Pressure Cooker (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Three high school students (Tyree Dudley, Erica Gaither, Fatoumata Dembele), under the passionate culinary arts teacher Wilma Stephenson’s guidance, worked their hardest to get scholarships for culinary arts college. I loved that this documentary focused on people who happened to be from a poor neighborhood but that didn’t stop them from trying to reach for their dreams. I admired the three former high school students because they had challenges outside the culinary school–Tyree and football, Erica and her handicapped sister, and Fatoumata being an immigrant from Africa–yet, strangely enough, I found that their respective challenges was what made them stronger. Out of the three, I could relate with Fatoumata the most because, growing up in another country and moving to America, I agreed with her outlook about America and its opportunities. Every time she talked about how thankful she was about immigrating to this country, I couldn’t help but feel moved. But the element that I found most interesting about this documentary was Stephenson’s relationship with her students. Even though she constantly yelled and screamed at them in the kitchen, it was easy to tell that she did those things out of love. She knew she needed to push the kids to doing their absolute hardest so they could get a scholarship. But outside of the kitchen, it seemed like she was a different person. She was still sassy but very approachable. I don’t know any teacher who would push his or her students to go to prom because “it’s a once in a lifetime thing” and even take them shopping for clothes. She didn’t just care for her students. She loved them in a such a way where she was willing to be a parent and that earned her respect. This documentary was not only inspiring and touching, it was also suspenseful. The climax of the film was when the class had to cook as the judges looked over their shoulders and sometimes made suggestions on how they could improve their skills. It was scary because so much was at stake and a little slip-up could ruin their chances of getting a scholarship they desperately needed. I was elated after watching “Pressure Cooker,” directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, because it was exactly the kind of movie I needed to see two days before taking my MCAT. It made me feel like anything was possible just as long as you invest the time to do the work and let your passion assist you during the most challenging times.
London to Brighton (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I love that feeling when I come out of a movie being absolutely blown away because I knew nothing about it prior. Paul Andrew Williams’ directoral debut had a certain quiet power that did not quite let go until the very end. His picture was told in a non-linear fashion which first showed two girls: one about twelve years old (Georgia Groome) and the other middle-aged (Lorraine Stanley). At first, I thought they were sisters but I was surprised to learn later on that they were actually strangers. The audiences knew right away that they were injured and running away from something–the bloody details of from who or what were revealed later. I think it is for the audiences’ best interests not to know much about this movie like I did. Right from the get-go, I wanted the two women to escape to safe havens despite them being very rough around the edges because throughout the film, we get to learn that they are essentially very good people, especially Stanley’s character. Since Groome’s character was a runaway, Stanley became the sister or mother-figure by default because everyone else wanted to harm the little girl or take advantage of her in some way. The way Stanley valued the girl and put the girl in front of herself really touched me because they knew each other in less than a day. Given their dire and downright scary circumstances, I honesly do not know if I would have done the same for someone else. As the picture went on, more and more was asked of Stanley’s character and I constantly had to evaluate what I would have done if I were in her shoes. The supporting characters include Johnny Harris and Nathan Constance, as the two men who were on the hunt for the two leads, and Sam Spruell as a rich guy who wants to collects something that he feels like was owed to him. This is a small picture but the budget did not limit the crafty and touching writing about the two women’s plight by means of losing their innocence and eventual redemption. Their path to freedom was undeniably dark but the challenges they had to face could have potentially taught them to be stronger individuals.
★★★ / ★★★★
Some people say that the portrayal of the US Naval Academy was unrealistic, but I really wasn’t looking for realism when I decided to see this film. I went to see it to gauge James Franco’s acting ability in his lesser-known or less critically-acclaimed movies. I love stories about underestimated people who dream of big things but are born in poor families. This is a perfect example of that and, aside from some of its overdramatic scenes (especially before a boxing match), pretty much everything worked. I thought it was interesting how the filmmakers related life to a boxing match–how a strong person gets hit countless times and sometimes falls but is never defeated unless he decides to not stand back up. And throughout this picture, that’s the overall tone: a challenge is presented to Franco’s character, how he learns to deal with those challenges and build a reputation between his peers and higher officers. It’s also about learning to ask for help and when it’s the right time to help others even if they don’t want any help. I thought Donnie Wahlberg is brilliant as a higher officer who believes in Franco even though he doesn’t have that many scenes. In a way, he seemed like a father figure who provides support but is also there to provide some tough love. Jordana Brewster as Franco’s love interest is surprisingly effective because the two of them actually have chemistry. She managed to balance sensitivity and toughness well. As for Tyrese Gibson, at first I thought he was going to be an archetypal baddie but over time, we learn that he had to be tough because of the things he experienced in the past; even though he ultimately cares, it’s difficult for him to portray what he’s really feeling–a trait that a lot of people have. I think a lot of critics were harsh on this film because it does have elements from other (better) movies about a person who overcomes challenges in the Academy/military. For me, it’s more important to treat a movie as its own instead of comparing it to similar movies that came before (especially if it’s not a sequel or a part of a series).