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Our review of 180 Degrees South, published June 9th, 2010, is also available.
Conquerors of the useless
In 1968, surfers, mountain climbers, and self-proclaimed dirt-bags Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard decided to pack up a Ford Econoline van and drive from Ventura, California through the wilds of South America to scale Mount Fitz Roy in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Though they never made it to the summit of the mountain, the trip proved life-changing. Tompkins and his wife Kristine fell so deeply in love with Patagonia that they launched Conservacion Patagonica, a non-profit whose aim is to acquire as much of the wild land as possible so that it can be protected, preserved, and one day turned into a national park.
Tompkins and Chouinard captured their 1968 road trip on film, putting together a documentary called Mountain of Storms. Sometime around 1997, surfer, mountain climber, author, and self-proclaimed dirt bag Jeff Johnson saw a VHS dub of the movie and was inspired. Ten years later, he set his eyes to the South, determined to retrace Tompkins' and Chouinard's steps, and successfully summit Fitz Roy. He was joined by championship surfer Keith Malloy, mountaineer Timmy O'Neill, and surfer Ramon Navarro. Surf documentarian Chris Malloy (A Brokedown Melody) went along to capture it all on film. The result was 180 Degrees South, a documentary about adventure, ecology, and life in general.
The movie unfurls with the same easy-going charm that characterizes its multiple generations of dirt-bag protagonists. Much attention is paid to nature's raw beauty as Johnson and company travel by boat down the Pacific coast of Mexico; try to catch a few waves off the Galapagos Islands; have an unintended stop on Easter Island where they pick up a Rapa Nui traveling companion; and finally arrive in Patagonia, where they check out the Tompkins' nature preserves and attempt to scale Fitz Roy. The movie's visual focus on nature is balanced by sit-down interviews with Tompkins and Chouinard, who talk about their earlier trip, the mission of Conservacion Patagonica, and their opposition to Spanish energy company Endesa's plan to build a massive dam on Chile's Baker River in 2013.
The adventure aspects of the movie are mostly interesting because of everything that goes wrong—Johnson gets severely seasick at the outset of the journey; the team's boat loses its mast in a storm off of Easter Island; the journey to the base of Fitz Roy proves to be a tedious push through dense foliage; O'Neill becomes exasperated with the revelation that Johnson has no experience climbing on ice; and the team ultimately finds that they've arrived at the wrong time of year to scale Fitz Roy's technically difficult face. The movie's ecological message never feels strident or hectoring because of the abundance of charm and honest-to-goodness passion with which Tompkins and Chouinard deliver their message. Besides, Patagonia's landscape speaks for itself. Building electricity-producing dams in the unspoiled landscape would be akin to allowing developers a free run at Yosemite or Yellowstone—a tragedy.
Shot on high definition digital video, 180 Degrees South looks gorgeous in the 1080p/VC-1 transfer presented on this Blu-ray. Sweeping shots of the mountains and the sea leap out of the screen in fine detail. Colors are vibrant but natural, with accurate whites and deep, inky blacks. Audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix that delivers crisp dialogue (both on location and in voice-over narration), as well as offering an expansive presentation of the movie's mellow acoustic music.
Supplements on the disc are spare but mostly decent:
"The Making of 180 Degrees South" (23:49) delves more deeply into the backgrounds of the team than the brief running time of the feature allows. It offers surprising depth into Malloy's visual and thematic approach to making the film.
A reel of five deleted scenes runs just over 18 minutes. The brief segments include interesting extensions of existing material such as the team's surfing adventures off of Easter Island, as well as silliness such as their search for the illusive Yeti. The scenes are presented in standard definition and lack much of the visual splendor of the main feature.
A music option on the Special Features menu contains about a dozen scenes of the team singing and playing guitar around a campfire. It sounds cheesy, I know, but the performances are excellent. Each tune is individually indexed on the menu, or they can be played in sequence with a Play All option.
"A Look at 180 Degrees South" is a two-minute promo for the movie. There's also a trailer that runs about the same length as the promo.
The disc is BD-Live enabled, but no content was available at the time of this writing.
It's too bad the rights couldn't be secured to include Mountain of Storms as a supplement to the main feature. That would have made this disc truly comprehensive.
180 Degrees South is a lively and surprisingly personal nature documentary, memorable as much for its message and the personalities of its protagonists as for its gorgeous natural vistas.
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