Planeta Petrila (2017): Oh, Petrila, My Sweet Chinchilla

Nobody can accuse Dascalescu’s documentary of being without flair. I still recall, almost a decade ago, emerging from a forest road into Zlatna, a mining community some 200 km apart from Petrila: the picture – perfect image of desolation was shocking. So to the extent that ‘Planeta Petrila’ celebrates the birth of some form of (artistic) life from such wreckage, it is a great success. However, it feels detached from the wider community of the town and in not taking an inquisitive stance on the viability of life in former coal mining ‘colonies’, it shies away from the bigger social and environmental questions.

petrila
Ion Barbu, ex-miner, or rather ex-mining topographer, current artist/activist/do-it-all is a veritable one man show. His distinctively spirited visual designs and Banksy-esque witticisms are plastered around Petrila, contrasting the dying pulsations of the coal mining industry. Alongside him – or rather, in a parallel universe – Catalin Cenusa leads one of the last mining teams to work the deep shafts of Petrila. The contrast between the two is stark and Dascalescu recognizes this, but never broaches the issue: Barbu is looking for Petrila’s continuity beyond mining, while Cenusa is intent on working the coal for as long as possible. The latter’s fight is a solitary one, with just one hundred people left of more than four thousand still earning their livelihoods from the Petrila mining exploitation.

The pressure to close the mines comes from the European Union, or rather the funds contracted by the government from the EU to ‘green out’ the area. It’s somehow funny that in a documentary about mining, where the effect of mine closures are part of the focal point, I don’t recall hearing the words ‘environmental impact’ or ‘global warming’ even once. If they were mentioned, it was more incidental. Instead there are clear indications as to what Dascalescu feels is the uninterested involvement of local and national authorities in the whole matter. Authorities are accused to have bypassed required consultations with communities of places like Petrila, in a desire to ensure European financing and, presumably, monetize some obscure vested interests in the greening and demolition process. The bigger issue though is not so much what the community wants to do, because the movie provides no sense of who the community is; it simply stays close to Barbu and to the involvement of out-of-town NGOs in preserving a cultural art space in some of the mine’s historic buildings.

I have no idea what the artistic value of Barbu’s work is, but it’s soulful stuff. Planeta Petrila provides a melancholic frame for the bitingly ironic and rightfully frustrated artist, ramping his desire for cultural renewal to overdrive. Barbu’s bubbling personality and sharp sense of humour lighten up the gray realities of the town. From colourful graffitis to underground theater festivals, it’s all happening in Petrila for the first time in…perhaps ever. The strong attachment to the heritage of the place, its silent suffering and the inherent sadness when it is all about to end come into focus in the best moments of Dascalescu’s movie. The footage from inside the mine shafts, where Cenusa (translation: “ashes”) and his crew really shuffle off their mortal coils, strengthened by the satisfaction of their work and some self-deprecating humour, are a testament to the importance of purpose and of being good at your craft, albeit a tragically outdated one.

In all this, the documentary could have done with more focus, because it feels disjointed in its two protagonists and in its desire to establish itself as activist cinema. My main gripe with Planeta Petrila is that it propagates that against which it preaches: the imposition of foreign interests on socially impaired communities. The fact that Dascalescu does not portray a balanced view of events, with next to no input from political and administrative figureheads, is not an issue; a documentary need not be a factual debate. But a lot of the time it feels like the activism caught on camera is a cause in itself, a self high-five, if you will. Planeta Petrila never successfully makes the case it implicitly supports at the outset, as articulated by Barbu: art can be Petrila’s redemption. It looks more like art can and is Barbu’s redemption, whose stubborn persistence, supported by NGOs, ensures the creation of a cultural space to keep the once socially-defining mining heritage of the community alive. In terms of how the people of Petrila will go on, other than desert the place, there are no answers, because the question is not being asked. The community seems voiceless, with Barbu, whose son travels the world on a motorbike, too cosmopolitan a figure, and Cenusa too far in the background and too intent on ensuring his livelihood.

Perhaps my skepticism is getting the better of me here, but that’s what I would have wanted to see more of, to elevate the movie beyond an expression of art for art’s sake. For what it’s worth, Planeta Petrila is distinctive and paints in beautiful colours against the gray backdrop that is (was) the mining industrial complex. It’s the kind of place I would like to emerge into when next traveling the forests around Zlatna.

***

Movies of the Week #28 (2017)

Most of my movie-watching time this week was spent with a new series: GLOW. I can only assume the pitch for the show went something like this:

Creator: I have this brilliant idea for a new show.

Producer: Tell me.

Creator: Think of Orange is the New Black – set in the 80s and with wrestling!

