PUMP

pump(JLH: 3/5)

Pump is a new documentary in the same family tree as Fed Up, the recent film produced and narrated by Katie Couric that I wrote about a couple weeks ago. The stories these documentaries tell are compelling and forceful, aiming to get citizenry engaged in important problems and encouraging them to do something about it. The trouble comes when they make this story so ominous and threatening that instead of feeling energized by the documentary, you just want to pull the covers over your head and give up because the battles and forces against us are so huge. The time to do anything about any of this is so short that instead of feeling energized, you just want to give up.

Pump, as the name implies, provides background and history about oil, what we get at the gas stations, and on how United States oil companies have so much control over our lives. It shows our dependence on oil, from running our cars to power sources, is a situation clearly out of control.

Filmmakers Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell tell the story mostly centered in the United States, but also makes some forays into China and Brazil to show how heavily dependent our entire economy is on oil. Energy for combustion engines is at a destabilization point and from this point forward we’re going to have an incredible amount of competition from China. As the Chinese economy grows, the desire for more cars is exponentially increasing. Therefore, more people in China need gasoline for their cars, leaving less for the United States, a diminishing resource that will result in increased oil prices.

The story is told in a weird way, with the filmmakers throwing in the fact that because of the one child policy, there’s now a substantial statistical imbalance between the numbers of women of marriageable age and men of marriageable age. One of the things that women are looking for is a husband that can come with a car – so if a prospective bridegroom can’t promise his bride a car, then she’s going to turn him down and marry someone who will. It’s an interesting factoid, but distracting from the overall flow of the film. The point they were trying to make is that we’ve had our way as the big, powerful United States, having access to whatever oil there is on the planet. It’s been fairly under our own control and under our own terms as long as we’re accommodating ourselves to monarchial dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and putting boots on the ground in Iraq to protect the oil. The ability of the United States to do that, however, is ending because of the increasing competitive pressure from China.

On the other hand, they talk about Brazil as a place where the decision was made a couple of decades ago that their economy would not thrive under the pressure for oil. Instead, they went outside the OPEC and developed fuel with ethanol. Much of Brazil’s economic success is built on energy that comes from ethanol. The filmmakers of Pump set this up as a counterexample of things we could do to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The United States refused to use this method because of their dominant control over our choices at the gas stations. A future scenario is set up where you could go into a gas station and there would be four or five different kinds of fuel, not just gasoline, and you would have your choice of what to put in your car and the multiple kinds of fuel your car would be able to accommodate. This option is already possible, but nobody knows about it because the oil companies have such a tight grip (clearly, the villain is the oil company). They also talk about fracking and the availability of natural gas, an idea that terrifies me; I cannot believe it is a good thing for the planet if we’re pumping all this stuff under the ground to force out all this natural gas. They paint the scenario as very grim.

The well-intentioned documentary told too many stories in the course of 90 minutes with an ominous soundtrack and narration, running up against doomsday. Not that I think that it’s wrong, but the problem is that by the end of this movie you just want to pull the covers over your head and say, “What have we done to our planet?” There are very grim before-and-after shots of Detroit, showing the city when the American economy, cars, and use of oil was at a peak and now, as the embodiment of what our future will be because of the ungovernable addiction to oil and the enabling of the oil companies. On a depressing note, they tell you that you can make change: at the voting booth, the pump, in the car, and which American manufacturer you choose. You can vote for cars that have the ability to run on a multiple fuels and service stations with multiple forms of energy for your car. It’s a question of you getting yourself to the ballot box and voting and making your own personal determination: You’re going to recycle and you’re going to eat healthy and you’re going to make good choices at the pump, but I don’t know if that’s any kind of reality.

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Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (9/25/14)

Q: Does Pump pass the Bechdel Test?

No, it does not pass the Bechdel Test. They really aren’t any conversations of women talking to women. The narrator is never present in any way – the person asking questions is not a first person narrator, but third person.

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SPACE STATION 76

Screen shot 2014-09-19 at 3.31.32 PMReview of Space Station 76 by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky 

Space Station 76 is the intergalactic future as imagined in the 1970s. The science-fiction parody about dysfunctional couples on a spaceship has a terrific cast and some enjoyable moments, but unfortunately lacks an overall narrative.

