Place at the Table, A (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
I was told by my parents that there was a time when we barely had food to put on the table. I would be given one small fish to eat with rice and my mother and father would share a dish of watery rice so they could feel full faster. Hearing that piece of the past for the first time, I recall being very surprised because I have not one memory of my family ever not having enough food to eat; there was always food on the table or in the refrigerator, enough for us to have a choice of eating between healthy and unhealthy food.
It is easy to forget that it is not like that in every household. “A Place at the Table,” directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, reminds us of the fifty million Americans (and rising) who experience food insecurity, a state in which obtaining food is an every day challenge, and how so many people who are hungry affects us as a nation. In addition, it takes a look at what the future might hold for us since children of today are physically unfit, mentally drained, and psychologically scarred due to what is and what is not available for them eat. I strongly believe in the saying that a nation is only as good as the way it treats its elderly and youth.
The documentary’s scope is quite large and all sorts of information are presented quickly though these are clear enough for a layman to get the gist. It uses animation, charts, and graphs to highlight trends. This is especially effective in discussing the subject of subsidized food. Food that have been subsidized are bought cheaply and so stores sell them at a lower price. It explains why junk food like chips are significantly less expensive—and therefore more appealing to households on a very tight budget—than healthier, low-calorie fruits and vegetables.
The difficulty of a household being eligible for food assistance is also touched upon. Barbie Izquierdo, a single mother of two children, is barely able to scrape by. Without a full-time job, she is qualified for food stamps and her kids get enough to eat. However, after she gets a job, the help from the government is no longer available. Because money is so tight, her kids go back to eating non-nutritious food, one of whom is exhibiting effects of long-term nutritional deprivation. Barbie’s children are not more than five years of age.
Images of several families having a shortage of food are touching and maddening, but a child describing directly to camera how she feels because she is so hungry in class is something else entirely. Rosie, a fifth-grader, tells us that even though she wants to learn and focus on what is being taught that day, she just cannot will herself to do it. Rosie looks at her teacher and her mind sees a banana; she looks at her classmates and her mind sees apples or oranges. One person being interviewed makes a great point that since so many young people are starving, and few get relief, potential is wasted. We will never know if that starving child would have been a great scientist or a military strategist if only he or she would have had something as basic as a reliable food source.
The film might have been stronger if it had more information about adults with food insecurity. While it is able to capture the mental stresses of having to provide for their young ones, it does not show enough longer-term, health-related repercussions. I can remember only one man that is admitted to the hospital for having a swollen leg—which is related to his weight. Furthermore, during the first twenty minutes, the soundtrack by The Civil Wars is often misplaced. When certain images are presented, the singing distracts from information we are supposed to process. It is challenging enough to draw inferences without having to actively separate the music from the facts.
“A Place at the Table” strives to make a difference. It puts the spotlight on a marginalized population of America by dispelling the perception that starving people have to look like skeletons. On the contrary, they can be your overweight neighbor. Lastly, I was surprised to have learned that in some places, people are required to drive over fifty miles to get to a store that sells fruit and vegetables. Would you drive forty miles to buy healthy food? Thirty? Twenty? What if you don’t even have enough money for gas?
Big Night (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) were Italian brothers who ran a struggling Italian restaurant. On the verge of foreclosure, Secondo took Pascal’s (Ian Holm) offer, a fellow restaurant owner, of inviting a celebrity who he claimed to be his friend in order for the brothers’ place to gain a bit of popularity. The big night consisted of a wild party with a mix of great food, good friends and influential people. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, the film was a delectable piece of work. It successfully captured passionate people who happened to lead a struggling business without having to result to the audiences having to feel sorry for them. Instead, the movie simply showed that Primo and Secondo had a great combination of talent and excellent palate, but the one thing they needed was a good word-of-mouth. Typical Americans just couldn’t appreciate the way they served their food. Primo wanted to make genuine Italian food but most Americans were doubtful of the strange. Early in the movie, there was highly amusing scene of a woman and her husband not understanding why the pasta didn’t have any meatballs. I had to laugh at their confused looks and frustrated voices because I recognized myself in them. There’s just something comforting about the familiar and having to step away from it most often causes friction. The film was also about the women in the brothers’ lives. Phyllis (the alluring Minnie Driver) loved Secondo but maybe he just wasn’t ready to be in long-term relationship. Money was near the top of his priorities but Phyllis didn’t consider it to be all that important. On the other hand, Primo was interested in Ann (Allison Janney), who worked at a flower shop, but he was too shy to invite her to attend the party. The best way Primo could communicate was through food. Luckily, Ann liked to eat. What I admired most about the film was its fearless ability to hold long takes. My favorite scene was when Primo returned to the kitchen after he and Secondo had an altercation. Secondo was initially by the stove as he prepared a dish for the feast. As a gesture of forgiveness, the younger one slowly inched away from the fire and allowed his older brother to be at the place where was most comfortable. Not a word was uttered. There was something assured and powerful about the way the camera was held and the manner in which it framed the two characters’ movements. A similar technique was implemented in the final scene when the space between the brothers grew smaller. There was no doubt in our minds that they would keep moving forward together. “Big Night” was beautiful film but not just because of the mouth-watering Italian food. It unabashedly explored the love between brothers without the clichéd epiphanies.
