Reviews

Reviews
New York Post – V.A. Musetto – May 30th, 2007
KEEPING UP WITH THE ZONESiewers on a tour of dehumanizing suburbanprawl.
Rating: ***

May 30, 2007 — SUBURBAN sprawl takes a well-deserved hit in "Radiant City," a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Gary Burns (you might have seen his feature "Kitchen Party") and journalist Jim Brown.

 Their well-thought-out new film reinforces what we should already know – that, as the press notes put it: "Sprawl is eating the planet. Across the continent the landscape is being leveled – blasted clean of distinctive features and overlaid with zombie monoculture. Politicians call it growth. Developers call it business. The Moss family calls it home."

 The middle-class Mosses – mom, dad and two school-age kids, Jennifer and Nick – take us on a guided tour of suburbia's dehumanizing life.

 The father zones out during his daily two-hour commute in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and the kids play frightening games. The son says he knows the dogs in his neighborhood but, "I never see the owners."

 How can he? Suburbanites go everywhere by car, their feet hardly ever touching the ground.

 James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere," tells the filmmakers that "80 percent of everything ever built in North America has been built in the last 50 years. Most of it is brutal, depressing, ugly, unhealthy and spiritually degrading."

 As a one-time suburbanite now living happily in Manhattan, I can attest that "Radiant City" tells it like it is. The film ends with a surprise that you won't see coming and I won't spoil.

New York Times – Matt Zoller Seitz – May 30th, 2007
Life in the Sprawling Suburbs, if You Can Really Call It Living
“In some ways a suburban city can be understood as an intolerant city.” If that loaded quotation from the Calgary-based architect Marc Boutin doesn’t tell you exactly where “Radiant City” stands on the issue of suburban sprawl, the filmmakers have plenty more just like it.

Blending documentary elements and some dramatic material (you don’t realize which is which until the movie springs its best surprise), “Radiant City” is an acerbic position paper on the cultural damage done by postwar architectural fads. The film unfavorably contrasts early-20th-century suburbs, which were built around shared public spaces and more conducive to pedestrian life, with their postwar successors, which lured inhabitants by promising huge amounts of space and no obligation to care about what happened beyond your property line.

The directors, Gary Burns (who has plumbed this territory many times, most notably in the comedy “Waydowntown”) and Jim Brown, depict sprawling, antiseptic housing developments and the culture of long commutes as a recipe for alienation and an impediment toward building a real sense of community and, especially, consensus.

The cast of characters mixes academic experts and supposedly regular citizens. Their ranks include a theater troupe working on a musical about suburban life, a tightly wound mother who micromanages each day on a refrigerator scheduling board, and a young teenager who observes the vastness of his personality-free exurb from the top of a cellphone tower. (He says he’s careful not to stay up there longer than a few minutes because he doesn’t want to get a brain tumor.)

James Howard Kunstler, a critic of suburbanization, appears throughout “Radiant City” and helps define its tone, which could be described as one of incredulous lament. The cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin’s eerie, sometimes monumental images italicize the experts’ statements, making the suburbs seem like an asphalt-and-Sheetrock dreamscape where democracy goes to die.

New York Sun – Grady Hendrix – May 30th, 2007

Pulling Weeds From the Suburban Dream
 
The Canadian documentary "Radiant City" is an urgent dispatch from the new suburbia of bleak McMansions, of residents oozing loneliness while trapped in eternal traffic jams, and of unsupervised children playing with guns in permanent construction sites. If ever there was a propaganda film to make the residents of New York City feel happier about their crowded, expensive urban lifestyle, "Radiant City" is it.

From "Ordinary People" to "American Beauty," bashing the suburbs has long been a popular pastime in movies, but it started out as clean, frothy fun. The 1904 film "The Suburbanite" is a short about a family moving into its new suburban home and the wacky troubles encountered therein Buster Keaton's 1920 short, "One Week," takes a marginally more caustic view, focusing on a young couple who receive an instant house only to watch it fall apart al most immediately. The 1948 Cary Grant and Myrna Loy flick, "Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House," is a gentle ode to the frustrations and eventual joys of the suburban lifestyle.

But as the postwar generation settled down and thousands of massive just-add-water communities sprang up across the country things got darker. Joe Sarno made "Sin in the Suburbs" in 1962, then followed it with a stream of suburban-set, sin-soaked soft-core flicks. Meanwhile, novelists such as John Cheever and Sloan Wilson were exposing the shocking doings of suburban life in scandalous bestsellers, and Ira Levin was introducing readers to "The Stepford Wives." Suddenly the suburbs were where housewives became desperate, where children pined for something useful to do — where the American dream had become a cookie-cutter night mare. In 1979 things came to a boil with "Over the Edge," Jonathan Kaplan's story (starring Matt Dillon in his first role) about teens trapped in a planned community who run riot and destroy their town.

The suburban sprawl, whose anonymous exteriors hide dark secrets, was already a cliché by the late 1970s, but "Over the Edge" didn't blame the people who lived in the suburbs — it blamed the suburbs, suggesting that poor urban planning could transform normal people into psychopaths. In the early 1980's, movies like "The Amityville Horror" and "Poltergeist," posited that it was the very ground itself that was cursed, while later 1980s fare like "Suburbia" and "River's Edge" chronicled children gone wild, emotionally mutilated by the suburban geography. Writer J.G. Ballard carried this idea to its logical conclusion with 1988's "Running Wild," about a gated community that mutates its resident children into a vile new life-form, hungry for murder.

As predictable as all this suburb bashing may be, pop culture has latched onto an essential truth: A sick city can make sick people. The sacred bible of the new suburbs is Le Corbusier's 1935 "Radiant City" manifesto, which advocated dividing cities into separate zones for living, work, and relaxation. Corbusier had few chances to transform his theories into practice, but they have had a corrosive influence, inspiring suburbs built solely for living, where street after street of houses are erected with no sidewalks, no stores, and no community space. With no public transport, the residents of these enormous, isolated homes become almost entirely dependent on their cars.

This "architectural nervous breakdown" is the fodder for "Radiant City," a collaborative documentary by the filmmaker Gary Burns and the journalist Jim Brown that works more like a slideshow of hell than a probing documentary. Focusing on a planned community in Calgary, the film (despite an ill-advised, self-reflexive critique of the documentary form in its last few minutes) gives a compelling look at the world we're constructing for ourselves.

"Eighty percent of everything ever built in North America has been built in the last 50 years and most of it is brutal, depressing, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading," the gadfly James Howard Kunstler observes, and this is exactly what we see as Joey Santiago's hypnotic loops of guitar noise shimmer across the soundtrack: identical houses reaching to the horizon, where cell phone towers have replaced trees and parking lots have replaced green fields.

At the center of the film is one family, the Mosses, and they are almost too perfect. The husband is participates in a local musical called "Suburbs: the Musical" and his wife feels like he blames her for their move to the half-constructed community. A tight schedule, two abnormally cynical kids, and the pressures of being filmed stretch their frayed nerves until they snap.

Unfortunately, the end of the documentary reveals that much of what we've seen may have been scripted, which robs it of its potency. Moreover, while "Radiant City" tries to figure out why so many of us instinctively loathe the suburbs, there's no one speaking for the opposition, leaving "Radiant City" as little more than a monologue.

As one talking head observes, the critique of suburbia is well known to everyone, even those who choose to move there, and "Radiant City" can't get below the surface. Watching people move into these sterile communities may be like watching lemmings race to their destruction, but surely something is driving them that goes a little deeper than the explanations offered by this film. And the solutions offered by the documentary are especially poor: one "expert" proposes putting apartments in abandoned shopping centers in order to reclaim retail space for residential living, taking it for granted that this would be a great thing. It's humbling to realize that modern man can build a better cell phone or a smaller computer but we still can't seem to figure out something as basic as how to build a working village.

Village Voice – Aaron Hillis – May 29th, 2007
Named for a destructive idea in community planning by modernist architect Le Corbusier, this enlightening and disturbingly funny critique of North American suburban sprawl might've been dry or dull as a straightforward doc. But in the hands of Canadian co-directors Gary Burns (waydowntown) and journalist Jim Brown, a forceful buckshot of damning animated statistics and talking-head rants from urban theorists (including iconoclastic author James Howard Kunstler) energizes a satirical day-in-the-life narrative mock-doc starring the fictitious, newly suburbanized Moss family. Mom tells the camera how upset she is whenever Dad works on the car, as it inevitably ends up in the shop, and now how will the kids make it to soccer practice and karate? Meanwhile, the young'uns, far from parks and playgrounds in this car-dependent environment, shoot paintballs in the post-apocalyptic quiet of new developments and look for Dad's loaded gun out of boredom. In the land of shopping centers and office parks, where space has been poorly utilized since just after WWII, energy scarcity is a real concern, homogenized communities are oxymoronically built with isolation in mind (a running joke is that no one knows their neighbors), and cultural progress is stagnant. And what better way to scrutinize this 20th-century "cartoonification" than with a rockin' soundtrack by the Pixies' Joey Santiago?

New York Times – Stephen Holden – April 13th, 2007
The film brings the angst of Richard Yate's novel "Revolutionary Road" into the 21st Century.
Toronto Star – Geoff Pevere – September 16th, 2006
People have been talking about the slyly embedded surprise that jumps out at you at the conclusion of Radiant City – and makes you want to see it again – Gary Burns and Jim Brown?s elegantly constructed documentary on the suburbs.
Toronto Star – Geoff Pevere – September 13th, 2006
Working with broadcaster Brown, Burns – who grew up in suburban Calgary and whose first feature (The Suburbanators) was a bone-dry portrait of slackers in perpetual mall orbit – might well have made one of his best films in Radiant City. (Or at least since the office space incinerating waydowntown.) More than once, the talking heads proclaim the imminent end of the suburbs. Not because they deserve to die, but because the future simply can?t afford to keep them: unlike cities, they?re non-renewable.
National Post – Vanessa Farquharson – September 12th, 2006
Radiant City doesn?t feel much like a National Geographic documentary – in fact, it doesn?t really resemble any film in the genre today, and there are two reasons why. The fist is that it is very funny?.The second way this documentary differs from others lies in its shooting technique, which plays upon the sense of artificiality found in the suburbs. It?s difficult to explain it further without giving away any surprises, but as one local critic put it, the Moss family is “almost too true to be real.
Torontolife.com – Stephanie Verge – September 10th, 2006
After Desperate Housewives and Weeds, one would think that every possible angle of life in the bedroom communities of North America had been explored. But this documentary mines familiar territory in a clever way, tracking the comings and goings of the Moss , most of whom have come down with a vicious case of suburban ennui.
Metro News – Chris Atchison – September 8th, 2006
Redensification, they argue, could save our suburbs and make them friendly for those who choose to walk or use public transit to get from Point A to B. “One of the guys in our film says that you have to think about the new suburbs as first generation construction,” Brown stresses. “It?s got to be densified, it?s got to be added to.” Burns interjects with a more sobering take on the suburban sprawl: “Like somebody says in the doc, there have been hundreds of books written on the (suburban) subject and we are still living there.
Toronto Star – Geoff Pevere – September 8th, 2006
How about the vainly chipper suburbanites in Gary Burns and Jim Brown?s Radiant City, people who live in an environment so physically alienating and forbidding – the 21st century real estate frontier – it makes the blizzard-whipped endless tundra of Zacharias Kunuk?s The Journals of Knud Ramussen look inviting by comparison?
Eye Weekly – Adam Nayman – September 7th, 2006
There’s a discussion to be had about the crucial piece of gamesmanship upon which the picture pivots, but it’s best saved until after you’ve seen the film.
NOW Magazine – Glenn Sumi – September 6th, 2006
The directors know exactly what they’re doing with each beautiful image captured by cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin to illustrate what the subjects are saying. The Moss family smug mom, distant dad, alienated kids are often filmed separately to suggest their isolation. The information is always revealing, and the film’s climax will make you reconsider what goes on behind those two-car garages.
JamesWregReview.org – – September 3rd, 2006
Radiant City is a fascinating "thoughtumentary" that should strike terror in the hearts of "bigger is better", two-car capitalists as it convincingly lays out the inanity of suburban sprawl.
Toronto Star – Geoff Pevere – September 3rd, 2006
At once a documentary on the meaning and impact of suburban life, a portrait of a newly suburbanized family, and a kind of visual space proof of another planet, Radiant City is also funny in a shuddery kind of way.
POV – “Gathering Moss” – Andrew Tracy – September 3rd, 2006
Nor might one expect the balance, depth and refreshing lightness which Radiant City evinces in a left-leaning documentary culture, which has increasingly privileged the bite-sized, shallow and shrill qualities it purports to rail against. Co-existing with the audience-friendly flamboyance, which one can only expect from talented filmmakers, Burns and Brown present plainly and simply the realities of suburban monoculture without preaching either to the choir or the unconverted.
Cinemaeye.com – Gilbert Seah – September 2nd, 2006
Radiant City is most intriguing for its blurred line between fiction and reality, making the audience question how much of TV reports is fabrication. Lively, with a musical sequence parodying suburban living and an earnest segment involving 2 employees of a crisis centre, the film marks another insight and funny journey by this Calgarian director.
Festival Daily – Tammy Stone – September 1st, 2006
With remarkable acuity, the filmmakers have found a way to take the viewer on a surprising journey by giving apt form to the barren hyper-reality of their subject matter.