Category Archives: The Environment

Popsicle toes: Antarctica: a Year on Ice ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 29, 2014)

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For decades now, my long-time Alaskan friends and I have speculated as to why no one has ever thought to produce a documentary about the unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience shared by the thousands of men and women who worked on the massive Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction project back in the 1970s. From 1975-1977, I worked as a laborer on the project (that’s right…Fairbanks Local #942, baby!), doing 6-to-10 week stints in far-flung locales with exotic handles like Coldfoot, Old Man, Happy Valley, and the ever-popular Pump Station #3 (now that was one cold motherfucker).

These remote work camps, frequently the only bastions of “civilization” for hundreds of square miles in all directions, developed their own unique culture…part moon base, part Dodge City. It’s a vibe that is tough to explain to anyone who wasn’t actually there. Traditionally, I usually cite the sci-fi “western” Outland as the closest approximation. However, going forward I’ll defer to Anthony Powell’s Antarctica: a Year on Ice.

For once, someone has made a documentary about Earth’s southernmost polar region that contains barely a penguin in sight…or any sign of Morgan Freeman, for that matter. OK, there’s a wee bit of penguin footage, but no more than maybe 2 minutes total out of a 90-minute film, tops. And  know that I have nothing but respect for Mr. Freeman, one of America’s finest actors, and his undeniably mellifluous pipes…but enough with the voice overs, already (leave some scraps for Martin Sheen, for god’s sake). The narration is from the filmmaker himself, who toiled 15 years on this labor of love.

While there are breathtaking time-lapse sequences (reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi) capturing the otherworldly beauty of the continent, this is not so much standard-issue nature documentary as it is a kitchen sink social study of Antarctica’s (for wont of a better descriptive) “working class”. These are people with the decidedly less glamorous gigs than the scientists, biologists and geophysicists who usually get to hog the spotlight on the National Geographic Channel.

These are the administrators, store clerks, culinary staff, warehouse workers, electricians, mechanics, drivers, heavy equipment operators, etc. who help keep the infrastructure viable. Powell’s film not only serves to remind us of the universality of human psychology in extreme survival situations, but is imbued with a hopeful utopian undercurrent, best summarized by the very first line of Article 1 of the Antarctic Treaty: “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.”

Amen…and please pass the bunny boots.

Liars for clams: Greedy Lying Bastards ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2013)

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Greedy Lying Bastards: Do we have to draw you a picture?

I know it’s cliché to quote from the Joseph Goebbels playbook, but this one bears repeating: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” That’s pretty much the theme that runs throughout Craig Rosebraugh’s documentary, Greedy Lying Bastards. As a PR consultant seems to reinforce in the film: “On one side you have all the facts. On the other side, you have none. But the folks without the facts are far more effective at convincing the public that this is not a problem, than scientists are about convincing them that we need to do something about this.”

The debate at hand? Global warming. The facts, in this case, would appear irrefutable; Rosebraugh devotes the first third of his film to a recap of what we’ve been watching on the nightly news for the past several years: a proliferation of super-storms like Hurricane Sandy, rampant wildfires, “brown-outs”, and one of the worst droughts in U.S. history. Climate scientists weigh in.

Granted, this ground has been covered extensively via the  surge of eco-docs that followed Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth (one of the top 10 highest-grossing documentaries of all time). And one could argue that moviegoers have stayed away from subsequent genre offerings in droves, leaving many hapless (if earnest) filmmakers preaching to the choir (ever attended a matinee with 3 people in the audience, including you?). Rosebraugh separates himself from the pack by devoting most of the screen time going after those “folks without the facts”, and analyzing how and why they are “far more effective” at this game.

Using simple but damning flow charts, Rosebraugh follows the money and connects the dots between high-profile deniers (who one interviewee labels “career skeptics […] in the business of selling doubt”) and their special interest sugar daddies. The shills range from media pundits (very few who have any background in hard science) to members of Congress, presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices. Various “think tanks” and organizations are exposed to be glorified mouthpieces for the big money boys as well.

If you enjoy a generous dollop of heroes and villains atop your scathing expose, you should find this doc to be in your wheelhouse. Sadly, the villains outnumber the heroes. It’s a bit depressing, but as you watch, you’ll thank the gods for the Good Guys, like politicians Henry Waxman and Jay Inslee, and science-backed voices of reason like Dr. Michael E. Mann. The idiosyncratic Rosebraugh narrates throughout  like an ironic hipster version of Edward R. Murrow.

At one point, the director gets into the act, Roger and Me style. After unsuccessful attempts to arrange an interview with ExxonMobil’s chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, he goes guerilla. Hiding his tats with suit and tie, he gains admission to Exxon Mobil’s annual shareholder’s meeting, where he asks the chairman (from the audience) if he would (at the very least) acknowledge the human factor in global warming. Tillerson’s answer, while not exactly reassuring, is surprising. What does reassure are suggested action steps in the film’s coda…which is the least any of us can do.

