Crude


Don't say anything crude.

Don’t say anything crude.

(2009) Documentary (First Run) Pablo Fajardo, Sting, Judge German Yanez, Kent Robertson, Dr. Adolfo Callejas, Steve Donziger, Ebergeldo Criollo, Alossa Soltani, Joseph Kohn, Maria Garafolo, Sara McMillen, Ricardo Reis Veiga, Diego Larrea, Alejandro Ponce, Rosa Moreno, Amy Goodman, Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez, Lupita de Heredia, Trudie Styler. Directed by Joe Berlinger

In 1993, lawyers in Ecuador filed a class action lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 indigenous dwellers of the Ecuadorian rain forest for damages done by Texaco’s (who were acquired by Chevron in 2001) Lago Agrio oilfield operations. The lawsuit alleged that poorly maintained pipelines and waste disposal pits had infiltrated the water supply, leading to a variety of cancers and other diseases that afflict the people of the region, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island.

The lawsuit dragged on for 18 years, following a change of venue from New York to Ecuador after American courts dismissed the case because they didn’t have proper jurisdiction. This documentary, helmed by Joe Berlinger who has been Oscar nominated and also won Emmy and Peabody awards for his work, followed the case during 2006 and 2007 as the lawsuit drew international attention.

Berlinger admirably allows both sides of the story to air their opinions; certainly his sympathies lie with the plaintiffs as he tends to present more of their point of view, but certainly Chevron cannot complain that he didn’t give them if not equal time at least enough time to present their case. It’s hard to argue with the images that we see of scandalously polluted holes in the ground, children with heartbreaking rashes and illnesses, and the evidence of the cultural destruction of a people who had inhabited the area safely for centuries until the oil companies came along.

Chevron’s argument that Texaco had cleaned up the area that they were involved in before turning over the oilfield to the state-run Petroecuador corporation who, according to Chevron, were responsible for the lion’s share of the environmental destruction is hard to ignore. Berlinger was given access to Chevron executives as well as their legal team and quite frankly they don’t come off as profit-mad monsters. However, the plaintiffs do argue that Texaco wouldn’t have done any cleaning had they not been compelled to after an earlier lawsuit and their argument that Texaco didn’t uphold their share of the agreement is also hard to ignore.

The status of the people affected by the extraction of oil is truly heartbreaking; nobody should have to live in those conditions, particularly considering the biodiversity of the region which has likely been irreparably damaged by the somewhat cavalier safety precautions of all of the oil companies involved. While the documentary does spend some time with the natives, more emphasis is given on the legal teams of both sides which in a sense is justified because as a legal drama this case is compelling, but like most real-life legal dramas, can be kind of boring to watch.

The Ecuadorian courts rendered a decision in 2011, ordering Chevron to pay just under $10 billion in reparations and clean-up costs, a decision upheld by the Ecuadorian supreme court. In turn, Chevron litigated in the United States, alleging that improprieties by the American and Ecuadorian lawyers of the plaintiffs and corruption in the Ecuadorian judicial system had led to a decision that was unjustified. An American court found in favor of Chevron in 2014, a decision that the original plaintiffs are appealing. To date, none of the people affected by the drilling for oil have received a penny in compensation.

Watching Donziger, the lead American lawyer who is somewhat arrogant, it is easy to believe that he behaved improperly, which has been borne out by documentary footage not included in the feature as well as through his own journal entries and internal memos. Sadly, while the cause was just, those who fought for the cause didn’t behave in a manner that reflected the justness of that cause. And to their detriment, Chevron has launched an aggressive course of punitive litigation against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and their lawyers. It is somewhat ironic that a company that complained that they were being sued because of their deep pockets are now using those deep pockets to go after those who sued them, who are now suing Chevron once again, this time for $113 billion, claiming that Chevron has failed to comply with the original decision.

Chances are the case will continue to churn in the American and international legal systems for years to come, maybe even decades. My gut feeling is that if Chevron ends up paying anything out, it will be much less than what they were initially ordered to pay and if they do pay anything out, most of it will likely go to the lawyers and little will make its way to the Ecuadorian Amazon where people continue to live and die. This is the human cost of our insatiable need for oil and the insatiable greed of those who supply that oil. It’s the kind of tragedy that would have delighted Shakespeare – and turned his stomach.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably balanced, allowing both sides to present their points of view. Beautifully shot. Fascinating interviews.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those who love the law may be disgusted by the behavior of lawyers on both sides. The struggle between the lawyers overshadows the plight of the natives.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Following the release of the film, Chevron had the case tried in an American court, claiming fraud and corruption; raw footage from the film, not included in the final cut, was submitted as evidence in the case.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Interviews with director Joe Berlinger and activist Trudie Styler, festival and premiere coverage and a resource guide.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $185,881 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You’ve Been Trumped
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Transit

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Texas Killing Fields


Jeffrey Dean Morgan lectures Sam Worthington on the virtues of unshaven sexiness.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan lectures Sam Worthington on the virtues of unshaven sexiness.

