Blood on the Mountain


Beautiful West Virginia is paying the price for its coal.

Beautiful West Virginia is paying the price for its coal.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Chris Hedges, Davitt McAteer, Chuck Keeney, Richard Trumko, Rev. Ron English, John Cavendish, Doug Estepp, Rev. Matthew Watts, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (archival footage), Peter Galuszka, Bruce Stanley, Terry Steele, Denny Tyler, Dr. Rahul Gupta, Chuck Nelson, Jack Spadaro, Charlotte Neilan, Maria Gunnoe. Directed by Mari-Lynn C. Evans and Jordan Freeman

 

I’m sure not many of us thought that coal mining would be a major controversy in 2016. President-elect Trump has vowed to bring more jobs to coal country, particularly West Virginia. At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring to a vote the Miner’s Protection Act that will protect the pensions and rights of tens of thousands of coal miners, all the more heinous because he represents a coal state.

This documentary, co-directed by West Virginia native daughter Evans and activist Freeman, takes a sober look at the history of coal mining, starting with the labor wars of the first part of the 20th century on through the reforms to working conditions brought about by the union, the erosion of the union in the latter part of the century and how the mining companies, particularly Massey and it’s absolutely amoral chairman Don Blankenship, has exploited the miners as surely as they’ve exploited the environment.

Of late, mining is mostly done by the mountaintop removal method, which causes egregious harm to the ecology, leaving pristine mountains scarred and as lifeless as the lunar surface, and yet the people of West Virginia have been solid supporters of coal companies who are the main providers of jobs in the Mountain State.

Evans and Jordan don’t pretend to be impartial; there’s a bias here and while I admit it’s hard to argue against them, there isn’t much of an attempt to address the concerns of the people of West Virginia regarding jobs and employment, a key issue in the recent election and certainly one of the big reasons West Virginians voted for Donald Trump in overwhelming numbers.  As a liberal, I have to admit that the left has fallen down on addressing the people of West Virginia (and other states like it), rather almost telling them “we know what’s good for you.” In West Virginia, jobs are good for them.

And yet West Virginians have not done well by the coal industry. Coal mining has killed scores of West Virginians, from black lung to mine explosions, floods and mine collapses to labor disputes over the decades. Coal miners have worked in some of the most abysmal conditions in human history, but the feeling is any job is better than no job. Coal companies created company towns, often putting their employees into what amounted to slave labor, paying their employees in scrip which they could only spend at company stores at vastly inflated prices, the workers knowing if they rocked the boat they’d be forcibly evicted from the company-owned home they live in with their families.

It is a mournful litany of abuse, corporate greed and political spinelessness, buttressed by archival footage and talking head interviews, with intervening footage of the natural beauty of West Virginia – one of the most beautiful states in the Union – and the results of the Big Coal’s irresponsible lack of regard for the consequences to the environment of their actions.

This is one of those documentaries where the content is so compelling that I end up overlooking that the actual craft of the documentary could be better; the filmmakers leap around in time and subject to sometimes dizzying effect. A more linear narrative would have served the film better. I also would have liked to at least hear more from West Virginians concerned about jobs over environment and health; they are rendered here mainly to hysterical screaming mobs. There are some intelligent people on the other side and their point of view certainly should have been heard. Still, this is something that in the words of former Rage Against the Machine guitarist and activist Tom Morello every American worker should see, and I agree with him. While this focuses on coal, one of the most egregious industries in terms of abuse of its workers in American history, it is also the story of all workers in America. It is time their voices were heard.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the archival footage is nifty. The film is a timely look at the state of the labor movement.
REASONS TO STAY: There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of impartiality here. The filmmakers could have tied the struggle here more in with the current political climate.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s tagline “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” is a quote from Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, an ardent union organizer and the person for whom Mother Jones magazine was named.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harlan County, USA
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Rules Don’t Apply

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The Hunger Games


The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence takes a bow.

(2012) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Nelson Ascensio, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid. Directed by Gary Ross

 

For some, Darwinism boils down to survival of the fittest. Only those equipped to make it in a brutal, indifferent environment will move on to the next round. We see this in our social networking. We see this in our reality television.

In the future, it is all over our lives as well. After the fall of the United States, a new nation of Panem (from the Latin panem et circenses meaning bread and circuses) rises. It is comprised of the wealthy Capitol surrounded by 12 impoverished districts. After a failed uprising, the Capitol has ordered that one boy and one girl, each between the ages of 12 and 18, from each district would be selected at random and brought to the Capital for a fight to the death. Only one of the 24 young people would survive the competition, which was televised and became known as the Hunger Games.

This year is the 74th of the annual events. In District 12, the coal-mining district which is one of the poorest of them all, the people awaiting the Reaping (the ceremony in which the selection of the fighters, known as Tributes, is made) with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Katness Everdeen (Lawrence) is a veteran of these Reapings as is her boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) who like many young people is chafed by the injustice of the very rich choosing from the very poor to die for their entertainment. Katness is more practical; she’s concerned with day-to-day survival in a situation where food is scarce.

