Forks Over Knives (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
When there are reports that an average person in America is twenty-three pounds overweight; that one in five American children are considered to be obese; and that cancers, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, hypertension, and chronic heart conditions can be solved simply by switching to a whole foods, plant-based diet, one cannot help but pay attention. And yet although “Forks Over Knives,” directed by Lee Fulkerson, means well, some of the studies presented tend to leave a lot of pertinent questions unanswered. In addition, it makes careless assumptions based on supposed hard evidence.
Its approach mainly consists of presenting medical doctors and scientists who have made and are making an impact in supporting the diet that consists strictly of whole foods and plants. While these professionals on screen are impressive, the picture neglects to provide a counterpoint—medical doctors and scientists who do not support the diet. By having only people who agree on the same thing, the interviews end up quite repetitive and dull.
I found some of the charts to be troubling in presentation. Some of the animated diagrams are quite beautiful. A standout involves “stretch” and “density” receptors on the stomach which is meant to explain on a very elementary level, appropriate given the target audience, how we get the feeling of satiation. Another is the “cancer atlas” of China which involves a massive study that focuses on eating habits and cancer.
But when it summons bar and line graphs coupled with a voice explaining what the bars and the lines mean, one ought to look or listen more closely. For instance, at one point it brings up the average amount of sugar, dairy, processed foods, and the like that are consumed by a typical person. However, one bar depicts, for example, data that is gathered in 2006 and another bar on the same chart is supposed to be data acquired in 1999. Assumptions are made based on these graphs—that are not even based on the same year. The lack of consistency leaves room for significant misrepresentation.
Supporters of the vegan diet traverse dangerous grounds when they make claims that simply eating whole foods and vegetables can reverse even the worst chronic and degenerative diseases. While they have some data that seem to support their claims, making very general statements is misleading. The truth is their data can only support—not prove—some of their claims on some of the diseases. For instance, there has not been a study of every type of cancer based on the whole food, plant-based diet. Cancer goes through remission even if one is not on the diet in consideration. The picture does not even discern between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
What do I believe in? I believe in moderation, being in control of your body and your choices, and choosing to live a physically and mentally active lifestyle. In order words, I believe in eating steak and having a slice (or two) of chocolate cake and then choosing to go to the gym to burn it off after a couple of hours or the next day.
What I do not believe in is a panacea. An approach that works for you may not work for me. “Take this pill and you’ll get better” or “Go on this diet and you’ll get better.” The difference is scant.
★★★ / ★★★★
Carol (Julianne Moore) is an upper-middle class housewife living in the San Fernando Valley who begins to develop a set of non-specific symptoms that has her doctor baffled. Despite her constant headaches and general feeling that something is not quite right with her body, she is perfectly healthy—at least according to the medical exams. What caused this illness—assuming there is one to begin with? Could it be due to the smoke she inhaled while driving on the freeway? Could it be because of the so-called “fruit diet” that she and her best friend took part in? Or is it due to something else entirely?
Written and directed by Todd Haynes, “Safe” is a polarizing film because it is not easy to sit through. The dialogue is sparse and seemingly superficial. The pacing is slow and deliberate. The use of the camera can come across static at times. Not one of the supporting characters are the least bit interesting. It does not provide easy answers with respect to the protagonist’s condition. And yet it is worth seeing.
Moore delivers a magnetic performance. Because dialogue is limited, the performer must be able to pull our attention by exhibiting an intelligence, a desperation, a certain strength that cannot be denied. Although Moore plays a character whose health is flailing, she provides substance by welcoming us to consider what Carol is thinking.
This is particularly apparent when the subject is looking herself on the mirror. Sure, there is the basic question of “What is happening to me?” inside her head but there is also sadness, regret, frustration. Another is when the camera transfixes on her face. Those eyes are haunting—she just as well could be a friend or a loved one in silent suffering.
Notice the writer-director’s ability to frame a scene. Initially, I was thrown off by the camera’s insistence of observing from afar despite a conversation occurring between two characters. The picture made me realize that I am so used to recognizing context or body cues when characters are interacting that once that comfort is removed, I am frustrated. But after the same technique is employed about three or four times, I began to wonder what Haynes is trying to accomplish.
Since Carol’s source of illness is believed be environmental, are we supposed to take notice of the bed flowers from just a feet or two away? The couches that have been delivered recently? The room that provides no proper air flow? Since the clues are there, the film begs for a second viewing. Such is a sign of a great movie.
