Utne Reader Film Reviews

Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal And The Fight For Coalfield Justice

(Bullfrog Films; on DVD)

Mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia is uprooting not only nature, but people too. Black Diamonds documents the struggles of West Virginia mining towns whose intimate relationship with coal is scraping away their communities. Filmmaker Catherine Pancake interviews residents seeking permanence as eerily close blasts send clouds of particulates over their homes. Impassioned local activists, she reveals, are no match for the coal industry and its allies in the current administration. While Black Diamonds could be better at highlighting the big picture–the glaring ethical injustice of fueling our energy consumption by devastating one of our poorest states–it brings visibility to a group of people whose lives have been marred by the insatiable lust for fuel. –Anna Cynar

Czech Dream

(Arts Alliance America; on DVD)

In this hilarious and astute documentary, two Czech film students launch an elaborate hoax: the opening of a new “hypermarket” that doesn’t exist. Capturing capitalism run amok in the postcommunist country, the filmmakers hire marketers, conduct focus groups, create TV advertisements, and plaster Prague with posters (“Don’t spend”), skewering the process every step of the way. Made in the winking manner of Super Size Me‘s Morgan Spurlock (who presents the film), Czech Dream is an antimaterialist gem that reveals the sorry state of Czech shopaholics, who once waited hours in line for bananas and are now unable to resist the call of Western-style consumption. –Anthony Kaufman

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

(IFC First Take; in theaters and on video-on-demand)

“Punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human being,” Joe Strummer tells an interviewer in Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, and although the documentary hints that the Clash singer-songwriter didn’t always live up to his own credo, he aspired to do so, and usually succeeded. Filmmaker Julien Temple intersperses archival footage with fresh fireside interviews of Strummer’s bandmates, lovers, friends, and admirers. The film doesn’t dig too deeply beyond what’s already known–Strummer was bighearted though moody and impulsive–but paints a vivid portrait of his rise to punk royalty and then, after the band’s breakup, his “wilderness years” and eventual reemergence. Tellingly, the best moments come when Strummer himself is seen or heard, his presence still crackling with an urgent, earnest energy. –Keith Goetzman


(IFC Films; in theaters)

You think your life is the stuff of Greek tragedy? Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal) makes the connection explicit with this fascinating look at four individuals whose lives follow the dramatic arc of the ancient Greek plays of Euripides. Although a notorious German terrorist, a California bank robber, a martial arts fanatic, and an evangelical homosexual preacher don’t seem like kindred spirits, Yu finds touching and intriguing parallels between the men’s lives, from painful conflicts with their fathers to a single-minded certainty that veers toward the self-destructive. Yu’s more overt Euripidean gestures, such as a Greek chorus of wooden puppets, sometimes distract from the stories, but the human drama, as described here, is always a compelling one. –A.K.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.