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Chasing Ice: Special Edition Blu-ray Review

Chasing Ice (2012) movie poster Chasing Ice

Theatrical Release: November 9, 2012 / Running Time: 75 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Jeff Orlowski / Writer: Mark Monroe / Producers: Paula DuPré Pesmen, Jerry Aronson, Jeff Orlowski

Cast: James Balog, Adam LeWinter, Svavar Jonatansson, Tad Pfeffer, Jason Box, Louie Psihoyos, Kitty Boone, Sylvia Earle, Dennis Dimick, Suzanne Balog, Jeff Orlowski, Synte Peacock, Terry Root, Thomas Swetnam, Peter Hoeppe, Gerald Meehl, Emily Balog, Martin Norregard, Simone Balog, R. James Woolsey, Martin Sharp, Richard Ward

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Documentary films are eligible for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but through 85 ceremonies not a single one has landed a nomination. Not long ago, the award expanded to support up to ten nominees,
a change that has enabled rarely recognized classes like animation, science fiction, and foreign films to compete for the industry's top prize. Still, it seems like a very long shot for a documentary to crack the field.

Nonetheless, in recent years, the Academy has proved willing to consider documentaries outside the Best Documentary Feature in the category of Best Original Song. Melissa Etheridge won that honor for her contribution to 2006's An Inconvenient Truth. Last year, an impressive nine original songs written for documentary features made it to the Oscars' shortlist of 75 eligible tunes. Of those, "Before My Time" made the final cut of five, turning Chasing Ice into an Academy Award nominee despite failing to advance from Best Documentary's shortlist. The end credits song, written by J. Ralph and performed by actress Scarlett Johansson, would lose to Adele's "Skyfall", but the nomination was acknowledgment enough and it's one of three accolades adorning the cover of this week's long-awaited, Special Edition Blu-ray of this fall 2012 theatrical release.

James Balog takes in the view of a melting glacier from one of his newly-installed programmed cameras in "Chasing Ice."

Chasing Ice opens with news footage of Hurricane Irene and other major recent storms interwoven with clips of conservative pundits speaking skeptically of climate change. If you think you've started watching an unofficial sequel to An Inconvenient Truth, think again. Though it tackles a similar subject, this film is far more visual and adventurous than Al Gore's slideshow.

The focus is on James Balog, an accomplished wildlife photographer whose shots of animals, many of them endangered, have adorned magazine covers and postage stamps. Balog confesses he was a skeptic on climate change a couple of decades ago, doubting that mankind could have that great an effect on the only planet sustaining it. He's long since come around and is determined to use his craft to convey the real change befalling our planet at a rapid rate.

Balog conceives and launches the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS, for short), a project that sees him and a small crew installing 25 cameras in Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska. Programmed to take one photograph every hour for three years and designed to withstand the extreme weather conditions, the cameras are intended to document melting glaciers on a scale never before attempted. Balog's hope is to provide indisputable evidence to shatter our notion that geological change occurs over a long period of time. His efforts illustrate dramatic change is occurring right now and at an alarming rate.

This graph demonstrates how dramatically the number of American droughts, floods, and storms has risen in the past thirty years. Field assistants Adam LeWinter and Svavar Jonatansson take a moment to enjoy tasty sandwiches.

Balog's project renders Chasing Ice something of a making-of documentary. Still, though you wouldn't think so, setting up cameras and checking on them makes for visuals more interesting and exciting than many docs supply. A scheduled check of the cameras reveals problems that make Balog break out in tears and the one obscenity that earns the film its curious PG-13 rating.
It's a heartbreaking return to the drawing board, but one that re-engineering the cameras' timer circuitry soon corrects. With that solved, Balog then experiences knee problems that prevent him from doing the hiking necessary. But his young field assistants prove up to the task of checking his equipment and setting up four cameras invaluably overlooking an expansive stretch of ice.

Chasing Ice gives us less than expected of the time-lapse photography it all seems to be leading up to. But what is shared is jaw-dropping, as landscapes are radically made over in just a couple of years. While it altogether avoids preaching and assigning blame to specific behaviors and industries, the film backs up its on-site glacier research with revealing graphics and enlightening explanations from scientists. One authority posits that a mass extinction that would wipe out a majority of animal species is just a few centuries away and that civilization will soon be forced to hand-pollinate crops. Another likens the effect of greenhouse gases on the environment to steroids on a baseball player. Graphs demonstrates just how drastically the air has changed over the past with the rise of carbon dioxide emissions and how quickly the number of U.S. storms and fires has risen in the past few decades.

All of that more than holds your attention throughout, but it's the film's climactic image that takes your breath away, as those assistants' cameras record the largest glacier calving caught on film, a terrifying and apocalyptic finale that we're shown is on the order of a Manhattan with taller skyscrapers crumbling before our very eyes. One of the most stunning sights ever captured, it's the kind of attention-grabbing display needed to move civilization away from conjecture, political bickering, and doubt and towards figuring out how, if at all, we can stop this.