The latter half piques our interest because there is doubt regarding the validity of the treatment center that Carol comes to join. Because the former half makes us paranoid of what is in the air, the food, the water, on the bedsheets, maybe it is possible that the group is some kind of cult. I looked for classic signs—some are present but many pieces are missing—but was unable to form a precise conclusion. This group lives in isolation. There are many more trees than there are shopping malls. Still, Carol does not appear to be getting better. What is going on?
“Safe” engages the viewer to ask questions and to look a little closer. Not many things are exactly as they appear. There are no twists to make someone go, “Oh! So that’s what’s going on all along!” There are only inferences and sometimes the terror is in the not fully knowing.
★★★ / ★★★★
Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), while on a business trip to Macau, became sick. She returned home thinking that what she had was a common case of cold. Within two days, she died. So did her son. This left Mitch (Matt Damon), Beth’s husband, shaken with disbelief–that a few coughs and sniffles could destroy his family. But what Beth had wasn’t typical. Within a couple of days, health organizations from all over the world realized that what caused Beth’s death was a virulent virus that had the capability to invade its host’s respiratory and central nervous systems. And it was spreading at an exponential rate. “Contagion,” written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was at its best when it was coldly calculating. Such a tone was prevalent in the first half and it was appropriate because viruses don’t discern between good and bad people. It was simple: we observed a human being develop the symptoms of the fatal disease and he or she died within a couple of minutes after we met them. Then it was onto the next victim. It was scary, mysterious, and real. The director juggled different characters, scientists and civilians, with relative ease. There was Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) who worked for the CDC whose confidence relied on a plan of attack that worked in the past. But this was a different breed of disease and it was mutating at such a rapid pace. We observed this man’s confidence crumble which happened to be parallel to society’s laws and regulations slowly being thrown out the window. With people not getting enough answers and becoming more terrified each day, they had to lie, steal, and kill to survive. And such actions were not limited to civilians. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there was Mr. Krumwiede (Jude Law), a sort-of journalist/blogger who led a popular website, who claimed that the government didn’t want people to know the truth. In some ways, he was right despite his fear mongering. For me, while watching the film, the main source of drama wasn’t in the fact that I became more paranoid of germs as it went on. I know that there are “good” germs that protect us from “bad” germs; that our bodies rely on select foreign organisms to function well. What piqued my curiosity was the struggle between figures who wanted to keep things hush-hush, like Dr. Cheever, and those who wanted to reveal information, even without proper scientific research, like Mr. Krumwiede. I was left in the middle and, as it turned out, I found myself caring most about people who ended up confused but tried their best to make it through just one more day, like Mitch and his daughter. Despite the film using a lot of foreign-sounding words like “pleomorphic,” “encephalitis,” and “immunoglobulin domains,” which not everyone had to understand to realize that something bad was happening, the picture had a heart. Notice that the director always reverted to Mitch and his struggle to keep his daughter safe from the virus. Although still interesting, “Contagion” lost a bit of momentum in its second half. But all is forgiven because no one turned into a zombie.
Picture Me: A Model’s Diary (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sara Ziff and Ole Schell’s documentary focused on Ziff’s journey as a fashion model from when she was eighteen years old on her first flight to Paris until she was twenty-three with prospects of attending Columbia University. Sara didn’t plan on becoming a model. Her parents valued education and she thought she was eventually going to follow their footsteps. But when she was approached by a photographer on the street and asked if she was a model, her life changed. Before she knew it, she was traveling all over the globe and getting paid $80,000 per job. But was the money worth losing her health and sanity? “Picture Me: A Model’s Diary” is the kind of film I would recommend to anyone thinking of entering the fashion industry. While it did acknowledge that being a model did have its perks like having a healthy salary (assuming the model eventually becomes an “it” girl which is a rarity), it was more concerned about showing us the ugly side of modeling and what magazines and television channels dedicated to fashion purposefully hide from us. By interviewing actual models, allowing their faces to be shown, and sharing their painful experiences with sexual harassment, the film successfully highlighted the exploitation inherent to the business. It also tackled issues like eating disorder and body image, drugs as a tool for a model to have the energy to keep going from one show to another, and modeling agencies hiring girls as young as fourteen years old but ultimately failing to protect them from elements that no young person should be exposed to. The latter was of special interest because the fashion industry loves to use very skinny and tall girls with no breasts and no hips because the dress just hangs on the body. But is it morally right to put such young girls in fashion shows where they were expected to get naked backstage in which photographers were free to take pictures and watch them undress? How is that different from watching child pornography? I admired the film because it wasn’t afraid to ask difficult questions. Furthermore, the documentary surprised me when it acknowledged how Ziff’s salary affected her relationship with her boyfriend (Schell) and her family’s opinion of her earning more money than them. On one hand, Schell was proud of Sara and said things like, “I’ve never held so much money in my hand!” On the flipside, there certainly was jealousy there. On their trip to Las Vegas, Sara asked her boyfriend why he never paid for her. He claimed that he did. Sara was reluctant to discuss it further because the camera was on. It was real and it felt incredibly awkward to watch. I do have favorite fashion models. I follow them on Twitter and read their blogs. With all their traveling, photoshoots, and runway work, it’s easy to admire them. But then there are moments when a model would Tweet about being so exhausted and not having eaten for almost twenty-four hours other than some candy or a piece of bread and a cup of coffee. Then I’m reminded of the models, both male and female, who decided to take their own lives. Maybe “being pretty and on time” is not the only requirement in becoming a model.
