Dusty Rhodes Story 85-minute documentary, not the three-disc DVD package overall – which is excellent due to a plethora of bonus matches and interviews.

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Virgil Runnels, Jr., known to wrestling fans around the world as “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, passed away on June 11, 2015 at the age of 69. It’s a sad day when any professional wrestler passes, but I’m kind of shocked that Rhodes made it nearly 70 years – which is almost an eternity in “wrestling years.”

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I first became aware of Rhodes during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he spent time in the “big two” promotions of the time – Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. Being a longtime wrestling fan who is actually more interested in the “glory days” of the sport more than any recent developments, I eventually came to learn quite a bit about Rhodes’ early career as a journeyman wrestler during the era of the territory system – when independent promoters essentially controlled various regions of the country under the jurisdiction of the National Wrestling Alliance. It was largely during this period that Rhodes made a name for himself in the business, becoming a bankable star capable of putting on a solid match with just about anyone – which made him a highly-sought after talent.

7f5359c0f5a10226269f41e5b17c3d4cRhodes (left) with Andre the Giant.

Produced by World Wrestling Entertainment and released in 2006, The American Dream: The Dusty Rhodes Story chronicles Rhodes’ career from his upbringing in Austin Texas as the son of a plumber through his early days raising hell and wrestling and up to his acknowledgment as a legend of the sport. In typical wrestling documentary fashion, this program features commentary from Rhodes and fellow wrestling personalities (including Ted DiBiase, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, Gerry Brisco, and others) along with archival photographs and footage that show some of Rhodes’ greatest performances in the ring. His feuds with the likes of Terry Funk, Harley Race, Ric Flair, and “Superstar” Billy Graham were the stuff of legend, and it’s neat to hear the story of these frequently bloody battles from the mouths of (some of) the guys who performed in them. Later on in his career, Rhodes made his way to the big-money promotions of the WWF and WCW, in which he had memorable runs – including quite a few that also involved his son Dustin, perhaps better known as “Goldust.” Following a career that lasted more than three decades, Rhodes was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007, just after the release of this documentary package.

20121212_Dusty_642Rhodes battling against the turnbuckle with Ric Flair.

Undoubtedly one of the reasons why Rhodes became such a star was his ability on a mic: though he had a thick Texas draw and a noticeable lisp, “The American Dream” delivered some of pro wrestling’s greatest promos and interviews, many of which exhibited a mixture of country and urban influence. One of the interview subjects during the documentary makes a comment about how it was odd to see this stereotypical “country boy” spouting off “jive talk” that one would normally associate with black culture, but this aspect of his character was probably the one thing that set Dusty Rhodes apart from his contemporaries. Known for “shucking and jiving” in the ring, Rhodes would frequently pepper his interviews with colorful exclamations but he was capable of hammering his points home using elements of reality. His famous “Hard Times” speech spoke about the problems faced by everyday Americans, and it was under the persona of the “common man” that he debuted in the (then) World Wrestling Federation in 1989 (wearing a truly awful polka dot covered outfit). It also has to be said that Rhodes looked absolutely nothing like a professional athlete, to the point of being downright chubby. Similar to someone like Adrian Adonis however, pure athleticism ensured that he was not only capable of holding his own in the ring, but actually able to astound audiences with his wrestling ability. If anything, his unconventional physique allowed fans to “buy into” his character more.

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Not your typical pro-wrestler look, that’s for sure…

Unsurprisingly, The American Dream documentary devotes substantial amounts of time to Rhodes’ later career – i.e. the time he spent in the WWF and WCW. This is the period, after all, when legions of new fans would be exposed to Rhodes’ unique in-ring abilities and undeniable out-of-ring charisma. The problem with this, of course, is that Rhodes had already built his reputation by this point in time and was actually on the backend of his wrestling career: I might have hoped that more of the film’s running time would be spent covering the period where Rhodes was a genuine superstar in the NWA, not a rotund performer known for dancing around the ring in polka dots. Interview subjects talk about how this unflattering costume may have been Vince McMahon’s attempt to punish Rhodes for being so fiercely independent earlier in his career, but the real humiliation would seem to come from the fact that a full five minutes or so of the documentary focus entirely on this period in Rhodes career – one that stands as a true Wrestlecrap moment even if it was popular with fans.

