PICKS OF THE WEEK>
The Last Mountain (B)
U.S.: Bill Haney, 2011, Docurama
Imagine a monster movie, a science fiction horror film called The Last Mountain. Except it's not the usual alien invasion or creatures-run-amok tale, but something a little more... plausible?
Something like a Sundance Film Festival documentary, we'll say, set it in the present day, in a typical working-class America state like West Virginia, in a area called Coal River Valley, where for years people have mined coal and pulled it from the earth. We'll have as our heroes, a rag-tag but gutsy group of ex-mining families, retirees, citizens: ordinary people who love their homeland, love coal mining country, but who've been noticing mysterious and horrible things happening all around them.
Polluted streams and rivers, mountains torn up, dead animals and fish, a high incidence of cancers, tumors and brain damage in adults and children, rivers filled with toxic sludge. All around them, the Appalachian mountains that gave their state its nickname (West Virginia is "The Mountain State") being dynamited, blown up, leveled -- the country of their childhood and heritage being torn apart and vanishing before their eyes.
Who are the culprits behind all this?
The bosses. The corporate elite. The heads of the state's most powerful and well-connected coal-mining company. Revealed here as a cabal of seemingly unscrupulous, bottomlessly greed-crazed creeps who have been systematically tearing up the land, breaking laws and polluting the environment for decades, but are protected by their money and power and by the many politicians -- up to and including the president and vice president of the United States -- whom they've bought and paid for.
Who will fight them? Who can fight them?
What I'm describing is a horror movie, all right, and it's called The Last Mountain. It did premiere at Sundance; in many ways, in subject, style and theme, it's the quintessential Sundance documentary. The Last Mountain is about something happening right now, in Coal River Valley: the ravaging of the land and the brutalization of its people by unabashed, unchecked corporate and political greed.
Directed, co-produced and co-written by Bill Haney (The Price of Sugar), it's an account of the battle between the residents of Coal River Valley (and their champions), and a company called Massey Energy -- the biggest coal-mining operation in West Virginia, and the third biggest, revenue-wise, in the country.
Arrayed against Massey and its state-wrecking business as usual are a group of local citizens, with names like Bo Webb (a Vietnam vet and ex-miner), Maria Gunnoe (a waitress, mother and long-time Boone County resident), Chuck Nelson (an ex-miner turned activist), Ed Wiley (an ex-Massey contractor and now an activist/protester) and Lorelei Scarbro (another activist from a long-time mining family), aided by some outside celebrities and experts like environmental lawyer/writer/activist Robert Kennedy Jr. Kennedy becomes, in some ways, the de facto star of this movie, but he doesn't seem to want to be. He constantly defers to the others, those Coal River Valley activists whom he calls "true American heroes."
Haney wisely also focuses on the human drama and turmoil, and on a lot of people, the ones being affected by all this, the ones fighting against it, the people dying of cancer, the communities under assault, and all around them the landscape disappearing, blown right off the mountain top and dumped in the rivers.
This is a typical liberal political documentary, which means that most of the witnesses agree with Bobby Kennedy Jr., as do I. There are few defenders of Massey and the rest of the coal-mining industry -- and frankly, I would have liked to see more of these clowns try to defend themselves. Examples: The president of the West Virginia Coal Association, Bill Raney, chats with Kennedy and calls the coal mining industry "practicing environmentalists." And then there's the very rich Mr. Blankenship, who pops up on TV to pooh-pooh the idea of greenhouse gases and global warming and to claim that the Arctic is actually getting colder -- but not as cold as his heart.
Meanwhile, the community activists here keep fighting. Sometimes they get arrested. I remember the Vietnam years. Seems like old times -- but much less violent. (Except for those exploding mountaintops.)
The Last Mountain is a good documentary, both engrossing and illuminating.
Page One: Inside The New York Times (C)
U.S.: Andrew Rossi, 2011, Magnolia
This "fly-on-the-wall" documentary look at America's celebrated "paper of record" during a time of crisis and upheaval in the entire newspaper industry -- or more pointedly, this fly-on-the-wall look at The New York Times' media desk, with side glances at the rest of the paper -- often seemed to me as diffuse and wandering (and as uninteresting) as watching that same fly buzzing aimlessly, skittering from one spot of wall to the next, in some sterile-looking Times glass-wall office. Or to watch it hopelessly trapped in the flypaper of editor Bruce Headlam's media section, as Headlam's writers try to unravel media trends, uncover media news, and nail the cause of the Times' (and every other paper's) current financial vulnerability: the Internet.
There are probably a dozen ways that director-producer-cameraman-cowriter Andrew Rossi and cowriter Kate Novack could have approached this material, all more interesting than this. The approach I would have liked to see myself: a broader look at some days in the lives of the paper, showing us how different sections and writers cover their beats and get their stories (including, but not exclusively, the media section), with looks at some of the paper's star personalities and some behind-the-scenes stars -- as well as a demonstration of why The New York Times is troubled but irreplaceable, which seems to the be this documentary's not-so-hidden agenda.
