Joe's Movie Reviews

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lessons To Learn

1. "No Impact Man".
We all know about the importance of minimizing our "carbon footprint", and many of us are doing everything we can to eliminate it completely. At least, we THINK we're doing everything we can. Once you see the example of Colin Beaven, you may have second thoughts about that.

Beaven is a New York writer who decided in 2006 to live a life style that would completely eliminate any environmental impact for one year. That means, among other things, no non-local food, no mechanized transportation, no electricity... essentially, completely eliminating the things that many contemporary folk would consider the basics of comfortable living. But there's more: as difficult as this would be under any circumstances, Beaven happens to live in the absolute center of technological living: Manhattan. AND he had a wife who's addicted to shopping and can't get through a day without her Starbuck's. AND they had a daughter who was just two years old. This movie documents their multiple struggles.

The commitment that Beaven shows to his difficult plan is, on the one hand, admirable (if not really possible to follow one hundred percent). On the other, there are times when his wife agonizes about the genuine hardships it's causing and Beaven responds with what appears to be a certain callousness: a shrug and a "of course it's difficult, but this is important", without any real indication that he's sympathizing with her. The film does show him expressing a few self-doubts from time to time, but these never connect with what anyone else is feeling, and I almost have to wonder if Beaven is throwing them in for the benefit of the camera (and remember the old expression about the very act of observing something changing the nature of the thing being observed).

But nonetheless, Beaven's motives aside, "No Impact Man" is not only a very well-made film, but there still is a lot to be learned from it. Beaven enters the project fully admitting that he won't be so extreme after the end of his year and that not everybody can or should follow his example precisely. The project was designed to try all possible avenues of reducing environmental impact to see which ones work and which don't, which should be followed and which should perhaps not. The movie does show us that a good many things that are extremely simple and easy can have an enormous impact: something as basic as no take-out food for a year can mean thousands fewer take-out containers in landfills, for instance... and that's not even mentioning no Starbuck's cups for a year. Even no mechanized transportation in the middle of Manhattan isn't as difficult at it may seem. Multiply this by thousands... or more... people following similar behaviour patterns and we really are talking about changing the world.

"No Impact Man" makes a good companion piece to books like "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Fast Food Nation" and the recent documentary "Food, Inc." All of those books/films show us what the problem consists of and hints at a few things that can be done about it. This film gets down to specifics and shows us what out own individual parts in solving the environmental crisis could be. And no, it's definitely not a dry, boring lecture. If Colin Beaven isn't necessarily a person you (or I) would want to be, he can at least show us a way to be the person WE would want to be. It opens locally at the Lagoon Theatre on Friday, October 2nd.

2. "The Burning Plain".
Guilliermo Arriaga is a master screenwriter from Mexico who has been involved in some very powerful films over the past decade such as "Amores Perros", "21 Grams", "Babel" and Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut, "The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada". He has established himself as a movie equivalent of some of the great Latino writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Saramago, with a similar way of using just the right amount of melodrama and occasional touches of "magical realism", and in particular has become associated with what is now a genre unto itself: the film with multiple paralell storylines and characters that seems at first to be telling several different stories but eventually ties together into one. In "The Burning Plain", he finally makes his own directorial debut, and shows that he has learned well from the directors for whom he has provided scripts in the past.

A cafe owner lives an empty life of affairs with different men every week, not feeling any emotion, and physically scarring herself just so she can feel something. A married Mexican man becomes involved in an affair with a married Anglo woman that will result in tragedy and trauma for both them and their respective families. A similar relationship between Mexican and Anglo teenagers not only faces parental anger and disapproval, but possible obstacles because of of a dark secret that the girl won't talk about, but that has clearly devastated her. Yes, folks, love hurts. And in "The Burning Plain" (the title is explained in the very first scene), it hurts big time.

If you've seen more than just a few of these multiple-story films (and odds are you probably have), you know how they usually work and how they tie together. But you likely won't know how "The Burning Plain" ties together: several times I thought I had it figured out, but it kept surprising me. It all makes perfect sense after the fact, but you won't see it coming, and that alone earns it more than a few points from me. Arriaga cares for his characters (in this and all his films) and doesn't WANT them to suffer, but he knows that we often have to in order to "get over to the other side" and earn our redemption. In this movie he does shows us this in provocative, poweful ways in a story that often illustrates the Biblical concept of the sins of the fathers (and mothers) being visited upon the second and even third generations. AND how they can be overcome.

The cast is for the most part unknown (at least to me), but you'll remember their performances for a long time. It's like the movie is a hidden-camera documentary of real people's lives, not a bunch of actors playing roles. A few famous names appear: Charlize Theron co-stars as the restaurant owner, in a role that offers her one of her all-too-rare opportunities to actually act and show what a strong performer she can be when she isn't limited to being just eye candy. Kim Basinger plays the adulterous Anglo woman (where has she been in recent years?), and makes a surprisingly strong impact (I'll admit to not being her biggest fan in the past).
Some awards shows have awards specifically for "Best ensemble cast". "Bruning Plain" ought to have every one of those awards sewn up right now.

This is the kind of movie that I've often had trouble in the past convincing people to see: when I describe it I'll hear a lot of whining about "Oh, that sounds despressing,I don't want to see THAT!". As if a movie always has to make you feel good in a conventional way in order to be a good movie. Or as if a movie can't possibly make you feel good by showing characters never really struggling with their pain and trauma... seriously, how can you overcome it if you don't struggle with it? But for those with a bit of an open mind, "The Burning Plain" counts as a GENUINE feel-good movie: one that doesn't pretend that pain doesn't exist or that life is perfect, or that it's easy to overcome the burdens of a troubled past... but also one that shows that for those not afraid to tackle their demons head-on, they CAN be overcome and that while life will never be perfect, it can be worth living. Sounds to me like a good lesson to learn. It opens locally on Friday, September 24th at the Lagoon Theatre. Yes, that's going to be one busy theatre for fans of quality films.