Dusty-RhodesThough Dusty had fun with it – and got rich in the process – the polka dot era seemed amazingly disrespectful considering what Rhodes had done for and in the sport.

Afterward, The American Dream deals quite extensively with (son) Dustin Rhodes’s wrestling career, both with and away from his father. I could see some of this information and footage being included in the documentary, but to spend so much of the film’s relatively brief running time on these comparatively recent events seems a bit ridiculous. Not one minute is spent discussing Dusty Rhodes’ run in the ECW during the late ‘90s and precious little time is dedicated to examining his career as a talent and booker in WCW.

dusty-rhodes-goldustWith son Dustin (left) on his way to the ring.

Punctuated by corny music and interlude segments featuring footage of hay bales and strands of rope, The American Dream: The Dusty Rhodes Story documentary is about as uninspired a production as could be imaginable about a man who was so vibrant and colorful. Sure, it’s cool seeing Championship Wrestling from Florida’s Mike Graham show the camera around a National Guard Armory where Rhodes’ career began, wrestling in front of 5500 people every Tuesday night, and an emotional Dustin Rhodes discussing a dispute with his father that resulted in the two of them not talking for four years provides a bit of a gut punch. Though the selection of archive footage seen here is decent and it’s undeniably great to hear the story right from the horse’s mouth, this documentary portrays an almost condescending attitude towards anything that didn’t occur in a WWE ring and spends too much time “selling” WWE product, which doesn’t necessarily involve telling the story of Dusty Rhodes’s career. To a large extent, this shouldn’t shock anyone, least of all me: it’s part of the reason why I can’t stomach modern WWE programming, but it’s hard to deny that the end result here is a by-the-book “legends” documentary that glosses over many subjects and barely seems to scratch the surface of the man’s life it attempts to chronicle. Those who know nothing about Dusty Rhodes might enjoy The American Dream, but I’d be inclined to tell viewers to get the story from other, more comprehensive sources.

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Dusty Rhodes: Consistently one of the best interviews in the game…


Per usual with the WWE biographies, a huge assortment of matches, promos, and vignettes are included with this three-disc DVD package. Full listing can be viewed .  It’s a five star home video release, even if the documentary itself is strictly mediocre.

3/10 : Isolated moments of bloody wrestling violence which doesn’t quite seem to accurately represent Rhodes’ early years accurately.

14Bloodletting with Arn Anderson – Rhodes was known as a heavy bleeder (look at the scars on his forehead for proof), but the documentary downplays that part of his game significantly.


2/10 : Intermittent minor profanity.


1/10 : A few peeks at a scantily clad Terri Runnels a.k.a. Marlena.


2/10 : A fairly straight-forward documentary that provides exactly what one would expect.


“WOOO! That’s funky. That’s the American Dream…”

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OK, it’s Amazing, but it’s also Phonier than a Three-Dollar Bill: T. REX AUTOPSY

T. REX AUTOPSY

on National Geographic Channel

(3/5)

Pros: Anatomically-correct “body” is jaw-dropping; good information

Cons: Someone out there now believes that T.rex specimens exist

With the new Jurassic Park movie right around the corner, the National Geographic Channel cashed in renewed public interest in all things dinosaur with a new, attention-grabbing two-hour special. Premiering on June 7, 2015, T. rex Autopsy delivers exactly what its title says…sort of. It might go without say, but I should probably emphasize (especially considering that Animal Planet’s 2012 docu-fiction production Mermaids: The Body Found convinced some viewers that these mythological creatures actually existed) that T. rex Autopsy doesn’t feature scientists carving up a real dinosaur carcass. Instead, we get about as close an approximation of what cutting up a dinosaur might be like. Admittedly, I was very skeptical about what this program would deliver – I’ve seen a few too many of the phony documentaries which seem to accompany each and every themed block of programming on any of the (supposedly) educational television channels – but actually found Autopsy to be a bit better than I would have expected. That said, in my opinion, programming like this (which for the most part skirts around the fact that the “body” we’re seeing dissected actually was manufactured) is somewhat dangerous in the context of a modern society that seems to believe anything and everything it sees with its own eyes.