Such a movie could have been both illuminating and engrossing. This movie isn't. I worked for two decades at two large papers, The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune, and I'd have to say that Page One never really gave me the feel and thrill, except sporadically, of life and work in a major newspaper, much less the major newspaper. Maybe that's because of Rossi's narrative strategy, which borrows from Frederick Wiseman and Alan Pakula. Maybe it's because of too much time, or too little. Maybe it's because of the good manners and gentility of the Times, which for years has insisted on the irritating if endearing style-rule of putting a Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. before the repeated mentions of the last names of the people in most stories.
Fortunately, Mr. Rossi did find a star as (or before) he buzzed around for that precious year. David Carr, the Times' hard-nosed media reporter -- a 25-year veteran newsman who stumbled into drug addiction and then straightened out his life to become a star reporter at the paper of record -- is a terrific camera subject.
Carr doggedly tracks his stories, and questions or confronts his sometimes evasive interviewees -- which include representatives of the upstart Vice magazine and of my old employers, the Tribune Company. (Carr's Tribune story: the mess that resulted after Sam Zell's purchase of the paper, largely with the Trib employee's pension fund.) And, as Rossi follows Carr through the mess created by Zell and others, Carr seems the very model of a classic print journalist: all the way from the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur masterpiece The Front Page to Redford and Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein in Pakula's All the President's Men: hard-nosed, superbly informed, unafraid, determined to nail that story, but more careful with the facts than either Hecht or Hildy Johnson were.
Single-handedly, Carr saves the movie, which might otherwise languish in the hands of suits (though, like most newspapers these days, the Times' workplace uniform often seems to eschew jackets). Or zap around with Internet whizzes like gabby ex-blog phenom Brian Stelter, who chooses the film's shooting schedule to go on a diet and drop 80 pounds.
Hmm. While Stelter sometimes seems to be using his appearances, and his diet, to wrangle an eventual TV spot, Carr at first seems the very model of the kind of star journalist modern TV mostly doesn't want to put before its cameras -- because his features are weathered, his voice is scratchy, his manner curmudgeonly, because he looks his age.
I won't deny the material this documentary covers is important. Times ex-executive editor Bill Keller appears on camera himself, and allows the recording of a Page One meeting (where the content for the day is set), however chary he may have been of letting Rossi wander around the offices. (The Media desk's two female staffers refused to appear on camera, which gives the section a deceptive "boy's club" look.)
But, except for Carr, Page One struck me as a bore, and not even the presence on editor Headlam's wall of a poster from my favorite movie, Citizen Kane, won me over. I guarantee you, a day, or a year, at the Times has to be more exciting than most of what we see here.
Bad Teacher (D-)
U.S.: Jake Kasdan, 2011, Columbia
Seen any good movies lately?
Good movies? Not really. But I saw a bad movie last Wednesday. I mean, a really bad movie. This movie was sooooo bad....
How bad was it?...
So bad that they put "bad" in the actual title! Like they were proud of it. Bad Teacher!
Oh yeah? What's it about?
Well, it's hard to say. It's about the teaching profession, I guess. And it's about... about deviant behavior. It's about getting high and screwing everybody's brains out and screwing up on your job, and lying and cheating and treating people like shit... It's about being really bad.
A message movie, huh?
Not exactly. Unless the message of the movie was "Fuck you." You see, these two guys from The Office -- Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg -- decided they wanted to make this show, their first feature movie, and they got....
Two guys from the office? Which office? The one down the hall? The guy that's always playing AC/DC?
No, not the office, our office. Two guys from The Office: the TV show The Office. You know, that TV series we stole from Ricky Gervais and the Brits, with Steve Carell as the schnook boss Michael, and John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer and Rainn Wilson. That Office...
Don't yell. I know. Funny show.
Stupnitsky and Eisenberg: They're like executive producers, and they're also a writing team, they wrote about 15 Offices, and, for their first feature movie as co-screenwriters they got his idea: Put Cameron Diaz in another version of Bad Santa...
Cameron Diaz? Bad Santa? Cameron Diaz plays Santa Claus? Christ, what a lousy idea! Who wants to see Cameron Diaz in a Santa Claus suit, for God's sake? An elf suit maybe. A very small elf suit. Or maybe a sprig of mistletoe.
No, not Cameron Diaz as Bad Santa. Cameron Diaz as "Elizabeth Halsey" in a Bad Santa kind of movie. Actually it's called Bad Teacher, like I told you -- if you were listening, you schmuck. And she plays this blonde English teacher with a face like a depraved angel and a body that could burn down the school, and she lies and swears and steals and gets drunk and smokes pot and screws guys' brains out and makes her students cheat on tests. She does every awful thing you can possibly think of (not that I think smoking pot or screwing is awful) except volunteer for the Rick Perry campaign.
Why is she so bad? Lousy childhood? Abuse? Too much booze and weed? Revenge against some principal that screwed her over? Rebelling against the whole fucked-up educational establishment?
