Tag Archives: environment

The Midnight Sky

We meet scientist Augustine (George Clooney) on a very bad day for humanity. The inevitability that climate change has been predicting for years is finally here, and in the end, it goes so much more quickly than we ever imagined. Augustine works at an Arctic station that is being frantically evacuated on this particular day, people rushing home to be with loved ones as they wait to die, and in a matter of just days, they do. The toxic air will take a few days more to reach the Arctic, so Augustine stays behind, alone. At least he thinks he is until he discovers a little girl (Caoilinn Springall) who’s been left behind, but by the time she’s found, Augustine can no longer reach anyone else. These two may be the last humans alive on Earth.

BUT. There are 5 more humans still alive in space, astronauts that have been on a 2 year mission to assess a newly discovered planet for viability. And indeed it does appear to be the promised land, able to sustain human life. Except for everyone on Earth, it’s too late.

With his communications down, Augustine makes the difficult decision to try to reach another station. On foot. In the quickly melting, deteriorating Arctic landscape. Racing against toxic air. With a little girl in tow. Easy journey, you say? It is not. But Augustine’s got an urgent message for those aboard the starship: don’t come home. Turn back.

The five people aboard that starship are Sully (Felicity Jones), who is pregnant in space, her baby daddy and boss Adewole (David Oyelowo), plus Sanchez (Demián Bichir), Maya (Tiffany Boone), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), none of whom knew they were signing up to be the last earthlings/the ones who would need to repopulate humanity. What an awful burden to put on anyone, but it’s either that, or death. Which would you choose?

Sean didn’t love this movie because he found it cold, and I don’t think that’s just a temperature thing (although poor George had to limit takes to 1 minute, and use a hair dryer to thaw his eyelashes between takes). There’s no room in the movie for recriminations but thanks to a subtle and clever script by Mark L. Smith (based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book, Good Morning, Midnight), we know that Augustine is disgusted by humanity, by the fate we chose for ourselves. The movie very quickly divorces itself from Earth, which is over, and I can understand feeling untethered by that. I myself found it a fascinating corner of the human psyche to explore and discover.

Who are we at the end of the world? Augustine’s life’s work revolved around solving this problem, and now he’s watching it all come to naught. Were his sacrifices worth it? It is a powerful accounting of one’s life that takes place when it can be so starkly measured, and through flashbacks we sense that he’s feeling some regret. The astronauts too are facing a similar hardship. Imagine having come so close, having landed on a planet that could save humanity only to learn that they’re just a little too late. Oh, and that everything and everyone that they knew and loved are dead. And that they can never go home again, in every sense of the expression, that their fates now lie on a strange and unpopulated planet where, best case scenario, their kids will be committing incest for generations.

I love a movie like this that has me trying on so many different shoes to see how they feel. How it feels to fail on such a devastating scope. How it feels to actually face the extinction of the Earth, which seems like such a theoretical concept until the reality is burning in your lungs. And yet to also be in a place where guilt and regret no longer matter. Where not even grief and tears matter because we can only mourn what we have lost, or what we are leaving behind, and neither of those things apply when everything is blinking out at the same time. There are no legacies, no one to carry forward your story, everything will be forgotten, so none of it mattered.

Okay, I can sort of see why you might find this bleak. Yet I am choked with awe reconsidering it all again. George Clooney directs, and he correctly identifies that the end of the world will be markedly emotionless. We humans have no concept of an extinction level event. In 2049, when this movie takes place, we’ll have had – what, 70, 80 years? – of warning, and yet we still won’t see it coming, we still won’t be prepared, and we still won’t believe it until it’s too damn late. I can’t help but admire a movie that is willing to punch you in the gut like that.

The Midnight Sky streams on Netflix December 23rd.

TIFF20: I Am Greta

In August of 2018, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old student in Sweden starts a school strike for the environment. The more she learned about climate change, the more frustrated and fixated she became. What seemed to be the biggest challenge her generation would face, not to mention the certain extinction of further generations, went ignored by those who could and should be doing something – ignored, or worse, disputed. With global warming threatening the very planet she lived on, Greta saw no point in attending school, or in imagining any future at all. Instead she took to the street, the quiet girl on the autism spectrum, uncomfortable being the centre of attention, did the one thing she could because no one else would. Within months she was a world famous activist who’d started a global youth movement.

