New Yorker Films // 2007 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 4th, 2008
What are we willing to give up for the American Dream?
On a national level, the political buzzword of the moment is "change." On a local level, the political buzzword of recent decades has consistently been "growth." County and city commissioners quite frequently make "growth" the subject of their stump speeches, and promise that, "I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that this county/city experiences significant growth." Many cities are desperate to bring in more business, more jobs, more housing, and more money. Unfortunately, many environmental issues are often at stake in these situations. Debates about this issue have been raging for years. How far are we willing to go? How much nature are we willing to damage to provide Americans with a nice subdivision home with a picket fence? How far are citizens willing to let the government and developers go before they decide to take a stand?
That's a subject examined in The Unforeseen, a documentary from first-time director Laura Dunn. The film focuses on one specific area (Austin, Texas), which serves as an effective and engaging example of the suburban sprawl battle. We begin by going back to 1990, when a group of outraged citizens managed to defeat a proposition that would have permitted developers to destroy the gorgeous area surrounding a natural spring. However, victory in this battle does not mean that the war is over. Over the years, we see citizens of Austin continuing to try and fight off developers.
Surprisingly, this is not the straightforward political documentary you might expect. How many docs have we seen (particularly in recent times) that offer an angry yet typical expression of disgust about some significant political issue? Honestly, the thought of watching a few celebrities and a handful of hippies rail on about the evils of suburban sprawl sounded a little dull. I was pleasantly surprised by The Unforeseen, which is surprisingly meditative on both a verbal and visual level. I suppose that's what you get when you have a documentary being produced by Robert Redford and Terence Malick.
The images presented by Dunn quickly set The Unforeseen apart from the average documentary. The film effectively contrasts the beauty of nature with the suffocating clutter of smog-filled cities. There are long, tender shots of swimmers wandering slowly through the waters of Barton Springs, Rashamon-inspired images of sunlight breaking through tree branches and depressingly flat looks at construction sites. The cinematography gets pretty inventive during the interviews, too. One lobbyist is shown building a model airplane. The camera offers intense close-ups of the man's hands as he talks, never panning up to his face. It's a slightly cheesy effect that is obviously a cheap attempt to paint the lobbyist as a sinister villain, but I must admit, I found it striking. That's particularly true when the evil faceless villain is contrasted with the sincere eyes of the grizzled old farmer who is brokenhearted about where Austin is going.
The Unforeseen does stumble from time to time. The interviews with Willie Nelson and Robert Redford are heavily promoted on the packaging, but these two actually don't have too much of interest to say. They're both good guys who care about the environment, but they have don't really contribute anything of value to the film. Of course, their names may inspire a few more people to check out flick, so that's something. The reflective beauty of the images here may remind many viewers of the films of Terence Malick. Disappointingly, the pretentious narration and self-important tone found in portions of the film are also borrowed from Malick. The musical score also lacks much passion. The attitude of the film suggests a solemn hymn blended with a bitter blues song; it's too bad that the soundtrack isn't that colorful.
The transfer is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this DVD. Lee Daniels' wonderful cinematography is treated kind of poorly by this release, which is rather flat visually. There aren't many documentaries that demand strong transfers, but this is one of the exceptions. Of course a lot of the old footage is crummy-looking, but that's to be expected. I just wish the new stuff were a little sharper. Only the talking-head sequences are perfectly satisfactory. The sound is just fine; it's a clear and well-balanced mix. The only significant supplement is an audio commentary with Dunn, producer Jef Sewell, cinematographer Lee Daniel, and sound designer Tom Hammond. It's an engaging track that touches on both the political issues of the film and the technical nuts-and-bolts info. The DVD is also accompanied by a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Dennis Lim, who has a few intriguing thoughts about the movie. Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer.
The Unforeseen is less predictable and more philosophical than I
expected. It's a documentary worth checking out. The pretentious moments are
small enough to swallow, and the rest of it is genuinely thought-provoking. I'm
looking forward to seeing where Dunn's career goes from here. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated