Kings of Pastry (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sixteen pastry chefs were invited to compete in a three-day competition called “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” (translated “Best Craftsmen in France”) in Lyon, France. The winner, or winners, of the contest would be rewarded instant recognition. When they entered a room, they would get noticed and treated as a master chef because their collars were the colors of the French flag. Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, “Kings of Pastry” was very involving because it gave us an exclusive look inside a competition that occurred only once every four years. We followed three contenders: Philippe Rigollot, Jacquy Pfeiffer, and Regis Lazard. The competing chefs were obsessive, to say the least, in getting every detail just right so the judges would be impressed with their craft. I’m not a very talented cook (nor do I have the patience to cook) so I admired the determination and the amount of time the three put into preparing for the competition. Each of them had dreamt of becoming the best in their specialized trade. They were family men and I’m sure they wanted win for reasons other than reaching a lifelong dream. Half of the picture was dedicated to the three chef’s backgrounds. Rigollot was a chef in Maison Pic. He shared with us a cute story, involving a lollipop and his kids, about how he learned that being a pastry chef was something he would like to build a career from. Pfeiffer was a part of the French Pastry School in Chicago. His students respected him and held him in high regard. As for Lazard, this was his second time in the competition. It didn’t work out the first time because his sugar sculpture, an extremely fragile work of art, fell apart. The second half of the film focused on the intense competition. They were graded in three fronts: their work habits, the way the final product looked, and how it tasted. The chefs had to prepare a buffet of confections. I found being in that kitchen to be stressful. The manner in which the camera fixated on certain shots, I had the feeling that something would go wrong. And they did. When a sugar sculpture came crashing down like glass, my jaw dropped and my heart stopped. I think I stopped breathing for about three seconds. I wanted to look away from the disaster. It was so painful to watch a chef’s confidence go out the window when inevitable accidents happened. It was nobody’s fault. Sometimes, as we learned, the humidity had a negative effect in the way the sugars held together. The silence was deafening among whispers of consolations. It was literally watching someone’s dreams get crushed. However, we root for the chef to keep going, to make the best of the parts that weren’t ruined, because having no sculpture to present meant certain loss. Imagine submitting a three-part project and only sending two–an inch away from failure. As the picture went on, “Kings of Pastry” became packed with emotional moments because the standard was so high. Personally, the difference between “winners” and “losers” almost became negligible.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic nearing his one thousandth day of being sober, found his younger son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), sitting on his porch. They hadn’t seen each other in fourteen years. But the reunion couldn’t be colder. Tommy, an ex-Marine, despised his father and claimed that the only reason why he showed up was because he needed a trainer for Sparta, a middleweight championship for mixed martial arts, where the winner would receive five million dollars. Meanwhile, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Paddy’s eldest son, felt extreme financial pressure. As a physics teacher, he and his wife (Jennifer Morrison) didn’t make enough to pay for their mortgage. They were given a couple of weeks until their house was to be taken by the bank. So, Brendan joined the tournament, completely unaware that his younger brother, who he also hadn’t seen in more than a decade, was participating. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, “Warrior” was equally spellbinding when the characters were inside and outside of the ring. The brothers hated their father for the way he treated them and their mother when they were still growing up. The writers made a smart decision in showing us Paddy as a man on the way to recovery but never as an abusive parent. It became easier to sympathize with him. It was unnecessary to show us the latter because the psychological and emotional damages were painfully apparent in the adult Tommy and Brendan. Tommy became a pill-popping, reticent, angry figure while Brendan strived to be everything his father was not to his own wife and children. Interestingly, they shared only one scene before the tournament. It was beautifully executed and completely heartbreaking. As one inched closer to one another, their animosity and frustration became palpable and suffocating which served as a great contrast against the open space that surrounded them. I was at the edge of my seat because I almost expected them to resolve their problems by throwing punches long time coming, outside of the competition with no referee to force them to stop. However, the most powerful scene was between Tommy and Paddy. While sitting in front of a slot machine, Paddy approached his son to express that he was proud of him. Tommy responded bitterly, comparing his father to a beggar who was desperate for his sons’ affections, blind to the fact that the only thing his two sons had in common was they no longer needed him, and his decision to become a good father was years too late. The camera was nicely placed very closely in front the actors’ faces as to savor every negative emotion. In addition, it was easy to see how much their characters restrained certain words, especially the father, out of fear in regretting it later. It was like watching someone attempting to tiptoe around broken glass accompanied by a force that propelled him forward in rate he wasn’t comfortable with. “Warrior,” based on the screenplay by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, and Cliff Dorfman, went beyond the pain experienced in body slams, direct punches to the face, and heavy kicks to the stomach. We rooted for both Brendan and Tommy because we understood what winning meant for them personally–something worth more than half a million dollars.
Ice Princess (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Michelle Trachtenberg stars as Casey Carlyle, a very intelligent high school senior who was on her way to attending Harvard University. Having a supportive but sometimes overbearing feminist mother (Joan Cusack), she decided to determine if there was an exact mathematical formula involving some of the moves in ice skating for a Physics scholarship. I’ve been wanting to see this movie ever since it came out but only recently did I finally decide to watch it when a friend mentioned it out of the blue. Even though the picture was a little wobbly with its acting (as most Disney movies designed for tweens and teens), I quite enjoyed it because it was nice to see a smart and multitalented girl going after her dreams. The characters also surprised me because at first I thought Hayden Panettiere was going to be a bully but it turned out that she had better things to do than to try to rule the school. It was so much more realistic than movies like “I Love You, Beth Cooper” (which I saw prior to this) in terms of story and character. I loved the scenes between Cusack and Kim Cattrall as Panettiere’s mother/skating coach. When they were in the same frame, there was a real sense of tension and a history in their respective characters. However, I didn’t care much for the blossoming relationship between the main character and the boy who drove a Zamboni machine (Trevor Blumas). It was cute but it felt forced because the film was really more about Casey’s struggle between what she wanted and what her mother wanted for her. Instead of spending time with the romance, I think those minutes could have been used to further explore the mother-daughter relationship and also Casey’s rocky relationship with her coach who happened to be a former ice skater herself. It had good comedic moments especially when the main character would converse with people she just met. She made me feel awkward because she couldn’t help talking about Physics (she really loves the subject). Granted, I understood some of the things she tried to say but it was really funny to me because I know some people like her. And I admit that there were times when I found bits of myself in her. I saw a lot of potential in this movie and it delivered most of the time. It was fun watching the ice skating competitions (with a cameo from Michelle Kwan) and I thought it was nice that it made fun of certain kinds of competitive personalities. If you’re in the mood for a harmless, feel-good movie with a good heart then this is a great choice to watch.
Good Hair (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When I look at people, the first thing I notice about them is their hair. Directed by Jeff Stilson, “Good Hair” follows Chris Rock as he interviews all sorts of people from the United States and India about hair: how natural African-American hair is now regarded as less valuable and less appealing as European and Asian hair. I thought this documentary was absolutely fascinating. I learned so much because I don’t have the kind of hair that African-Americans do so I don’t really know much about their experiences and the pressures they feel about getting “good hair,” a type of hair that the media glamorizes. For me the film reached its highest point when Rock went to India and tried to learn about why so much hair was coming from India. I didn’t know that some Indians viewed having hair as a vanity so they sacrifice their hair for a higher power. While in America, hair symbolizes power and directly correlates to one’s self-esteem. I thought that contrast was so nicely done by Stilson and I realized that, despite the film’s amusing look at the hair industry, there was an inherent sadness about it all. I couldn’t believe that hair cost thousands of dollars and some women would rather pay for a weave than make sure that they have food on the table. On the other side of the spectrum, women choose to buy very dangerous “relaxers,” which is pretty much sodium hydroxide, a very strong chemical. I loved the way the picture showed an experiment where a can was placed in a container full of NaOH with varying rate of exposure. (I’m a sucker for science experiments.) I was so shocked when one of the cans literally melted when exposed to NaOH for about five or six hours. The movie then connected the usage of sodium hydroxide to health–how some parents choose for their children, who are barely three years old, to undergo such extreme (and painful) chemical application for the sake of having so-called good hair. What didn’t work for me, however, was the whole hair competition angle. I thought it made the picture very convoluted and it took away some of the movie’s power because the pre-competition and competition scenes lacked momentum. I wanted more scenes of very funny conversations among Chris Rock, regular folks and celebrities. I thought it was a laugh riot when the film switched its focus to men and how they felt pressure to give their girlfriends money for a weave. All these elements show that having “good hair” is not just a woman’s issue nor is it even a race issue. It’s about increasing number of individuals adapting to a particular mindset of society regarding what is considered beautiful and what isn’t.
★★★ / ★★★★
In this documentary by Jeffrey Blitz, eight kids (Harry Altman, Ted Brigham, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala, Angela Arenivar, Emily Stagg, Ashley White, April DeGideo) competed in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee and one of them turned out to be the winner. I love that this film took about five minutes or so to show us the various backgrounds of the kids: their ethnicities, neighborhoods and social class. By showing their home life, the audiences came to understand what was at stake and what a win would mean for the kids, their parents and their respective communities. Although the contenstants all wanted to win, it was interesting to me how each of them had a different level of confidence coming into the competition. In fact, some of them went into the competition so convinced that they were not going to win. And I loved the girl who bluntly said that she didn’t care much about spelling bees–she just did it because she wanted to compete. Even though this was documentary, I found it to be very suspenseful. I have to admit that I did have a fascination with words in early high school and I was often complimented by teachers when I used big words. (I try not to do that anymore because I think it’s somewhat pretentious.) Some of the words, toward the earlier rounds, I knew exactly how to spell and I knew what they meant. However, on the second day of the competition, I struggled along with the contestants to spell out the words (those tricky French words… and I know a little bit of French!). Guessing who was going to be victorious was half the fun. I’m a competitive person and watching people compete just ignites that fire inside me and I can’t help but be absolutely enthralled. (Perhaps that’s why I love watching reality shows that centers on competition.) I also liked the fact that the film commented on how the American society is driven by competition and not so much in other nations. I think it says a lot about why we think the way we think and why we respond the way we do when our expectations don’t coincide with actuality. Other commentaries also included the idea that America is the land of opportunity. Some of the contestants were first generation immigrants so I could immediately relate to them. I thought this movie really captured that drive to want to succeed for the sacrifices our parents have made for us. Most people would probably say, “It’s just a spelling bee. Who cares?” But it’s not about spelling–it’s about accomplishing something not many people get to achieve.
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, “Gamer” was set in 2034 where humans can pay a company (led by Michael C. Hall) to control other humans as if in a video game. One gamer (Logan Lerman) paid to control one of the death row inmates (Gerard Butler) to take part in a very violent “survival of the fittest” competition where the winner could earn his or her freedom. I have to admit that this movie did not interest me whatsoever going into it. The only reason why I decided to watch it was because of Hall. I was interested in what else he could do other than play a sympathetic serial killer in “Dexter.” This movie was a dizzying experience at best. Right from the first scene, we got shoot-outs right after another; body pieces and bullets were everywhere, the camera shook as if the cameraman was having a seizure and the main character acted as though he was on steroids. (Perhaps he was.) The filmmakers took the egregiousness to another level by shamelessly adding “ethical questions” such as whether it was right or wrong to put people in death row in a place where they could kill each other and eventually “earn” their freedom. It wasn’t at all difficult to arrive at the right answer: of course it’s wrong! It’s also wrong to control other human beings for sake of our twisted desires even if such vessels “volunteered” to do it for money. It would have been so much better if the picture embraced its own stupidity instead of trying to ask “insightful” questions. It’s also unfortunate how this film had so many talented supporting actors (Alison Lohman, Kyra Sedgwick, Aaron Yoo, Ludacris) but they ultimately didn’t do anything. It was easy to tell that they just did it for the money. They couldn’t have chosen to appear in it because of the script since it had no depth or wit. While the performances were fine, I really think the problem was the writing. The violence was highlighted even though the core was essentially about what it means to be human and actually live our own lives. The gratuitous explosions and nudity should have been secondary if the filmmakers wanted to grasp a more elevated social commentary. Hall made a good villain but, like “Gamer,” it’s the same old song and dance (pun intended for that riduculous musical scene).
Whip It (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I liked Drew Barrymore’s directoral debut “Whip It” starring Ellen Page but I think it held back when it came to really delivering something different. I loved that the film was about a teeanger who was constantly forced by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to participate in pageants only to realize later that she was more interested in roller derby. I thought it was refreshing because there are way too many teen movies out there that focus on (and even glamorize) girly girls and how life is so very hard for them. Give me a break. Seeing tough, rebellious girls on screen, I can identify with them a lot more so I was interested with what was going on in their livies. I thought the first part of this movie was stronger because it was all about pulling away from something the lead character did not believe in and finding something she thought was not only fun but also cathartic. I felt for her wish concerning getting out of the small town she lived in and leading her life however she wanted to. And it helped that Page just had that natural I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude going on. I loved watching the roller derby competition as they busted out interesting tactics to gain points. (I got giddy whenever they pulled out that whip strategy.) But the second half was problematic because it succumbed to the typicality of other teen film fares. For instance, Page’s deteriorating relationship with her best friend, the parents finding out about their daughter’s secret “extracurricular activities,” and finding out about the true colors of a boy the lead character fell for. I’ve seen it all before and I didn’t want to see it in this movie because all I wanted was to have fun. I enjoyed the supporting characters such as Kristen Wiig, Eve, Juliette Lewis, Zoe Bell and Drew Barrymore. Barrymore had small scenes here and there; she stole the spotlight every single time and I almost wished that she had a bigger role. With a running time of two hours, it felt that long at times because the forced dramatic arcs became the forefront somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, I’ll give “Whip It” a light recommendation because I thought it was enjoyable to watch despite its big flaws. Perhaps with more experience directing, Barrymore can one day create a picture that’s more focused and not resting on recycled material while still telling a story about characters that have some sort of a charming edginess going on.