Director Nathan Grossman and his team have been there from almost the very start, capturing a small, shy girl answering questions, gaze averted, from passerby on the street. And then following her as she makes impassioned speeches to world leaders, her anger damning and shaming them.

I confess, I originally dismissed Greta Thunberg, assuming her cause was just a means to an end – and the end was probably Instagram fame or going viral or some such thing. I assumed she didn’t like the environment half as much as she liked the spotlight, or its money, and that her (stage) parents probably wrote the scripts. Now I am sad for my cynicism; by tolerating politicians who repeatedly break their promises, I am just as complicit. Perhaps I am, to Greta, the more unbelievable of the two.

Many news outlets, and some politicians, have zeroed in on Greta’s autism, and suggested that her “mental illness” causes her to obsess over topics. They’d like to dismiss her, and climate change, in the same breath. But if Greta’s focus is narrower than most, it doesn’t make climate change any less real, or any less of a threat. It makes her a brave whistleblower, the kind that makes people in power nervous because the truth tends to be inconvenient. Greta is the real deal.

By allowing us to observe truthfully, I Am Greta lets us get to know the girl and not just the crusader. This is not a documentary about climate change. It is a documentary about a young woman who becomes the reluctant voice of her generation. Grossman’s profile shows a young woman from an ordinary family, her parents struggling daily with doing the right thing, finding the right way to support her, balancing her needs with the rest of the family’s, and what’s good for her with what’s good for the world as a whole. Greta’s only motivation is the environment. The director’s motivation, however, is a little more complicated. Greta leads by example, and has inspired lots of young people to come forward and hold the adults in charge accountable. By showing us such ordinary domesticity, Grossman is reminding us that if Greta can do it, why not us?

I Am Greta debuts on Hulu November 13th.

Smog Town

If you think your job sucks, trying being an environmental protection official in China.

In some industrial centres, the smog is so thick you practically need a knife to cut through it. A spork at least. Serious harm is being done to the environment, not to mention to people’s health, but that’s not the main concern of an environmental protection officer. I mean, I’m sure that’s in the official job description, but unofficially, though very seriously, the officer’s job is to make sure their region’s numbers are not among the worst in the country. Beijing keeps a very careful watch on each city’s pollution levels, pitting each regional environmental protection office against the others, and the price of failure is shame. Which, in China at least, is a pretty steep price.

Director Meng Han hangs out with us in Langfang, one of China’s most polluted cities. The officials are fighting an uphill battle, an upmountain battle really, with both hands tied behind their backs, and no shoes, and walking pneumonia. Because the environmental protection office must somehow reduce their numbers significantly without being allowed to touch any of the biggest polluters. Instead, the officials play cat and mouse with small time operations run out of people’s driveways and carports. Their emissions are negligible compared to large industries pumping out noxious fumes and degrading the land and sulllying the water, but this is the only kind of change the regional offices are actually allowed to pursue.

Meng Han’s documentary is really a Trojan horse; on the outside it looks like it’s about environmental protection, but once you crack its shell, you’ll find it’s really a commentary on the futility of the job, the hypocrisy of bureaucracy, and the sham lip service our governments pay to our faces about concern for the environment while always valuing profit and efficiency over everything else.

Given these restrictions, these laughable micro targets, our fight against climate change is destined to be a losing one.

This and other titles are screening as part of the Planet In Focus Film Festival – check out their lineup and buy your tickets (and watch at home!) here.

Planet of the Humans

Global warming isn’t up for debate. Not only is it real, it’s already here. It’s happening. And the sad thing is, we’ve seen it coming for at least 60 years. We’ve talked about fossil fuels and acid rain and peak oil and holes in the ozone layer literally all of my life, and in fact, literally all of my mother’s. We’ve reduced, reused, recycled. Sort of. We never reduced, that’s for sure. We fill our blue bins with more and more single use plastics every day. Capitalism ensures that we don’t reuse – in fact, it’s got us replacing items that aren’t even broken. And now our recycling programs are a sham; China used to buy our recycled plastics but they don’t want them anymore, so our municipalities keep picking them up for the sake of optics, but they sit at the recycling facility not getting recycled.