No. No reason, nothing particular. She's just bad. She's a total bitch who does awful things. And always gets away with it.
Who'll want to watch that?
What do you mean, who wants to watch it? Because it's Cameron Diaz, you moron. Haven't you ever heard of femme fatales? I bet you want to watch it already, you banana-brain. I bet that, after I leave, you run right out and try to catch an afternoon show, just so you can see the scene where Cameron wears short shorts at a car wash and rubs down the windshield.
She really does that?
It's a comedy, so she does all these bad things and we laugh just like we laughed at Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa and Jack Black in School of Rock. Or anyway, we're supposed to laugh. They've got screwing scenes and humongous titties at the tit doctor's office and she dry-humps this one wishy-washy candy-ass teacher named Scott Delacorte played by Justin Timberlake and another doofus, Russell the gym teacher (but he's less of a putz), played by Jason Segel, the "I Love You, Man" guy.
And there's this other jealous teacher who hates Elizabeth, Amy Squirrel, played by that actress who was the hooker in that Woody Allen movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. You know....
Yeah, Lucy Punch. And Phyllis Smith, from The Office; she's in it. And John Michael Higgins plays this idiot school superintendent, Wally Snur, who has this thing about dolphins....
The Dolphin Tale crowd huh? Does she screw him? The superintendent I mean. Snur.
You know, I don't remember! It all begins to run together in my mind after a while, like goulash. I don't know, maybe she does, and maybe he starts crying about dolphins and can't do it...
Who directed it?
Jake Kasdan. You know: Lawrence and Meg Kasdan's son.
Did he do a good job?
I guess so. I mean it was bad. So maybe it was good.
Ed Wood Jr. bad or Richard Pryor bad?
Both. Either. Hell, I don't know.
Well I gotta admit, that sounds like pretty hot movie. How did they get it past the MPAA? Somebody there love dolphins? Cameron doesn't do any hanky-panky with her students, does she?
No, but they have this one Tea and Sympathy kind of scene where she whips off her black bra and gives it to this one loser kid so he can run around waving it front of all his friends and he won't be a loser any more. But that's the good side of Elizabeth Halsey, the sympathetic side that wants to help. You know, like Deborah Kerr pulls off her bra and says: "Years from now, when you're talking about this, and you will, be kind."
Deborah Kerr. Hot stuff. Great classy redhead. So, Cameron has her good side. In the end, she's really a good teacher?
No, she's a terrible teacher. She comes into class hung over, insults her students, throws on a DVD of Stand and Deliver, and takes a snooze...
So what are you telling me? You mean she just sleeps through the entire movie, or the entire class, and we get to watch Stand and Deliver again?
Actually, at one point, she decides to help her students raise money having car washes (you remember?) and by helping them study To Kill a Mockingbird -- the book, not the movie -- and win a state achievement test contest...
Ah! So she does turn into a good teacher at the end....
No. She's just doing it so she can steal the money and use it for a boob operation.
Hmm. And this is funny? You laughed at this when you saw it?
Well, not exactly. I mean I didn't exactly laugh. But I knew when I was supposed to laugh. I could see where the laughs might come; I could see what was supposed to be funny.
You know something? I think maybe the problem with this movie was that there was this awful lead character, and she was surrounded by awful or stupid people, and they didn't develop the kids any, so there was nobody who wasn't a sort of a slime or a schnook or an idiot or a kind of bad person too, except for Phyllis Smith as Elizabeth's pal, and she doesn't do a lot. Nobody else to suggest the world isn't a pile of crap. So the movie becomes almost like right-wing propaganda. You can't criticize crap, or even make funny jokes about it very well if you don't have a reference point. You just begin to drown in it.
So you're saying watching this movie was like drowning in crap? I know some movie critics who would say that means it's maybe a masterpiece. They'd call it "A fierce, funny, dark, scorching expose of social decay." And educational decay. And corruption in the brassiere industry. And they'd probably get quoted.
What can you say? What's bad is good, and what's good is bad, I guess. Or maybe it's the other way around.
Hmm. Deep, deep. Yeah. Well, you told me it was bad. What can you do? You know I hate to say it. But this sounds like one of those movies the Brits can do better. They're good at this kind of bad thing. Right now, they write this good-bad stuff better. Even though we used to be great at it. Hell, we did Bad Santa. But that was Terry Zwigoff and those Phillip Morris guys, Ficarra and Requa. Outsiders.
You're right. I mean: You're bad.
Richard Pryor bad? Or Ed Wood, Jr. bad? Or The Producers bad?
Richard Pryor bad.
Yeah! I'm bad. I'm bad. Anyway, I heard about this other comedy idea that's making the rounds. Bad Congressman. Ben Stiller. turned it down. They even got cameos written for Newt and Weiner and Boehner and that Cantor guy.
Is it good? I mean, is it bad?
Is it bad? It's a catastrophe!
(Extras: featurettes, bad stuff, wallpaper, yearbook.)