Bite Size (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
There is something about a child diagnosed with diabetes by twelve years of age telling the camera that he is probably not expecting to live very long because of his condition. Weighing over two hundred thirty pounds, Davion hopes to become a football player one day. “Bite Size,” directed by Corbin Billings, is documentary about childhood obesity in America and it focuses on four subjects stemming from different racial and economic backgrounds. It is a well-intentioned work but one that is limited in scope.
It gets a few things exactly right. For example, emphasis is placed on the importance of support, whether it be a parent, friend, or a school counselor, when it comes to continuing to choose the right foods to eat and participating in an exercise regime. It is especially critical for children because they look up to the adults to set an example. At some point in each one of the four strands, there is a lack of guidance and a set of rules to be followed. It comes to no surprise that although the children are educated about the importance of eating healthy and being physically active, they still continue to gain weight.
There are no charts and graphs to show us the statistics and trends of childhood obesity—and it doesn’t need to. These things are not needed when we see the subjects’ overweight bodies as they walk toward the camera, how regretful they sound when speaking about the concerns and fears of possibly being diagnosed with diabetes, and the shame of recollecting memories from school when they are bullied by their peers. The lack of mathematics and colorful figures makes the documentary feel more personal.
I wished, however, that the picture had asked the parents the tough questions. Yes, they come to recognize their responsibilities toward their children’s health eventually. However, a lot of the time the material gives the impression that the parents are left to their own devices and not really knowing what to say to the camera. There is a disruption in the flow and the topic’s sense of urgency. Clocking in at just about ninety minutes, the film, however, feels like two hours long. This is particularly noticeable in Moy’s story—his household torn between recklessness (his father) and responsibility (his mother).
Most compelling to me is KeAnna’s segment—not because of KeAnna herself but because of the school counselor named Lisa who tries to help her and her friends to lose weight. The counselor, who also has weight issues, wishes to help so much that she makes an effort to learn how to dance—an activity that her students love. Lisa even starts a weight loss program called “Si Se Puede” so that they can lose weight together. What starts as a weight loss program turns into a program of self-love and learning to take responsibility for oneself. It is not something that Lisa—nor I—expected.
The documentary should have spent more time with Emily, a twelve-year-old who once weighted two hundred and thirteen pounds. She lost over eighty pounds during her time in a weight loss camp but when she left, she began to gain weight again. Emily claims she is determined never to become the size that she once was. I think that this is a very important piece of the puzzle, one that is worth exploring deeply because it has some psychological implications, but the material insists on spending equal time with its four subjects.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Tonari no Totoro” also known as “My Neighbor Totoro” has been on my Netflix queue for about six months so I was so happy when it finally arrived in the mail. It must be noted that this review is based on the dubbed version so some of the dialogue might have been lost in translation. Written and directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, the film had a very simple story with a big heart. It was about two sisters (Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning) who recently moved to the countryside with their father while their mother (Lea Salonga) stayed in the hospital due to an undisclosed illness. The girls, since they were still at a young age, could see dust sprites and spirits, one of which was Totoro, who was supposed to be a troll but he looked more like Snorlax to me (yes, the Pokémon) because of his lax nature but incredibly cute proclivities. The whole movie was basically how the sisters used their imagination as an escape from the ennui of the countryside and dealing with their mother’s illness. I enjoyed that it was simple because the sadness in the core’s story easily appealed to adults while the cuteness appealed to the kids. I’ve read some critiques saying that the movie was slow and aren’t as grand as other Miyazaki projects. In some ways, I agree but at the same time I think those people have missed the point. The movie was supposed to be from a child’s perspective. When you were a child, didn’t everything appear so simple? There’s no taxes to pay off, no job to go to, and no fear of taking an exam that can determine your future. It was all about running around in the outdoors and getting caught up in pretend play. I loved the fact that the younger sister’s qualities reflected real life; she constantly mimicked her older sister, was always in “me” mode and she didn’t quite yet grasp the idea of danger. Details like that elevated this film for me because it showed there was some thought under the sugary cuteness. However, there were some underdeveloped characters that I thought were interesting but were never really explored. For instance, the boy who seemed to like the older sister and the grandmother who once could see the spirits when she was a child. I especially wanted to know more about the latter because I felt like she had a lot of wondrous stories that she could potentially tell the girls (and to us). “My Neighbor Totoro” offers a healthy dose of great imagery (such as when Totoro stood in the rain with the girls) and is obviously inspired by “Alice in Wonderland.” I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was a masterpiece but I appreciated the innocent feel it had. Characters going on great adventures isn’t a must for animated films to be interesting. And that’s one of this picture’s important messages: adventures can happen right in your backyard.
