Saturday, February 20, 2010

Saving The Planet One Way At A Time

No snow for the Winter Olympics! Too much snow in the nation's capital! That was all assholes like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity needed to claim that the recent spate of snowstorms on the East Coast proved global warming was a fraud. Thankfully, comedians like Andy Cobb are available to set them straight:

As new technology and new ideas have spread, some people have found ways to micromanage the growth cycle of plants and animals. With water scarcity a big problem in some areas, one of the most interesting trends in jump-starting food cycles is aquaponics, which was recently featured in an article in The New York Times.

Boulder, Colorado's Sylvia Bernstein (the author of The Aquaponics Gardening Blog) has become something of an expert in the field. In the following clip, she explains how easy it is to grow produce and fresh water fish in one ecologically efficient greenhouse:

Man's efforts to come up with new and inventive ways to raise crops, understand nature, and reduce our carbon footprint are a key factor in three new films. In one, a science project provides an escape from family stress. In another, a wealthy rock musician embarks on a secondary career as a winemaker. In the third, two morons try to save the planet with their remarkable feats of abject stupidity. Can you guess who gets the best result from his labors?

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Soon to be screened at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival is a family drama written and directed by Leena Pendharkar entitled Raspberry Magic. Set in the Pacific Northwest (but filmed in Oakland), the film focuses on 11-year-old Monica Shah (Lily Javaherpour) and her high school science project.

Although Monica has an interesting hypothesis (that raspberry leaves will respond positively to human touch and that touching stimulates growth), she has not been getting good results in the school laboratory. One problem is Zachary (Zach Mills), a condescending male nerd who claims that the robot he's built can respond to people's emotions. Whether Zachary's racism and misogyny are calculated to sabotage a rival or he's just a teenaged putz isn't Monica's biggest problem.

The Shah family is in crisis and Monica has no idea what to do about it.
  • Monica's father is an engineer trying to design educational video games on the side. Manoj (Ravi Kapoor) has been so wrapped up in his work that he has become oblivious to outside influences. When Manoj is laid off from his job and told he might have better opportunities in India, the shame of being unable to provide for his family is devastating. His macho pride won't allow him to accept financial help from his brother-in-law and so he moves into a nearby motel room.
  • Monica's mother has been trying to sell her recipes and knowledge of Indian food to a publisher, but with little success. Nandini (Meera Simham), however, is an expert at humiliating and nagging her husband in front of their children. When her book is rejected at the same time her husband moves out, she throws a fit and sinks into a depression. Dishes keep piling up in the sink until a new man enters her life and offers Nandini a ray of hope.
  • Monica's little sister, Gina (Keya Shah), doesn't understand why her parents have separated and has little talent for keeping a secret. She's pretty good at reading adult body language and takes a critical fall for the sake of the plot.
  • Monica's closest friend, Sarah (Bella Thorne), is quick to offer encouragement and emotional support but is living in an extremely unsupportive environment of her own with an emotionally immature single mother who is a total loser.
  • Monica's science teacher (Alison Brie) is quick to choose Zachary's robot as the winner of the science fair. To her credit, Ms. Bradlee signs the necessary permission form for Monica, who shows her the rule that allows anyone to enter the regional competition as an independent.
While Manoj flails about trying to get game developers to look at his work product -- and Nandini stays in bed all day sulking -- no one is paying much attention to Monica, who decides to modify her experiment and plant her raspberries in the nearby forest. Eventually, the three key figures in the Shah family get through with a little help from their friends:
  • The school gardener (James Morrison) gives Monica some valuable insights into plants while Susan offers close support.
  • Amrish (Maulik Pancholy), a long-time friend of Monica's father, convinces one of his college contacts to look at Manoj's educational game. Although, as a software entrepreneur, Dylan (Randall Batinkoff) quickly understands that Manoj's game is not sufficiently entertaining, he does have an opening for an engineer and offers Manoj a job.
  • Caden (Andy Gates) publishes an online food journal. After tasting Nandini's strawberry banana lassi and some of her other Indian dishes, he comes through with a publishing deal. Although Gina and Monica are worried about Caden's touchy-feely approach to their mother, they are more concerned with getting their parents back together.
As family tension mounts in the early part of the film, Monica tries to comfort Gina by telling her that the raspberries will bloom when their parents get back together. As seen through a child's eyes, it's a logical hope that family unity can and will be restored. As a plot device, however, it signals exactly where the film must go and makes much of the film (especially a Hansel and Gretel-style search through the forest for the missing Monica) feel a bit forced.

Raspberry Magic does a good job of showing some of the cultural pressures that weigh on a suburban Indian-American family. While Pendharkar's first full-length feature film is an admirable effort, it's not a particularly gripping drama. Here's the trailer:

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I love documentaries and industrial tours. I love musicians and the creative process. Although I don't drink wine or listen to much rock music, I had a grand time watching Blood Into Wine, which will be screened on February 25 at the VIZ Cinema as part of San Francisco's Noisepop Festival.

Written and directed by Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke, Blood Into Wine offers the perfect introduction to winemaking for people who loathe the sound of a wine snob using the opportunity to pontificate during a meal as a way to stroke his own ego. Think of this film as the equivalent of a documentary for people who hate opera queens about what goes on behind the scenes of creating a successful opera production.