Her sister Primrose (Shields) is in her first Reaping and is mighty scared about how things will turn out. Katness tries to reassure her; she’ll only have one entry into the Reaping while Katness and Gale have dozens. So of course when the Reaping takes place it is Primrose who is chosen; Katness, aghast, quickly volunteers to take her sister’s place. This isn’t unusual in the more urban districts but this is the first time District 12 has had a volunteer. Somewhat anti-climactically, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), the son of a baker, is chosen for the boys.

The two are collected by Effie Trinket (Banks), a dandified handler and whisked away by bullet train to Capitol. There they are to be mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson), a sullen alcoholic who has the distinction of winning the Hunger Games twenty years previously. There is also Cinna (Kravitz), a genius of a designer whose purpose is to make the Tributes look as memorable as possible so they might attract sponsors, wealthy patrons who send their favored medicine, food, water and other supplies during the course of the game.

Training is interspersed by media appearances, particularly on the wildly popular talk show of Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) where Peeta lets it slip that he’s had an unrequited crush on Katness. When the game begins, Haymitch warns Katness to stay away from the cornucopia which would be a bloodbath and to find high ground and water. She follows his advice and is able to survive the brutal first few hours in which half the Tributes die.

Her skills in hunting and tracking serve her well, particularly as an alliance has been formed by Cato (Ludwig), Glimmer (Rambin) and Marvel (Quaid), some of the older and better-trained Tributes. Peeta has thrown in with this lot to help hunt down Katness who has quickly become one of the more popular Tributes. Katness is joined by Rue (Stenberg) who helps her outwit the alliance by pointing out a nest of Tracker Jackers, a kind of genetically enhanced hornet whose sting causes hallucinations and death, at least for Glimmer.

It will soon become apparent that Katness will not only be fighting her fellow Tributes but also the powers that be, led by the amoral President Snow (Sutherland) who don’t want to see the inspirational Katness succeed. The Hunger Games are turning out to be so much more than the sum of their parts.

The wildly popular young adult books have transitioned well to the big screen, which translated to the third-largest opening of all time and the biggest for a non-sequel. The movie has gotten high critical praise and is rapidly on its way to becoming the next cultural phenomenon, replacing the Harry Potter and Twilight series.

It is also going to make a huge star out of Jennifer Lawrence. Katness is in many ways an iconic character; she’s a young woman of strength and ethics who feeds her family (much as Lawrence’s Ree Dolly did in Winter’s Bone) but shows compassion for the weak. She knows that her society isn’t just but is concerned more about survival until pushed to the limit. She makes for quite the role model.

Like in the Twilight series, Katness is faced with the love of two different men – the earnest and charismatic Peeta as well as the good-hearted and intelligent Gale. Expect hours of conversation between pre-teens and their moms about the relative merits of both gentlemen and which one is the right one for Katness.

Director Gary Ross has opted to go with a good deal of handheld camera work here, mostly to signify Katness’ point of view and illustrate the chaotic nature of the Games. That might be exciting for the younger viewers but for us older folks it gets annoying and intrusive; there are better ways to illustrate chaos than blurry, shaky images that make you want to look away from the screen than be mesmerized by it.

The images are dazzling in places, but not as much as I thought it would be. The overall look of Capitol is kind of like Versailles if it had been designed by the art director of The Fifth Element. It screams decadence and autocracy quite nicely, while dressing up the citizens of the outlying districts in homespun not unlike pioneers.

The action sequences are pretty marvelous although not necessarily groundbreaking. The stunts aren’t too terribly violent although there are a couple of pretty messy deaths here. Definitely original author Suzanne Collins has succeeded in creating a new environment that is simultaneously familiar and alien, inhabited by Tracker Jackers and mellifluous mockingjays (songbirds who appear in the movie’s emblem) as well as digitized Muttations.

There are those who see a socio-political commentary in the film; conservatives look at the young people as the Tea Party vs. the elitist left-leaning establishment, whereas liberals look at the young people as signifying the Occupy movement against the one per-centers. You are free to choose whichever interpretation you wish, or to make up one of your own. This is meant to be socio-political commentary disguised as entertainment but Collins is wise enough to be fairly vague in who’s who. That makes for some fairly nondescript politics but at least it is a place to start conversations. And when you’re talking one of the year’s most successful movies (having made three times its production budget in the first eight days), that’s not a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: Several steps above the Twilight franchise. Lawrence sends her career to the next level.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little bit too long. Left me ambivalent about the inevitable next film in the franchise. Shaky cam was distracting and annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a lot of violence as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The design for the cornucopia was based on the work of architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Disney Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan’s Run

GLADIATOR LOVERS: There are numerous references to ancient Rome, from the names of the citizens of Capitol (Coriolanus, Seneca, Cato) to the weapons used in the Games themselves.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold