Stink!


Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

(2015) Documentary (Area23a) Jon J. Whelan, Jeffrey Hollander, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, Andy Igrejas, Cal Dooley, Leonard Lance, Jan Schakowsky, Karuna Jaggar, Brandon Silk, Rosa Silk, Jane Houlihan, Dr. Richard Denison, Dr. Jennifer Sass, Christophe Laudamie, Dr. Arlene Blum, Steve Herman, Jack Corley, Gretchen Lee Salter, Stacy Malkan. Directed by Jon J. Whelan

documented

As consumers, we feel confident that the products on store shelves or in Internet-based shopping company warehouses are safe for consumption. We rely on watchdog government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate which chemicals can be used and which can’t, and to know what is in the products that we buy. It might come as a shock to you that they don’t.

It came as a shock to single father Jon J. Whelan as well. Jon, whose wife Heather passed away a few years ago from breast cancer, had bought pajamas for his two tween daughters for Christmas from the tween lifestyle store Justice, whose products drove his daughters absolutely giddy with delight. However when the pajamas were taken out of their packaging, he noticed a very powerful odor that smelled “chemical” to him.

His late wife had always tried to be aware of what ingredients were in the things they consumed and used, and hyper-concerned due to his wife’s recent passing, he tried to call Justice and get a sense of what chemicals were being used for the pajamas. To his surprise, they didn’t know. He started making calls to the corporate office, to corporate officers, to Michael Rayden, the CEO of Justice – he even called the manufacturing plant in China.

He was met with a stone wall. Either the people he spoke with didn’t know, or told him that the ingredients were “proprietary trade secrets.” Looking into the laws that governed these things, he discovered that the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, instead of protecting Americans from the use of unknown chemicals that may or may not be carcinogenic, gave corporations loopholes in terms of labeling when it came to fragrances and flame-retardant compounds in that those items could be labeled proprietary and the companies were not liable to list the ingredients therein. In fact, after having the pajamas analyzed by a lab, he made the disturbing discovery that several of the chemicals found in the pajamas were carcinogenic – including one that had been banned by the FDA.

Contacting advocacy groups, he discovered further chilling facts – such as the incidence of breast cancer in the United States went from 1 in 20 in the 60s to 1 in 8 today, and that the amount of chemicals in the bloodstream of newborn babies numbered in the hundreds – chemicals that weren’t supposed to be there. He also discovered that consumer protection laws that regulate toxic chemical use were far stricter in the European Union than here. Even the laws in China were more strict. America had somehow become a third world country when it comes to consumer protection.

Interviews with corrupt lawmakers, corporate shills and lobbyists who not only obscured the truth but blatantly lied to legislative bodies make this akin to a Michael Moore ambush-style documentary, and in an era when distrust of corporate entities is at an all-time high, an effective method. Many advocacy groups are calling for a strengthening of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, or at least an updating of it, something that industry is fighting tooth and nail.

Whelan utilizes graphics and animations that have a bit of a 60s vibe to them, colorful and cartoonish. While occasion the tech-speak can be intimidating and the presentation a bit scattershot, this is clearly the labor of love for a father still grieving for his wife, who appears in home movies interspersed throughout, along with video of his cute and bubbly daughters.

Whelan, like many of the advocacy groups whose representatives he interviews during the film, advocates for stronger regulatory powers for the EPA and the FDA, tougher restrictions on the use of chemicals, and transparency in labeling. All of these seem pretty reasonable, although when he interviews opposing viewpoints, they tend to prevaricate to almost nonsensical levels; they pay lip service to consumer protection but their actions prove the only protecting they are doing is of corporate profits. As Whelan puts it, if everything in these products is safe, then why is the chemical industry working so hard to prevent us from knowing what is in the products we buy every day?

The information presented here is sobering; there is literally almost no way to protect yourself from the use of toxic chemicals in nearly every product we use in the home. Anything that has a fragrance in it is likely to have man-made petrochemicals in it because they are far cheaper than organic chemicals. The long-term effects of repeated exposure to these chemicals is unknown; as one physician says, “We are quietly becoming genetically modified by toxic chemicals. We aren’t test subjects; we’re guinea pigs.”

REASONS TO GO: Effectively connects the dots. Clearly a labor of love. Chilling info.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie took three years to film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gasland
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The 33

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Terri


Terri

John C. Reilly is getting fed up wth these early morning breakfast read-throughs with Jacob Wysocki.

