Tomorrow (Le Demain) – 7

A group of French filmmakers sought to counter the despair provoked by climate change and the ongoing Sixth Extinction by finding examples that show how the world could survive in a better, sustainable way – sort of a filmic version of John Lennon’s Imagine. I can’t say it was convincing – more on that in a minute – but several of the concepts were new to me and quite startling. First, the structure: the film identified five areas where existing models showed the way to a better future: Agriculture, Energy, Politics, Economy and Education. They traveled the world in their research, although a majority of the exemplars were to be found, not surprisingly, in Europe.
Agriculture touted urban farming (e.g., in Detroit), which fostered direct-to-consumption produce, eliminating wasteful packaging and transportation. More interesting was the claim that small farms could be two-to-four times more productive than the large-company single-crop farms that dominate the U.S. market. For one thing, nature abhors a monoculture, and the big farms degrade the soil and require increasing amounts of chemicals to be productive. The small-farm example showed how many crops could be grown in the same space – for instance, basil, tomatoes and grapes – organically, using far fewer resources. The heavy reliance on grain in our diet was also seen as bad for the environment, whereas fruits and vegetables are healthier are require less processing.
Energy I am familiar with, thanks to RMI and others, and the film didn’t have to dig very far to find examples such as Copenhagen’s, and eventually all Denmark’s, renunciation of fossil fuels in favor of wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric power. The last stumbling block is cars, and here Copenhagen, which I can’t wait to visit, is moving forward by favoring bike lanes, walking paths and public transportation.
For Politics, the film looked to Iceland, where citizens, but apparently not the government, have experimented with legislature-by-lottery. Choose your parliament by having citizens draw lots and you will come up with a governing body that takes its job very seriously (here, the analogy is to a jury), is a cross-section of the population and is not beholden to special interests. [One of California’s Republican gubernatorial candidates has an equally revolutionary idea, called Neighborhood Legislature, in which small districts of 12,000 people each elect a representative who then gets to vote on the local Congressman.]
The novel idea in Economy was a complementary currency, a form of money that doesn’t replace the pound or Euro but is valuable only inside a limited jurisdiction, which could be an entire European country but seems to have taken off mainly in British towns. The film didn’t say how the complementary currency is valued vis-à-vis the official government currency – i.e., why would people prefer it – but the benefits are clear: it keeps the local economy humming because you can use it buy coffee at your local coffee shop but probably not Starbucks and definitely not in the town next door. Moreover, you can’t earn interest on it by saving, so it encourages local spending. On a large scale, Switzerland seems to have this going, and it was suggested that a complementary currency would enable Greece to get its economy running again. The economists interviewed also surprised me by explaining than 97% of money (maybe in Britain, with a somewhat smaller percentage in other places) is created not by the central government, but by private banks issuing loans! Another shining light was an envelope manufacturer who was committed to low-energy use and low waste and paid no dividends to shareholders, eschewing the goal of making anyone rich.
The model in Education was Finland, which scores at or near the top in national surveys. The trick there, which brought applause from the Santa Barbara audience, is lack of testing: “We teach for learning, not for the test,” said the interviewed principal, who was also shown tossing kids in the air and having lunch with students in the cafeteria, which, like every part of the schooling, is free to age 16.
Yes, it was heartening to see that so many people are committed to better ways of doing things. It was slightly discouraging to see that the film was completed in 2015 and has made zero impact (it only reached us via a special screening sponsored by local environmental groups). And while the models may have made good sense, they all, in one way or another, require large commitments of manpower – think of how many small farmers would be needed to substitute for Cargill’s production; enlightened leadership – at a time when our politics are in total dysfunction; and massive buy-in by populations more diverse, not to say splintered, than Copenhagen’s. Above all, the hope for a better future instilled by the movie was deflated upon leaving the theater when I realized that for now and the next few years we are living in the world of Donald Trump. At least I am in California.

Dunkirk – 5

Dunkirk is an unpleasant assault on the senses, the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan stretched out for two hours. We see death by suicide, by being shot in the back, burned at sea, strafed from the air, blown up on the sand, drowned in vessel hold, shot from the sky, machine-gunned at close range, knocked down the steps – and that doesn’t count the half-dozen ships that get sunk by German aircraft with untold anonymous deaths resulting. Aside from the always brilliant Mark Rylance and the dependable Kenneth Branagh, the actors are a fairly indistinguishable lot, and half of the little dialogue there is is lost in murmurs or foreign accents. The expected upbeat saga of Dunkirk (see, most recently, Their Finest Hour) is reduced to a footnote in favor of an unrelieved essay on the horror of war. Someone, maybe director Christopher Nolan, described Dunkirk as an “Impressionist” painting. I get that, but only if the artist were Goya, not Monet.

The Big Sick – 7.8

Every summer needs a fun and innocent rom-com, and The Big Sick is it for 2017, with the crazily adorable Zoe Kazan filling the Julia Roberts/Meg Ryan role. The more recognizable Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are idiosyncratically good as Emily’s parents, while the Pakistani family of Kumail (who plays himself!) is just as enjoyable in their cultural dissonance. There are no big laughs – in fact, the stand-up comics are surprisingly unfunny – and no big drama: we all know Emily will live and love will find a way. The movie’s strength is its consistent tone, pleasant company throughout – and Zoe Kazan.

Water & Power – 6.5

This documentary tackled a fascinating subject – water rights in California – but left me with more questions than answers. It approached the topic from several different angles but never tied them together. The people of East Porterville had no running water for three years. Something called the Monterey Amendments set water allocations behind closed doors, favoring Kern County or corporate interests, or maybe they were the same. Then there were the Resnicks, big LACMA donors and producers of POM and Fiji Water, who somehow gamed the system to get all the water they need for massive almond and pistachio groves. Other big companies are buying vineyards for access to the aquifers below. Clips of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown showed that this, whatever it is, has been going on for decades. The talking heads – lawyers and journalists mostly on one side of the issue – carried the football for the filmmaker’s anti-almond point of view, but the film’s vignettes pointed in various directions. One interviewee suggested that water should be a public resource, not a private commodity, which would have been an interesting thesis that might have connected some of these dots. But as Water & Power left it, I had no idea how the Resnicks’ use of water contributed to the paucity in Porterville, or why in the last scene they were bulldozing their almond trees.

Their Finest – 7.8

A movie about a plucky woman in wartime Britain making a movie about a plucky woman in wartime Britain, graced with the ever-pleasant figures of Bill Nighy and Gemma Arterton. The period details seemed just right, as was the mixture of wartime horror and cinema fantasy.

Baby Driver – 5.5

This seems to be the buzz-generator of early summer, but that speaks more to the paucity of good movies than BD’s merits. Anson Elgort’s moves and cool are appealing, and Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm are wonderfully scary bad guys, but that’s about it. The soundtrack is loud and unrelenting but doesn’t make much sense, the car chases are repetitive and hardly intellectual, the Atlanta setting is devoid of visual interest, the romance is cliched and predictable, and the plot is slightly less realistic than Wonder Woman.