Postcards from the dreamtime: Samsara ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2012)

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Though the Christian view of the world has paled for many people, the symbolic treasure-rooms of the East are still full of marvels that can nourish for a long time to come the passion for show and new clothes. What is more, these images — be they Christian or Buddhist or what you will — are lovely, mysterious, and richly intuitive.

-Carl Jung

In 1982, an innovative, genre-defying film called Koyannisqatisi quietly made its way around the art house circuit. The piece (directed by Godfrey Reggio, photographed by Ron Fricke and scored by Philip Glass) was generally received as a transcendent experience by admirers and dismissed as New Age hokum by detractors. The title is taken from the ancient Hopi language, and describes a state of “life out of balance”. There are likely as many interpretations of what it’s “about” as there are people who have viewed it; if I had to make a generalization, I’d say it’s about technology vs. nature. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (a more political entry illustrating Third/First World disparity) and the slick yet curiously uninvolving sequel Naqoyqatsi in 2002.

Cinematographer Fricke has since become a director in his own right; most notably with his 1985 IMAX short Chronos, and the 1992 theatrical length feature Baraka. The latter film is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Koyannisqatsi; while it shares some themes and (obviously) a very similar visual aesthetic, Baraka stands on its own. The title is a Sufi term that roughly translates to “a blessing”, and indeed, this globe-trotting cultural/anthropological journey was more pan-spiritual in nature than Reggio’s film; proving that Fricke had his own unique vision. Taken as a whole, all of the aforementioned films form a sub-genre I have dubbed the “Jungian travelogue”; a narrative-free collage of mesmerizing and thought-provoking imagery (natural and man-made) that jacks the viewer directly into humankind’s collective unconscious (or…not).

For those familiar with the director’s oeuvre, Fricke’s latest film, Samsara (currently in limited release) may initially unfold like a “greatest hits” collection of somewhat familiar imagery. Languidly paced scenes of Buddhist rituals? Check. Joshua trees silhouetted against a time-lapsed night sky? Check. Hyper-accelerated time-lapse sequences mirroring the dizzying pace of a mindless consumerist society going nowhere fast? Check. And so on. The title is a Sanskrit term signifying “the ever turning wheel of life”. And appropriately, Fricke plays “pick up sticks” with the spokes, leaving it up to each individual viewer to reinvent their own wheel, as it were. In other words, if you just “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” (as a great English poet advised) there is as much here for a thinking person to ponder as there is to savor.

Or, if you prefer to enjoy it on aesthetic terms, I think the film (much like its predecessors) works fine as pure cinema; a visual tone poem that intoxicates all the senses. Be forewarned, however, that it isn’t all soothing images (animal lovers in particular should be advised that there are scenes filmed in a Chinese poultry processing plant that are potentially upsetting). If you have an opportunity to catch it on the big screen, I would highly recommend you do so; this is one of the most beautiful looking films of 2012. Interestingly, it was shot in 70mm, but the 65mm negative was scanned to DCP, enabling exhibitors to project it in hi-res 4k format. The results are stunning.

And again, don’t feel pressured to “connect the dots”, because there will not be a pop quiz afterwards. At the end of the day, whether you interpret the film as a deep treatise on the cyclic nature of the Omniverse, or see it merely as an assemblage of pretty pictures, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. I think the director drops us a clue early on in the film, as we observe a group of Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a sand mandala. At the end of the film, we revisit the artists, who now sit in silent contemplation of their lovely creation. This (literal) Moment of Zen prefaces the monks’ next project-a ritualistic de-construction of the painting. And yes Grasshopper, it is a very simple metaphor for the transitory nature of beauty, life, the universe and everything. But, as they say, there’s beauty in simplicity. Take the wheel, for example…

Strange bedfellows: Grassroots *** & True Wolf ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 23, 2012)

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Seattle politician in native habitat: Grassroots.

There aren’t many political biopics that open with the candidate-to-be dressed in a bear suit and screaming at traffic. But then again, there aren’t many cities I have lived in that have a political climate quite like Seattle. I’ve never forgotten what a standup comic pal (and long-time resident) told me when I first moved to the Emerald City 20 years ago. “Don’t let anybody bullshit you about how ‘hip’ or ‘metropolitan’ this town is,” he advised, “…Because it will always be Mayberry with a Space Needle.”