The story focuses on unhappy couples and unhappy singles in soap opera-type fashion. When wholesome, lonely “Jessica” (Liv Tyler) joins the spaceship team to help closeted-gay “Captain Glen,” (Patrick Wilson) all of their insecurities and secrets bubble to the surface.  Jessica, who can’t bear children, forms an unlikely friendship with seven-year-old “Sunshine” (Kylie Rogers) who wanders the white corridors to escape her fighting parents, “Misty” (Marisa Coughlan) and “Ted” (Matt Bomer). Misty, an insecure, blonde bimbo hopped up on Valium, is having an affair with her husband’s friend “Steve,” (Jerry O’Connell) a new father in a passionless marriage with debutante wife “Donna” (Kali Rocha). But Misty’s husband Ted, the drop-dead-gorgeous space worker with a robotic hand, doesn’t take notice since he has his eye on other women, particularly his new pot-smoking buddy, Jessica.

The best thing about Space Station 76 is the allusion to how far we’ve come in technological advances since the 70s. All of the nods to the Nixon-era, from Glen recording a hologram message on a VHS tape to Donna clicking through round slides on her Viewmaster, are humorous and nostalgic enough to make it enjoyable. But the darker elements of the technological advances shift the tone back and forth from satire to serious. Captain Glen, who Patrick Wilson portrays as a sexually frustrated Ron Burgandy-type on the edge of suicide, tries to kill himself many times but the smart technology won’t let him. He tries to drop an electric radio into the bathtub, but the spaceship, seeing as there’s a power overload, shuts the system down and there’s no harm done.  Is this a message to the 2014 audience that our smart phones will soon be smarter than we are? I don’t know. I was unsure what message Space Station 76 was trying to send.

One of the most endearing parts of the slow-moving film was “Sunshine,” the cutest little girl with moon-shaped glasses and a heart of gold. She takes to Jessica’s kindness and tells her mother, “I’ve never had a friend.” The way Kylie Rogers delivers certain lines makes you want to jump into the screen and take her away from her immature, jealous mother. The rest of the impressive cast does an equally great job of humanizing their characters, especially Liv Tyler’s Jessica from Spaceship Lorelai, (the name of her former spaceship can’t be coincidental since Liv Tyler looks very similar to actress Lauren Graham, who famously played Lorelai Gilmore for seven years. Maybe it’s coincidental or maybe it’s one of the five writers seeing the exact same resemblance I did).

Space Station 76 almost felt like an episode of a television show somewhere in the middle of season two or three. It was not necessarily a bad film, it just felt out of place somehow. There needed to be more background as to what they were doing on this spaceship and how they got there. If this were an episode (granted, a very long 94 minute episode) it would have made sense, but because it was a feature-length film, there needed to be more of a direct narrative: a beginning, a middle, and an end with things happening. Otherwise, aside from a few humorous scenes, it left me shrugging my shoulders, unsure of what the point was or what message they were trying to send.

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Review © Brigid K. Presecky (9/19/14)

Photo: Patrick Wilson as “Captain Glen” seeking help from Dr. Bot.

Q: Does Space Station 76 pass the Bechdel Test?

DigitalStampAYes. The scenes between well-meaning Jessica and soccer-mom-from-hell Misty were more so about raising children than the men in their lives. The jealousy Misty has over Jessica’s connection with Sunshine elevates as the film progresses. When Sunshine is happy about making a friend, Misty tries to sever their bond right away by saying Jessica ate all the sundaes and there are none left. Sunshine, smarter than her mother at seven years old says, “It’s just a sundae” to which Misty replies, “Whose side are you on?” … Mother of the year.

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SWIM LITTLE FISH SWIM

Opens tomorrow in NYC. Review coming soon.

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THE BLUE ROOM

ForgetTomorrow(JLH: 3/5) Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku.

The Blue Room is a wicked little piece of neo-Hitchcock written, directed, and starring Mathieu Amalric. Co-written by Stéphanie Cléau, Amalric’s real life partner, the film has a Hitchock-like tone similar to The Birds, ominous and pristine-looking with everything placed just right and put together beautifully. Every element on the surface is elegantly composed and shiny in a way that gives it a fairytale look, hinting that terrible things are about to happen.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks that are part of a police investigation, with “Julien” (Mathieu Amalric) talking to the police, a core psychologist, and a judge about his involvement in with local murder. He relays what has happened, or rather, reconstructs what has happened. The flashbacks begins with Julien ending his 11-month affair with “Esther” (Stéphanie Cléau) when the guilt of cheating on his wife “Delphine” (Leá Druker) sets in.

