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The scariest movies, in reality, are not horror movies (especially horror movies today), but are, in my opinion, documentaries, at least ones that focus on a specific individual or group of people that are up to no good.  I’m sure you know the answer why.

Earlier documentaries from this year prove this point: Daniel Ellsberg revealed the ignorance of a properly informed America and how that resulted in the loss of nearly 60,000 military personnel in the Vietnam War, the Art of the Steal showed just how easy it was for politicians and power players to pick apart an individual’s will, and Casino Jack showed us an America ran by money, not by actual thinking men and women.

GASLAND?  This one is scary, and definitely a wake up call, in trying to figure out what America needs to do with its energy crisis.

Josh Fox, the creator of said film, receives a letter from a gas company, asking if they could pay him for the rights to drill the natural gas from his land.  Not sure if $100,000 is worth it, he does some investigating of local towns and counties that have natural gas drilling, in this instance, called hydraulic fracturing, or frakking.  What he finds is devastating: local water supplies ruined because of the natural gas seeping into them; running water that lights up in a pyre of flame; families reporting headaches, animals losing their hair, etc.  It’s enough to make him say no.

The process of hydraulic fracturing, he shows, involves drilling a mix of water and nearly 600 various chemicals – some of them being known carcinogens and harmful to human health – into the ground, causing mini earthquakes that fracture the earth, releasing the stored natural gas for extraction.  A site can be fractured up to eighteen times; the amount of water needed for one fracturing at one well is anywhere from 1-7 million gallons of water.

There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of these wells all across the country in various natural gas fields.  You can do the math.

Fox’s journey takes him from his home in northeastern Pennsylvania to across the southern portion of the United States, stopping in places like Forth Worth, Texas, where a new well springs up almost overnight.  He ends up back in Pennsylvania talking with a state senator about what to do about this problem.  The senator was right to peg him about being behind the camera asking questions; Fox’s response is a simple “I’m from Pennsylvania, and this affects me.”

He ends up in Washington, D.C. for a Congressional hearing from various gas companies about the effects of hydraulic fracturing and their effects on the environment – they either feign ignorance or outright say no to questions about their effects.  Fox is quick to point the camera repeatedly on the bottled water that the gas company employees are drinking (one repeated mentioned throughout the film by distressed homeowners about their water is asking these same people to drink it, to which they politely decline as best they can).  Fox, prior to this hearing, is in New York, learning more about a water basin that serves 20 million people that remains untouched but is part of the largest natural gas vein in the eastern half of the country.

That 20 million people, by the way, lies along the Delaware River valley, stretching from southern New York State all the way into Delaware.  Most of my readership (if I have one) lives along this 100-mile length of land: the water we drink comes from this basin.

Fox himself is admirable in his quest for answers.  His narration comes off as stilted, which is bothersome at first but becomes more focused as the film moves forward.  His has a dark humor that emerges – the scene with him playing banjo would be funny if public lands and a gas well weren’t behind him, as well as what he’s wearing as well when he plays – but he’s also serious, and his angered response comes at an appropriate time, when continued disbelief of the stories he hears gives way to “what can we do about this”.

This film is definitely a wake up call.  Well made, informative, and downright scary.  Like all documentaries about the real world should be.

Note: this film is playing on HBO On Demand through September, in their Documentaries section.  Watch it.

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Dear Pixar, your ability to make great movies every year is completely frustrating.  Cut it out!

Yes, they did it again (that 98% tomato rating is no lie), and while it isn’t their best, it’s still quite good.

The story picks up ten years after Toy Story 2.  Andy is preparing to go to college, and has to decide what to do with his toys.  Obviously he can’t take them, save for Woody (he’s his favorite, of course), but through some accident, they end up being donated to Sunnyside, a nursery for children.  At first it looks good, but when the preschoolers come along and manhandle the poor toys, they want to leave.  Meanwhile, Woody continues his quest to get back home and to find Andy, but makes new friends along the way.

As a story, it’s rather conventional: plot, conflict, climax (involving a dumpster, a dump truck, and a garbage dump), resolution, and everyone goes home happy.  It’s Pixar’s ability to take that formula though and make it exciting, and they’re able to do that quite well.  The writing is often quite good and snappy – Barbie and Ken get most of the big laughs, but there are loads of adult humor in there as well.