A case in point would be the brief but colorful political career of Grant Cogswell, which has provided fodder for a film from director Stephen Gyellenhaal (yes, acting siblings Maggie and Jake are his progeny). Cogswell (Joel David Moore) was an unemployed music critic (a polite term for “slacker”) with no prior political experience, who made a run for a city council seat back in 2001. His unconventional grassroots campaign was managed by his friend and fellow political neophyte Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs). The film opens with Campbell getting fired from his gig writing for The Stranger (Seattle’s long-running alt-weekly hipster rag). “You can’t get any lower,” a self-pitying Campbell whines to his live-in girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose). What’s he to do with all his time now?

The answer soon arrives when he is roped into joining his eccentric pal Grant on a quest to unseat incumbent councilman Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer). Cogswell sees McIver as the quintessential self-serving politician in bed with the Big Money Boys; in this case emptying city coffers for an ambitious light rail project, when the answer to Seattle’s traffic congestion has been right there in front of everybody since the 1962 World’s Fair: the monorail. Why not expand this cheaper, green-friendly “…super-ass modern transportation system”? Launching his campaign armed with this “electro-strategy”…they’re off to the races.

While political junkies may take umbrage that Gyllenhaal’s screenplay (co-written with Justin Rhodes and based on Campbell’s campaign memoir Zioncheck for President) takes a broad approach by favoring the kookier elements of the story, I think most viewers will find his film engaging. The cast’s energy and enthusiasm is palpable, and whilst Gyllenhaal’s film lacks the verbal agility and pacing of, say, The Great McGinty (particularly with lines like “Politics, bitches!”), he seems to be channeling Preston Sturges at times. I think it was wise for Gyllenhaal to eschew the political minutiae; otherwise he may have ended up with something of little interest to anyone besides Seattleites. In fact, the best thing about this film is that it (dare I say it?) renews your faith in the democratic process. In these cynical times, that is a good thing.

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Canis lupus in unnatural habitat: True Wolf.

It’s often said that “politics makes strange bedfellows”, but have you ever heard of a “wolf ambassador”? Before I screened Rob Whitehair’s modest but engrossing new documentary True Wolf, I certainly hadn’t. A cross between Born Free and Never Cry Wolf, Whitehair’s film tells the story of how a wolf named Koani became an environmental activist (in a manner of speaking) and touched the lives of thousands. Born into captivity, Koani was raised by Montana couple Bruce Weide and Pat Tucker, who co-founded Wild Sentry: The Northern Rockies Ambassador Wolf Program back in 1991. The star of the show was Koani, who traveled around the country with Tucker (and the family dog) to appear at schools and museums. Together, they helped dispel common misconceptions about wolves.

The film mixes newer interviews with footage culled over the 16 years of Koani’s life, which was both a trial by fire and labor of love for her empathetic human “parents”. Ever cognizant of the inherent “wrong” (no matter how noble one’s intentions) in keeping such a magnificent wild creature enclosed or on a leash, Weide and Tucker nonetheless overcame the challenges and found a way to truly make Koani’s life matter, and it makes for an amazingly moving story. Whitehair balances the political side of the tale (which recounts the couple’s involvement in the uproar over wolf reintroduction to the Northern Rockies) by also giving screen time to detractors. The film also gives food for thought regarding the striking commonalities between wolves and humans, begging two key questions: a) who is living on whose turf, anyway? And, b)…can’t we all just get along?

We are Devo: Surviving Progress ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 21, 2012)

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In Man’s evolution he has created the city and

The motor traffic rumble, but give me half a chance

And I’d be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle

-Ray Davies

This just in! Our brains haven’t changed much in 50,000 years. “We’re running 21st Century software on 50,000 year-old hardware,” observes one of the interviewees in a thought-provoking documentary called Surviving Progress…and like anyone who witnesses the perennially absurd behavior of Homo sapiens on the nightly news, I am inclined to agree. Right out of the gate, co-writer-directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks drive that point home with an illustration that doubles as clever 2001: a Space Odyssey homage.

An adult chimpanzee enters a white booth containing nothing but a table, upon which lay two “L” shaped blocks. The chimp spots a primatologist researcher in an adjoining room, on the other side of a clear partition. The chimp can also see that the primatologist holds a nice piece of fruit, so it puts its arm through a hole in the partition. No treat is forthcoming. The chimp assesses the situation. It picks up one of the blocks, rights it into a standing position, and again reaches through the hole. Nada. Aha! After righting the second block, the chimp gets its treat. Is this “progress”? Cut to NASA footage of an orbiting space station. Is this progress? Can mankind have its banana now?

Before tackling such a loaded question (and patting ourselves on the back for being so much “smarter” than monkeys), we first need to define our terms. What is “progress”, exactly? Luckily for us, the filmmakers have come fully armed with an impressive and diverse team of learned specialists: physicists, anthropologists, scientists, environmentalists, futurists and economists. Surely they can shed light on a question like, “What is progress?” Cut to a montage of positively stymied experts. Uh-oh. This isn’t a very thought-provoking documentary so far. Maybe if we offer them a nice piece of fruit?