(2011) Coming of Age (ATO) Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia, Bridger Zadina, Tim Heidecker, Justin Prentice, Mary Anne McGarry, Curtiss Frisle, Tara Karsian, Diane Louise Salinger, Lisa Hoover, Jenna Gavigan, Jessica D. Stone, Jamie Lee Redmon. Directed by Azazel Jacobs

Fitting in is pretty much all we aspire to, particularly in high school where it reaches a place of importance somewhat higher than breathing. There are always non-conformists who kind of find their own way but it is nearly always at the expense of pride and self-esteem, as they undergo a gauntlet of vicious teasing that skips over the line right into cruelty, thank you very much.

Terri (Wysocki) is one such non-conformist. He lives with his Uncle James (Bratton, best known for his work on “The Office”) who is elderly, sick and maybe afflicted with dementia. Terri does the best he can, for if Terri’s parents are around we never see them. He is forced to miss a few days of school, which attracts the attention of Mr. Fitzgerald (Reilly), the vice-principal who has problems of his own and recognizes Terri’s good heart and strong potential.

They develop an unlikely friendship, even a Terri is picked on mercilessly. He wears pajamas to school for one thing (Roger Ebert applauded this as an indication of character but it is really a one-way ticket to non-stop ridicule) and he is a little smarter than most of his peers. He has no real friends. At his uncle’s insistence he puts some rat traps in the attic and on his way to school, dutifully lays the corpses on a log in the wooded area between his house and school. One day, he watched a carrion eating bird consume the corpse. After this, he makes a habit of baiting the log.

This might sound weird, morbid and even cruel but it really isn’t. Terri is actually a good-hearted soul. He’s made some other friends – a misfit named Chad (Bratton) who has a tendency to act out, and Heather (Crocicchia) who was almost expelled for performing a sex act in a home economics class until Terri took the rap for her. They make an odd trio but an endearing one.

They learn valuable social skills through trial and error because high school is a time to make mistakes. The problem with high school is that it is a time to make mistakes and they begin to make some doozies. Can their fragile friendships survive?

This is one of those movies that doesn’t come at you with some grand revelation or mindbending twist. While these are all unique individuals, they aren’t quirky indie film caricatures. They are real people – flawed yes, damaged goods yes. In short, just like the rest of us. They’ve had their share of bumps and bruises over the road of their journey but they manage to keep on trucking down that road.

Wysocki is largely unknown but he delivers a self-assured performance. It’s genuine and honest and while there’s a unvarnished sense to it, i wouldn’t call it raw. This is more the performance of a young actor who has a good grasp on his character and some excellent abilities. Sadly, Wysocki’s girth make it unlikely that the weight-conscious Hollywood casting agents will ever give him a part this memorable again unless it’s in a comedic context. Hollywood long ago made the decision that overweight actors would only be accepted in comedies. Because, apparently, fat people don’t have stories to tell – none that anybody wants to hear, anyway.

Reilly is always Re-Reilly-able (har har har) and he is no less so here. He is a high school administrator who is not a bureaucrat but an individual who legitimately wants to make a difference in the lives of his kids. He is not without damage either, and sometimes he expresses himself awkwardly in the way of adults trying to relate to kids on their own level and with their own language (generally  good six months to a year behind the current idioms). While there are some inherent creepiness to Mr. Fitzgerald’s relationship with Terri (I always get suspicious of adults wanting to be too friendly with high school kids which is kind of sad but that’s the time we live in) the movie is sweet enough and has enough humanity to make the relationship work.

This is not an exhilarating movie to say the least; it moves a little too ponderously for that. It doesn’t necessarily engage a great deal of contemplation, although the more cerebral viewer might opt for it. No, this is a movie simply to be experienced, to be allowed to envelop you and soak into you, like bathing in a cool pond on a warm summer’s day at twilight. It’s imperfect but life’s a lot like that. And Terri is a lot like life.

WHY RENT THIS: Well acted and never loses sight of the film’s inner humanity. Flawed characters seem much more real and less archetypal.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes seems willfully quirky. Mr. Fitzgerald’s relationship with Terri is a bit creepy.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a good deal of bad language, some teen drug and alcohol use and a fair bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the weekend it was released, only Transformers: Dark of the Moon had a higher per-screen box office average.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $655,802 on an unreported production budget; I think it probably made a slight profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fat Girl

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Words

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Thomas Horn tells Sandra Bullock he's old enough to take a bath by himself; she's skeptical on that score.