★★★ / ★★★★
Set in a post-apocalyptic world where food was very scarce and selflessness was rare, a former clown named Louison (Dominique Pinon) moved into an apartment complex where the residents depended on a butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) to give them food given that the circumstances were right. That is, every once in a while, an unsuspecting person, like Louison, would move into an empty apartment and later be murdered, chopped up, and served to the residents. Things turned complicated when Louison fell for the butcher’s daughter (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and vice-versa. The daughter knowing the happenings in the apartment complex tried to seek help from people who lived underground that did not eat other humans. I loved the look of this film. In every frame, there was a beautiful yellow tinge that highlighted the desolate existence of the characters. I also noticed the picture’s great attention to sound, not just in terms of soundtrack in the foreground and background but the characters actually creating music to serve as a distraction from their increasingly desperate living conditions. I thought it was creative because it able to take very different sounds and arrange it in such a way that they all complemented each other. As for the story, it was consistently fascinating but it could have been trimmed. While the involvement of the sewer dwellers was necessary, there were far too many scenes that painted them as too goofy, almost infantile. The slapstick did not work because I got the impression that they were supposed to be the moral center (people who did not eat human flesh), thus the savior of Louison and the butcher’s daughter. It would not have hurt the script if the underground people were actually intelligent and strong. Just because they lived underground for, as the film suggested, quite some time, they need not have been cavemen-like. In this case, playing against the obvious would have been far more interesting. Despite its shortcomings, the film was strong. I highly enjoyed its quirks, wit, and irony because the images on screen had double meanings so it kept me on my toes. For example, when the residents tried to break into Louison’s apartment, I thought about George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” with a modern twist: The good guys were inside struggling for survival, while the bad guys (who were not undead) were outside craving for flesh. They, too, were struggling for survival. Directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Delicatessen” was a treat in which the jokes were served in just the right amount of proportions. It always had new jokes peeking at each corner so specific types of comedies did not overstay their welcome. Film lovers who have a penchant for the macabre, satire, cannibalism, and post-apocalypse worlds will most likely find this movie as a delectable gem.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the children’s book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, was a visual treat for the whole family. A scientist named Flint (voiced by Bill Hader) had many inventions that led to disasters and over time lost the respect of his community. But when he accidentally sent a machine that had the ability make food from water to the sky, it began raining all sorts of delectable food. At first the citizens of the island enjoyed the strange weather patterns, covered by a colorful reporter (Anna Faris), but the food started to get bigger as time went on, it turned into a disaster flick with food as weapons of destruction. There were times when I thought the picture was trying too hard with the jokes. The slapstick irked me especially when the target of the joke was a smart (sometimes too smart) and awkward lead character. I wish the directors had toned down the physical comedy and really played more with the double meanings of certain words, phrases and puns. A lot of kids (even younger kids) out there do understand play on words which is not common knowledge. I also thought that the movie had a chance to really bring up and tackle social issues such as world hunger and obesity. There were some images thrown in here and there but such moments were too brief. With those criticisms aside, I really did enjoy this animated film because it was creative and imaginative. The surreal images it offered such as giant rolling doughnuts threatening to squash people like bugs, pasta tornados, and palace made entirely out of jello were definitely a sight to behold. It made me think about how magical the film would have been if it was live-action. The movie’s energy level was manic, everything was colorful and there were some really good jokes on the background. I also appreciated the fact that it had a plethora of film references from other disaster movies to strange sci-fi mysteries to dramatic space adventures. Even though the movie had so many random elements, I thought it worked because there was madness happening on screen. Lastly, I thought this was the kind of film that would have benefited with a longer running time. It tried to be so many things, including a bit about father-son relationships, but none of them were fully realized. “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” was a smogasbord of colorful delights and energy that never seems to run out when it really could have used more heart.
