The Baader Meinhof Complex, Uli Edel (2008)

Vague revolutionary sentiment in late 60’s America begat the bloody praxis of the Weather Underground in the early 70’s; similar sentiments in the FRG in the late 60’s begat the Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader Meinhof gang. (Are there even any old pinkos still breathing and capable of a withering critique of that gross oversimplification right there? I had a geriatric Trotskyist neighbor in Madison fifteen years ago who could have spent an entire pot of bad coffee parsing the ideological differences between John Jacobs and Ulrike Meinhof, but he’s got to have gone to his atheist reward by now.) These were the days when students not only protested, but also wrote long tortured Gramsci-inspired treatises and read them to each other to get fired up to rob banks and blow up police stations. The RAF lasted a lot longer than the Weathermen did, harrying German officialdom throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s. Anyway, here’s a movie about them, and it’s really good. It’s long — 150 minutes — which is a good thing, because it needs room to do both the exciting part, where the beautiful young people fuck and drink and howl against injustice, and the enervating part, where everyone goes gray and mad and to jail. I don’t know enough of the history to say how strictly educational the movie is, in a documentary sense, but it definitely conveys a strong and believable sense of the zeitgeist.

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GasLand, Josh Fox (2010)

So we’ve all heard that one solution to the energy and global warming crises is to turn from petroleum to alternative fuels, like for instance natural gas. Natural gas! It’s awesome! It’s clean and cheap and plentiful and domestic! Well, guess what. Big corporations are drilling down into shale formations all over the country, and blasting toxic fluid down the holes to free up the gas so they can suck it out for you. This is causing widespread pollution of groundwater reservoirs, to such an extent that this guy in this picture here is able to set his tap water on fire.

You can find out all about it here. http://gaslandthemovie.com/

It’s a terrible situation but, the formalist must take note, a very fine movie. Fox is personally involved in the problem — a gas company wants to drill on his own property in upstate New York — and acts not as a narrator of the film but as a character in it, to great effect. An extremely engaging and effective piece of agitprop.

Crude, Joe Berlinger (2009)

One of those movies that’s interesting for reasons other than the ones the filmmakers wanted it to be interesting for. From 1964 to 1974, Texaco (now owned by Chevron) drilled for oil in Ecuador’s rain forest. After 1974, Ecuador’s state-owned oil development company continued to drill. Now the area is an environmental catastrophe. Local peoples filed a class action suit against Chevron in 1993, and now, 17 years later, the court case creeps imperceptibly forward. That’s the story, and it’s an important one. The film’s another matter. It reminds me of a homely kid desperate to be popular as it lurches from one overweening attempt at pathos after another. It is relentlessly spotty when it comes to facts, and relentlessly bombastic when it comes to Poignant Tableaux. It looks to me like the filmmakers, in their understandable eagerness to get this story told and to move viewers to sympathy, if not action, have sacrificed reportage for spectacle. It is, as I say, understandable, but it’s also unfortunate.

Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh (2008)

Well of course it’s no such thing, this being a Mike Leigh joint. The real subject here is the same as it always is for Leigh: How can we live with other people? Poppy, a character based on my good friend Bailea, is fundamentally an optimist. Her driving instructor Scott is fundamentally a pessimist. Can they get from A to B without crashing? That makes the movie sound simple, which, in terms of its plot, it certainly is. The nuance and pleasure of a Leigh movie lie in the nature of the performances, which Leigh shapes but does not determine, such that the actors seem not to be acting but being. That purity is less in evidence here than in other of Leigh’s movies–a few of the set pieces here are too obviously contrived to be taken for naturalism–but there are still many moments which resemble authenticity so closely they could just as well be authentic. Ugh, I’ve got a terrible mouth full of marbles on this one; I’m trying to say it’s charming and you should see it.

The Asphalt Jungle, John Huston (1950)

Some noirs excite and energize; others depress and enervate. I tend to prefer the former films, but I make an exception for this beauty, one of the most laconic and unforgiving heist films I know of. It’s nearly classical, the way you can see the disaster coming from the very beginning, and know there’s no way to avoid it. Poor Doll Conovan, poor Angela Phinlay, poor Dix Handley, poor us all.