There are very hot scenes in the beginning between Esther and Julien in a hotel room, “The Blue Room,” with full-frontal nudity and noises people can hear from outside the door. Julien goes from passionate lovemaking in his hotel to his ordinary marriage at home, turning away from his wife in bed as she says goodnight. Although unclear whether Delphine knows about the affair, she knows that he’s distant and preoccupied. As suspicions about her husband rise, Delphine uses their 8-year-old, health-impaired daughter “Suzanne” (Mona Jaffart) to get Julien to take them off for a beach vacation. Instead of bringing them closer together, the vacation only reinforces a distance between Esther and Julian, who no longer make love due to Julian’s lack of desire.

The crisis comes when Esther’s pharmacist husband suddenly dies, shifting the film from an eerie, ominous romance to the police procedural. The police, a psychologist, and a judge question Julien and Esther, eventually sending them to court for the murder of the pharmacist. As Julien tries to figure out what exactly happened, Esther creates a black widow spider web around him. If she can’t have him, nobody can. The first scene of the film, Esther tells Julien that he’ll never be able to get away from her, saying: Do you love me? Do you think you could live with me forever? Will you love me forever? As he’s pulling back from the 11-month affair and getting reabsorbed into the routines of his family, Esther traps him in her clutches.

The neo-Hitchcockian film based on Georges Simenon’s novel has a beautiful look and feel as clueless Julien stumbles, as many Hitchcock characters do, into something that’s much bigger than he realized. Once The Blue Room turns into a police procedural and a courtroom drama, it’s pretty perfunctory and sort of by the numbers. At a certain point in the 75-minute film, I tried to stake awake but nodded off. It certainly looks beautiful and I loved the ominous air, but in the end it doesn’t amount to much.

HelloTomorrow

Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (9/16/14)

Top Photo: Mathieu Amalric as “Julien” and Stéphanie Cléau as “Esther” as their affair heats up.

Bottom Photo: The police investigation for the murder of Esther’s husband

Q: Does The Blue Room pass the Bechdel Test?

No.

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ARCHAEOLOGY OF A WOMAN

sallyArchaeology of a Woman starts strong with good intentions, but deteriorates so badly that by the end I was screaming for mercy and desperate to leave the theater.  (JLH: 2/5)

Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku.

The story begins with “Margaret” (Sally Kirkland) coming out of a grocery store in a suburban shopping center, unable to find her car. Thinking that her keys and car might have been stolen, Margaret returns to the grocery store, they call the cops and take her home to find her car sitting in her driveway. It’s clear that Margaret is very confused, so the police call Margaret’s daughter “Kate,” (Victoria Clark) who’s in the middle of screwing a guy in her apartment, and she takes her mother to the doctor the next day. After running tests, the doctor tells Kate that Margaret has dementia and is in the early signs of Alzheimer’s.

It’s all very good and touching and very real, but there’s so much ominous, hype-strung music with cross-cutting to TV news, showing that a body has been discovered and making Margaret have memories of a murder she committed 30 years ago. She apparently had an affair with somebody and buried the body and now suddenly, 30 years later, the remains of the body are showing up. The preposterous plot of Kate trying to live her life and caring for Margaret, cross-cutting with Margaret getting lost in her own fantasies is ludicrous. It plays out in confusing, appalling scenes that if I were to describe them verbally would sound like they should be moving and touching with the mother having feelings of loss and regret and the daughter trying to cope. It should be something that I can identify with because I’ve been there and done that, but it’s not. It’s very cheesy with bad acting and grating, annoying music. Instead of focusing on the details of this relationship, it cuts away to this business with this ridiculous murder. Basically, I hated it.

ArcheologyofaWoman_VictoriaClark &SallyKirland.preview

Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (9/29/14)

Top Photo: Sally Kirkland as “Margaret”

Bottom Photo: Victoria Clark as “Kate” and Sally Kirkland as “Margaret”

Q: Does Archaeology of a Woman pass the Bechdel Test?

Yes, but even though it passes the Bechdel Test, I still can’t recommend it.

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HONEYMOON

Review of Honeymoon by Associate 63894_022Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Remind me to scratch off “cabin in the middle of nowhere” for possible honeymoon destinations. Leigh Janiak’s new horror film Honeymoon is a disturbing tale of New York City newlyweds “Paul” (Harry Treadaway) and “Bea” (Rose Leslie) who are torn from married bliss to bloody chaos in a matter of days.