Julie & Julia (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed this movie even though I’m not much of a cook (though I do absolutely love eating) because it was able paint a portrait of two women from very different times but with significant similarities. The film was definitely full of charm and it was funny. Meryl Streep, a chameleon as usual, played Julia Child, a woman who was at first lost when it came to what she wanted to accomplish in life. However, she knew that she didn’t want to be just another housewife who lived to serve her husband. So, with the love and support from her husband (Stanley Tucci), Julia eventually decided to attend a cooking class and worked her way up to publish a book called “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Fast-forward to 2002, Amy Adams played Julie Powell, a woman who worked for the government in a cubicle who was mostly unhappy with her career. After observing how busy and accomplished her friends were, she decided to make a blog: in a span of one year, she was going to cook all of Julia’s recipes. I don’t consider this a spoiler so I’m going to say that she succeeded. She was eventually able to publish a book called “Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen” even though the journey was quite rocky due to her own self-doubt, sometimes unrealistic expectations, and rising tension between her and her very patient and supportive husband (Chris Messina). This movie made me smile from start to finish because of the two leads. Even though Adams and Streep did not interact at all, their commonalities were enough for me to be emotionally invested in the picture. I commend Nora Ephron, the director, because there was something very modern about the style of the movie yet it didn’t sacrifice its substance. I loved looking at the food and I could literally smell their delicious scent whenever they were on screen. The only major criticism I have was that its pace somewhat faltered in the middle. It lost some of its urgency, a feeling that dominated the first and the last thirty minutes. Nevertheless, I thought watching “Julie & Julia” was a very pleasant experience because it really highlighted the passion that Julie and Julia had not only for food but also accomplishing something that they could be proud of. Speaking of being proud of something, Julie reminded me of myself when I started blogging in the early 2000s. The rush she felt when she finally received her first comment on her blog made me feel very nostalgic so I couldn’t help but have this big smile on my face well beyond five minutes after the scene was over. I thought Ephron and Adams really captured, at least from my experience, how it was like to put something out there and have people read it. That theme of connection was nicely explored in this film and it made me feel warm and inspired (not to mention hungry).
★★ / ★★★★
Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay star in “Defiance,” directed by Edward Zwick, as four Jewish brothers who escape from the place where they used to live due to the implementation of the Final Solution. The four seek refuge in the forest as they welcome (though at times reluctantly) other Jewish people. Soon, they become a community; and as with all new communities, problems ensue such as rationing of food, who deserves what, what is allowed and what is not, who the leader should be and so on. Although the audiences get a lot of scenes when the Germans attack the Jews and vice-versa, I really could care less about those scenes. I was actually more interested in the dynamics within the small community such as the differing ways of leadership between Craig and Schreiber. While I found it difficult to align myself with one or the other, I thought it was great because I was engaged with what was going on as well as surprised when they would suddenly change their stance regarding a particular issue. I also liked the scenes when everyone would starve and get diseases in the dead of winter. It’s not that I like watching people suffer but it’s more about being concerned and wondering who will make it in the end and who wouldn’t. Although this was inspired by a true story, admittedly, I didn’t know much about the Bielski brothers so I didn’t know how it would end. What prevents me from giving this film a recommendation is that it all too often becomes generic. With such a unique subject matter, I feel like it took the safer route in order to appeal to wider audiences. It also had too many fighting scenes when it really didn’t need to because it already has a poignant story to tell. Still, there’s some scenes worth seeing here such as when Zwick showed that people are people–that is, monstrosity can be committed by both the Germans and the Jews. I wish this had been a much stronger film because it really is important to recognize what the Bielski brothers have done for the Jewish community. But perhaps the gesture is enough.
Grande Bouffe, La (1973)
★ / ★★★★
“La Grande Bouffe,” or “The Big Feast,” directed by Marco Ferreri, was such a huge disappointment for me because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, especially from critics and bloggers that I look up to for recommendations. Since my expectations were a bit hyped up, while actually watching it, it was such a letdown because the characters that came from different backgrounds–a pilot (Marcello Mastroianni), a chef (Ugo Tognazzi), a judge (Philippe Noiret) and a television star (Michel Piccoli)–were so uninteresting for such an interesting premise. The four friends hired prostitutes and had orgies in a massive getaway mansion as they ate more food than they could digest in one sitting. Just when I thought that the story would evolve into something more, I felt like it actually tried to stay in one place and featured more images of sex and gluttony. Admittedly, I’m the kind of person that can endure watching pretty much all kinds of sexual acts but this film made me wince repeatedly. I’m not quite sure if that was the kind of reaction that the director had it mind or if it was supposed to be genuinely sensual or erotic. But since it’s a dark comedy, I’m guessing it’s the former so perhaps, in a way, it succeeded on that level. Morever, for having such a group of supposedly smart gentlemen, they sure acted like adolescent morons for most of the picture. I didn’t see any scenes where any of them offered some sort of insight that made me think of their situation (or any situation for that matter) any differently. I felt like writers just had this one idea of excess but never quite broken from that in order to reach the next level. (And for a picture that ran for more than two hours, there was absolutely no excuse for that.) I also did not appreciate the slapstick that involved scenes with flatulence and excrement. I’m not a big fan of slapstick in the first place because they tend to rub me the wrong way so this film became that much worse in my book. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the final scenes that revealed the fate of the four main characters felt completely forced and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. It was a complete waste of my time and I almost wished I never saw it.