Two Bits (1995)
★★ / ★★★★
Twelve-year-old Gennaro Spirito (Jerry Barone) was desperate to get into La Paloma, the newly-opened movie theatre in town, but he didn’t have twenty-five cents to pay for the admission ticket. Everybody seemed to not have any change to spare because of the difficult times. Even his mother (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) saved every bit of money they had for food in order to care for Gennaro’s ailing grandfather (Al Pacino). Inspired by young street performers, our little protagonist decided to earn the money himself by taking odd and sometimes dangerous jobs to finally get inside the newfangled cinema. Main critiques about the film was directed toward a selfish main character who only cared about raising enough money as everyone else worried about bigger things in life such as hunger and deteriorating health. I felt differently because Gennaro was just a kid. Even though he was on the cusp of being a teenager, his brain was still like that of a child’s. He fixated on one idea and couldn’t let go until he was able to grasp it. In some ways, I found his adamant nature amusing because I was able to relate to him on some level. For example, when I really want to see a certain movie, I just can’t help but think about it. No matter what I do, I find it difficult to get rid of the fantasy of finally sitting down and seeing something I’ve so been yearning for. Obviously, there’s more to life than watching motion pictures, but Gennaro’s perseverance to see a film in the movie theater was more than the obvious. Whether he was consciously aware of it or not, I believed that he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself, perhaps to share a rewarding collective experience in a dark room with strangers. Another interpretation was maybe he needed a temporary escape from his grandfather’s illness and the streets that served as his playground which was filled with people dealing with the Depression. Just because Gennaro was adamant about going to the movies, not once did I think that he didn’t love or care for his mother and grandfather. However, I did wish that the relationship between Barone and Pacino’s characters was explored in a deeper way. The adult Gennaro (narrated by Alec Baldwin) claimed that he and his grandfather had a special relationship. In the end, it still wasn’t clear to me what made their relationship so special. There were moments of genuine connection between them, like when the grandfather asked his grandson for a really big favor which might have been a bit too much to ask of our protagonist, but I didn’t feel the special element that the adult Gennaro, through a retelling of his memorable day, wanted us to experience. Written by Joseph Stefano and directed by James Foley, “Two Bits” contained some thoughtful scenes but it just felt short in achieving the magic that Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” and Victor Erice’s “El espíritu de la colmena” seemed to effortlessly possess.