(2011) True Crime (Anchor Bay) Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Stephen Graham, Annabeth Gish, Sheryl Lee, Corie Berkemeyer, Becky Fly, James Hebert, Joe Chrest, Kerry Cahill. Directed by Ami Canaan Mann

Some places are just bad. You can feel the malevolence when you walk into them. They seem to attract tragedy and trouble. The fields outside Texas City are like that. Half-swamp, they have periodically been a dumping place for bodies, particularly those of young females, over the years. The place has attracted a myriad of serial killers – and yes, this isn’t the movie. This is real.

In the movie however, we’re focusing on one killer but more to the point, to the cops chasing him. Det. Brian Heigh (Morgan) is a transplant from New York City. He’s a tough guy sure, but he has a tender side and the sight of a murdered girl on the pavement near the killing fields is enough to make him pray for her soul over her body.

His partner Mike Souder (Worthington) is a bit more cynical. A native of the Texas City area, he’s a fine detective but his personal life is all messed up. His ex-wife Pam (Chastain) works for a different law enforcement agency; it is in her purview that the fields fall whereas Mike and Brian are Texas City policemen. Mike is somewhat bitter about the break-up and wants nothing to do with Pam, even when it becomes clear that their investigation would benefit from working together.

Into this mix comes Little Ann Sliger (Moretz) – and yes, that’s her name, Little Ann. She’s a teen whose mother Lucie (Lee) is a drug addict whose parenting skills could use some work. Little Ann is the poster child for “at-risk.” Lucie is more interested in getting laid and getting high than getting Little Ann seen to, and consequently she’s getting into some increasingly serious trouble. Naturally Brian becomes protective of the young girl who is tough on the outside but tender on the inside – just like him. Brian’s wife Gwen (Gish) is less enchanted with the idea but keeps her peace.

As bodies begin to mount up, the suspicion begins to point to a local pimp, a malevolent thug and a kind of simple moron who can’t get away from trouble. All three are moving towards different conclusions but the one at the center of the murders is not one to let a cop get too close – and the collision course between pursued and pursuer is drawing near.

While this is said to be based on fact, there really is little more true here than that the killing fields near Texas City have become a notorious dumping ground for bodies of people from all over the I-45 corridor between Houston and Galveston. The script was written by a former DEA agent and has the kind of authenticity that can only come from someone who has lived the life and not just written about it.

If the directorial style looks familiar, it should. Mann is the daughter of Michael Mann who has made a career of some really good police procedurals including the Miami Vice series and movie as well as Collateral and Thief among others. She emulates her father’s style quite nicely, carrying a nice visual sense with a penchant for darkness and neon. Danny Boyle was once attached to this project but turned it down, saying that the script was so dark it would never get made. He went on to direct Slumdog Millionaire instead so I guess he made the right call seeing as he won the Oscar for it and all.

Morgan pulls out all the stops and delivers an impressive performance. His character is contradictory but not outside the realm of reason. He actually makes a pretty satisfactory partner for Worthington who does his best work here since The Debt. Mike’s got some issues of his own and certainly his scenes with his ex are some of the most incendiary of the movie.

What doesn’t work here is that the movie is so damn predictable. It starts out with the police procedural thing going on and any veteran watchers of Law and Order: SVU and CSI are going to have no trouble predicting what’s going to happen next. The last third is more or less a TV mystery movie with slightly rougher language and just as predictable.

There is a good movie here, although disappointingly enough, it’s not this one. In fact, this one’s just decent, memorable for Morgan and Worthington but little else. Chastain, who went on to greater heights, is also worth admiring here and Moretz acquits herself honorably as well (and ten points to anyone who can recognize Lee by face as the most famous corpse on TV nearly 20 years ago). However, you’ve seen this movie before unless of course you don’t watch a lot of these sorts of movies. Then and only then will it all seem new to you.

WHY RENT THIS: Morgan and Worthington make a good team, with Morgan particularly effective.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little anti-climactic. Relies too much on police procedural cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: As you would imagine there’s some violence, some sexual innuendo and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Worthington and Chastain previously teamed up in The Debt.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $957,240 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this was not a money maker.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Onion Field

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Holy Motors