Retreating to an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods for a romantic getaway seemed like a good idea before a gooey mess of a creature decided to inhabit Bea’s body. What starts off as a sweet, romantic story of Paul and Bea and their love of pancakes, board games, and boating quickly turns into the honeymoon from Hell. Bea wakes up in the middle of the night and wanders into the forest, dazed and half-naked in her silk nightgown. When Paul finds her, however, she’s completely naked with bite marks on her inner thighs. He questions her again and again about the bite marks, the night she was “sleepwalking,” and her peculiar behavior. Why would Bea jump into cold lake water when she shrieked at its frigidness the day before? You wouldn’t think it’s the most insane thing a person has ever done, but it brings Paul’s suspicions to the forefront. Something’s wrong his wife; she’s forgetting how to make French toast and coffee, and even has to write down her own name to remember it. He knows something happened to her in the woods and he can’t quite figure it out. Bea acting weirdly and Paul staring at her like a stranger makes up 90% of the boring, bizarre Honeymoon.

Each night, a beaming spotlight shines through the cabin’s windows, seemingly the source of all the weirdness. Paul yearns to get his wife back, asking Bea questions to jog her memory and prove, somehow, that something has taken over her. It’s paralleled with Paul trying to get Bea to remember him physically, leading to one of the most graphic and cringe-worthy scenes in recent movie history. The sick-factor is much more impactful than the thriller aspects of Honeymoon as Bea bleeds, gushes, and oozes all over Paul’s hands. The overload of disturbing imagery might have made sense if the plot supported it, but there was a severe lack of clarity as to what was happening.

What did work, however, was the chemistry between Treadaway and Leslie and their portrayals of lovebirds, Paul and Bea. Leslie must come from the Nina Dobrev-school-of-acting, making Bea’s character shift from joyful to crazed seem effortless.

Other than that, the film was just strange. With little resolution or any real explanation as to what was happening, Honeymoon fails to get where it needs to be. If Janiak upped the ante of the plot or provided a little more thrill, it would have been a better tale to tell. Unfortunately, besides the acting and the ick-factor, everything else falls flat.

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Review © Brigid K. Presecky (9/14/14)

Top Photo: Harry Treadaway as “Paul” and Rose Leslie as “Bea”

Bottom Photo: Rose Leslie as “Bea”

Q: Does Honeymoon pass the Bechdel Test?

No. Almost every scene is about the couple, except for one encounter Bea has with a woman seemingly possessed by the same demonic spirit.

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I AM 11

Opens today in NYC. Review coming soon.

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NO GOOD DEED

NoGoodDeed6

Review of No Good Deed by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky 

No Good Deed is a B-movie thriller earning top dollars from all the social media hype.  The film, written by Aimee Lagos and directed by Sam Miller, tells the story of “Colin” (Idris Elba) a murderer denied parole who terrorizes the home of former D.A. mom, “Terri” (Taraji P. Henson).

Colin, a serial killer who murders prison guards to escape a Tennessee prison, shows up to his girlfriend Alexis’ (Kate Del Castillo) house to see she’s involved with another man. Blinded by rage, he murders her and drives his stolen car down a suburban road, crashing into a tree. If he murdered a prison guard, you’d think this maniac would be smart enough not to leave his crashed car in the middle of the road with the lights on. But no, the “malignant narcissist” Colin knocks on the door at the house of lawyer turned homemaker Terri, whose husband is conveniently away on a golf weekend with his father. Colin asks to be let into the house to use the phone and, despite her better judgment, she lets him in. But as the title suggests, no good deed goes unpunished.

The predictable chase ensues in typical suspense thriller fashion as Colin’s charms and good looks fail to hide his violent, murderous ways. Terri’s protective, maternal instincts kick in as Colin threatens to kidnap and terrorize not only her but her children. The film cuts between shots of them hitting each other over the head with household objects to shots of lightning and power outages, all leading to that plot twist so heavily advertised. On the heels of the Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice domestic abuse situation, Screen Gems canceled all press screenings of this home-invasion thriller at the 11th hour, explaining “The film contains a plot twist that we do not want to reveal, as it will affect the audience’s experience when they see the film in theaters.”

No Good Deed is inspired by a similar Broadway play The Desperate Hours, which starred Paul Newman. Humphrey Bogart was the lead in the first big-screen adaptation in 1995 and was remade with Anthony Hopkins in 1990.