Trex3Had to throw in a chainsaw, didn’t we?

After a brief bit of set-up which revolves around shadowy military forces transporting a large cargo by plane and flatbed truck, T. rex Autopsy introduces us to the four (apparently, legitimate) persons who are going to conduct the “autopsy” on a dead tyrannosaur. Heading the (literal) operation is Dr. Luke Gamble, a veterinarian who comes across as a cross between Simon Cowell and chef Gordon Ramsay – a semi-irritating British fellow who’s job it is to make the occasional wisecrack while bossing people around. While Gamble handles most of the logistics of the “autopsy,” paleontologists Dr. Steve Brusette and Dr. Tori Herridge and fossil hunter Matthew Mossbrucker attempt to add credibility to a program that at its core is about four people slicing apart an (undeniably amazing) Hollywood-grade special effect. Remarkable though it may be, they generally succeed to that end since this show goes a long way in revealing the physiology of dinosaurs, doing an especially nice job of relating these extinct creatures to the modern day birds and reptiles which are their closet living relatives.

T.rex_Autopsy_London_AMS3loWhat would a big-time docu-fiction special be without a viral ad campaign?

Taking place in what appears to be a hanger-like facility, the autopsy at the center of this program attempts to determine the cause of death of full-size, female tyrannosaur. To that end, Gamble and his team examine every major bodily system of the T. rex, delving briefly into the purpose of these systems and the way they actually functioned. A viewer certainly does come away with significant insight into tyrannosaur anatomy and realizes how fine-tuned this “king of the tyrant lizards” was as the supreme predator of its time – though to be honest, the writing staff seems to have literally gone down the list of topics covered on the and made sure each was covered. The star of the show is unquestionably the anatomically-correct, life-size “body” which took some six months and 10,000 man-hours to complete. A marvel of fabrication, the T. rex is amazingly-detailed, right down to various membranes, internal organs, and bone structures, and I could definitely see people believing that this thing was the real deal – which only makes the show’s reluctance to admit that it’s fake more problematic.

The show’s running joke – “getting in the belly of the beast!  ARGGH!”

Though I had some basic knowledge about dinosaurs, I was surprised to learn about the many discoveries in the area of dinosaur physiology that have been made in recent years due to new technologies and the use of computer analysis. Virtually nothing was known about the internal structure of these beasts until quite recently, but new hypotheses are now popping up almost continuously. At the same time however, much of the knowledge about the internal structure of dinosaurs seems theoretical at best – soft tissue vanishes over time, leaving only fossil remains behind and it’s almost impossible to provide definitive evidence of any of the claims made by this program. To me, filling in the blanks where scientific knowledge stops is a very questionable practice – television programs like this (along with the new Jurassic Park) will literally be the only information most of the public will get about dinosaurs this (or any) year. To be presenting incomplete information as absolute fact then seems irresponsible.

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If nothing else, the program does provide nice insight into the anatomy and behavior of the T. rex.

Ah, but people aren’t trying to be “edumacated” by T. rex Autopsy, they’re trying to be entertained, and the program works on that level even if it sometimes seems a bit too theatrical and obviously scripted. This is especially true with regard to the cast’s attempts to “sell” the repulsiveness of the autopsy, and at times, the program absolutely revels in blood, guts, and disgusting visuals. Sequences such as one where the scientists end up digging through the sloshing stomach cavity in search of remains or one in which they manipulate the creature’s heart in an attempt to demonstrate its operation aren’t for the squeamish, while a moment in which the sole female goes elbow deep in the creature’s cloaca (essentially, the final juncture of both the excretory and reproductive systems) is just gross. Director Richard Dale’s camera doesn’t at all shy away from the gore, and the cast frequently find themselves literally wallowing in leaking bodily fluids. Attempts at lame humor that pop up occasionally struck me as being in bad taste, but I guess are to be expected in any television program of the ADHD era.

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The amount of craftsmanship that went into the fabrication of the “body” is staggering.

