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Chasing Ice

(2012) ** 1/2 Pg-13
74 min. National Geographic. Director: Jeff Orlowski. Cast: James Balog, Svavar Jonatansson, Adam LeWinter.


"It's the economy, stupid." This bit of conventional wisdom holds true for those trying to win public office, but when it comes to the longevity of the human race, it's the environment, stupid. A growing number of concerned citizens have taken up this message, some employing motion pictures like Chasing Ice to be worth thousands of words.

Jeff Orlowski's documentary feature uses emotional appeal and a measure of science to provide what it characterizes as definitive evidence of global warming. Orlowski follows James Balog, a photographer with a Master's degree in geomorphology. Balog's commitment to environmental photography has, of late, refocused primarily on melting glaciers, which Balog calls "the canary in the global coal mine."

Orlowski observes Balog at work with his Extreme Ice Survey, a project recording receding ice-lines and crumbling glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana. The presentation of Balog's often hauntingly beautiful imagery—and the fully committed approach he takes to capturing it—go a long way toward the photographer's career mission of reconnecting city dwellers to our presence in and interaction with nature. Now driven to promote environmental crisis management, Balog muses, "The story is in the ice—somehow." As artwork, each photo is unique, but as far as being an argument for global warming, if you've seen one melting glacier, you've seen them all, which might account for Chasing Ice's compact 76-minute running time.

Orlowski makes up the balance partly with a smattering of talking-head commentary paying too-brief lip service to the science of global warming and the effects of global climate change. Mostly, though, the film hero-worships Balog, a passionate and talented artist whose work has taken a physical toll (also one who gives off whiffs of self-congratulation and vanity).

The facts show that global warming is a reality of the status quo, but facts aren't always enough. Balog explains that his work has led him to a more "seductive approach" in depicting nature to man. It's anyone's guess whether hardcore deniers would be convinced by anything, including dramatic time-lapse record of disappearing glaciers, though the film provides anecdotal examples (one interviewee offers that he quit his job, at Shell Oil, on viewing Balog's evidence).

Chasing Ice stakes its claim on that seductive approach, and while more detailed scientific analysis and greater discussion of impacts would have been welcome, the film's visual rhetoric is solid. Plus, Balog talks of taking environmental action for the sake of his daughters, a gesture likely to make hearts melt as quickly as glaciers.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0

Street date: 9/10/2013

Distributor: Cinedigm

Cinedigm gives Chasing Ice the deluxe treatment in its Blu-ray Special Edition, which featuring eye-catching packaging: a fancy fold-out paper housing (with plastic disc hub) boxed with a glossy, color forty-page booklet with production stills and James Balog's photography. A/V specs include a 1080i hi-def presentation, and the interlaced transfer does display some less-than-ideal digital artifacts not usually seen on Blu-ray releases: ringing and combing. Presumably the (variable) source material required the 1080i approach, though it's ironic that more than half of the video extras come in 1080p. Anyway, the picture quality looks good, on the whole, with true color, convincing sharpness and excellent contrast. The audio comes in both DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and the surround presentation turns out to be preferable, offering palpable immersion—and LFE engagement—for the rumbling "calving." Of course, the film's music—notably the Oscar-nominated song "Before My Time" (also found in the extras)—also gets a boost from the fullness of the 5.1 mix.

Bonus features kick off with a director's commentary by Jeff Orlowski that gets into the history of the subject matter and the documentary project, beginning with the Extreme Ice Survey and how Orlowski became involved.

"Before My Time" (4:08, HD) is a music video of the tune sung by Scarlett Johansson.

"Film Festival Q&As" (19:57, HD) collates footage of Orlowski answering questions after festival screenings of the film. "Sundance Experience" (10:19, HD) looks at Chasing Ice's presence at the Sundance Film Festival, while "Testimonials" (6:57, HD) serves up some post-screening audience reactions.

"Glacier Watching" (6:36, HD) offers full raw footage of one "calving event," with commentary by Orlowski.

The brief featurette "Making Chasing Ice" (11:56, HD) provides some perspective and behind-the-scenes glimpses on the shooting of the feature doc. "Making the Time-Lapses" (5:43, HD) continues that thought with a special focus on capturing the time-lapse footage.

"Time Now" (3:48, HD) is a snippet from a James Balog lecture, and "Updated Science" (5:59, HD)—perhaps the most valuable bonus feature—follows up on the film's climate-change science with newly available data.

Rounding out the disc is the "Original Theatrical Trailer" (2:16, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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