Actors Elba and Henson are too good for the mediocre material given. From Elba’s past work on The Wire and Henson’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this film seems like a major step down for both. Not only was the film more of the same old, same old for a home-invasion thriller, it certainly didn’t live up to the hype and comes at a time when domestic violence has such a presence in real life, it’s not worth the money to see it on the big screen.

Review © Brigid K. Presecky (9/17/14)

Top Photo: Taraji P. Henson as “Terri”

Bottom Photo: Taraji P. Henson as “Terri” hiding from Idris Elba’s intruder “Colin”

Q: Does No Good Deed pass the Bechdel Test?

Not really. Terri has her best friend “Meg” (Leslie Bibb) but her role is to hit on Colin. The rest of the film is entirely centered on the murderous home invader.

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BUT ALWAYS

BreakfastWhat do women want?

Turns out that sometimes it’s a melodramatic “Guilty Pleasure” from China. Who knew?!?

But Always is an epic story of star-crossed Beijing lovers played by lead actress Yuanyuan Gao (as “Anran”) and lead actor Nicholas Tse (as “Yongyuan”).

Gorgeous! Heart-breaking!! Set to a soundtrack showcasing a thousand and one strings!!!

Kudos to writer/director Snow Zou for breathing new life into the classic Hollywood Weepie genre from the Golden Years–and yes, I do mean that as a complement. (JLH: 4/5).

Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.

But Always is Snow Zou’s old-school Hollywood romance movie from China. It’s gorgeous and weepy, with charismatic, beautiful stars and a score that transports you into a romantic mode. For women, more so than men, the film will hit that soft spot of star-crossed love and tragic destiny. Even though there were a couple of laughable moments, I loved But Always.

Told from the point of view of “Anran,” (Yuanyuan Gao) the film opens with the tragic events surrounding 9/11. The English subtitles read: New York City – 2001, and immediately flash back to earthquake stricken Bejing – 1976. We meet young Anran, narrating her story as a young girl living in the streets of Beijing with families too terrified of aftershocks to reenter their homes. As a five-year-old, Anran lives in her parents’ makeshift shack on the street, running around and having a great time until her mother has to leave. Her mother, a doctor needing to leave with her emergency team, gives Anran a stern look and advises her to take care of her father and be a good girl while she’s gone. Although it’s never really explained, the mother dies in an accident, leaving Anran with only her father.

Not wanting her to be known as a motherless child or under the Chinese cloud of bad luck, Anran’s father moves her to another school far away. Being attractive, well dressed, and cared for doesn’t make her feel any less lonely. Anran walks very pert and alert, but is always by herself until a little boy “Zhao” (Nicholas Tse) starts following her. At first she tries to try to ignore him, but slowly draws comfort from the fact she’s got a companion who can relate to her. Zhao, living with his grandmother, lost both his parents in the earthquake. The little, adorable kids bond and grow into the edge of adolescence. For years they’re good friends, depending on each other, walking together, and waiting at the bus stop together, until one day when Zhao abruptly disappears. His uncle arrives from Quanzho when the grandmother dies and takes him away before he can say goodbye to Anran. Zhao bangs on the bus window to catch her attention, but she is looking on the street for him, not knowing where he went.

Eight or so years pass until they’re young adults, with Zhao coming back to work in the marketplace for his uncle. One day, Anran comes by to shop and Zhao can tell it’s her by the rhythm of her walk. Because he’s in the presence of a certain footstep and he knows it’s Anran, he follows her to find out where she goes to school. Zhao begins lurking around until she finally spots him. During the years, Anran has done very well in school, particularly in her English lessons since her father insists that the mother’s dream was for Anran to attend school in the United States. So she passes her exams and is accepted at Columbia right around the time her relationship with Zhao heats up. Anran doesn’t want to leave him, they make love, and Zhao promises to meet her at the bus stop so she can take him to meet her father. Of course, he doesn’t show up at the bus stop and his friend tells Anran that Zhao doesn’t want her anymore, doesn’t love her anymore, and has another girlfriend. In heartbreak and despair, she leaves for New York not knowing the truth about Zhao, who has really been arrested and sent to prison for three years.

Another set of years pass, jumping ahead to New York City. When Anran first arrived, she was pregnant with Zhao’s baby and suffered a miscarriage. Soon after, she met an artist who goes on to become her lover and her protector. She goes through the motions of making it in medical school, but is emotionally destroyed and bereaved by Zhao’s desertion of her.