Producer: OMFG, that’s crazy wicked bro! If we can just make a nice actress take her top off in the pilot, you’ve got green light!

The show is, as one would expect, inspired by real American events. And just like OitNB, the first season is pretty fun and fresh-ish and all over the best decade in history. Alas, beyond that, I doubt much will come of it.

Movie of the Week:

n/a (all were average – so here’s a provocative pic from GLOW instead)

glow

Monday

  • Tour de Pharmacy (2017): I wasn’t taken with the precursor to TdP, tennis-spoof 7 Days in Hell (2016). For whatever reason, that one felt dated and too silly. Perhaps it’s because I care about tennis and don’t care about the Tour de France/cycling, hence I am more willing to accept caricatures and stereotypes of the latter. Anywayz, I laughed at this, even though it feels like it lacks punch to actually matter. The borderline disturbing cameo made by a certain controversial ex-cyclist was a fine idea, cherry on top like, to a strong cast that manages to make the ridicule likable. Given that it’s barely forty minutes long, you have my recommendation and acquiescence to check this out if you’re the inclinations veer towards sports. 6/10

Tuesday

  • Gifted (2017): This soft-core movie about a gifted child being cared for by Captain America (Chris Evans), her uncle, has a Hallmark level plot and some decent screen-writing to make the characters presentable and witty, elevating the whole affair to a bearable level. Directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer (2009), a couple of Amazing Spider-Men), this movie about family quarrels and the expectations one can/should have of brilliant young minds doesn’t really have enough nuance in making the sole argument that exclusion (or elite-ization) is the wrong path to trot down. It is, however, a relevant theme for discussion, so for a while the movie kept me interested, before it started to nag. A thing I really dislike is the use of female side-characters solely to provide damaged men a romantic escape hatch, women whose sole purpose is to move the plot along and give the viewer a sense of relief that all the good guys are taken care of – there’s one of them in here too. Ah, well… 6/10

Friday

  • To the Bone (2017): Another thing that irritates me is how these people try to make certain lesser actors look like/remind you of better actors. It’s the case in TtB, with the irrelevant Lily Collins being shaped into a Rooney Mara. Some may disagree, but it sure looked like Rooney Mara there for a while. The movie gives anorexia the full treatment in an uncomfortable tale that, unfortunately, failed to make me connect. The fault lies with the characters whose motivations feel impenetrable. You can see drama coming a mile off and you just know what it’s going to feel like, so that doesn’t help either. But there are these glimpses of utter truthfulness that touched me, hurt me even, with the pain that was being shared; while not the most desirable feeling, it made TtB matter to some degree. With an equally emotional, if somewhat predictable, ending to boot, Marti Nixon’s movie just about makes the grade. 6/10

    P.S. If you’re in it for Keanu Reeves, don’t be. He barely comes up.

Saturday

  • Okja (2017): Okja is an uneven movie, bitingly ironic at points, and completely lacking in subtlety, which advocates against the industrialized agricultural complex – specifically meat. Okja is the title character’s name, a super-pig bread by the mega-conglomerate Mirando (*cough* *cough* Monsanto), which aims to harvest the meat off the animal after a ten-year feel-good campaign covering up all the vile nastiness the company has been indulging with (animal abuse, GMOs, corruption, you name it). As it just happens, Okja looks less like a pig and more like a half-hippo, half-dog with the intelligence of a very clever dolphin – just to make certain you can’t objectify this unambiguously human animal-character. The movie is profoundly anti-system, going at it from the big commercial targets and the subservient media-figures, all the way down to the inconsistency of animal advocacy groups. There are some beautiful moments in Okja, but I despise the lack of nuance when portraying big, politically hefty themes. 5/10

Movies of the Weeks #26 #27 (2017)

The notable premiere for this couple of weeks is my first ever 4DX movie. Taking all precautions, I had gone to see Baby Driver under normal circumstances in advance. Having liked it, and given the nature of the movie, it made sense that if ever-then now, so 4DX it was. Perhaps it’s a gimmick I like more than 3D (which I loathe), because it’s less prevalent and not being forced down my itsy bitsy throat. Unfortunately, it made me feel a bit queasy at times, especially as I was getting used to it. Some parts of BD worked better than others with it – funnily, the greatest enjoyment came from the slow, cradling, lull moments, not the big action drifts, although the mere intimation of a car breaking and you breaking with it is an effect I like. I’m undecided if I’ll return for another 4DX experience, and if so, then most likely for something pretty special. Which brings us to…

Movie of the Week

Baby Driver (2017)

babydriver

Some time two weeks ago:

  • Baby Driver (2017): If you’ve read my Scott Pilgrim review, you know I’m a big fan of Edgar Wright. So there was no way I would miss Baby Driver, a venture into the rather stale genre of bank heist movies. It would be somewhat silly to focus too much on the plot (boy acts as driver to pay back debt, while falling in love with girl), because BD stands out due to its pure Wright-ism. I’m constantly bedazzled by the exceptional editing in Wright’s movies, the kind that doesn’t only make transitions from one scene to the next, but always leaves something unsaid in between. BD is fueled by this and by its dynamic rhythm, so astutely expressed through a great score – you know it’s great, because if you were to listen to it outside the movie, it wouldn’t tell you much. Sometimes I might just enjoy a bunch of songs from a soundtrack independently, but here, the music is really cool because it’s so much of an integral part to the movie.  All this, alongside a few distinctive characters, make BD into a properly enjoyable, Friday night movie with that extra zip, to make it memorable. 8/10

Wednesday

  • The Beguiled (2017): I’ve generally found Sofia Coppola’s work situated on the edge of the unbearable. Barring her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999), and her only truly strong movie, Lost in Translation (2003)Copolla’s films have been overwhelmed by the veneer of philosophical artsyness she smacks on top of them. The Beguiled, which brought the director the top prize at Cannes, is somewhere in the middle. It deals with an injured unionist soldier, during the American Civil War, who is found and sheltered at a girls’ school in Virginia – i.e. ‘the enemy’. There, after a brief convalescence, it begins to look like the sexual deprivation of everyone around is getting the better of them and the story escalates/descends into an allegorical conclusion befitting some of Coppola’s lesser efforts. It’s a shame, because two-thirds of the movie in, I was quite enthralled by what looked like a beautiful composite of womanhood, in the midst of a mystical, almost abstract forest. This all goes to waste in an ending which veers towards the demonstrative, lynching its male protagonist (a rather loathsome, Wickham-esque figure, for those Jane Austen lovers out there), although it had set itself up for much more. Alas, that’s Copolla, whose only truly memorable film is memorable because it’s her most restrained.

Thursday

  • American Sniper (2014): For whatever reason, it took me three years to watch AS, although I tend to enjoy Eastwood’s swashbuckling style and Bradley Cooper is a likable fellow – even when killing people in the developing world. For all the controversy over how American the movie is, I kept thinking about how different the Afghanistan war looks on movie to more recent wars – something like Good Kill (2014), focused on drone-bombing, would just wipe out most of the tension in AS. Beyond this, I generally find the war movie genre to be a tired one and this Oscar nominated abomination (OK, it ain’t that bad) does little to disprove me. It’s mostly your run-of-the-mill, patriotic, trauma-ridden, soldier-patient, which is simply to say that it’s been done a lot and the ‘true-story’ elements to it are not fleshed out enough to make a difference. 6/10

Friday

  • Dirty Dancing (1987): It’s weird it took me so long to watch DD, because I am a (remorseless) fan of these utterly slushy pop-movies about dancing and singing stemming from around the 80s – Grease (1978), Footloose (2011 – the remake), Fame (1980). Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s chemistry ensure DD is pretty much enjoyable, although there are many things to dislike about it. First and foremost, the editing here is the polar opposite of that in any of Wright’s films, and done poorly to boot – hence a lot of story feels phoned in. Luckily, the dancing and the romance come from a place of sensuality, making them matter – even if I doubt anyone can go from novice to masterful as quickly as Grey does in this flick. I was a tad disappointed by the ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’ scene, which I always expected to be metaphorical, maybe a nice gesture after relieving Baby from some bullying a-holes, or some other real romantic thing like that. Alas, it was literal. 6/10

Saturday

  • Friends with Money (2006): A movie from the mid 00s filled with well-known actresses that I have not seen? Sign me up, please. Starring peak-Jennifer Aniston (if there is such a thing), Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack as a group of friends in their 30s/40s with quite varying familial shortcoming, what’s interesting about FwM is how real these characters feel, most of the time. I particularly felt for McDormand, the perpetually angry one, and Keener, the one lost in the wrong marriage; in contrast, Aniston’s ‘Olivia’ is quite the weird one, dysfunctional in choosing men and a tad fetishistic, I couldn’t quite warm up to her and definitely found the conclusion far-fetched. It’s funny that in a movie about so many complex issues, the focus falls on the hot one not being able to get a good guy and a good job because, really, she isn’t even trying. This made the movie drag for me, although I quite liked how not all mysteries were neatly tidied up by the end. I’m not surprised to see that director/writer Nicole Holofcener did much better in a more focused movie like Enough Said (2013), which I recommend as a reference point.