Normally we celebrate Earth Day on April 22nd. This year was its 50th year. Of course, 2020 is turning out to be a notable year in many ways, and most communities postponed or cancelled their events due to the global pandemic. Humanity is so hell-bent on destroying ourselves that we didn’t want to sit around waiting to drown in melted ice caps, we’re just going to go straight for the super bug that wipes us all out for good. That IS ultimately what we’re talking about when we talk about Earth Day: our demise. Because the Earth is not an infinite resource. With overpopulation and overconsumption, we have stupidly decimated the planet we count on for living and breathing and existing and stuff. In his recent stand-up special for Netflix, End Times Fun, Marc Maron poked fun at our self-righteous but minuscule attempts at contribution – the reusable grocery bags, the banning of straws – sarcastically noting that “we did all we could.” I mean, it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that we all saw this coming and we not only watched it happen but we hastened it. We worsened it. And in our own self-delusion, we pretend that the tiny steps we’ve taken (while refusing to make any sacrifice at all) aren’t totally phoney baloney.

Well, Jeff Gibbs has a documentary for you. Capitalism wants you to stop crying about the environment and get back to making and spending money. So they’ve thrown things at us like, for example, solar panels, so we can believe things aren’t completely hopeless. Except it’s all a lie. Solar panels are either prohibitively expensive or nearly totally ineffective as a viable alternative energy source. Making solar panels uses up a tremendous amount of resources and the same dirty, polluting fuels that we’re trying to avoid in the first place. And then they need to be replaced every few years. And you still need a back up power source so you can’t disconnect from the grid. We don’t have the capacity to store excess power for days that are cloudy or rainy or, you know, have a sunset and then a nighttime. Even if we cut down every forest we still wouldn’t have enough space to house even a fraction of the panels we’d need. So solar panels are a nice thought, but they’re really just a distraction to keep environmentally-minded people occupied while big business continues to raze the Earth.

Planet of the Humans is an eye-opener. The environmental movement as we know it has largely been a hoax. It’s a bitter pill to digest. Gibbs is clearly an acolyte of Michael Moore’s. Not only does Moore produce this documentary, Gibbs mimics his style quite blatantly. But Gibbs is no Moore. He doesn’t have the same bullish charisma. He isn’t as emphatic or as fist-wavy. So while this is an important conversation starter, it’s not going to make waves or win awards or convert any birthers. But for the next 30 days, you can watch it for free on Youtube, and this is one way we can honour the Earth without compromising social distancing.

The Lorax

Once upon a time, a lovely young woman named Jay flew first class. Yup, all those travels, and it was just the one time. I don’t even remember where we were going. What I do remember: 1. it was an early morning flight 2. the breakfast was good 3. I had a mimosa 4.The Lorax was playing 5. I almost immediately fell asleep and missed the whole thing. I think we got a pretty good deal on the upgrade but still, it was disappointing to have slept through all the luxury. Of course, it was probably only because of the luxury (read: space) that I could sleep. Still. I kicked myself. I kicked Sean too; he also slept, though it’s a less a rarity for him.

But all this time, I’ve wondered: is The Lorax boring, or did I just fall asleep because it was a 6am flight and I was incredibly tired?

The Lorax is based on a Dr. Seuss story in which a 12 year old boy, Ted (Zac Efron), decides to impress a girl, Audrey (Taylor Swift), by bringing her a tree. A real, live tree. Which no longer exist. They live in a place where the trees were replaced long ago by sculptures of plastic lit up by dozens of C batteries. Their whole town is utterly devoid of nature. They’ve been denuded. But Ted has a pretty big crush on this chick Audrey so he treks out to an isolated home where he meets the elderly Once-ler (Ed Helms), the one responsible for the world’s current problems. As a young man he was so determined to have his company succeed that he thought nothing of cutting down all the trees. He butted heads with the guardian of the forest, The Lorax (Danny DeVito), but he wouldn’t change his mind until it was too late. And the thing about too late is that it’s true to its name: too late.

Sean asked me how heavy-handed the environmentalism theme was, but I actually consider it to be more anti-capitalist than anything. The Onceler’s greed costs them everything. And yet this kid-friendly, animated family film is basically one long commercial, replete with product placement, basically neutering its message.

