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 Insider


The Insider

The young tiger and the old lion.

(1999) True Life Drama (Touchstone) Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Diana Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowski, Colm Feore, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn, Lynne Thigpen. Directed by Michael Mann

 

On one level, this movie could be taken as the story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the corporate whistleblower who braved much external pressure, death threats, the dissolution of his family and the pangs of his own conscience to step forward and point the finger at Big Tobacco, making several lawsuits against them possible.

On another level, this movie could be taken as the story of Lowell Bergman, the courageous producer who brought Wigand’s story to “60 Minutes,” and how he fought to air the story. However, what The Insider is really about is how big corporations whether Big Tobacco or Big Media run our lives in an insidious fashion. They determine what we see on the news, decide what we are allowed to say or not say. It illustrates, in a very subtle manner, how Orwellian our country really has become, and right under our very noses.

Russell Crowe stars in an Oscar-nominated performance as Wigand, a high-ranking scientist and corporate executive at a major tobacco company whose conscience and temper have recently gotten him fired. He has a daughter with a severe asthmatic condition, so medical benefits are paramount to him. His former employer is willing to keep those benefits in place as long as Wigand signs a confidentiality agreement, which Wigand does on two separate occasions (they choose to broaden the scope of the agreement early on in the film).

Bergman (Pacino) is referred to Wigand by a colleague to help him understand some scientific data. Eventually, it becomes clear that Wigand wants to talk and Bergman, realizing the enormity of what he has to say and the evidence in his possession, coaxes him along. Eventually, Wigand testifies in court and does an interview with Mike Wallace (Plummer) on the venerable primetime news program.

Except that CBS corporate doesn’t want to air the story. Nervous about possible litigation running into the billions of dollars at a time when the network is on the auction block, they effectively kill the story with the blessings of 60 Minutes producer Don Hewett (Hall) and Wallace.

It is watching the machinations behind the scenes that is almost as fascinating as Wigand’s own story, which could have made a movie riveting by itself. The tension that Wigand lives through here is palpable, and when you try to put yourself in his shoes, you only marvel at the man’s tenacity. Together, the two stories make for an extremely watchable movie. 

There is some acting here, from Crowe who began a run of incredible performances which would net him an Oscar (although not for this movie) to Pacino who was at his best here. Plummer channeled the late Mike Wallace nicely, even if it wasn’t a very flattering portrait always. Mann doesn’t always get enough credit for it but he seems to have a knack for pulling out superior performances from his actors in nearly all of his movies, going back to his days on the “Miami Vice” television show.

Well after this movie came out we saw just how devastating the lack of corporate conscience is to the economic health of this country, so in many ways this movie was prescient. When short-term greed for bottom line profits overrides common sense and dignity, the results are very much in evidence. Corporate greed is not the sole province of the financial industry; obviously it is prevalent throughout big business, and this was a movie that not only saw that but blew the whistle on it earlier than most. In that sense, it is a chilling precursor to what was to come and a grim warning to what can still occur if we don’t act. The Insider is a jolting reminder that all of us are touched in some way by the corporate culture of profit obsession that has lingered from the days of the robber barons and still is the defining aspect of American big business.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous, Oscar-caliber performances. Subject that is as relevant now as it was then.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language can get a bit harsh in places.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a feature called “Inside a Scene” which allows the viewer to read the director’s notes and script for a scene before viewing how the scene played out. It’s a fascinating concept but isn’t available for a lot of scenes here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.3M on a $90M production budget; the movie lost money in its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Whistleblower

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Battleship

The Yes Men Fix the World


The Yes Men Fix the World

Just say Yes Men.

(Shadow Distribution) Mike Bonanno, Andy Bichlbaum, Reggie Watts. Directed by Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum

There is no doubt that the world faces many problems, from economic and political injustice to catastrophic climate changes, many of which can be laid at the feet of the greed of men and their institutions. Not all of these problems exist in the light of day; some require inventive thinking to receive any attention at all.

The Yes Men are what I call guerilla performance activists; in their ten years of existence, they create fake websites for major corporations, trade organizations and government entities, and impersonate representatives of the same at speaking engagements. In these guises they make outrageous claims calling attention to the injustices and corruption that they perceive are taking place.

They first came to public attention via a 2003 documentary, The Yes Men. When they created a fake website for the World Trade Organization, they were startled when it was perceived to be real, and offers for speaking engagements were sent. Being rash, somewhat fearless and possessed of an enormous amount of chutzpah, they went on to make outrageous claims purporting to be on behalf of the WTO. This caught the attention of the media who eventually discovered it was a hoax.