There are two things I really admire about Pixar that can be seen in this film.  The first is their ability to bring humanity to even the simplest things.  The toys – a combination of varying plastics, cloths and other stitchings and adhesives – are brought to life wonderfully through their interaction with each other.  The main cast is pared down from previous films – as Andy gets older, they give away a lot of the toys, so there’s less than a dozen of the mainstays remaining – but they each get enough characterization to advance their own stories and the central plot of the film as well.  Woody is completely loyal to Andy, Buzz is 24/7 heroic (though his system reset brings a lot of the humor in the film as well), Jessie is Woody’s often contradictory support and a constant firecracker, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head are predictably cynical and sarcastic and always a hoot, and Rex and Hamm are fun comic relief.  The animation for all of these characters is top notch, but it’s the writing that brings them out more.

The second admiration I have is just their amazing story telling ability, most notably early on and at the end.  They use montage sequences quite effectively, both advancing plot and even character.  The one in the beginning, from the eye of Andy’s mother as she records him hanging with his toys, shows Andy growing up, still enjoying the company of his toys and the adventures they share.  The one at the end is much in the same tone but also different: he’s grown up, but now he’s moving on.  It’s on par with the opening fifteen minutes of Up (still to me one of the most brilliantly written parts of any movie ever), and it gives proper closure to the Toy Story arc.

Quite good, and highly recommended.  Though, I saw it in 2-D, so I couldn’t really tell you about seeing it in 3-D.

B+

So this was the film that launched the modern film movie?  Delightful.

The reason, as it is written, is that Godard created the “jump-cut” that is heavily prominent in just about every movie today.  Today, though, it’s mostly for the wrong reason: watch an action movie, and you have no idea what’s going on because there’s a cut once every 0.5-1.5 seconds.  Godard did it mainly to cut out the boring parts of the film, as he called them.  The original cut of the film was thought to be too long, so instead of cutting out entire scenes, he cut out parts of scenes, and really did nothing to hide the fact that he was cutting parts of the film out.  It was an extremely gutsy move, and it got a really decisive reaction when it originally came out in 1960.

Even today, this film would probably get a decisive reaction.  It’s completely absurd.  The plot, if there is one, involves Michel, a car thief, who happens to kill a cop about five minutes into the film complaining to the camera about everything and nothing, then spends the rest of the film avoiding the cops coming after him.  Much of the time is spent with his American girlfriend of sorts, Patricia.

But none of that matters.  Nothing really matters in this film; it’s all nonsense.  It’s all gleeful nonsense, and me being the absurdist that I am, I enjoyed it.  For instance, take a look at the scene in Patricia’s apartment.  It’s a thirty minute sequence of nonsense: Patricia has a poster she wants to hang up; Michel continually asks her to take off her top; there’s a nude magazine in there somewhere; they listen to music, but not really; they have sex; Michel makes several phone calls trying to get money that’s he’s owned; and they just talk about anything, and none of it matters.  They do this for thirty minutes.

Who, in their right mind today, would get away with thirty minutes of nonsense?  This is downright ballsy.  The rest of the film is like this too, with more nonsense and abstract ramblings (the interview with the poet is probably the one that’ll drive everyone out of the theater).

So, evidently, this isn’t a film for everyone.  You have to be patient, and a silly sense of humor, and to just go with it.

The film was beautifully shot in Paris, and the locales used – the countryside, the Eiffel Tower, and other parts of Paris – look wonderful.  The restored cut of the film looks good; I never saw the original, but the new 35mm pressing looks clean and crisp.  It’s easy to watch, and the cuts aren’t distracting at all.  They add more to the personal feel that Godard was trying to accomplish, and I think he did.  I had watched Citizen Kane a couple weeks ago, and the differences in film styles is staggering.  Watch them both back to back: one, arguably the greatest film of all time, places the camera in a single spot and lets the actors do their thing; the other, the launch of the modern film movement, breathes in the actors, and dances around them while they interact with the world.  It’s amazing really.

But, yes, get through that nonsense, and you may enjoy it as I did.

A-

Their Kung Fu is bad. My Kung Fu is good. You decide.

Well, nothing is said exactly like that, but that’s how Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) describes Kung Fu. At least his, and Kung Fu in general: use Kung Fu to make peace with everyone, including yourself. Kung Fu, in fact, is everything. Kung fu is the piece that drives this film, from the early encounters in which Dre (Jaden Smith) gets bullied, to the rousing tournament in the end, a well staged and executed sequence that utilizes various degrees of Kung Fu, all of it being very impressive.

