The BBC Continues Its Stellar Run of Nature Programs with 'Africa: Eye to Eye With the Unknown'

A magnificent, six-episode series, it uses its breathtaking photography, including time-lapse shots, satellite footage, extreme close-ups and slow-motion to focus on what is arguably the most romantic and beloved continent in terms of wildlife.

Africa: Eye to Eye With the Unknown

Distributor: BBC Earth
Cast: David Attenborough
Network: BBC
UK Release Date: 2013-02-18
US Release Date: 2013-02-26

In recent years, the BBC has unleashed a series of genuinely breathtaking nature documentaries. The run probably reached its pinnacle with 2007's 11-part Planet Earth, but there are multitude of programs: Blue Planet (2007), Nature's Most Amazing Events (2009), and 2010's Life are all exquisite, and all follow the same simple formula: superb high-definition photography, a viewer-friendly mix of familiar animals alongside less-well-known species, jaw-dropping scenery, and—as often as not—the enthusiastic narration of David Attenborough. Not every show has Attenborough as a guide (2007's Galopagos features commentary by Tilda Swinson), but those that do benefit from his palpable excitement.

Africa: Eye to Eye with the Unknown, is the latest entry into this canon, and it's a keeper. A magnificent, six-episode series, it uses its breathtaking photography, including time-lapse shots, satellite footage, extreme close-ups and slow-motion to focus on what is arguably the most romantic and beloved continent in terms of wildlife. Asia has tigers and elephants, but Africa has lions and bigger elephants. South America has llamas, but Africa has zebras and giraffes. Australia has kangaroos and koala bears, but Africa has rhinos, ostriches, gorillas, chimps, crocodiles and those weird little things with the huge eyes that cling to trees and stare back at you through the TV screen.

Each of the first five episodes focuses on a different region of the continent: "Kalahari", "Savannah", "Congo", "Cape" and "Sahara". This regional approach allows filmmakers to focus on the landscape and wildlife peculiar to each particular biosphere. "Kalahari" brings us to southern Africa, land of lion prides and solitary rhinos and peaceable giraffes—only to shatter at least a couple of those preconceptions with unexpected footage. (Spoiler alert: giraffes fight, and it gets ugly.) Meanwhile, night-vision cameras record the activity surrounding a dry-season waterhole: there's a lot more going on out in the middle of nowhere than you may think.

"Savannah" shifts the action north, to the fertile grasslands of eastern Africa: volcanoes and forest fires, elephants and wildebeest, dozing lionesses and the predatory lizards who pluck flies (captured in super-slow-motion) from the big cats' pelts. "Congo" explores the lives of our primate relatives—honey-hunting chimps, anyone?—as well as more elephants, this time congregating under a midnight moon.

Surprisingly, the "Desert" episode proved rather lackluster. I love deserts and have traveled through several, including a weekend-long flirtation with the Saharan dunes outside of the Moroccan town of Erfoud. The highlight here is the fascinating time-lapse footage of nomadic dunes shifting across the desert floor, shot at the speed of one second per day over the course of a year. Apart from this, however, the episode is a bit of a letdown.

That's a minor quibble. The other installments are consistently riveting, including "The Future", the series' sixth and final episode, in which the future of the continent and its wild creatures are considered in light of an exploding human population and the intense pressures that go along with that. By turns excruciating and hopeful, the episode does much to remind viewers of the awesome responsibility our species has toward our fellow species sharing this planet.

It's the nature of these programs that they are crafted so thoughtfully, and with such splendid visuals, that even episodes with little initial appeal are hypnotic once they start. I had little enough interest in "Cape", which chronicles the effect of the waters around South Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans collide. But the effects of that collision—as the cold waters of the Atlantic merge with the much warmer Indian Ocean—are unexpectedly fascinating. Among other things, they lead to a frenzy of butterfly mating on a treeless mountaintop. Who wouldn't love this?

Each episode includes a brief, ten-minute bonus addendum entitled "Eye to Eye", in which the producers and camera crews discuss the work involved in getting their visuals. Playing directly after the episode itself—no need to go hunting through the Bonus Features menu—these little codas add a dash of insight and a good bit of appreciation for the men and women who labored over a period of four years to put the series together.

Other bonus features include numerous interviews with David Attenborough, executive producer Michael Gunton and others, plus outtakes and a pair of deleted scenes. Ranging from the beautiful—a travelogue of Djibouti's salt lakes—to the whimsical, they add considerable entertainment value as well as insights into the filmmakers' intentions and goals. Far from crucial, they are nonetheless diverting, and help to round out the series as a whole. It should be said also that this is the type of program that screams for the high-resolution of a blu-ray disc. No doubt the DVD is excellent too, but the high definition of an HD disc and TV only add to the pleasure of such scenes as these.

For viewers who have enjoyed previous BBC nature programs, this is a no-brainer: Africa is a terrific show and can stand alongside any of the network's recent string of outstanding programs. For viewers new to the genre and unsure where to start, this is a good gateway, as well. The Continent holds many familiar pleasures after all, but the way they are presented here makes them fresh and new again. Good job, BBC.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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