Surprisingly, T. rex Autopsy only unleashes a handful of talking head sequences featuring genuine experts; most of the scientific information is provided by a narration track (read by Salvatore Vecchio) that seems to assume viewers are not only inattentive, but quite possibly downright stupid. Virtually every concept presented in the program is spelled out for viewers, with “key” elements being repeated again and again. A nice selection of appropriate illustrations and graphics give the viewer a (literally) better picture of what is being discussed, but I found that the CGI renderings of Tyrannosaurus stalking through prehistoric swamps and forests to be particularly goofy looking – granted, one of the show’s main goals is to emphasize that T. rex essentially is a “killer big bird” but I don’t think these digital images are quite meant to make it look like an oversized, discolored and mentally-handicapped chicken.

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BIG BIRD!

The premiere of T. rex Autopsy was supplemented by an outstanding trio of brand new legitimate documentaries relating to paleontology – Dino Death Match chronicled the effort to prove that a new species of predatory dinosaur existed alongside T. rex, while Jurassic CSI examined numerous theories related to dinosaurs using new evidence and Ultimate Dino Survivor detailed T. rex’s amazing ability to survive debilitating injuries. I’d have to guess however that most viewers didn’t give these shows the time of day, preferring instead to watch the more entertainment-oriented and movie-like Autopsy special.

Anytime dinos are around, John Williams ain’t far behind…

Much in the same manner that Eaten Alive drew attention to South America’s anacondas, the primary goal of T. rex Autopsy undoubtedly was to generate interest in dinosaurs through sheer sensationalism. The more programs of this nature that pop up, the more it strikes me as disturbing that genuine documentaries of the type, for instance, that PBS specializes in just don’t seem to draw viewers anymore, regardless of how fascinating their subjects may be. Increasingly outrageous faux-documentaries like Autopsy do generate discussion about their topics – which is a good thing; still, I can’t entirely get behind programs that sacrifice authenticity just to get some butts in the seat. T. rex Autopsy presents a wealth of interesting information for sure, but also elicits a WTF response as far as I’m concerned. It may be worth watching, but shouldn’t be taken entirely seriously.

Undeniably Dry but Informative Exploration of FORBIDDEN HISTORY

FORBIDDEN HISTORY

on American Heroes Channel

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(3/5)

Pros: Choice of topics; straight-forward presentation

Cons: Seems dry when compared to most similar programs

Premiering on British television in 2013 and picked up for broadcast on the (ahem) American Heroes Channel in the years since, documentary series Forbidden History follows the adventures and investigations of journalist Jamie Theakston as he tries to unravel various stories and facts that have been omitted from the history books. The typical, hour-long episode of Forbidden History features the usual assortment of reenactments, interviews, historical accounts, artistic renderings and photographs to present a comprehensive portrait of the topics being examined. Once a basic framework has been established, the program shifts to cover Theakston as he travels to various locations in search of clues and hard evidence. A second season of the program on AHC channel began in late May with an episode dealing with the Oracles of the Dead which existed in the ancient Greek and Roman empires. After Theakston travels to the Baia Archaeological Park and Grotto of the Sibyl near Naples, Italy and the more well-known Oracle of Delphi, the show attempts to discern whether or not these mythical sites offered an honest enlightening experience or were more a smoke and mirrors display designed to relieve attendees of their money.

xogelukkiallwtokqc7nTheakston outside the “treasure chamber” of Petra.

The synopsis of this program should sound very familiar to viewers of America Unearthed or even Destination Unknown, but Forbidden History seems somewhat more generalized, covering more far-reaching topics and is actually formatted more like a standard documentary rather than a stylized – and more obviously entertainment-oriented – reality show. Additionally, while America Unearthed host Scott Wolter and Destination Unknown’s Josh Gates are presented as dashing, semi-heroic figures that are clearly the focal points of their respective shows, Theakston seems somewhat more timid and doesn’t quite come across as the main character of Forbidden History. It’s true that the investigations covered in the show do revolve around him, but Theakston actually falls by the wayside when it comes time for the program to draw conclusions on its topics. This approach ultimately ensures that Forbidden History seems level-headed and fairly credible, at least partially because it doesn’t linger on the same sorts of obvious conspiracy theories that Wolter seems to get off on.