I haven’t seen the remake in a long time, but this is essentially a point-by-point remake with a few changes: Kung Fu instead of karate, China instead of urban America, and Mr. Han (the Mr. Miyogi in the story) gets a back story. China is used quite well actually: some of the training occurs on the Great Wall, and the camera sweeping over it the first time is quite amazing. I also read somewhere that this is the second film ever to gain access to the Forbidden City, though we only get a wide shot and Dre playing drums on the rock climber inspired front door. A mountain is climbed where Mr. Han learned his Kung Fu, and that actually offers some of the best cinematography in the movie. Beijing is used quite well, both in the sanitized Olympic Village, and the messy residential area of narrow streets and hundreds of people in a single square mile.

Mr. Han’s back story works well actually, as it adds to the bond between himself and Dre: Dre lost his father at some point (I can’t remember if he died or just left), while Han lost his family (the car in the living room does make sense). Jackie Chan has become a more versatile actor in his old age: while he doesn’t move as he once did (though he still can kick some butt), his ability to give emotion and connect with everyone around him adds to his allure. This kind of role serves him much better than, say, The Spy Next Door or whatever that travesty was.

Jaden Smith as Dre, meanwhile, does what all 12-year-old kids do when they go to China unwillingly: be a brat. He does nothing to help his mom, he’s disrespectful all around, and he’s easily instigated, which doesn’t humble him the first or second time he gets picked on/gets beat up. He gets a Chinese girlfriend-ish person, though her character completely disappears in the third act (same with his mom, actually).

Then again, the third act is the tournament, so of course the focus is on that, but by then, we want Dre to win. He comes to terms with his rebellion, understanding Mr. Han, understanding life, understanding everything.

The movie is long (the second longest to Robin Hood actually this summer season), but for good reason. All of the characters get proper room to breathe and build. I cared about pretty much all of the characters (well, except for the bad guys, but they’re the ones you really do hate). How many summer movies – or wide release movies for that matter – can I say that about?

Not very many, it would seem. Enjoyable all around.

B+

Note: Jaden Smith is turning into his dad.  Note the sequence early on when Mr. Han swats a fly on the wall, or when Dre does some pop-locking for the Chinese girl.  Not sure if this is a good thing.

I realized about ten minutes into this movie that there was no way for me to write a proper review.  Not in the sense that I’ve done with other documentary reviews: I can nitpick endlessly on several of them about the slanting view points, the lack of clarity with information, and so on.  If there is one thing I can say negatively about this film (which really isn’t a negative at all), it’s that there’s only four stories being told here, when MSF has thousands of volunteers, each with their own stories.  Still, each story shown is important, showing the troubles each of them face in an underdeveloped nation ravaged by war and internal strife.

Two of the stories come from newcomers: Tom is an American, dismayed by the American health system and the desire for something new, but is quickly overwhelmed by the work in the capital city of Liberia, while Davinder, an Australian, faces his own problems in a town several days away from the capital city.  The other two stories come from MSF veterans: Chiara, an engaging Head of Mission that tries her hardest to keep morale high, and Chris, a doctor trying to get out, even when he’s being pulled back into another war torn country.  Chiara runs the mission in Liberia, while Chris works out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, still in the grips of a civil war.  All of them make tough decisions every day, often in contradiction to their idealism, but they do what they can.

Each day for the doctors is busy, with different cases all reflecting the damage society of sub-Saharan Africa: a man has an infection and needs his leg removed below his knee, a child swells in his stomach and face with no known explanation, a man is shot in the face and loses his ear, a teenage girl is shot in the arm in a random attack, but even worse for her, she loses her parents.  The physical toll is gut-wrenching; the human toll is heart-breaking.

And yet the doctors soldier on, saving whom they can with whatever instruments they have available to them.  They grieve when someone else dies (which happens far more often than when people live), and they celebrate when they unexpectedly save a life.  They drink, they smoke, they party, and they have sex.

They’re human, at times far more human than we are, on the frayed ends of society.  The people they serve are just as human, if not more so: one of the doctors describe them as far more human than any they’ve experienced.  Even with nothing but the clothes on their back, they have their family and friends around them as much as possible, with nothing like greed or gluttony separating them.  If only we could be like them, maybe we’d understand ourselves a little more.

So yes, there is a sense of hope to be found from the insanity that’s faced in this movie.  It’s not a lot, but it’s that small ideal hopefulness that we all have and wish to grasp someday.

Terrific.

A

Note: the movie is currently playing at the Ritz at the Bourse.  I don’t think I need to tell you twice to see this.