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Colorful and expressive: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

Bird of a Feather
By Ann Morrow

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Directed by Judy Irving

In a lovely stroke of counterprogramming to the summer’s blockbusters, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill arrives locally to show how much more interesting, amusing, and affecting real-life stories can be. This good-natured (pun intended) documentary is about a colony of freedom-loving parrots in San Francisco and their human companion, Mark Bittner. The parrots, a flock of several dozen cherry-head conures, are believed to be the descendents of captured South American birds that got loose before reaching pet stores. As for Bittner, he came to San Francisco by following in the footsteps of the Beats. A latter-day dharma bum, Bittner is over 40, jobless, and still searching for the meaning of his life when he discovers the parrots in a garden and befriends them with handfuls of sunflower seeds.

Engagingly shot by Judy Irving (who once worked for Michael Moore), the film follows Bittner’s daily interactions with the birds while allowing him to share the knowledge he’s gained by his long observation of them. Although he’s regarded as eccentric, he’s only slightly more so than the curator of tropical birds at the San Francisco Zoo, one of the film’s interviewees. As Bittner relates, the parrots survive on tropical flora imported for landscaping, and enjoy hanging out on telephone wires. “They’re like monkeys, the way they play,” he says, and indeed, it’s impossible not to smile at these colorful and expressive creatures, especially as photographed by Irving. Among the cast are Connor, a lonely blue crown who has a feral parakeet for a sidekick; and Picasso and Sophie, a happily mated pair. But the film is equally about Bittner, a disillusioned musician who reads philosophy and squats in an old cottage with guava trees in the garden. Bittner is completely unconcerned as to whether anyone thinks he’s overly involved with the parrots, and his descriptions of their personalities and life histories are touching in unexpected ways. So too, is his story: Rather remarkably, Bittner finds his path in life through the parrots.

Thanks to Irving’s delicate objectivity, Bittner is able to share the story of the death of Tupelo, a sick parrot he cared for, without sounding like an anthropomorphizing wacko. Instead, he makes a point of how his empathy with a little bird showed him the interconnectedness of all living things. The Wild Parrots may do the same for you.


Which way’s NYC? Madagascar.

Island of Lost Opportunities

Madagascar

Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath

What sounds like a great idea—pure New Yorkers, who happen to be zoo animals, let loose, or, depending on your viewpoint, set free, in the jungle—comes a cropper in DreamWorks’ latest animated flick, Madagascar. The previews for this movie, which have been all over the place for well nigh a year now, catch the flavor of Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller) kvetching over the lack of T-bones in the Madagascar wilds, “psychotic” penguins pretending to be cute and cuddly while plotting an escape, and so on. The actual movie, however, has no place to go once it sets the critters on their one-way trip back “home.”

Taking a page, sort of, out of the headlines—what with alleged terror suspects as well as drug offenders being shipped back to a birthplace they often can’t even remember, whose language they can’t even speak—Madagascar’s makers should have had a field day with the story of a lion, zebra, hippo and giraffe (all of whom have been pampered by the obliging staff at the Central Park Zoo) rounded up in a big misunderstanding and shipped off to unfamiliar turf. It’s like an animal Woody Allen movie, with Melman (David Schwimmer), the hypochondriac but direction-savvy giraffe; Marty (Chris Rock), the zebra troubled by the question of his seemingly biracial origins; Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), a pampered princess of a hippo; and the aforementioned Alex the lion. Of them all, only Marty longs to run wild on the savannahs; even his dreams are soundscaped to “Born Free.”

So when Marty makes an ill-fated jaunt to Connecticut, by way of Grand Central Station, his friends seek to do an “intervention,” whereupon they are seized, crated and sent on a ship bound for the title locale. And once they get there, following the initial paranoia and hysteria—mostly by Alex at the expense of Marty—they meet a tribe of lemurs, led by King Julien XIII (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his deputy Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer). Julien thinks that the so-called “New York Giants” can help the lemurs get rid of their nemeses, the hyenas. The only problem is that the longer Alex goes without lovingly prepared sirloin, the more appetizing Marty’s hindquarters appear.

Can Alex adapt to the rigors of wildlife without resorting to dinner with friends? Will the lemurs catch onto the fact that these animals aren’t exactly savage beasts? And what about the penguins? Frankly, nobody could really give a damn about any of this, because, having landed their characters on the island, the screenwriters have absolutely no clue what to do with them. Hmm, let them use their street savvy to deal with their new environment? Nah. Instead, they resort to too many scenes in which Melman is put into extremely uncomfortable-looking positions, or of Alex dreamily nibbling on Marty’s butt. The voice acting is mediocre, in that each celebrity is playing his or her trademark. For a movie that lasts a mere 86 minutes, even the kids in the audience were getting mighty restless, which says a lot about the shipwreck that is Madagascar.

—Laura Leon

A Corporate Splatterfest

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Directed by Alex Gibney

You want to see a horror flick? Something to scare your pants off? Skip the genre product, which is always lousy with fake gore, fake frights and fake blondes. Instead, check out Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Alex Gibney’s documentary about the spectacular rise and fall of Houston-based energy conglomerate Enron has it all. They are real villains, like see-no-evil company founder Ken Lay, self-styled genius CEO Jeff Skilling and accounting whiz-kid CFO Andrew Fastow. There is real terror, as in the crippling power shortages Enron traders engineered in California. And there’s real tragedy, in the thousands of investors and Enron employees who lost millions when the company collapsed.

You may know the outlines of the story, but unless you read the book on which the film is based, by Fortune writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, the width and depth of Enron’s assorted evil deeds will shock you. They shocked me. Enron was lionized as a fabulously successful company run by brilliant people. The real Enron was all about outright lies to investors and employees, spectacularly dopey business deals, vicious assaults on the people of an entire state and a culture of competition and greed so reprehensible that it would likely frighten Adam Smith.

The film brings all this to life in grisly, unbelievable detail. Enron’s corporate duplicity is so outrageous that it’s difficult to compare with other recent frauds. It’s more akin to a wildly plotted fantasy film like Fritz Lang’s Spies, in which the respected president of a big-city bank is the demented mastermind behind an international criminal underground—and also, in his free time, a celebrated circus clown. While Enron became a kind of international criminal enterprise in itself, Skilling and the boys honed their comedic talents in company skits—like the one about “hypothetical” accounting shown in the documentary—that were videotaped to be shown at Enron parties.

In the good old days, the story of Enron’s spectacular corporate crimes might have resonated deeply in the popular consciousness. As the full magnitude of the story has been fully told only in book form and in this documentary based on said book, it’s obvious that our mass unconsciousness will not be even slightly troubled.

Part of this can be explained away by the attacks of 9/11 and subsequent Middle Eastern wars sucking up all the media air—but not all of it. Unfortunately, as the documentary clearly underlines, there’s no popular press now. The Fortune writers who raised the first relatively meek questions about the company’s practices were, the film shows, slapped down not only by Enron’s people but by the other mainstream media. Everyone was in on it: the business rags celebrating Skilling’s genius from their editorial pages; the cable-news mouthpieces blaming Californians and environmentalists for the energy shortages; and the other reporters unwilling to ask the obvious questions.

That’s the film’s real horror, the nightmare from which we seem unable to wake.

—Shawn Stone


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