The animation is lovely. Illumination has done several Dr. Seuss adaptations at this point and they’re pretty adept at the translation. Their trees look like swirls of cotton candy. The town is fairly bursting with brilliant details. And yet once again this film has failed to truly grab me.

Snowpiercer

Thank you, Snowpiercer, for giving me a Bong Joon-ho movie that I can watch! Bong is such a talented director that it made a wimp like me try (and fail) to watch The Host. But not only is Snowpiercer his first English-language movie, it’s also accessible to jerks like me. Which is not to say it isn’t scary because intellectually, it’s nasty as hell. It’s not horror so much as dystopia, and the scariest thing of all is how soon it’s set: 2014. Well, technically the main action is taking place in 2031 or thereabouts, but basically in 2014 humans tried to repair some of the damage we’ve done to the climate and it went disastrously wrong. The earth froze over, so a very select few were chosen to fight for survival on a perpetually moving train. The train has elite passengers at the front, living in luxury, and the unwashed masses are crammed in at the back, living in filth and poverty and darkness.

Mason (Tilda Swinton), the train’s disciplinarian, doles out some very harsh punishments to those who step out of their lane. But there are serious rumblings coming from the back of the train – Curtis (Chris Evans) is the reluctant leader of a rebellion. Soon he and others (Jamie Bell, Song Kang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer, Asung Ko) will make a violent push toward the front, but as usual, the haves will never make it easy for the have-nots.

The film, based on a graphic novel, is a brilliant commentary on class warfare. But it’s not just a matter of class, or economics. It smacks of Marxism, but is tainted with Darwinism. The oblivious first class passengers see their station as right and just, pre-ordained even, and cluelessly talk about their own sacrifices. But ultimately, they are being controlled just as much as the proletariat in the back. The propaganda starts with the schoolchildren and never ends. Free will is an illusion carefully meted out by those in charge. So is hope, and that’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

The film’s momentum is as relentless as the rebellion. Once they start making their push toward the engine, the train itself is a revelation. Production made a 100m replica of the train, and each of the train’s cars is wilder than the last, each more breathtaking, each scattered with clues. And the view outside the train’s windows of the frozen wasteland of earth is strangely beautiful, almost mesmerizing – it’s both serene in its tranquility and violent as the train continues to punch through the continually forming ice and snow. Bong tends to shoot the action with the tail section toward the left of the screen and the engine toward the right, so you always get the sensation that things are moving. It’s a really cool way to orient the audience and keep things pressing forward.

Tilda Swinton gives one of the most compelling and bizarre performances of her career, and if you know Swinton’s body of work at all, you know what a tall, broad drink of water that statement is. Bong Joon-ho originally wrote the part of Mason with John C. Reilly in mind; at the time he was a much more peaceful character. When Swinton landed the part, Bong changed the role but left in the male gender markers. Swinton wears glasses that were once her own – when Bong visited her at her home, he found them in her children’s dress up box, and insisted she wear them. Mason has a gold glinting tooth that is often visible, especially the more unhinged she (he?) becomes. She’s based the character on Margaret Thatcher, which is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Thatcher died the year this came out (2013) so I doubt she ever saw/heard of this unflattering ode, which may be for the best.

Chris Evans pursued the part even though Bong Joon-ho thought he was wrong for it. Bong thought he was simply too fit for a guy who’s been living in the cramped quarters of a dirty train compartment for the past 15 years, never seeing sunlight, subsisting on protein bars made of ground up insects. Evans was clearly persuasive and he’s clearly right for the part – Bong made it work by strategically using wardrobe and camera angles to downplay his physique.

The action sequences are other-worldly. You know which scene I’m going to talk about: a door slides open to reveal a car full of men wearing black fetish masks. Only they’re not here to have safe-word sex. They’re all holding hatchets. They’re here to murder you. In a deep, cleaving way. And then the lights go out. It’s dark like a nightmare and the axe battle is on. They pass up torches from the rear and that’s the only light lighting the scene, which is expertly done. Park Chan-wook serves as a producer and you can’t help but see Oldboy flavours in this scene. It’s spooky and tense and brutal.

Though the train’s engine is meant to be one of perpetual motion, lots of stuff inside the train is actually going extinct (like cigarettes, which will be missed). Life outside the train, however, may actually be returning. In the film’s final shot, the survivors’ sense of hope is buoyed by the sight of a polar bear, a sure sign that life on earth will continue. I think the choice of a polar bear is significant: our news feeds have been inundated with the sight of starved polar bears, of polar bears literally drowning because the ice is melting and swims between ice floes have become too long to sustain. Polar bears are a vulnerable, at-risk species. Snowpiercer’s healthy, satiated polar bear indicates that what they really need to thrive is the loss of their greatest threat: humanity.

When Lambs Become Lions

Northern Kenya is a very dangerous place for elephants.  Hell, maybe there’s no safe place on Earth for an animal whose front teeth are worth more on the black market than my whole body, but Northern Kenya is particularly deadly ground.  Every day, the elephants are stalked by poachers, who in turn are pursued by park rangers.  But it’s hardly a fair fight when the park rangers haven’t been paid by the government for months, while the poachers stand to make more from one elephant than the rangers have made in the past year.When+Lambs+Become+Lions

When Lambs Become Lions documents the ongoing battle between poachers and rangers from a very interesting perspective: it follows two family members on opposite sides of the fight and shoots the heart of the action, as poachers pursue elephants and as rangers pursue poachers.   Because of its dual focus, When Lambs Become Lions manages not to take sides or judge these relatives as they try to provide for their families.  That is a useful perspective because really, the poachers aren’t the true reason for elephants’ status as an endangered species.  The poachers are the tool of the ivory dealers, and both exist because many of the world’s rich people want to pay lots of money for tusks.  Those people are the villains here.  The poachers are simply trying to get ahead rather than living day-by-day doing whatever odd jobs can be found.

As a result of the film’s judgment-free, up-close approach, When Lambs Become Lions feels more like a narrative feature than you’d expect.  I was curious to see how the story would end and enjoyed the twists and turns along the way.  As it turns out, poachers and rangers are not like oil and water.   They mix, they intermingle, and they can at time seven switch from one side to the other.  Even though rangers are authorized (and expected) to shoot poachers on sight, there’s a respect for their opponents’ circumstances and humanity that feels so very foreign, quaint, and refreshing in contrast to the western ultra-partisan, hyper-adversarial approach to conflict.

What’s the cause of those differing attitudes to one’s ideological opponents? Is it that we’ve had it too good for too long to remember what it’s like to make hard choices to survive?  Are we afraid to engage with those who have different opinions than ours?  Why can’t we see past those differences that are so minor in comparison to the divide between than these two relatives, one of whom is expected to feed the other to crocodiles when both are on duty?  I’m not sure but it’s something for us to figure out because, like rangers say about poachers, that story is unlikely to have a happy ending.

 

Planet in Focus: Genesis 2.0

“After what happened in Jurassic Park, is it good science to play God with the dead?” This is the question posed by the Planet in Focus page for Genesis 2.0. For a documentary to pose such a question feels surreal. Well, we’re living in a surreal world and, after watching this new documentary from directors Christian Frei and Maxim Arbugaevit, you may very well find yourself praying that we’ve learnt the lesson s of a 25 year-old science fiction movie.

Genesis 2.0 address some ethical dilemmas in the field of molecular engineering using the ambitious quest to bring back the woolly mammoth. It’s an idea that’s so crazy that I honestly don’t know how I feel about it. I find it both exciting and scary. If the geneticists at Harvard and an elite lab in China share my apprehension, they are doing an excellent job of hiding it. Even the less privileged Siberians who take the treacherous trip to the Siberian arctic every summer in search of  mammoth tusks don’t seem too worried.

The film divides its time pretty equally between scientists and tusk hunters. The stuff in the arctic is gorgeously shot and Frei, who spent a summer up there, clearly bonded with the Siberian hunters. Their job is dangerous and offers no guarantees. Every year 1 or 2 people don’t make it back and many will not find enough “white gold” to make the trip worth the time and risk.

The scientists in the US, China, and South Korea (where they’re cloning dogs for grieving pet owners) that we follow live in a completely different world. They work with state of the art technology and don’t risk their lives the way the arctic hunters do. The filmmakers respect the geneticists just as they do the hunters, watching them work and letting them make their case for the importance of their work. Only one question on the ethics of molecular engineering is asked of them throughout the entire movie and it’s answered only with an awkward silence.