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I grew up on Disney’s late 1980s to mid-1990s animated movies like Ron Clements and John Musker’s “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel’s lesser-known “The Rescuers Down Under,” and Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s “The Lion King,” but I don’t know much about the history of the team behind such hits so I just had to watch this film. With their successes, it’s difficult to imagine, let alone appreciate, the hardships the artists went through to release commercially-pleasing projects and at the same time ward off their competitors (Steven Spielberg, working for a different company at the time, was actually one of them). And that’s exactly what this film was about: To tell the story of the behind-the-scenes struggles the writers, artists, and leaders in the company who had no choice but to live up to Walt Disney’s many profound accomplishments. I thought it was fascinating in the way it explored the collision of vastly different ideas in how to launch a story and how those ideas cost millions of dollars, while only a minute amount ended up on screen. When the documentary showed us how much of the sketches ended up in recycling, the voice inside my head couldn’t help but yell out a resounding, “No! Don’t throw all of that hard work in the trash!” I learned a whole lot from the film and, in a way, it changed the way I saw the animated movies I cherished as a child. I didn’t know that “The Rescuers Down Under” (a box-office flop upon its release and, to this day, highly underrated) was Disney’s first ever animated film made digitally. I thought that each frame was drawn by hand but looking back on it, the images looked sharper and more defined than its predecessors. I almost wanted to see the movie again so I could observe the risks that the animators took in order to release movies at a much faster rate. The documentary also tackled the issue of the workers’ debilitating health. Since the animation studios’ projects were hit-and-miss, at some point the workers were not properly compensated; they had to draw all night and come to work in the morning with uncontrollable shaking of the hands, while some suffered long-term carpal tunnel syndrome. I thought the company’s goal of releasing one Disney movie per year was unrealistic considering the amount work the team had to inject in each project. “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” directed by Don Hahn, is a required viewing for those who love classic Disney animated films and are children at heart. There were some fun and touching appearances from Tim Burton, Howard Ashman, and John Lasseter, but watching it should make us appreciate the talent behind the art we feel like we have a deep connection with.
Nana, La (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) had been a maid for the same Chilean family for twenty-three years and she felt as though she was a part of the family. When Raquel’s health started to fail because she was overworked, the mother of the family (Claudia Celedón) decided to hire other help despite Raquel’s denial that she needed it. Raquel then decided that she would, one way or another, get rid of each one. I loved this film’s intensive look at a character who gave her life for a family but the family did not seem to give much to her in return. Saavedra impressed me because she was able to wrap her bitterness in little “accidents” and classic passive-aggressiveness but still maintaining her role as the housekeeper as best she could. Even though I did not agree with certain decisions she made to get rid of the other maids, I empathized with the character because she had no husband or children and her relationship with her family and relatives was very limited. But only did I recognize the heart of the film when Raquel met another maid named Lucy (Mariana Loyola). Lucy had so much positive energy and enthusiasm to the point where it was contagious. The most moving scene for me was when Lucy found Raquel disinfecting the bathtub in the middle of the night. Lucy asked Raquel what was wrong and what the family had done to her that made her lose it, all of which accompanied with an embrace. It was then when I realized that despite all the small gestures the family members had given Raquel, none of them really bothered to ask how she felt–at least not long enough to stick around and have a genuine talk with her. After meeting Lucy, we got the chance to see Raquel evolve from someone who looked like she was on the verge of death to someone with so much life even though it was still awkward for her to let out a smile. Since she felt like someone finally cared about her, she became a much warmer person. “La nana” or “The Maid,” written and directed by Sebastián Silva, is a small but charming film that was dramatic although it had a bit of a dark comedic edge. It was an incisive look between the rich and the poor and the dangers of a lack of reciprocity especially with a person who felt like she was isolated from the world. The story may have been simple but it had subtlety. Best of all, it wasn’t afraid to look at and recognize painful truths about the distinction between how important we think we are and how important we really are in someone’s life.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Hunger,” written and directed by Steve McQueen, followed the last few weeks of life of a prisoner named Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) who decided to go on a hunger strike because the British government did not want to recognize the IRA prisoners (Liam McMahon, Brian Milligan) as political prisoners and the fact that the pisoners were constantly treated inhumanely by the guards. At first I thought that the first half of this film was about the hunger strike because everyone was insanely skinny. Only half-way did I realize that the first half was the “blanket and no wash” protest–prisoners had nothing but blankets in their cells and they chose not to wash themselves for days on end. (Not to mention they decorated their walls with their filth and food.) The turning point (and best scene) of the film was the conversation between Bobby Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) because that extended scene brought a sharpness and intelligence to the picture as it tackled issues such as the ethical reasons regarding the hunger strike and whether performing such a dangerous task, as noble as it was, could ultimately lead to nothing. The portion of the scene when Fassbender talked about what his character’s leadership meant to him was honestly was one of the best five minutes I’ve seen in a long time. The images that the character described were so vivid in my mind and the emotions that the images entailed captivated me. McQueen’s direction was always present because as the story was being told, the camera knew, at the perfect moments, when to zoom in to the actor’s faces and when to pull back. The effectiveness of the director’s craft made the experience that much more rewarding. The second half–the actual hunger strike–absolutely blew me away. Fassbender’s transformation was shocking to me. It reminded me of Christian Bale’s horrifying transformation in “The Machinist,” but instead of psychological repercussions, we got to observe how Bobby’s health declined and how his life ultimately came to an end. I loved that this film felt small but the ideas were so big; it highlighted those ideas via the synergistic effect of silence and haunting images. I also loved the film’s use of contrast in terms of other people using violence to others and people using violence to themselves. “Hunger” is a very rich and complex film worth pondering over. I couldn’t believe this was McQueen’s directoral debut because he commanded the story and direction with such focus. Like with Fassbender who also impressed me in “Inglourious Basterds,” I’m looking forward to McQueen’s next project.