The main focus of Blood Into Wine is rock musician Maynard James Keenan. Internationally famous for his appearances with Tool, Keenan has become a business partner with Eric Glomski in Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars (located near the tiny former ghost town of Jerome in Arizona's Verde Valley).

Although Blood Into Wine is blessed with cameo appearances from actress Milla Jovovich and comedian Patton Oswalt, the combination of Keenan's dry wit, Glomski's down-to-earth enthusiasm for winemaking, and the challenge of going up against the California wine industry (have you heard of any famous Arizona wines lately?) gives the film a mixture of history, intellect, geography, science, business, geology, and personal growth woven into a documentary of immense appeal.

It's not Winemaking For Dummies. Nor is it purely a vanity piece for Keenan (although his celebrity plays a big part in the plot).

Instead, this is a film about an intelligent musician and creative artist who graduated from Kendall College of Art & Design with a background in interior design and set construction and served his time in the Army before becoming a talented singer/songwriter and popular rocker. A man with a firm business mind, Keenan also owns a produce market and organic market in Cornville, Arizona, has part ownership of the Cobras & Matadors restaurant in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, and has worked at developing his skills as a stand-up comedian.

As a result, Keenan is not afraid to play straight man to two actors impersonating doofuses in a public access TV type of interview situation or sign bottles of wine on a tour of regional Whole Foods supermarkets. Fully at ease explaining some of the challenges of growing grapes on a hillside in Northern Arizona ("You have to watch out for all kinds of pests: insects, mice, hippies....."), Keenan's knowledgeable, laid-back charm serves as the perfect foil for Glomski's missionary zeal and enthusiasm for winemaking.

By developing a wine brand with a limited inventory that will appeal to connoisseurs while having the safety net of being able to market his wines to adoring fans, Keenan has demonstrated a solid business plan for developing a secondary career. When he wishes to travel, he has the freedom to tour as a musician. When he wishes to stay at home in Arizona and develop his wine business, he can do so in relative peace and quiet.

Blessed by Cary Truelick's gorgeous cinematography (which often makes the film seem like a promotional for Arizona's tourism industry), Blood Into Wine is as interesting a hybrid as its talented multidisciplinary protagonist. It is at once a powerful biopic, an educational documentary, and a strong marketing tool. Here's the trailer:

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Last fall, as part of its Taiwan Film Days mini festival, the San Francisco Film Society screened Yang Li-chou's beautiful film entitled Beyond The Arctic. This sports documentary followed the Taiwan team's efforts to race across the ice in a competitive hike to the North Pole. Misguided political correctness about the environment gets its due with a new climate warming farce that was recently screened at the San Francisco Indie Film Fest.

Starring Rhys Thomas as Brian Tongue (who doesn't learn his girlfriend is four months pregnant until he's halfway to the North Pole) and Stephen Mangan as Mark Bark Jones (whose politically correct bark is actually as bad as his bite), this indie flick is laced with the kind of humor that made Little Britain famous. It is, without doubt, the first documentary about the perils of the Arctic ever to include a debate about the value of having a foreskin for added protection against subfreezing temperatures.

Brian and Mark are hoping to make the Guinness Book of World Records for being the first carbon neutral, vegetarian, and organic expedition ever to attempt the North Pole without a commercial sponsor. Wearing T-shirts that say "Don't Be Impotent" on one side and "Be Important" on the other, they have no experience, no planning, and no intellectual grasp of what they are about to do. What they really want is to make an important statement and become famous.

Without any knowledge about how to deal with polar bears in the wild (or unexpected competition from two gay Norwegian hikers who are not just carbon neutral, vegetarian, organic, and unsponsored, but a whole lot faster on their feet than the British duo), the Brits start their training by dragging tires across meadows and trying to acclimate themselves to the cold in a meat locker (despite their claim to be strict vegetarians).

Stephen Mangan as vegetarian Mark Bark Jones

Whether one watches Brian trying to initiate phone sex with his girlfriend back home or Mark trying to wipe Brian's shit off his snowy boots, Thomas and Mangan are brutally funny as the two idiots at the center of the film. As a Norwegian gay couple who bring wet suits for the water segments of their trek -- but whose relationship breaks up midway through their hike to the North Pole -- Alexander SkarsgÄrd (Terje) and Lars Arentz-Hansen (Ketil) milk more farce out of the simple act of offering Brian a biscuit than one could ever imagine.

With beautiful cinematography by Stuart Biddlecombe and a ridiculously silly script by David L. Williams and Neil Warhurst, Beyond The Pole brings a delicious touch of British snark to the frozen reaches near the top of the planet. Even though the script covers a period of nearly 75 days on the ice (with no supplies and not a whole lot of brains to help these two fools), the inevitable tragedy that befalls the British expedition is nevertheless milked for as much comic effect as possible under the keen directorial guidance of Williams.

Strong support comes from Mark Benton as Graham (Brian's best friend who develops the hots for Brian's girlfriend), Rosie Cavaliero as Sandra (who didn't want to tell Brian she was pregnant because it might distract him from his goals), and Helen Baxendale as Becky (Mark's girlfriend who dumps him and heads for the French Riviera).

Beyond The Pole should be seen by anyone who takes their favorite causes a bit too seriously. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

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