Filmmaker Gary Burns and journalist Jim Brown provide a fresh and darkly-funny critique of suburban sprawl in the Canadian documentary Radiant City. Burns and Brown spice up the standard mix of interviews with experts by adding candid documentary footage of one nuclear family struggling with the trade-offs of suburban living.
The experts enlisted include urban planners Marc Boutin, Andrés Duany, Ken Greenberg, and Bev Sandalack, philosophers Joseph Heath and Mark Kingwell, and iconoclast James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Geography of Nowwhere. These experts and a series of animated graphics paint a dreary portrait of suburbia. Kunstler notes "eighty percent of everything ever built in North America has been built in the last fifty years. Most of it is brutal, depressing, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading." The experts also provide frightening prognostications regarding the unsustainability of the suburban landscape after peak oil, a reckoning which appears to be fast approaching.
The assembled experts provide interesting analysis of the problems associated with suburban sprawl, but as philosopher Joseph Heath notes, everybody already knows the critique of suburbia. What makes Radiant City freshly unique and darkly funny is its focus on one suburban household.
Evan and Anne Moss and their three children have recently moved to a planned community outside Calgary, Alberta. Evan drives an hour each way to work, but doesn't mind it too much because it's his only time alone. He doesn't give much thought to living in the suburbs because that kind of thinking just leads to more questions about his life and marriage he'd prefer not to examine. Anne is a prim, minivan-driving, 'full-time' mom who micromanages her children's activities, prohibits her husband from working on the family vehicles, insisted on the move, and is generally none-too-pleased having her decision to live in the suburbs put under examination. The kids provide the filmmakers with a tour of their neighborhood where tract housing blots out the mountains, grass and sidewalks abruptly end in mud lots and unfinished construction, cell phone towers are more common than mature trees, and neighbors are never seen; all of which through the lens of cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin adds up to a very post-apocalyptic feel.
Radiant City includes one very interesting twist that I long to discuss the implications of, but which would spoil the first viewing experience. I'm pleased that before seeing the film I didn't read any of the myriad of reviews and synopses that give away this important detail. Regarding the twist, I'll simply say this, its revelation necessarily changed my perceptions of the film, but it didn't undermine my overall enjoyment of it. In fact, it deepened my appreciation of the talents of everyone involved.
Radiant City provides a crisp anamorphic 1.85:1 image that looks very good.
Subtitles are not provided.
The disc sports a good stereo mix with no noticeable dropouts or distortions. Audio levels are consistent throughout.
The only extra provided is the theatrical trailer.
Canadian filmmakers Gary Burns and journalist Jim Brown deserve kudos for covering the well-worn but important issue of suburban sprawl in a fresh and wickedly funny way. Radiant City is highly recommended.