Their latest venture is the first to be self-directed, and follows the two of them as they carry out a series of clever pranks. They begin with Bichlbaum posing as Jude Finisterra, a representative of Dow Chemical. On the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, in which due to the negligence of Union Carbide (which Dow now owns) toxic gasses escaped, killing thousands in Bhopal, India and condemning hundreds of thousands to live with illnesses and birth defects as a direct result of the contamination, the BBC conducts an interview with the Dow “representative” (the BBC had evidently booked him as a result of using one of the Yes Men’s fake websites for Dow).

During the interview, the nervy Yes Man announces that for the first time, Dow was intending to take responsibility for the role in the disaster and would be liquidating the assets of Union Carbide in order to create a $12 billion fund to take care of the affected people of Bhopal.

The news was a sensation. Nearly all of the major media news sources picked it up and Dow’s stock plummeted, a net loss for the corporation of nearly $2 billion in value until the interview was finally revealed to be a hoax. Self-righteous BBC interviewers, perhaps stung that they had allowed the interview to take place, upbraid the Yes Men for cruelly providing false hope to the victims at Bhopal. Bichlbaum responds by pointing out that the pain they may have inflicted on the people of Bhopal was far less than what Union Carbide did to them and what Dow Chemical continues to do; to this day not a penny in reparations have been paid by Dow or Union Carbide to the victims.

While this is the largest and most visible of their pranks, there are several other portrayed here, including appearing as spokesmen for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, proclaiming to post-Katrina New Orleans that undamaged public housing that was slated to be torn down would be in fact left standing to provide affordable housing in a city that increasingly has less and less of it.

They show up at a convention of oil men with a gag that recalls Jonathan Swift; that when conventional petrochemical sources run out, that they were developing a means of refining oil from human remains. They also show up at a seminar of insurance people under the guise of being Halliburton executives touting the “Survivaball,” a ludicrous survival suit that will allow the wearer to survive any global climate catastrophe.

While it must be said that some of the pranks might have caused some discomfort, the truth is that these are situations that need to be covered. In a world where corporate greed is at its apex and that corporate arrogance and disregard for human lives has reached an all-time high, it takes a crusader to point out the consequences of these actions. They may not be wearing suits of armor (cheap suits are more like the uniforms they wear), but they tilt at windmills nonetheless, providing voices of sanity (ironically) amidst the white noise of corporate and political claptrap.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie succeeds in calling attention to issues not necessarily given coverage by mass media.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the pranks have a cruel streak in them – not intentionally, but there nonetheless.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of blue language but otherwise suitable for all audiences to a point – some of the issues and humor may be a little bit more than younger kids can handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The names of the Yes Men are aliases. The real people portraying them are a teacher and a writer, and both have histories of activism prior to the formation of the Yes Men.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Additional pranks and a “how-to” featurette explaining how to pull off a Yes Men prank are included.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Moon

Avatar


Avatar

A gunship moves through one of the majestic landscapes of Pandora.

(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Peter Mensah, Matt Gerald. Directed by James Cameron

A race with superior technology has a responsibility to protect those races that are less advanced than they. However, the history of humankind has shown that to rarely be the case in those sorts of situations.

In the year 2154, Marine Jake Sully (Worthington) was a grunt whose spine was injured during a campaign in Venezuela, leaving him confined to a wheelchair. His identical twin brother was a scientist who had been leaving for the wondrous world of Pandora, an Earth-sized moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system, as part of the avatar program. The journey was supposed to take five years of cryo-sleep just to arrive but it would never happen; Jake’s brother was killed during a mugging.

Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans. The planet is full of flora and fauna, much of which is aggressive and lethal. There is an indigenous race of humanoids called the Na’Vi, a race of 10-12 foot tall tailed bipeds that have a great deal in common with Native Americans. Even their language sounds similar.

Humans communicate with the Na’Vi through avatars, genetically engineered creatures utilizing human and Na’Vi DNA that humans link through a machine that transfers the human’s mind into the avatar allowing the human to experience what the avatar sees, tastes and touches. The Na’Vi call the avatars “dreamwalkers” because when the humans return to their own bodies, the avatars lose consciousness and appear to sleep.