Not to worry. Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress (the book that inspired the film) pops by and sets up the premise for the ensuing 90 minutes. Humanity’s progress, he posits, has historically been measured by its ever-accelerating “forward” motion. Which is all fine and dandy; that is, until you begin to consider the “cost”. And we are not necessarily talking money.

For example, there is “natural capital”. As scientist/activist David Suzuki observes in the film, “Money doesn’t stand for anything, and money now grows faster than anything in the real world.” He’s right. You can always print more money, but Earth’s resources are finite, and according to one interviewee, up until  1980  (right about the time that the world’s most populous nation, China decided to start playing “catch-up”), we were getting away with “living on the interest”- all for the sake of progress. But today, we’re blowing through our inheritance, as it were. And if we’re not careful, the human race  will be in the poorhouse.

Not that the filmmakers are using China, or environmental concerns, as the whipping boy. This is but one example of what Wright identifies as “progress traps”, which could be compromising the future of our planet as a whole. In fact, what makes the film so unique and compelling is how it connects the dots between cultural anthropology, predictable patterns of human behavior, accelerated depletion of Earth’s natural resources, lopsided distribution of the world’s wealth, and most importantly, how all of the above have repeatedly factored into the collapse of previous civilizations.

While dire warnings abound, it’s not all gloom and doom. Stephen Hawking suggests that if we can shepherd the planet through the next 200 years without destroying it, we could flourish for a very long time (barring, one assumes, a big catastrophe like an asteroid hit).

The motifs and subtexts of the visual narrative (beautifully photographed by Mario Janelle and well edited by Louis-Marin Paradis) reminded me of Godfrey Reggio’s (wordless) 1982 film meditation on the price of progress, Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance”). I have not read his book, but some of Wright’s on-camera observations about the negative effect of accelerated change recall those of Alvin Toffler, whose 1970 bestseller Future Shock gave us the nickname for the  phenomenon.

So while the concept isn’t new, it’s presented in a fresh manner, packing much insight into 87 minutes. Besides, we could use more reality checks like this, and would all do well to remember the film’s money quote, which Wright says he saw scrawled on a graffiti wall:

Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”

A (not so) clear-cut case: If a Tree Falls ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 23, 2011)

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In the mid-90s, I worked at a Honeybaked Ham store in the Seattle area (don’t ask). Normally, I wouldn’t bring that up, but…funny story. Well, not “ha-ha” funny, but it does tie in with this week’s review.

Because you see, that was when I had my personal brush with “eco-terrorism”. I came to work one day, and espied a couple of Redmond’s finest standing outside the store, talking to the manager. Then I noticed  interesting new artwork adorning the windows, writ large in dried ketchup and barbecue sauce: MEAT IS MURDER! It was signed “E.L.F.”.  Apparently, several other restaurants down the street had also been hit (McDonald’s had had their locks glued shut).

So, as I was scrubbing to remove the graffiti, I wondered “Who is this ‘ELF’ …a disgruntled Keebler employee?” I had never heard of the Earth Liberation Front. I remember the manager saying “How much you want to bet this guy fled the scene in  leather Nikes?” “Yeah,” I snickered, whilst contemplating the dried globs of Heinz 57 on my sponge “these suburban anarchists aren’t exactly the Baader-Meinhof Gang, are they?” (I can’t say that I felt “terrorized”).

Flash forward to 2001. I turned on the local news one night, and saw the UW Center for Urban Horticulture engulfed in flames ($7 million in damage). The arson was attributed to the E.L.F. “Hmm,” I pondered, “maybe they are sort of like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ”

Or are they? According to the FBI, “Eco-terrorism” is defined as:

The use (or threatened use) of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, sub-national group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.

That certainly covers a lot of ground. One could argue that Johnny Appleseed was an Eco-terrorist. Sure, he’s a legendary conservationist and agrarian icon. However, he was against grafting, which resulted in a fruit more suitable for hard cider than for eating. Hence, the “environmentally-oriented”  Appleseed was “responsible” for introducing alcohol to the frontier. And it’s inarguable that much “violence of a criminal nature against people or property” is committed under the influence. OK, that’s a stretch .

Then again, there are a number of “environmentally-oriented” types doing a “a stretch” in the federal pen right now for non-lethal actions that the government considers terrorism, and that others consider heroic. This is not a black and white issue; a point not lost on the directors of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

So what type of circumstance can change a nature lover into a freedom fighter? Anyone can make a statement by holding up a sign or throwing on a “Save the Rainforest” t-shirt, but what motivates someone who decides to take it to the next level-throwing on a Ninja outfit and torching a lumber mill in the middle of the night? And what would they hope to achieve? Wouldn’t that just encourage corporations to cut down even more trees to replace lost inventory?

In order to convey a sense of the humanity behind the mug shots, co-directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman focus primarily on Earth Liberation Front member Daniel McGowan, who at the time of filming was facing a possible life sentence for his direct involvement in several high-profile “actions” (including the arson of an Oregon lumber mill) that resulted in millions of dollars in property damage. Holed up in his sister’s NYC apartment (and sporting a house arrest anklet for the first third of the film), McGowan candidly opens up about his life and what led him to change his own M.O. for making a statement from “environmental activism” to “domestic terrorism”.

The filmmakers parallel the timeline and details of McGowan’s personal journey with a study about the development of the E.L.F., adding present day interviews with  his cohorts and archival footage of some of the group’s early “actions” (which were more in the realm of civil disobedience and passive resistance-like sitting in the path of bulldozers and camping out in old-growth trees marked for cutting). McGowan initially became involved with the environmental movement through “mainstream” activities, like “writing hundreds of letters” of protest and participating in peaceful demonstrations.

McGowan became frustrated with what he perceived to be the ineffectiveness of such actions. He sums it up with a rhetorical question: “When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, and nobody hears you, what are you supposed to do?”

The tipping point for McGowan came in 1999, when he participated in the WTO protests in Seattle. There, through some of the more radicalized E.L.F. members, he became embedded with the relatively small band of black-clad “anarchists” who were disproportionately responsible for most of the property damage that occurred during the demonstrations (the majority of participants made a point after the fact to disassociate themselves from the anarchists).

From there, it was a relatively small jump to the more extreme acts that would lead to his eventual arrest and prosecution (he agreed to a “non-cooperation” plea deal that saved him from life in prison but still saddled him with 7 years and a “terrorism enhancement”).

The filmmakers give equal screen time to some of the law enforcement officials and prosecutors who made the case against McGowan and his associates. Although no one was ever injured or killed as a result of E.L.F. activity (astounding considering that there were approximately 1,200 “actions” perpetrated by the group during their heyday), there are still victims; and some of them appear on camera as well to offer their perspective.

Were these people “terrorists”? You almost have to get back to defining “what is a terrorist?” Or in this case, who are the real terrorists? One interviewee offers this: “95% of the native American forests have been cut down. Trying to save the remaining 5% is ‘radical’?” That’s a valid question. McGowan himself seems to be arguing (in so many words) that in a post 9-11 world, people have a tendency to make a “rush to judgment” without considering the alternate point of view (he suggests that the word “terrorist” has supplanted “Communist” as the demagogue’s dog whistle of choice).

I wonder if the filmmakers intend McGowan’s story to be a litmus test for the viewer (how far out on the limb would you be willing to go for your personal convictions?) If so, that’s a tough one. Part of me identifies with Daniel McGowan the environmentally-conscious idealist; but I don’t think I can quite get behind Daniel McGowan the criminal arsonist. For now, I’m just content to keep recycling and doing my part to think “glocal”. And in case you’re wondering…I haven’t stepped foot inside a Honeybaked Ham store since I quit working there 14 years ago. Those murderous bastards.

Krill, baby, krill: Disney’s Oceans ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 1, 2010)

 Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

-Rachel Carson, author of The Sea around Us

 We forget that the life cycle and the water cycle are one.

-Jacques Yves Cousteau, author of The Silent World

 Oops.

-Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez

 In their magnificent documentary, Oceans, directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud don’t need to hit us over the head with cautionary rhetoric about mankind’s tendency to perennially poison the precious well of life that covers three-quarters of our planet with pollution, over-fishing and unchecked oil exploration. Any viewer, who becomes immersed in this stunningly photographed portrait of the delicately balanced aquatic ecosystem, yet fails to feel connected to the omniverse we cohabit (and a sense of responsibility) surely has something missing in their soul.

More of an aqueous 2001: a Space Odyssey than Discovery Channel nature romp, the film follows a narrative path reminiscent of Perrin and Cluzaud’s previous collaborative effort, Winged Migration. In that 2001 film, the pair (with Michael Debats) introduced audiences to a new paradigm in nature documentaries. The innovative camera work conveyed a bird’s eye view of, well, a bird’s world, that literally made you feel like a member of the flock, disaffected by gravity and those other pesky laws of physics which conspire to keep bipedal creatures earthbound. The narration was sparse, poetic, at time stream of consciousness. Corny as this sounds, I felt truly bonded with the avian “protagonists” by the end of the film. Ditto for Oceans.