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I like to think of myself as an adventurous moviegoer so I’m on the constant lookout for movies that are vastly different from the mainstream. I’ve heard of the term “exploitation film” before (mainly from Quentin Tarantino because his movies often reference to that genre) but I never really knew what it really meant until I saw this film and did a bit of research about it. I really loved this documentary because I really learned a lot from it. I had no idea that Australia released all these cult classics, some of which have never been released in America. The way Australians made and released these daring movies in the 1970s and 1980s was so refreshing because nowadays, especially here in the United States, those kinds of movies are not made anymore. Once in a blue moon an exploitation flick (or a flick inspired from such like “Wolf Creek”) would be made but it was always under the radar no matter how good or bad it was. Speaking of good and bad, another thing that I loved about this documentary was it put the spotlight on good and bad movies alike and the people being interviewed explained why they thought a particular movie was good or bad (or sometimes even both). It fascinated me and I literally made a list of the movies wanted to check out. Some of them include “Mad Max” (1979), “Turkey Shoot” (1982), “Fairgame” (1985), “Dark Age” (1987), “Next of Kin” (1982), “Long Weekend” (1979), “Road Games” (1981), “Patrick” (1978), and others. The documentary, written and directed by Mark Hartley, was divided into several sections which started from movies about sex and nudity and ended with movies about car crashes and extreme violence. While it did cover a plethora of disparate motion pictures, I was also very impressed with the fact that it found enough time to discuss censorship (or lack thereof) in the era of Ozploitation. I wish this movement would repeat itself here in America because I’m starting to get sick of Hollywood trash being released in theaters weekly. Some days, I just want to see intense car chases with no real story but has a great sense of dialogue (like “Death Proof”) or even a movie about science gone wrong with buckets of blood on the side. Nowadays it’s all about the box office and watching this film really made me feel like the filmmakers wanted to make movies just because they were in love with the process–a reason why some of these exploitation films are so randomly original. I was so excited about the content of this movie, I decided to added some movies on my Netflix (the ones available in America anyway). I just want to see something so risqué and possibly something I can love and recommend to my friends when we don’t feel like going out and spending money.
Smiley Face (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
This movie is a smogasboard of cameos ranging from the most familiar names and faces–Adam Brody, John Krasinski, John Cho–to those whose faces are familiar but their names give us a hard time recalling–Jayma Mays, Marion Ross, Rick Hoffman. But this movie would’ve been a complete mess without Anna Faris. She once again proved to me–twice to this year along with “The House Bunny”–that she can elevate an average movie into a pretty good one. For me, Faris is like Steve Carell: both can stand in one place and not do anything but they never fail to make me laugh out loud. I was shocked when I found out that Gregg Araki directed this stoner comedy. It’s the complete opposite of the moody, serious, and masterful “Mysterious Skin.” What I like about this film is that it’s so random and pointless to the point where it got me thinking. I know it may sound weird but I thought this picture had something to say about the way we live our lives; how random it is, how things don’t quite go the way we expect them to be. When such disappointments happen, we may feel angry or sad or both, but by the end of the day, we should just be thankful that we’re alive–that we are able to feel these emotions and (possibly) learn from our experiences. Araki really shows his talent during some silent but exquisite scenes, especially that one scene when Faris was sitting on the beach, facing the wind and the sand as the sun sets. I’m really glad that a friend recommended this to me (he’s a big Anna Faris fan) because I decided not to add this movie to my Netflix upon its release since the premise sounded lame. Yes, it’s stupid and can go in a million different directions, but I learned to embrace its positives. It’s funny, the performances are pretty good (especially Faris), and strangely thoughtful.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I haven’t seen the 1951 version by the time I wrote this review so I’m not going to compare the 2008 version to that one. That said, it’s interesting to me how Keanu Reeves can be so good at playing robotic characters (like Neo in “The Matrix” franchise) but so bad at playing real people that are supposed to be emotionally crippled or conflicted (as Alex Wyler in “The Lake House” and Detective Tom Ludlow in “Street Kings”). I thought he was effective here as Klaatu, a humanoid whose role is to determine whether the human species need to be obliterated in order to save the Earth. He was creepy, convincingly powerful, and had a definite sense of purpose. He claims that if the Earth dies, everything else will perish along with it but if all humans die, the Earth and everything that it nurtures will go on living. I thought that was a decent reasoning so I went along with it. What’s unforgivable, however, is its lack of human emotional core. That’s when Jennifer Connely and her step-son (Jaden Smith) come in. Their backstory isn’t enough to convince me why Reeves should spare the human race. In the end, I wanted to see an apocalypse because humans are portrayed as violent people (the United States army) and incapable of standing up to authority, such as when Kathy Bates (as the president’s Secretary of Defense) followed what the president wanted her to do despite her best instincts. There are only four things I liked about the movie which saved it from utter failure: the somewhat brilliant visual effects, Gort as Klaatu’s automaton companion, the idea of humans’ nature regarding a precipice and change, and John Cleese as the Nobel prize-winning professor who we meet in the middle of the picture. The rest is junk, which is a shame because the movie is started off very well. The director, Scott Derrickson, could’ve made a superior film that is more character-driven and less visually impressive. After all, the story is about humanity and why we should be saved from extinction. Since the director lost that core (or maybe he didn’t find it in the first place), the final product is a mess. This picture can be an enjoyable Netflix rental on an uneventful Friday night but do not go rushing into the cinema to see it.