Because avatars are so hideously expensive, it is determined that Jake will take his brother’s place on Pandora despite the fact that he has had no training in an avatar and is abysmally ignorant of Pandora and its dangers. When Jake arrives on Na’Vi he finds a bit of a power struggle going on in the human fortress-encampment between the scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), a cantankerous botanist, and Col. Miles Quaritch (Lang), a gung-ho ex-Marine employed as a mercenary by the RDA Corporation and its smarmy representative Parker Selfridge (Ribisi) – notice the similarity to the word “selfish” here – who are after a rare mineral called, somewhat irreverently, unobtanium. One particular Na’Vi settlement sits on a particularly rich deposit of the stuff.

The Na’Vi don’t trust the humans and with good reason. The humans look around Pandora and see a dangerous world whose resources exist for their exploitation for corporate gain. The Na’Vi sees a living world that is beautiful and inter-connected.

Jake goes on his first mission into the forest accompanied by fellow rookie Norm Spellman (Moore) and Dr. Augustine and immediately gets himself into trouble, winding up being chased by a rhino-like creature (with the head of a hammerhead shark) into a chasm where he is separated from his fellow avatars. Day turns into night and the forest becomes even more dangerous as a pack of black canine-like creatures attacks Jake. He is saved by one of the Na’Vi, the beautiful Neytiri (Saldana) who has nothing but contempt for the avatars,who as she puts it walk through the forest like ignorant children and “see nothing.” However, when a jellyfish-like lifeform becomes curious about Jake, Neytiri interprets this as a sign and takes Jake to their village.

There her father Eytukan (Studi), the clan chief and her mother Moat (Pounder), the shaman of the clan, make the determination that Jake should be trained as a hunter for the clan. Tsu-tey (Alonso), the clan’s best hunter who is also heir to the position of chief and as thus betrothed to Neytiri, is skeptical that this can be done.

My son characterized the plot as “Dances With Aliens” and he has a point. There are many similarities between the plots of Avatar and Dances With Wolves but this definitely has its own take on it. The conflict between the needs of the corporation and the world of the Na’Vi eventually come to a head. There are some intense battle sequences but in all honesty, these are not why you come to see this movie.

Never before in motion picture history has so complete an alien environment ever been created. The look of Pandora is astonishing and realistic. It is certainly alien with some familiar elements; lush vegetation, grasses and trees and many unusual flora and fauna. There is literally no way to take it all in with a single viewing which is what the filmmakers intended undoubtedly.

Some movies become event movies simply on the basis of hype and a precious few because they are game changers. Star Wars was one of the latter and so is Avatar. This is a movie that many will see simply because everyone will be talking about it and they want to get in on the conversation. Director Cameron has once again proven himself one of the most visionary directors of his generation. While some think of him as the director of Titanic, the biggest-grossing movie of all time, his legacy may rest with Avatar. This will literally change how movies get made.

The acting is surprisingly good. Weaver has made a career of delivering strong, capable performances and her Grace Augustine may rank with Ripley as the character most associated with her in the future. Worthington delivers a star-making performance that has already landed him the lead in high-profile movies and undoubtedly will continue to do so. He has all the qualities to be a big star and while his performance in Terminator Salvation hints at it, he delivers big time here. Michelle Rodriguez, an actress I’ve never really connected with before, is superb as a sympathetic pilot.

The movie runs two hours and forty minutes which is a bit long; the 3D glasses are bulky and uncomfortable and I wound up with a sore nose where the glasses rested. I have to admit that Cameron’s strong point is not dialogue and some of the characters utter lines that made me groan out loud. His points on corporate greed and its role in wiping out the ecology of our own world, the treatment of aboriginal races and the general irresponsibility of humankind are well-taken but at times he uses a 2×4 to whack us over the head with it when an ostrich feather would have done the trick.

Reviews for this movie are almost superfluous other than to pile on superlatives for a movie that richly deserves them. Avatar may be the closest thing to a visit to an alien world that most of us will get to experience in our lifetimes, but I’m sure most people have either already seen it or were planning to see it anyway without my endorsement. Still, count me in among the endorsers of this film; widely-hyped, intensely scrutinized and greatly anticipated, it delivers as one of the year’s very best.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals, the visuals, the visuals. This is a detailed, realistic world that has an internal logic. Even the elements of the fantastic make sense.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is probably about 20-30 minutes too long and can cause a bit of sensory overload at times. Some of the film’s points get hammered in a bit too strongly.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair bit of violence and some language, but pretty much okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The avatars have five fingers and toes while the Na’Vi have four.

HOME OR THEATER: This absolutely must be experienced on the big screen, preferably in 3D and in the IMAX format if you have a theater equipped for it nearby.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: World Trade Center