Not that one normally “bonds” with a cuttlefish or a mantis shrimp in a conventional sense, mind you. However, if your contemplation of marine biology rarely extends beyond schlepping the occasional Mrs. Paul’s Breaded Fish Filet from the freezer to the microwave, this film will be a guaranteed eye-opener for you.

Granted, some of the scenarios have been covered in other nature documentaries; orcas snatching seals right off the beach, newborn sea turtles making a desperate break for the surf through a gauntlet of predators, and requisite footage of everyone’s favorite Antarctic marine birds-although the penguin antics are mercifully brief.

That said, there are unique, exquisitely rendered sequences in the film as well. A pod of humpback whales, breaching majestically in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. A vast army of spider crabs (seemingly numbering in the tens of thousands) scuttling about the ocean floor en mass. A gargantuan ball of sardines getting decimated simultaneously from above and below by lightning-fast dolphins and dive-bombing sea birds. And in the film’s most sublime moment, an unexpectedly balletic display of maternal tenderness by a walrus, gently coddling her calf through his first undersea swim.

I would love to see the European cut of the film, which apparently runs 14 minutes longer; chiefly because I’m quite curious to see what Disney has excised. According to some reports, the chopped footage centers on our negative impact on the marine ecosystem. There is some extrapolation along those lines (endangered species entangled in tuna nets, satellite photos that clearly reveal ominously dark tentacles of pollution snaking the globe through every major body of water, etc.) but it does seem perfunctory in the U.S. cut.

The narration by Pierce Brosnan, while competent, doesn’t carry the gravitas that this type of meditation cries out for. Those few quibbles aside, I feel that this film is well worth your time. And as that horrendous oil “leak” in the Gulf of Mexico continues unabated, this rumination about what is at stake could not be any timelier.

Tales from topographic oceans: Avatar **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2009)

If I was restricted to writing one-line movie reviews (which would undoubtedly make many readers rejoice) I would summarize James Cameron’s super-hyped, epic fantasy-adventure Avatar as: “A three-dimensional masterpiece with a one-dimensional script.”

Then again, Cameron has never lost any money underestimating the attention span of your average  film goer. Sure, his movies tend to go on longer than the Old Testament, but there’s usually an easy-to-follow 90 minute narrative buried somewhere within those 2 ½ to 3 hour running times (padded out by the protracted action set-pieces).

If you do  go for it, you might as well go all the way (you know-get your $300 million worth). This film is like the Baskin-Robbins of movie events-you may be confronted with 31 different choices of viewing experiences. At the multiplex I went to, it was offered  in three auditoriums and in as many formats: 2-D, 3-D and 3-D IMAX.

No one warned me that there would be a pop quiz, so I suffered a few moments of embarrassment. I visualized the people in line behind me rolling their eyes and miming a garroting to amuse their friends as I was vacillating. To save face, I muttered “IMAX” and sheepishly pushed my check card under the window. I suppressed the urge to exclaim “Fifteen fucking fifty? For a matinee?!?!

I hear you. “There IS a 90-word movie review, buried somewhere within this 2000 word rant about the cost of an IMAX screening, right, Dennis?” I just wanted to clarify that prior to this, I was a 3-D virgin. It always seemed gimmicky to me; if I’m really itching to experience the sensation that the actors and I are in the same room , I could attend one  of those oh, what are they called…“stage plays”?

Cameron’s story is simple enough; thematically it is an inverse re-imagining of his 1986 sci-fi adventure Aliens (with more than a few suspicious similarities to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest). Set sometime in the future, the story centers on a lush, verdant planet called Pandora, which has been targeted for deforestation and mining by an Earth-based corporation. This doesn’t set well with the planet’s inhabitants, a relatively peaceful race of aboriginal forest dwellers called the Na’vi.

A contingent of Marines has been deployed to help “convince” the locals that it would be in their best interest to cooperate. This doesn’t set well with a small team of research scientists who have been studying and interacting with the Na’vi  via an experimental assimilation method using avatars, which take on the physiology of the aliens. Deadlines have been set, and tensions mount.

Faster than you can say Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, we are presented with The One Human who could save the day, in the person of a brave young wheelchair-bound Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Sully is assigned by the gung-ho Marine commander  to be the military liaison with the tribe (played by a hammy Stephen Lang, getting his Col. Kilgore on).

Sully soon becomes the political football between his C.O., the head researcher (Sigourney Weaver) and the corporate weasel from the mining company (Giovanni Ribisi). Yes, I was thinking “Halliburton reference”, too. Oops-we can’t forget the rote love story-Sully hooks up with a Na’vi babe (a 10 ft. tall and very blue Zoe Saldana).

