Movie Reviews

No Impact Man (Opens at the Crest Theatre Oct. 30)
Directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein
Project-based books and documentaries are all the rage these days. The trend that seemed to start with “Super Size Me” a few years ago has continued with various authors and filmmakers taking a month or a year to go on a date with anyone who asks, staying stoned 24/7 or trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible, to cite a few recent examples.

But few of these projects seem to have as much relevance to how we actually live as “No Impact Man.” This 90-minute documentary probably should have been called “Low Impact Family.” While writer Colin Beavan first thought of the project and writes a book about it, his wife Michelle Conlin and their daughter Isabella see it through with him—and seem to suffer more than he does. The goal: get through an entire year without any impact on the environment.

As a matter of pure fact, they fail, of course. They don’t turn off their electricity until the year is half over. They take a couple of train rides, beg ice off neighbors, and cheat here and there. But it is still amazing to see what they go without. For the full year, there is no toilet paper, meat, any food that travels more than 250 miles, motorized transportation (exceptions noted) or even elevators, diapers for their toddler daughter, any new clothing, anything that comes in packaging, most cleaning products and the one that would kill me, caffeine. For half a year they live without lights or refrigeration.

What is less amazing but still notable is the extreme hostility the project illicit in some people. In response to an online article about them, someone posts a comment about “spraying the whole family with an uzi while yelling ‘Is that enough impact for you!!!’” The year-long project aspect noted above seems to really gall people, with Beavan’s self-promotion used to demean the project. The idea that anyone should voluntarily go without seems to be threatening to a lot of people. Even some environmentalists attack them as gimmicky and self-absorbed.

Some of these attacks seem downright mean-spirited. But at least one shed some light. Beavan shares an urban garden plot with an aging hippie named Mayer, who quickly becomes my favorite character due to his frankness. When Mayer lays into him one day, you get the sense he has a point. Noting the flood of media appearances, from Good Morning America to a New York Times article, Mayer asks, “Do you really think you’d be getting all this media attention if they really thought you were going to change anything?”

What might be most interesting, though, is how Beavan and Conlin inadvertently made a documentary about their own marriage. At first the serious, ecologically-minded Beavan seems badly matched with his wife, a fashion, junk food and Starbucks obsessed Business Week writer who buys a $957 pair of boots days before their anti-binge is set to begin. As the year progresses, though, she gets thinner, healthier-looking and frankly more likeable. At one point, Beavan talks about benefits like the weight he’s lost and the pre-diabetic condition his wife has left behind. But you also may get the sense that the project may have saved their marriage.   

Good Hair
Directed by Jeff Stilson

African American girls and women have, for decades, been indoctrinated into thinking that straight, bouncy hair is necessary for success in life, business and romance, regardless of the cost involved. Chris Rock co-wrote, co-produced and narrates/stars in this documentary about the relaxer and weave industries, where an entry-level “hair unit” can cost $1,000 even before regular styling/washing/weaving expenses kick in. But worse than the expenses are the risks associated with some of the chemicals used.  
It’s also interesting to note that the film was billed as a comedy rather than a documentary. It’s certainly funny as well as alarming at times, but it’s as if the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience to see the value in something informative, which seems strangely demeaning. However, the film itself is fun, interesting, and worthwhile—regardless of labeling.

Law Abiding Citizen
Directed by F. Gary Gray

Gerard Butler plays a very wronged man who takes matters into his own hands in this capable action thriller. But the de facto villain, as depicted in the story, is a legal system in which career prosecutors plea bargain their way to improved win/loss records rather than trying cases. Even Roman Polanski couldn’t make plea bargains look this distasteful.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant
Directed by Paul Weitz

More tongue in cheek than tooth in neck, “…The Vampire’s Assistant” is fun and breezy, but also has the inherent flaw of feeling like the introduction to a series rather than a stand-alone story. It reminds me of “Unbreakable,” which was like a pilot episode or the opening act to something better to follow. And the box office numbers aren’t looking too sequel-friendly.

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