Chasing Ice: Special Edition Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English, Danish, Spanish, French Canadian, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, Finnish, Swedish, Chinese
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Digipak and Book in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on DVD ($29.95 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

As you've probably gathered from the screencaps above, glaciers are a picturesque subject and one done justice in the Blu-ray's great 1.78:1 presentation. The sharp, vivid photography at times seems to possess the detail of an IMAX film and a nice-looking one at that. The striking visuals are complemented by a potent 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack, whose crunching ice and calving noises enhance the impact. Putting the "global" in "global warming", the Blu-ray boasts a wealth of subtitle options, including English and nine foreign translations.

Glaciologist Tad Pfeffer and his great big bushy beard answer an audience member's question at a "Chasing Ice" screening. Young director Jeff Orlowski acknowledges the bumps in the road to finish his first feature film in "Making 'Chasing Ice.'"

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

A hearty supply of extras accompanies Chasing Ice on Blu-ray. The bonus features begin with an audio commentary by director Jeff Orlowski, star James Balog, and field assistants Adam LeWinter and Svavar Jonatansson. They discuss the film's long evolution, the challenging filming conditions, scientific fact-checking, and how a mix of around-the-clock vigilance, 24-hour sunlight and luck landed the big knockout calving finale. It's an illuminating listen that nicely complements the film.

The all-HD video side kicks off with a music video for the Oscar-nominated "Before My Time" (4:08),
which merely lays Scarlett Johansson's vocals and Joshua Bell's violin over some pretty stills and time-lapse footage of the ice. As such, the disc is entirely free of ScarJo sightings.

"Film Festival Q & As" (19:57) edits together remarks Orlowski, Balog, and other subjects made at a number of the film's screenings. They include good responses to questions ranging from practical filmmaking and human interest stuff to climate change queries. We also get an encouraging update on EIS, which has expanded, with no end in sight.

"Glacier Watching" (6:36) provides an unedited long take of a Greenland glacier calving, part of which Orlowski narrates. It gives us a sense of the excitement and confusion that event offers the filmmakers observing and trying to shoot it.

You might think that the production's transparent nature eliminates the need for a piece called "Making Chasing Ice", but this 12-minute featurette valuably explains how the project evolved into a feature documentary. We hear from Orlowski and producers on how they struggled to find the stories being told and bounced back after a year of festival rejections to reshape their film into its satisfying final state.

That's Sundance! James Balog and Jeff Orlowski fix their hair outside a screening of "Underworld: Evolution." This seemingly giant Texan is one of many moviegoers offering a warm testimonial.

"Making the Time-Lapses" (5:43) explains how this film's long-term photography of relatively slow action differs from more typical uses of time-lapse, with Balog, Orlowski and time-lapse editor Matthew Kennedy sharing some thoughts.

Chasing Ice's theatrical trailer (2:16) is kindly preserved.

"Sundance Experience" (10:19) documents the film's premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival from the insider perspective of Orlowski, who acknowledges his collaborators and parents to rapturous applause, meets with former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel,
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and announces selling worldwide rights to National Geographic. It's a fun candid, backstage look at a clearly exciting experience.

"Testimonials" (6:57) collects enthusiastic reactions from moviegoers and one Bill O'Reilly fan who have seen the film at Sundance, Texas' Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Los Angeles, or elsewhere.

"Time Now" (3:48) is a short slideshow of glacier photos James Balog uses in his lecture series.

Finally, the dry "Updated Science" (5:59) gets some additional information from uncharacteristically clean-shaven featured glaciologist Tad Pfeffer.

The menu plays an excerpt of "Before My Time" over a slideshow of stills and time-lapse photography one time, before settling on a silent, static screen. The Blu-ray doesn't support bookmarks, but it does resume unfinished playback just as a DVD does.

Chasing Ice is housed in nice, non-standard packaging. A five-sided slipcover holds the disc's eight-sided Digipak, which folds open to display some lovely arctic photography. Sharing the slipcover is a 40-page picture book. Notes from James Balog, director Jeff Orlowski, and producers Paula DuPre Pesmen and Jerry Aronson reflect on the journey and encourage you to share the movie. They are surrounded by striking images from this project.

This image of the epic calving finale would be more breathtaking to you if you could tell the scale of these giant crumbling ice chunks.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Not being an environmentalist and not even having the stomach to endure the political debates on the subject, I found Chasing Ice an eye-opening document of climate change. The visuals captured by James Balog's ambitious project have greater impact and weight than Al Gore's Oscar-winning lecture and are part of an entertaining and cinematic look at a nature photographer's quest for visual proof. Even if your tastes ordinarily lie elsewhere, this is a film you should see.

Not enjoying the steep discounts of higher-profile releases, the Blu-ray is a bit pricey, but it's a stellar release, treating the film to a first-rate presentation, a solid assembly of bonus features and a nice companion booklet. If you have any interest, I don't think you'll regret purchasing this set.

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Reviewed September 11, 2013.



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