AQUARELA – movie review

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Victor Kossakovsky
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 7/15/19
Opens: August 16, 2019

Aquarela Movie Poster

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Unless you were distracted by your iPhone in English lit. class that day, you recognize these lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner.” The title character, who tells his stories to all who are forced to listen, relates how he shot an albatross resulting in the loss of the south wind and the forced stall of his ship. The Mariner fought against nature, and nature fought back in revenge. Nature is on display with a vengeance in Victor Kossakovsky’s “Aquarela,” the kind of picture you’ve never quite seen before and should embrace if you believe that there is no originality in movies these days. Kossakovsky, or if you prefer Виктор Александрович Косаковский, is the Leningrad-born director of “Vivan las antipodas,” in which he contrasts an area of Argentina with its antipode, metropolitan Shanghai, and now continues experimenting with cinema. This time he has hired water as the principal character (though a few mortal beings are shown), and, technologically filming at 96 frames per second to watch speedily disintegrating icebergs for us.

The thing about “Aquarela” is that what is shown here is the opposite of what the Ancient Mariner experiences. In place of a stagnant body of water, we see water, water, everywhere, the substance that covers most of our planet, in furious motion. He takes his camera to Russia’s Lake Baikal, then on to Greenland (always used by school teachers to show the distortions of a flat, Mercator map that impresses you with an island that seems larger than the U.S.), then to Angel Falls in Venezuela and finally to our own Miami. In each case Mr. or Ms. Water offer us quite a show, no charge beyond the movie’s price and no need to travel the world to experience the raging forces of nature.

The director could have used the opportunity to propagandize in favor of arguments of the 99.5% of scientists who warn of climate change but instead allows us in the audience to infer what seems obvious to anyone who is not mentally retarded. There is high drama in Lake Baikal as auto drivers, assuming that the ice would not melt for another three weeks, drive across the solid foundation only to sink when the ice gives way. We actually witness a poor guy who is photographed making the fatal move and commiserate with one of the workers who are fishing out a car when he sobs that his friend has died.

When he heads to Greenland—a place that I always wanted to visit if only to get a T-shirt with its logo—Kossakovsky affords us a look of drama that has nothing to do with human beings. Icebergs turn upside down, reminding us that icebergs are 90 percent below water and tippable. We hardly need the heavy metal in the soundtrack given the melodrama going on in the water, the publicity notes explaining that we hear a “symphony of rushing, thundering, crashing, trickling, popping and cracking.” If you teach English, use this as your prime example of onomatopoeia.

Thanks to mismanagement by the socialist government of Venezuela there are virtually no U.S. tourists in that country, but never mind. Kossakovsky is there showing the country’s principal tourist attraction, Angel Falls, without special effects, a rainbow serving to belie the political and economic realities of that formerly prosperous destination. Later, an American flag! We’re in Miami’s South Beach during hurricane Irma and no, the camera people, Ben Bernhard and the director, are not hiding inside the Hilton Hotel but right out there in the middle of the storm as if we have not already been convinced that nature is quite able to counteract anything that we human beings throw at it.

This is not to say that “Aquarela” is for everybody. After all it is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, not by Columbia, and therefore is not as friendly to masses of moviegoers as are other films about devastations of nature such as “Only the Brave” (wildfires); “Earthquake” (collapsing Los Angeles); or “The Last Days of Pompeii” (volcanoes go boom). The right crowd will hopefully find it when it opens in mid-August.

90 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – A
Technical – A
Overall – B+

WHAT LIES UPSTREAM – movie review


    Gravitas Ventures
    Director:  Cullen Hoback
    Screenwriter:  Cullen Hoback
    Cast:  Martin Riese, Dr. Marc Edwards, Dr. Rahul Gupta, Mona Hanna-Attisha, Cullen Hoback, Randy Huffman
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/13/17
    Opens: January 12, 2018 in NY & LA; January 16, 2018 VOD/DVD
    FILM FESTIVAL NEWS: MUSTANG ISLAND battles it out with the ...
    America is open for business!  So sayeth Donald Trump in one of his inimitable tweets.  So, you got a problem with that?  There certainly is one, because Big Business, so nurtured by Trump and Republicans who are heading so far right that they’ll eventually fall off the earth, is destroying the cultural margins of our nation.   Government has a role to play in regulating business, since people, like you and me, may love their products (I, for example, would like to order half of Amazon’s output) but can be seriously harmed by what the big guys are producing.

    That’s where Cullen Hoback’s documentary comes in.  Hoback, whose “Monster Camp” is an enactment of the game World of Warcraft, now deals not with fantasy but with deadly reality.  The reality is that the bad guys in “What Lies Upstream,” a great many lobbyists, politicians, corporations and even agencies whose job is to protect us consumers, are villains.  Hoback, a slim,youthful fellow who appears in a great many shots as he interviews a wide range of people, focuses principally on the pollution of water.  Flint, Michigan may be the best known case of dirty water nationally, its culprits indicted for corruption because perhaps that’s the residence of many poor African-Americans.  But West Virginia, whose coal mining is loved by workers but not by people drinking its water, is a notable case of political failure.

    One cannot help thinking about Donald J. Trump, who is pictured in the concluding moments, the guy who has recently dismantled the EPA, or Environmental Protection Agency, because its bureaucrats have had the nerve to try to protect our air and water.  Hoback is polite to the people whose work he abhors thereby getting them to answer (or divert attention) from his queries, rarely walking away in the middle of a query.  The actor/director/writer sprang into action when he heard that the good people of West Virginia may love coal but they’re not too keen on their tap water, which has a strange odor.  Research showed that MCHM, a chemical used for processing coal, has been leaking from rusted pipes at a business called Freedom Industries. Though there were laws on the books designed to prevent this, somehow the people responsible for enforcing the regulations, are not doing their jobs.

    The most shocking image of this film shows lobbyists, those durn people who are often recruited from the ranks of politicians when they retire, are virtually writing the laws.  They sit around in a room and appear to actually draft the legislation that conservative lawmakers vote to pass, even though the legislators may not have even read the bills.  If you’ve been keeping up with CNN and MSNBC, the good guys, you are aware that nowadays, most officials in Congress do not read the door-stopping manuscripts such as the 477-page proposed tax bill.  The majority leader in each house tells them, it seems, that the tax code will benefits principally the upper ten percent of Americans.  The ayes have it.

    Hoback builds his case step by step as though defending a principle of ethical philosophy, and though we realize he is biased in favor of the people and not the corporations and politicians, we are convinced that there is something rotten not only in the water but in the state of today’s America.  You might expect that even the fish want to be caught and put out of their misery.

    Unrated.   88 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Story – B+
    Acting – B
    Technical – B
    Overall – B+