This is all academic. How many people are flocking to see this for the “plot”? Don’t get me wrong, there were elements that did appeal to me. I liked the idea of a paraplegic hero; the scene where Sully first “finds his legs” in his avatar body is quite moving. Aside from that brief moment, I didn’t find myself getting emotionally invested in the film or its characters. The “save the forest” theme performed its requisite tug at my big ol’ softie lib’rul tree-hugging lefty heart and all, but it’s become such a hoary movie cliché anymore. By the time the final third dissolved into interminable mayhem, they lost me.

In pure visual terms, the film does live up to its hype, and then some. There are some real knockout scenes, particularly in the film’s first half (before the novelty starts to wear off a bit and it just becomes shit blowing up). Cameron’s inventiveness and flair for mind-blowing production design is the real star here. Pandora’s otherworldly creatures, topography, and stridently colorful flora and fauna recall Disney’s Fantasia or Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet at times. In the film’s best “through the looking glass” moments, I felt like I had been transported inside the world of a Roger Dean album cover.

When all was said and done, the question I was left pondering was this: At what point does a film cease being a “film” and transmogrify into an “event”-or (if I may turn the cynicism up to “11”) a glorified 2 ½ hour infomercial for a video game? Yes, Cameron has perhaps “changed the game”, regarding the purely technical aspects of film making and movie presentation. But is this ultimately for the good of the art form? When I think of my all-time favorite films, there are two things that they all seem to have in common: heart and soul. And you do not a need a pair of 3-D glasses and IMAX to experience that.

Life after people: The Road **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2009)

Sadly, this is pretty close to how I envision my retirement.

You know what they say-“Misery loves company”. The dark shadow of apocalyptic doom looming over every other Hollywood release recently would seem to bear this out. “Hey, half my friends and relatives might be out of work, no one can afford health coverage, food bank cupboards are bare and we may be headed into a Hundred Year’s War in Afghanistan…but at least I’m not as bad off as that poor random bastard getting swallowed up by a huge molten crack in the earth on the screen-woo hoo!”

And now The Road (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel) has trudged into theaters, close on the heels of 9 and 2012. This one makes the latter two films look like a carefree romp in the fields.

Unlike 2012, which is the equivalent of disaster movie porn (utilizing just enough perfunctory bits of narrative to justify stringing together all the “money shots” involving volcanic eruptions, violent temblors, tidal surges and other assorted earth-shattering ka-booms), The Road is more concerned with the post-coital conversation, as it were. The earth moved, a few of us survived…now what? How do we live? How do we eat? How do we get from “A” to “B”? How do we treat each other? Will civilization eventually rise from the ashes and right itself, or is it back to flint arrows and re-discovering the wheel?

The nature of the World Changing Event that put them in their predicament is not quite specified, but the latter film’s two protagonists, notated in the credits simply as Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kody Smit-McPhee) are wandering about in a cold, ashen environment resembling a nuclear winter. Curiously, we see stands of brush or trees spontaneously combusting on occasion, although there is no obvious scientific explanation offered or inferred as to the cause.

This is not a post-apocalyptic milieu a la Beyond Thunderdome, with relatively well-scrubbed characters sporting pearly whites, fashionable post-punk wardrobes and colorful personalities. The people in this hard scrabble landscape actually look like people would look without access to a hot shower, a bar of soap, toothpaste or a change of clothes for months (possibly years) at a time. We are talking grime. Serious grime. Let’s not even discuss the teeth (dental hygienists are warned: The Road will give you nightmares).

Nearly everybody appears malnourished, as well. It’s survival of the fittest, but hardly anyone is fit. Have I mentioned that this is a pretty bleak and depressing scenario? The story (such as it is) is pretty simple, really. The Man and the Boy are slowly, painfully making tracks to the coast, where they hope that the environment is more palatable (one would assume; the reasons are not made quite clear).

Along the way, they scrounge for food and shelter, ever on the lookout for roving bands of post-apocalyptic highwaymen, who would just as soon blow you away first and then search your corpse for whatever meager provisions you might have squirreled away in your clothing. The pair’s desperate walkabout becomes progressively more nightmarish; they barely escape the clutches of a motley crew not unlike the mountain men in Deliverance, only to then run into the family from The Hills Have Eyes.

The only respite from the relentlessly grim proceedings is provided by sporadic flashbacks in the form of the Man’s uneasy dreams about his long-dead wife (Charlize Theron)-although those memories are not necessarily all pleasant ones, either.

