There are many possible objections to bird-watching, but if yours is that you can never get close enough to get a good look, Winged Migration offers something better than high-powered binoculars. Jacques Perrin’s consistently compelling nature documentary glides with ducks, soars with cranes, and swoops with geese, achieving a remarkable intimacy with its subjects. Thanks to ultralight planes, gliders, and drones, the cameras get almost as close to the airborne birds as economy-class passengers are to each other. These are not commuter flights, either: On their annual migrations, some of the film’s heroes travel more than 10,000 miles.
The birds, which were photographed over a period of three years, are indeed depicted as heroic. Perrin and his collaboratorswho included 14 cinematographers and 17 pilotsaren’t very interested in scavengers, squabblers, or other avian hooligans. The principal drama here is bird against nature, whether the latter takes the form of a blizzard, an avalanche, or just sheer exhaustion as a flock flaps from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle. As a secondary theme, the filmmakers present the challenges posed by man, who pollutes the birds’ refuges, traps them for pets, or blows them out of the sky just for fun.
Onscreen text identifies individual species, and Perrin’s occasional voice-overs provide the stray fact (or anthropomorphic observation). But Winged Migration doesn’t let scientific detail overburden the primal narrative: Through wildernesses and major cities, deserts and ice fields, birds fly south (or north), breed, and then fly back again. Yet the film does spend some time with birds that don’t migrate (mostly Amazonian macaws and such) or don’t even fly (penguins, which reveal their aerodynamic qualities only under water). The result isn’t rigorously structured, but it’s propelled by the varieties of birds and landscapesand, of course, by the near-perpetual action of wings in motion.
Perrin, who co-produced and co-scripted the film, also co-produced Microcosmos, a backyard drama in which birds were second-billed to bugs. Although he is obviously fascinated by untrammeled nature, he’s not opposed to cinematic contrivances. About half of the birds shown in Winged Migration were hatched by the filmmakers so they would imprint on the production crew and not be skittish around the cameras. The director has also told interviewers that some of the footage was staged: A goose seemingly entangled in netting is actually simulating the plight of another bird that the crew rescued, and another goose (of a different subspecies) that appears to be mired in industrial goo at an Eastern European factory is actually sloshing around in gray-colored milk on a soundstage. (This shot was inspired by the birds befouled by an oil spill in Perrin’s native Normandy.) A scene in which a parrot escapes from an Amazon trapper’s cage also looks like a setup. But the scenes of birds getting blasted by hunters are all too real.
In some ways, Winged Migration is not all that different from the nature rhapsodies made for IMAX screens. Bruno Coulais’ score is drippy folk-orch-pop, and the landscape-defining props include such overexposed landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, Monument Valley, the Great Wall of China, and the pre-9/11 World Trade Center. It’s the birds that awe the viewer, however, not the backdrops. The staged scenes and occasional computer effects don’t detract from the grace, majesty, and solitude of sandhill cranes, European white storks, black-headed ibises, and the rest.
This is one movie in which nature definitely upstages the artifice used to depict it.
The ominously mousy heroine of May, writer-director Lucky McKee’s sorta-satirical horror movie, is all alone in the world, save for the creepy doll her mother made for her but instructed her never to touch. Then May (Angela Bettis), who works in a veterinary hospital, thinks she’s found a kindred soul in Adam (Jeremy Sisto), the auto mechanic next door. Not only does he have beautiful hands, but he’s also a film-school dropout who loves splatter flicks such as Italian cult director Dario Argento’s Trauma. Adam shows May a short film he made, and she’s thrilled: To the tune of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Hanky Panky,” it depicts a couple whose kisses turn to cannibalistic chomps. So May bites Adam, and she is surprised to discover that he doesn’t dig it.
Adam is a hypocrite, apparently, but if he is, then so is McKee, not to mention every other gorehound who likes to watch cinematic bloodletting but doesn’t want his or her own plasma to flow. May is a potentially murderous psychopath, but at least she has the courage of her convictions. After she finally snaps, her actions show a perverse sort of integrity. They’re also entirely predictable.
A 95-minute film that would have worked better at one-third that length, May is too slack to engender suspense. It opens toward the end of its protagonist’s rampage, showing us a bit of her bloody handiwork. Then it flashes back to May’s childhood, when the girl was psychologically scarred by her icy blond mom and by having to wear a patch over her “lazy” eye. May’s surname is Canady, but Oedipus-Frankenstein would be more suitable. In addition to her obsession with eyes, May has a thing for patchwork. She makes her own clothing from miscellaneous remnants, and she skillfully wields scissors, needles, and scalpels. And when she fails to fashion Adam, her first man, to her satisfaction, she decides to make a new friend out of not-so-spare parts. Call her the postmodern Prometheus.
Arty but not especially artful, May draws on dozens of previous horror films, some of which I’m happy to have never seen. In addition to the work of such schlockmeisters as Argento, May can claim Tommy, the eye-slashing Un Chien Andalou, George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, and perhaps Child’s Play among its antecedents. Despite its bloody denouement, however, May is really more tendentious than horrific, with McKee’s provocations owing as much to Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute as to James Whale. May causes blind kids to crawl through broken glass, in an afflict-the-afflicted moment Solondz might envy, and the subject of her extreme makeover, Adam, shares the allegorical name of the patsy in LaBute’s archly inane The Shape of Things.
With a soundtrack that mixes alt-rock and tinkly fairy-tale music, May is obviously for and about kids. Indeed, the tale might have been more persuasive if it had been set in high school, the arena for Carrie, which was remade for TV last year with Bettis in the title role. When May has a fling with flirty coworker Polly (Anna Faris), her rival turns out to be the sort of statuesque spirit-squad type who’s always getting her comeuppance in teen flicks. It’s actually too bad May didn’t get a chance to take down a cheerleader in some Freddie Prinze Jr. movie: Her desperate craving for recognition seems like something to grow out of, not to grow up to act out. CP