Meanwhile, after Zhao is released from prison, he becomes a successful clothing manufacturer with his large company earning millions of dollars. He and his coworkers take a trip to New York for a business deal and Zhao goes in search of Anran. When he finds her, she turns away from him. But when he spots a painting of her, Zhao locates the artists, and tries to find out how to track Anran down. When he does, she tries to rebuff him again but ends up giving in. There’s a big, wonderful climatic love scene where they finally reunite after all these years and look like they’re actually going to happy, but something happens to the artist that snaps Anran back to reality. The choice she makes between her two men and the resulting consequences lead into the third act of the film, as Anran deals with her past life in Beijing and her current life in America.

Gao and Tse are absolutely gorgeous as Anran and Zhao. As a kid, Zhao looks like a frog and turns into an incredibly charismatic Prince Charming who is kind, tender, handsome, and successful. He’s a dream come true; your classic poor boy with the prince inside.

Other than being a great, romantic, weepy film with great leads, there are little missteps except for a few melodramatic moments. It swept along on gorgeous visuals with fast pacing. I liked the idea that they’re putting 9/11 in context that every country has its trauma. In the case of Anran’s mother and Zhao’s parents, who were directly affected by the cataclysmic earthquake in Beijing in ’76, But Always reminds Americans that al-Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and it wasn’t just Americans who died. There were people from all over the world who were impacted by this event and it’s important for us to remember that.

The film held my attention and made me really care about these two people. I knew that the star-crossed lovers weren’t headed towards a happy ending, but I still enjoyed going on this tragic journey with Anran.

Beijing

Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (9/15/14)

Top Photo: Anran and Yongyuan find a moment of stolen happiness in her shabby Brooklyn apartment.

Bottom Photo: Just before she leaves for New York, Anran must tend to Yongyuan’s wounded forehead after thugs assault him in Beijing. OMG: What a handsome guy! “I’m melting!! I’m melting!!!” TeeHeeHee :-)

Photo Credits: China Lion

Q: Does But Always pass the Bechdel Test?

No.

Drama is focused on Anran’s love for Yongyuan, and even in the rare occasions when she does speak with another woman (e.g., when her boss tells Anran that she must agree to continue taking this handsome Chinese businessman on tours around NYC or lose her job as a guide), they are always talking about him.

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GRINGO TRAILS

BeforeProfound new documentary by NYU Anthropology Professor Pegi Vail is ostensibly about the impact of backpacker tourists on once distant climes and cultures, but it implies even more about the way our now dominant “Western Mentality” has overrun our fragile planet and potentially brought it to the breaking point.

Quests made popular by films like Lawrence of Arabia and generations of “desert loving English” have reached crisis proportions now that we can fly almost anywhere we want and the people there to greet us want our money. (JLH: 5/5)

Click HERE for our FF2Haiku.  NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.

Gringo Trails is a terrific new documentary by Pegi Vail, an anthropologist currently teaching at NYU, who has also worked with National Geographic and the Soros Open Society Foundation. She’s curated exhibits in collaboration with the Museum of the American Indian, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Modern Art. And she’s involved with The Moth, a public radio storytelling collective.

Gringo Trails begins with an interview with Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli who finished up his army service in the mid ’80s and went on a trek–like many Israelis do–which brought him to the northeast corner of Bolivia (at the edge of the Amazon Rainforest). Once there, he and his companions faced the most disastrous of circumstances. Through voiceovers, Ghinsberg recalls his time in Bolivia, witnessing the greatest floods the Amazon had seen in at least 10 years. His tale of survival after separation from his group and the natives who saved his life form the basis of Gringo Trails.

Ghinsberg’s three-week triumph of lone survival in the Amazon jungle has become a milestone for adventurers who want to go somewhere where almost no one not native to the area has ever been before. In the years since his rescue, backpackers have followed, so much so that as one American man who is traveling with an Israeli woman jokes: “The guides here speak better Hebrew than I do!”

From the story of Yossi Ghinsberg, Gringo Trails takes off into a general meditation on these rapidly multiplying backpackers who buy stacks of Lonely Planet guidebooks and then show up in droves in formerly inaccessible places. Some are trekking to the great salt desert in the southwestern corner of Bolivia while others go like Yossi to the rainforests in the northeast corner of Bolivia. Then they go from the African desserts surrounding Timbuktu to tiny islands off the coast of Thailand.