I have not read the book; I will take the word of my friend who I saw it with that it is a pretty faithful adaptation (by Joe Penhall). Perhaps it is too faithful, as the film is a somewhat static and stagy affair. Director John Hillcoat (who helmed the 2005 sleeper The Proposition, which I really liked) sustains a dark and foreboding atmosphere; thanks to  DP Javier Aguirresarobe (quite a contrast to his sunny photography for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Still, something was missing for me, although it is tough to pinpoint. It certainly was not the fault of the cast. Mortensen and Theron are always interesting to watch, and I thought young Smit-McPhee was very good. Robert Duvall is barely recognizable for most of his brief appearance, and if you blink you’ll miss Guy Pearce’s cameo (everyone’s well-disguised by those stunt teeth). I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, either. This may not be the road you want to take. Then again, misery loves…oh, never mind.

Fissure & sun: 2012 **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 14, 2009)

Prime beachfront property! Low, low prices! Going fast!

Day after day, more people come to L.A.

Ssh! Don’t you tell anybody-the whole place is slipping away.

Where can we go-when there’s no San Francisco?

Ssh! Better get ready to tie up the boat in Idaho.

from Day After Day (It’s Slippin’ Away) by Shango

Depending on who you talk to, the numbers 12/21/12 signify either a) The Day the Earth Gets Hosed, or b) A day in 2012 that will be preceded by December 20th and immediately followed by December 22nd, in the course of which we will all go about our daily business as per usual. According to 2012 director Roland Emmerich, when Winter Solstice, 2012 rolls around, we better get ready to not only tie up the boat in Idaho, but to hang ten in the Himalayas as well. It’s gonna be a doozy (best get your affairs in order).

Taking full advantage of all the ballyhoo surrounding the upcoming terminus of the ancient Mayan calendar, the Master of Disaster has once again assembled a critic-proof, populist spectacle, unencumbered by complex narrative or character development (then again, one doesn’t board a roller coaster for the express purpose of engaging one’s mind).

So…it’s been, gosh, what…at least 12,012 years since his last film (10,000 B.C.) Let’s see if we can catch up. For one thing, in the Future, loincloths and spears are no longer de rigueur. However, I have some good news, and some bad news.

Good News first? Humans are now much less likely to suffer getting crushed by mammoths and/or mauled by saber-toothed tigers, since both of those species are now extinct (yay!). The Bad News is, humans are now in imminent danger of becoming extinct themselves, because the sun is bombarding the planet with neutrinos, seriously compromising the stability of the Earth’s crust-or some kind of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook to that effect.

At any rate, any and all pending natural disasters you could envision are now likely to all come at once. And that can’t be good. An international consortium of scientists and world leaders are in the loop, but in compliance with Rules and Regulations Regarding Mandatory Plot Points for End of the World Movies (rev. 2007), it’s kept strictly off the record, on the Q.T., and very hush-hush.

After the obligatory prologue set in a remote corner of the world, where we are given an inkling that a global threat might be brewing and/or a cosmic mystery is afoot (a requisite since Close Encounters of the Third Kind) the scene shifts to the good ol’ USA, where the Concerned Preznit (Danny Glover) receives grim counsel and furrows his brow (just like Concerned Preznits Bill Pullman and Perry King did in Emmerich’s two previous end of the world epics, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, respectively).

And no such doomsday narrative is quite complete without its rumpled Everyman protagonist, embodied here by John Cusack, divorced father of two who still sorta has a thing for his ex-wife (even though she’s now married to a smarmy yuppie), and who happens to have custody of the kids on the very weekend that the Apocalypse is scheduled for kickoff (see: Tom Cruise in The War of the Worlds). And guess where Dad is taking us all camping this weekend, kids? Why, Yellowstone Park…Ground Zero for the caldera of one of the largest super-volcanoes in the world (I don’t want to spoil anything for you…but I think Yogi and Boo-Boo are fucked).

What ensues is a mash-up of Dante’s Peak, The Poseidon Adventure and When Worlds Collide, peppered with every disaster movie cliché extant. The special effects are quite spectacular, and there is a pulse-pounding, show-stopping (if highly improbable) escape sequence early on (as L.A. experiences the mother of all earthquakes).

However, by the time the third, fourth, or fifth pulse-pounding, show-stopping, highly improbable escape sequence rolls around, with no substantive narrative sandwiched in to give you a breather in its two and a half hour running time, it becomes a case of mind-numbing overkill. Maybe a mystery angle involving the Mayan prophecies would have added something?

The cast slogs through as best they can, considering that most are relegated to cardboard caricatures taking a back seat to the CGI wizardry. Cusack has his moments, but you definitely get the sense that this is only a paycheck gig. Woody Harrelson briefly livens up things a bit, as a conspiracy nut talk show host (most likely modeled after Art Bell), but talented players like Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are wasted.

If you enjoyed the director’s previous films, I suppose this one is no better or no worse; you will  want to see it no matter what critics say. If you are intrigued by the premise, but not about parting with your ten bucks, I’d say wait for the DVD. Or- just hold out until 12/21/12.

Who knows? It could be more entertaining than the film.