FHs2_grail_LAS_WEB_3_0Eyeing a possible Holy Grail.

The meat and potatoes format of Forbidden History does have a bit of a downside however: this show seems quite dry compared to other vaguely similar programs, a of sorts compared to other programs’ would-be . Theakston doesn’t remotely have the charisma of, say, a Josh Gates, and his “just the facts, ma’am” attitude means that it’s really no wonder that the show doesn’t entirely focus just on his rather humorless exploits. I’ve also got to say that the assemblage of interview subjects featured in this program is somewhat sketchy: regardless of the subject of any individual episode, the same crew of folks (including conspiracy nut and History Channel regular Alan Butler) throw in their two cents, giving the program a some alarming similarities to the increasingly suspect docu-fiction that is Ancient Aliens. I should point out that to its credit, Forbidden History makes every attempt to distinguish between actual, provable fact and outright speculation, thus it seems substantially more honest in its conclusions than proposed by the Ancient Aliens crew.

3a3a9ce91feed1384ac338901716d066You mean to tell me that Theakston doesn’t just buy everything he’s told by the people he’s interviewed?

Generally speaking, Forbidden History is put together nicely, with camerawork that places a viewer in the midst of the action and editing that keeps things moving. Subtle music cues are applied to create mood when appropriate, and the third-party narration has a tendency to offer a viewer questions and cues that promote more serious thought about the topics. Easily the best thing about this program is the range of genuinely fascinating subjects that have been covered. Episodes of this program have dealt with Nikola Tesla, the Nazi UFO project, lost treasures of Petra, Templar conspiracies, the bloodline of Christ and the mystery of the Holy Grail, the existence of giants, and even the Vatican’s cover-up of the Fatima prophecies – Forbidden History certainly covers the bases and offers up a bit of everything. Considering that many similar programs stick to a fairly predictable batch of possible topics, the undeniably eclectic scope of this show is refreshing.

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Amazing how this show manages to tie in with various others on History Channel and beyond…

To be completely honest, Forbidden History isn’t the greatest thing on television these days, but it’s not the worst that’s out there either. This program offers a viewer exactly what would be expected from a documentary series and nothing more, but it covers some intriguing subjects and keeps things focused on actual facts. That alone is noteworthy in an era when speculative programming and outright fabrications run rampant across the television dial. Those interested in esoteric information will probably find this show worthwhile, but those used to more flashy productions may find it dull. I’d give it a moderate recommendation.

Search for the Holy Blood Line:

A Nicely-Composed Portrait of NASCAR Royalty: I AM DALE EARNHARDT

I AM DALE EARNHARDT

(4/5)

Pros: Well-selected archival materials; provides exactly what one would want in a documentary about “the Intimidator”
Cons: Nothing major – though this clearly was produced for and by NASCAR

Roughly 75 minutes in length, the 2015 Spike TV documentary I Am Dale Earnhardt chronicles the life and career of the iconic stock car driver. Born in small town North Carolina, Earnhardt grew up watching his father tear up the local short tracks, learning a level of aggressiveness that would make him one of the most polarizing talents in the world of auto racing. While there was no doubting Earnhardt’s driving ability, his tendency to do anything to win – including spinning out any car in his way – would land him in plenty of hot water throughout his career and bestow on him the nickname of “the Intimidator.” Winning his first points championship in 1980 – just a year after capturing the Rookie of the Year title, Earnhardt went on to six more championships and 76 race wins before being killed in a last-lap accident during NASCAR’s premier event, the Daytona 500 in 2001. Nearly fifteen years after his death, Earnhardt’s legacy still looms large over the sport of stock car racing, and it’s unlikely that that situation will change anytime soon.

Dale and the #3
Dale and his famous #3 car.