Genesis 2.0 mostly saves it’s editorializing for the final minutes of the film and when it comes it feels a little awkward and out of place. All in all though, it’s a fantastic documentary. It’s thought-provoking and beautiful to watch and has an interesting point of view that seems to tie the whole thing together. The future of genetic research is like the treacherous Siberian arctic. It’s not easy and is full of risk. But pushing forward into the unknown and taking great risks is just human nature. Will the future look olike the first act of Jurassic Park? Or will it look like the scary part after all the dinosaurs get loose? Only time will tell.

Rodents of Unusual Size

Nutria sounds like a sweetener but is actually a disgusting rodent…of unusual size. It looks like a rat but it’s the size of a beaver. The orange-toothed critter is native to South America but was unfortunately introduced to Louisiana by fur by fur trappers. People made good money hunting them for pelts until the fur trade collapsed in the 80s and nobody wanted to wear rat anymore.

desktop_small_fwah_ROUSpostcard_FRONTv2_3In North America, the nutria’s only predators were humans. Without hunting, the nutria have multiplied terribly. Now this invasive species has overrun the land, its destructive eating and burrowing habits eroding coastline and eating up swamp land valuable for its protection against hurricanes.

Rodents of Unusual Size is about the good people of Louisiana and their initiative to save their land and their livelihoods from the dreaded nutria. The government has put a $5 on their heads – er – their tails, actually. It’s a popular and effective measure, though the buckets of monstrous rat tails left me a little squeamish. Directors Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer assemble a curious cast of characters to tell their story, including off-season shrimpers, students paying their college tuition, and gruff women who do it better. But it’s fisherman Thomas who will win your heart. He’s been battered by all the elements his land could throw at him, and he’s determined to survive this one as well. Man vs. beast: it’s a classic match-up, and it’s playing as part of the Planet In Focus Film Festival.

This is a surprisingly endearing documentary, as easily digested as a nutria kabob. I highly suggest you check it out – for the slice of life, the bit of trivia, the satisfaction of a well-turned documentary.

 

 

SXSW: From All Corners

Quick question: How do you feel about cardboard?

Unless your name is Fuyuki Shimazu, the subject of this documentary, your honest answer would probably have to be “I don’t have strong feelings about it either way’. Until today, it was virtually impossible for me to imagine anyone responding any differently. Well, Fuyuki Shimazu loves cardboard.

It all started when he was a poor student wanting a wallet of his own but not able to afford one. Left with only two choices- do without for awhile or get creative- he made himself one out of cardboard. I can’t remember offhand if he made it from cardboard he found in the garbage or if he started doing that later.

Fuyuki’s outside the box thinking turned into a passion and eventually a career.  Searching the warehouses and dumpsters all over japan, he began to collect cardboard that caught his eye and began to make a living off of making and selling wallets. And they’re nicer than you might think. Seen through Fuyuki’s eyes, yeah, I can sort of see it. I wouldn’t have noticed before but there are a lot of cardboard boxes out there with eye-catching designs.

It’s not easy to know what to make of Fuyuki at first as he travels the country to various factories to learn the stories and inspirations behind his favourite cardboard boxes. he worked at a prestigious advertising firm for 3 years as an art director where his colleagues said things like “Whenever you talk, it’s always about cardboard”, “He’s a different kind of species”, and “We have all sorts of employees so he was not the only weird one, but…”. He’s a likable guy though and seems to be able to make friends with anyone. His enthusiasm, if not exactly contagious, is endearing, inspiring, and unquestionably genuine. He’s a great subject for a documentary and director Ryusuke Okajima is smart to keep the focus mostly on him.

There’s a more universal point to all this, of course, about upcycling. With Earth’s resources dwindling as they are… Oh never mind. Just watch the movie. I promise it’ll be worth your time. And if you’re as burnt out on documentaries about the environment as I am, you’ll be relieved to know that Okajima doesn’t belabor this point and only mentions it in any detail towards the end. Fuyuki Shimazu and his wallets are fascinating and From All Corners is wise to keep the focus mostly on them.