The common element in all of these “adventures” is the lone backpacker looking for a natural “unspoiled” place. The problem occurs when backpackers in the plural start inundating these places. The obvious result is that they quickly lose the very characteristics that made them attractive in the first place. The backpackers endanger native–human–populations as well as local wildlife.

A haunting sequence shows a forest guide warning the backpackers in his group not to touch snakes: “You’ve got mosquito repellent on your fingertips and this is extremely toxic.” Of course the young backpackers want to show how fearless they are, so one of them captures an Anaconda snake, and the rest line up to stroke it. They can’t help themselves. They need to stroke the snake so they can go home and say: “I stroked an Anaconda snake!” There is no real danger for the human, but it’s extremely dangerous for the snake. Wildlife population scatter as they attempt to flee the humans who are invading their environment–humans who leave behind them a disgusting mess of plastic water bottles and other non-organic “First World” detritus.

The quandary depicted in Gringo Trails then goes in an even more metaphysical direction: What it is about the human personality that makes us want to go to places no one–that is, no non-native–has ever been before, only to end up destroying the very thing we went to find? Although other movies are not Vail’s primary reference point, it’s clear that movies such as Lawrence of Arabia and Out of Africa have fed a “First World” longing to test oneself against a “Third World Wild.”

On the other hand, most of the people in the local populations are extremely poor. The backpackers think they are being parsimonious and careful with their spending. They don’t want to be Capitalists and travel like pampered tourists. They think they are roughing it. But from the POV of the people in the local populations, these backpackers have a tremendous amount of money. As backpackers start trekking regularly to these formally inaccessible places, guesthouses start springing up along with tourist houses, hostels, restaurants and all kinds of accommodations for backpacking tourists who tell themselves that they’re living cheaply on an adventure.

So the backpackers have become a source of income, and no matter how many responsible people in the community–or in the government–try to enforce the rules, there will always be those willing to do things they are not supposed to do, because they know tourists will pay for what they want. Seeing the consequences, Yossi Ghinsberg–for one–now uses his personal prestige to encourage the building of eco-friendly facilities. But are people on either side of this financial equation willing to be truly honest about the damage they are doing? Probably not.

Once I left the theatre, I started thinking about Out of Africa, a movie that I really, really love. When Baroness Karen Blixen (the Meryl Streep character) first meets Denys Finch-Hatton (the Robert Redford character), he is out on safari with Masai warriors. Then time goes by, and after World War I, he starts taking people out on safari. To be blunt: He takes wealthy people out to kill lions just for the sake of killing lions. The paying customer–the tourist of the early 20th Century–can tell everyone back home that he killed a lion, just like the backpacker of the early 21st Century can tell everyone back home that she stroked a snake.

Midway though Out of Africa, Denys goes out to look for new safari locations and he takes Karen with him. It become an incredible romantic trip! They make love–for the first time–in a tent!! Everything is pure, beautiful, and natural as they ride their Jeep through herds of wild animals!!! When they take their first plane trip together, the Savannah below is filled with natural beauty. But later you see Denys flying alone, and the land below him is a barren patchwork of Jeep ruts. Denys and his colleagues and his customers have plowed their way through the Savannah… Gringo Trails captures this same feeling of melancholy. Like Denys, Yossi wanted to test himself. But when he succeeded, he blazed a trail for others, and he ended up destroying what he most loved in the process.

Gringo Trails provides an excellent mix of context and history with a perfect meld of first person and third person points of view. It tells a profound story about the nature of man’s relationship to Planet Earth. We all think: “I am just one person and I am going to do what I want to do.” But if we all do what we want to do without thinking about the larger consequences, how soon will it before before we end up destroying our planet?

After

Top Photo: Tourists from all over the world converge on pristine places…

Bottom Photo: …which are no longer quite so “pristine” after the tourists have congregated there…

Photo Credits:  Icarus Films

Q: Does Gringo Trails pass the Bechdel Test? DigitalStampA

Yes.

One of the surprising elements of Gringo Trails is how many women are out there backpacking. One might have thought this was a “guy thing,” but no. Based on the footage captured by Vail and her team, I would guess ~ 40% of these travelers are women.

One the one hand, this is a good thing (“You Go, Girls!”), but obviously they can be just as thoughtless as their male counterparts…

Looping back to the snake-stroking incident all I can say is: Shame on you, sister!!!

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