Though he’s most identified as being the driver of the black number 3 car, Earnhardt started out as a journeyman driver who went racing primarily to provide for his family. The documentary certainly emphasizes the sacrifices that Earnhardt made in pursuit of his dream, and devotes a lot of time to discussing the hardships that he faced in his life. Knowing this information makes the material relating to his relationship with son Dale Jr., who started his own racing career in the late ‘90s and continues to race today, all the more heartwarming. Another major point of focus in the documentary is on Earnhardt’s talents as a entrepreneur: though perhaps an unlikely public figure, Earnhardt’s business savvy made him one of the most recognizable figures in the world of sport, largely through his own marketing of his “man in black” image.

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Say what you want about his driving style, Dale Earnhardt had swagger.

Directed by Jeff Cvitkovic and highlighted by a combination of well-chosen archival footage and photographs, I Am Dale Earnhardt is presented in roughly chronological order and covers the most famous and well-known events from the driver’s storied career. Though I’ve distanced myself from stock car racing over the past fifteen years, I always like seeing footage of how things used to be back in the “good ol’ days” of motorsport. Covering such legendary events as the infamous “pass in the grass,” the 1982 Pocono flip, Earnhardt’s triumph at the ‘98 Daytona 500 after twenty years of trying, and even some of his heated confrontations with other drivers, the documentary was very enjoyable for me personally since I remember when many of these things took place. The dramatic scenes relating to Earnhardt’s fatal accident are quite moving and illustrate just how much he was not only loved by his fans, but respected by the NASCAR community as a whole.

slinking
Slinking out of a destroyed race car after flipping at Pocono.

As might be expected, the documentary also includes substantial commentary from fellow drivers Darrell and Michael Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, and Rusty Wallace, sports reporters Marty Smith and Jack Arute, pop culture figures like actor Michael Rooker (who played a character patterned after Earnhardt in 1990’s Days of Thunder), former MTV VJ Riki Rachtman, and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, and even Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who today is by far the most popular driver in NASCAR. These interviews compliment the film footage nicely, and I appreciated the fact that the program went a long way toward explaining Dale Earnhardt the man, as he was away from the racetrack. Vintage interviews and conversations with the man himself provide an insight into Earnhardt’s mind, and a viewer really gets a sense of how his most rewarding moments in life took place when he was working on his farm or enjoying the outdoors with friends.

friendships
Despite his fearsome on-track reputation, Earnhardt enjoyed close relationships with many of his competitors.

Ultimately, the fact that Earnhardt was a “country boy” very much like the majority of the NASCAR fan base at the time earned him an incredibly loyal following, and I think one of the more interesting aspects of I Am Dale Earnhardt is the contrast between Earnhardt and other drivers of his era and the ones which populate NASCAR today. Over the past fifteen years, a sport that once was regarded as primarily a “redneck sport” has become much more polished and commercialized – one only has to listen to a contemporary driver interview and notice all the corporate sponsor name-dropping to see how the sport has evolved. Compared to a legitimately hard-nosed driver like Earnhardt who paid his dues and worked hard to get where he was, many of today’s drivers (even the so-called “bad boys” of the sport) seem like crybabies and whiners who have been handed the keys to the kingdom. Furthermore, in today’s high-profile, ultra-competitive motorsport, the team a driver is signed up with seems to matter more than actual driving talent, making it intriguing to ponder whether a rough-around-the-edges personality like Earnhardt would even get a shot at big-league stock car racing – or have a chance to truly shine – if he was trying to break into NASCAR circa 2015.

2015
NASCAR has change significantly since Dale Earnhardt’s death, and I’m not at all convinced that it’s gotten better…

During the film, sports reporter Marty Smith relates a story in the film about how people have exclaimed that they can’t relate to NASCAR drivers in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death, which says a lot about this driver and his relationship to his sport. The “old school” nature of stock car racing quickly became extinct once Earnhardt wasn’t around, and NASCAR has never quite been able to compensate for his loss in my opinion. Even if I might complain that the documentary seems to gloss over some parts of the story and over-dramatize others, I Am Dale Earnhardt is in the end, very worthwhile: a treat for Earnhardt fans and a fine starting point for those either new to stock car racing or unfamiliar the driver that was arguably its most iconic personality. It might not have wide-reaching appeal, but this documentary provides precisely what a viewer would want and is right on par with ESPN’s outstanding 30 for 30 series. I’d have no problem recommending it.