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12.17.04

The Future of FoodKinsey
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events Spanglish

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Spanglish
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When it comes to the work of James L. Brooks, hope springs eternal. After all, the writer/director is responsible for such modern classics as Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets.

As a producer, his name is on the credits of Big, Jerry McGuire, and Bottle Rocket. He’s also behind the success of TV landmarks like The Mary Tyler More Show, Taxi and The Simpsons.

Naturally, fans expected much from his latest effort, a culture clash comedy called Spanglish. Had this been the debut of a novice, it would be hailed as the work of a promising newcomer. Coming from Brooks, it has to be viewed as a disappointment.

The sweet-natured story involves the struggles of an illegal emigrant from Mexico. Spanish beauty Paz Vega (Sex and Lucia) stars as Flor Moreno, a single mother who comes to Los Angeles with her young daughter Christina (Shelbie Bruce) in search of a better life.

Flor manages to land a job as a maid at the home of the wealthy and dysfunctional Clasky family. John (Adam Sandler) is a successful chef operating a four-star restaurant. At home, he takes a back seat to his aggressive, self-centered wife Deborah (Téa Leoni), who has recently given up her job to become a full-time mom.

At first, Flor can’t believe her luck. In spite of the fact that she can’t speak English, she’s landed a well-paying job in the lap of luxury. She soon finds that things aren’t as rosy as they seem.

Deborah’s mom (Cloris Leachman) is a tippler, the kids (Ian Hyland and Sarah Steele) are largely ignored and John seems weak-willed. But the big worry is Deborah. In spite of her good intentions, her shortsighted self-interest causes trouble for everyone. Things get really sticky when Deborah dotes excessively on Flor’s daughter.

Some of the conflicts in Spanglish seem downright petty and the constant bickering gets awfully annoying after a while. Just when you’re ready to give up on the movie, however, Brooks manages to mine some genuine sentiment from the situation. His dialogue is often priceless and the movie frequently seems on the verge of transcending its own occasional awkwardness.

As always, Brooks gets fine performances from his cast. (Leachman, a consummate pro, is particularly memorable.) But the movie rests mostly on Vega’s comely shoulders...and she’s saddled with the restriction that she can’t speak the language.

Among Brooks’ work, Spanglish is lesser fare. In comparison to most Hollywood offerings, however, it’s a welcome, warm-hearted comedy. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5


The Future of Food
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Food is usually an important ingredient in life’s most emotional events. We marry; we eat to celebrate. We turn a year older; we eat to commemorate the occasion. Loved ones die, we eat and reminisce about time spent with them.

Deborah Koons Garcia’s film, The Future of Food, tries to play on the emotional aspects of viewers’ experiences with food while raising fears that genetically modified foods will spoil the quality (and perhaps the quantity) of our food. The Future of Food asks big questions like how will GMOs (genetically modified organisms) affect farming in the future? Are GMOs safe for human consumption? What regulations should be imposed on the producers of GMOs?

These questions are interesting, but they’re too big to answer thoughtfully in the film’s 89-minute running time. So the film meanders, hitting upon food-related topics from the farm to the table.

The film begins with a historical overview of farming and the genesis of GMOs. Drab visuals of rural landscapes and interviews with farmers and scientists lend little to the entertainment value of the film. It’s purely academic, but the film is obviously designed more to inform than to entertain.

Those willing to listen to the film’s exhortations will get explanations of patent laws as they apply to seeds and explanations of how mega food corporation Monsanto became involved with GMOs. They’ll hear about how Monsanto has sued farmers accused of using the company’s genetically modified seeds, and they’ll hear scientists talk about methods of creating GMOs that might make genetically modified foods dangerous.

But the film fails to put a face on what it paints as the GMO problem. Viewers get interviews of farmers saying that Monsanto has harmed them without any dramatization of the harm inflicted. Scientists talk about the potential dangers of GMOs but don’t produce any concrete evidence of the dangers.

At times, the arguments don’t hold up. For instance, the film includes an interview with a farmer who found genetically modified plants on his land, which he says he didn’t plant. Then comes the argument that genetically modified seeds can fly from trucks and wind up in crops unintentionally. The case is made that any farmer could unknowingly have genetically modified crops mixed in with those he or she planted.

Later in the film, there’s a big plug for organically grown foods. But if genetically modified seeds have become so ubiquitous, how do organic farmers know that they haven’t crept into the organic crops?

Despite its flaws, The Future of Food does raise good questions that can be studied further, and its makes one excellent point — that government regulations should require labeling of genetically modified foods. But the film serves up information without gravy, which will make it unpalatable for some viewers. Rating: 2.5

The Future of Food is available in VHS and DVD and can be ordered on www.thefutureoffood.com.


Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Let’s get one thing clear: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a horror film. There is a serial killer, giant snakes, man-eating leaches and other horrible things. The atmosphere is eerie. Houses leak and creak. The sun never shines for more than a few seconds. The environment is bleak, lifeless and full of peril, and danger lurks around every turn.

Let’s get another thing clear. This is a children’s horror film. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events preys on children’s worst fears. Loving parents die and are gone forever. Adult authority figures are unreliable, unobservant and lack any protective instincts. Children are whisked from place to place without any stability, and the only place they can call home is the burnt out vestige of their former house.

The film, based on three books from the wildly successful series, follows the adventures of the three talented Baudelaire children. When their parents perish in a fire, they are put in the care of the insidious Count Olaf. (Jim Carrey) Olaf, a self-proclaimed master thespian, is an odd villain. He’s after the family fortune, and torments the children with disguises and plans that the grown-ups around him can never quite spot.

Another point of clarity: Despite being a horror film, this movie comforts the audience. Films like Spy Kids and The Thunderbirds never let the audience worry, because they make danger seem exciting. But A Series of Unfortunate Events takes a different approach. Like the children’s literature of Roald Dahl and Mordecai Richter, A Series of Unfortunate Events recognizes that it’s okay to present scariness, gloominess and sadness, as long as you present strong, pure hearted children whose inherent cleverness cuts through it all.

The performances of Liam Aiken and Emily Browning as the two oldest Baudelaire children are just the thing to keep the audience brave. Aiken and Browning do not present children who are having fun, but children who remain strong. This is infinitely more comforting and believable.

Jim Carrey inserts his usual pantomime into the role of Count Olaf, along with some nice references to silent horror actors Lon Chaney and Max Schreck. But his Count is too unreal. The audience is too aware that they are watching Jim Carrey, instead of being terrified by Count Olaf. An innate actor like Gene Wilder might have been better suited.

Ultimately, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events succeeds as solid entertainment. Like Jeunet and Caro’s City of Lost Children, Brad Silberling and writer Robert Gordon embrace the fears of childhood, and create a pleasantly unpleasant adventure that allows us to revel in the objectionable. (PG) Rating: 4


Kinsey
Reviewed by Deborah Young

As the opening credits of Kinsey flash onto the screen, we hear the voice of Liam Neeson (playing the title character, Alfred Kinsey). Sit closer, he’s saying. Space creates emotional distance.

Then we get a visual: Neeson lifting a chair and placing it closer to a table. A young man stands by him observing and looking a bit baffled.

Kinsey became famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to) by conducting sex research that culminated in two books about human sexuality (one published in 1948 about male sexuality and the other published in 1953 about female sexuality). The books, now known as the “Kinsey Reports,” sparked controversy because of their candor about previously taboo subjects such as homosexuality and masturbation. And almost 50 years after his death some people are still trying to discredit the research, branding Kinsey as a pervert and the research as a cloak for lasciviousness.

But writer/director Bill Condon chose to portray the controversial sex researcher as simply a passionate researcher who stumbled upon the need for studies of human sexuality.

The movie glides back and forth in time as Kinsey trains young men to conduct interviews the Kinsey way, asking questions in rapid succession without responding emotionally to the answers. Kinsey and his wife, Clara (Laura Linney), assume the roles of interview subjects.

Interviews and flashbacks of the Kinseys weave together to create an image of a sexually curious but repressed man and a sexually inexperienced woman who find liberation. But the most pervasive aspect of Condon’s portrait is that uses heavy brushstrokes to depict Kinsey as a meticulous researcher, first of gall wasps then of human sexuality. Condon structures the film to entertain the notion that the two research subjects might have been equal in Kinsey’s mind.

In one scene Kinsey sits at a table mounting gall wasps on what appear to be toothpicks and attaching the mounted insects to paper squares that bear the name of the state where each insect was found. The mounted insects multiply as time presumably passes and Kinsey collects thousands of them, and the paper squares bear the names of many states.

Once Kinsey turns to sex research, there’s a similar scene in which miniature talking heads (the interview subjects) fill up a map of the United States. And at one point, Kinsey says that he can become a leading sex researcher the same way he became a leading gall wasp researcher: by collecting thousands of interviews, the same way he’d collected thousands of gall wasps.

The movie doesn’t shy away from what could be considered the dark side of Kinsey’s research of human sexuality and his personal sexual experiences. But in the end, Kinsey draws the flattering conclusion that Kinsey’s research helped many people.

Although the thesis of Kinsey is up for debate, the film dives into an interesting subject and entertains interesting theories about the controversial researcher’s personal life. (R) Rating: 3.5

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