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
I was deeply touched by this biopic about a supermodel named Gia Carangi (Angelina Jolie) back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Throughout the picture, I felt that her story was very personal because we got to see her evolve from a rebellious kid who was abandoned by her mother to a stunning supermodel who everyone wanted to worked with. At the same time, we also got to see her cocaine addiction, failed relationships and connection with others, and the eventual decline of her health because of AIDS. I’m glad that this film did not particularly glamorize the fashion world. In fact, I got a feeling that it was almost against it–as if it was one of the main reasons to blame that finally drove Carangi over the edge. Gia was far from a perfect person and therefore not free from blame but she had crucial moments when she took responsibility because she really did want to change. I admired the scenes when Jolie was posing in front of the camera looking extraordinary but such scenes also had voice-overs of what the photographers, the crew, and the other models’ real thoughts about Gia. It shows that something beautiful on the outside doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s on the inside, which I thought culminated when one of the women confronted Gia with such anger during one of the drug addiction sessions concerning the lies–on how to look like, how to act, and how to live one’s life–presented by the glossy fashion magazines. I also enjoyed the fact that Gia’s relationships were highlighted throughout the film: the mother who uses her as an accessory, who’s always there when things are good but almost never there when things are bad (Mercedes Ruehl), the loyal friend she met right before she was discovered and was there with her until the end (Eric Michael Cole), the agent who she saw more as a mother-figure (Faye Dunaway), and her on-and-off girlfriend who always wanted Gia to be the best she could be (Elizabeth Mitchell). While most people I know chose to see this for the nudity by Jolie, I have to say that this film goes beyond issues of the flesh. There’s a very real story and powerful lessons to be learned here; in fact, to be honest, the “sex” scenes are not that shocking to me because I’ve seen all kinds of movies with all kinds of sexual acts. For me, the sole purpose of watching this picture for the nudity is a sign of disrespect for Jolie’s acting abilities and Gia’s memory. Directed by Michael Cristofer, “Gia” is a triumph on multiple levels (especially Jolie’s acting) and should be seen with an open mind and sensitivity.
★★★ / ★★★★
This coming-of-age urban drama was about James (William Eadie) and his increasing guilt which started when he got into a fight with another kid who accidentally drowned. He doesn’t have an outlet for his negative emotions and his environment is far from helpful. His family is somewhat unstable led by an irresponsible, unloving father, they live in an impoverished neighborhood and there’s a garbage strike (the story is set in Scotland during the mid-1970s)–which means that the garbage do not get picked up which causes tremendous health hazards for everyone (lice, rats, contaminated water, you name it). Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, I couldn’t help but get engaged in the film’s poeticism. There was a nice contrast between how children see the world and how children hopes the world should be like. I was greatly affected by James’ struggle to want to be a good person but couldn’t because his parents and older siblings are not good models on how to express emotions. They’re always cursing, yelling, hitting each other and avoiding the main issue altogether. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, with the exception of an older girl Margaret (Leanne Mullen) and the mentally challenged Kenny (John Miller), both of which are constant targets of the older boys. It pained me whenever he ran away from home to visit a nice house because it’s his dream for his family to finally get out of the miserable place where they’re currently living. I felt his desperation and I knew he was just a character but I really wished I could provide him some sort of comfort. I liked the atmosphere that Ramsay created because it reflected the main character’s mindset. I also liked the fact that the story did not shy away from sensitive issues such as death and childhood depression. As for its ending, I didn’t expect it but I thought it was handled with such craft. In some ways, it’s hopeful because the director sets up an argument which straddles the line between spirituality (not necessarily religion) and imagination. This is a great effort from Ramsay and I’m very interested in seeing what she has to offer from her other films.