Angels in America
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since this film runs for six hours, Netflix divided the movie into two discs. I will review the first half and then the second half because I saw the latter a couple of days after I saw the former. I admire the first part of this picture because it’s not afraid to fuse realistic and fantastic elements that share one common goal: to show how the AIDS epidemic, pretty much unknown at the time, impacts those people who have been infected and those they care about. But it actually rises above its main thesis: it also manages to tackle issues like denial of one’s homosexuality, what it means to be a lover and a friend, power struggle in the business world, relationships by means of convenience…
On top of all that, the performances are simply electric, especially Al Pacino, Patrick Wilson, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. We don’t see much of Streep and Thompson in the first half but whenever they’re on screen, they completely involve the audience because they know how to balance the obvious and the subtle so well. They have a certain elegance that no ordinary actor posesses. As for Pacino, he’s a master of reaching one extreme to the next without ever having to sacrifice his character’s believability. I can argue that he’s one of the most complex characters, out of many, that this film (which is based on a play) has to offer. As Pacino’s protégé, I think this is Wilson’s best performance that I’ve seen. As a closeted Mormon homosexual, he tries so hard to hide who he really is to the point where his emotional pain becomes physical. In most of his scenes, I could feel his sadness, anger, frustration, and (eventual) relief–all at the same time. He has such a poetic face that’s so expressive; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His relationship with his wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is complicated, to say the least, because Wilson considers her as more like a friend but she considers him to be a husband. Other noteworthy actors include Justin Kirk as an AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover, played by Ben Shenkman. Jeffrey Wright is amazing because he speaks the truth without apologies. He plays multiple characters like Streep, Thompson, and Kirk but Wright is the one that I can relate with the most. The idea of escape is crucial ranging from experiencing hallucinations to doing or saying the opposite of what the person actually means to do or say.
As for the second half, the idea of interconnectedness is more prevalent. Since the characters are finally established, they are allowed to interact and play with each other a bit more. This means that strong acting is at the forefront. But what I found most frustrating was the fantastic elements overshadowing reality half of the time. Even though those fantasy scenes do contribute to the overall big picture, they are so cheesy and slow to the point where I found myself checking the time. I was more invested with the reality because the characters that we care about are dealing with things that have something to do with reality like disease and acceptance. Faith is merely the background and focusing on it too much is distracting at best. I thought the way the film ended was handled well; not everything is neatly tied up and the way the actors looked into the camera to convey their last messages was, strangely enough, effective.
This film has such a huge scope but it delivers on more than one level. I found it consistently interesting because it is character-driven and the characters behave like real people. In end, pretty much all the characters have changed in some way. Even though this was released back in 2003, I still consider it to be one of the most important films of the 2000’s.
★ / ★★★★
For some weird reason, ever since I saw David Sutcliffe in “Gilmore Girls,” I knew he’d be a good actor to play a gay character. However, this is not a good movie by any means. The plot is convoluted because of the many manipulative characters and plot twists. I found it hard to feel for Sutcliffe because there wasn’t enough backstory for me to know what really is at stake. His character is the definition of one-dimesional because the only factor that drives his character to do what he does is the mere fact that he’s searching for a boyfriend that left him for no apparent reason. If someone leaves you, you don’t go all the way to Argentina to find out why (and acting like a stalker). You do some soul-searching and hopefully come to a conclusion that the person that left you (if you’re a good person) is not worth it. The main character is just too illogical to be believable. However, I did like that the picture looked like it was filmed in South America. On a different note/problem, I’m all for the fusion of genres but this one tried way too hard to be both comedic and thrilling. I feel that since it couldn’t even master being amusing in the first place, it had no reason to pull the rug under the audiences and suddenly become a thriller. It gave me the feeling that David Moreton, the director, had no idea what he was doing. The only aspect I truly loved about this movie is the casting of Sonia Braga, who played Jennifer Garner’s evil aunt in “Alias.” Every time the camera was on her, I could feel her passion and dedication. It made me wish that the movie was all about her instead of the (boring) gay main character. I should’ve listened to the reviews on Netflix because this really is a horrible picture.