(2011) Drama (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Viola Davis, Max von Sydow, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell, Stephen McKinley Anderson, Hazelle Goodman, Adrian Martinez, Brooke Bloom, Stephanie Kutzuba. Directed by Stephen Daldry

 

Grief is an emotion we all must deal with at some point, but sometimes we must deal with it too soon. For the families who lost loved ones in 9-11, how does one explain to a child that a person flew a plane full of gasoline into a tower full of people and because of that their mommy or daddy are never coming home again? How does one cope with having to explain that while dealing with their own grief?

Oskar Schell (Horn) has a particularly close relationship with his dad Thomas (Hanks). Dad often sends Oskar on what he calls Reconnaissance Expeditions, kind of an elaborate scavenger hunt.  His dad may be a jeweler by trade but he’s a dreamer by nature – he tells his son that there once was a sixth borough of New York City that floated away years and years and years ago, never to return. His son believes him, just as he believes his Dad implicitly when he tells him that Central Park was once part of that fabled sixth borough.

Then Dad goes to a meeting one bright beautiful Tuesday morning in September 2001 on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. He is still in there when the towers come down, molecules in the sky floating placidly in the dust and the debris. Oskar’s mom Linda (Bullock) and he must bury an empty casket since no body could be recovered; this upsets Oskar very much, so much so that he refuses to get dressed for the funeral (he attends in PJs and bathrobe), refuses to sit graveside (he remains in the limo with his grandmother (Caldwell).

A year after Oskar is still very much in pain. He is a brilliant kid with a logical and ordered mind; he can’t wrap his head around the “why” of 9-11. Nothing makes sense. Then, while rooting around in his dad’s things, he accidentally knocks over a vase which shatters, revealing a key in a small envelope with only the name “Black” neatly written on the envelope to give a clue as to where the key fits.

And as it’s a key and there must be a lock that it belongs to. Moreover, Oskar knowing his Dad’s penchants for subtle clues, believes that this is a quest he must undertake to hold onto his dad for just a little bit longer, the final words of the father to his son. Oskar will find the lock if it takes him the rest of his life.

He begins visiting everyone in the New York City phone book with the last name Black. There are 462 of them in the five boroughs and Oskar believes one of them has the lock that the key belongs to. They must. They have to. Otherwise the universe is truly a meaningless collision of random events and there is nothing ordered, nothing logical, just random chance.

Aiding him on his quest is the mute Renter (von Sydow) who is a boarder in his grandmother’s apartment. He is an old, sage gentlemen who seems to have demons of his own, but no voice. It isn’t ever clear if he can speak and chooses not to, but he does write notes and helpfully has the words “yes” and “no” inked on the palms of his hands.

His journey will take him throughout the five boroughs  and into a series of lives, some sweet and kindly, others not so much. His quest to keep his dad with him a little longer may well be the means in which Oskar will find a way back into living his own life.

Do bring a lot of tissue paper because you’re going to need it. Some of this is really hard to watch as you see a little boy’s pain, pain that he can’t even begin to cope with and his powerless mother taking the brunt of his rage because he has no other way to deal with this enormous loss. It’s truly heartbreaking.

However if you’re planning on seeing a Hanks-Bullock star-fest, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Hanks only appears in flashbacks, while Bullock is a kind of just there until the last reel when she delivers some of her best work since The Blind Side. You’re mostly going to get Horn and that’s a good and bad thing.

Horn is making his feature debut. He has some talent – he has some very emotional scenes and this role asks – no, demands – a great deal from him. In a way, I think it asks too much. He must carry the movie on his frail shoulders and for much of it he does, but there are times when it feels as if he’s acting and a role like this calls for feeling it and feeling it deep. Accomplished actors would have a hard time with that and Horn does a pretty good job all things considered. You really can’t ask more of a young actor than what Horn gives here.

Keep in mind that the role is of a child dealing with something adults generally have a hard time with. Oskar lashes out, develops quirks that may be infuriating at times – and to top it all off he’s kind of an insufferable know-it-all who isn’t very patient with people who can’t or won’t keep up with him. He isn’t always likable and that can be different to relate to for an audience.

Von Sydow, the iconic Swedish actor, acts entirely without dialogue and gives a magnificent performance, conveying his emotions with a twitch of the eyebrow here, a shrug of the shoulders there, and most of all with his eyes. It’s a masterful performance and while it hasn’t gotten much buzz for Supporting Actor consideration, it’s kind of a shame it hasn’t – he deserves it.

There are some moments that are over-the-top precious and try too hard to push our buttons. There are other moments that are incredibly moving and cathartic. Sometimes we learn to deal with our own pain by understanding the pain of others. This is one such opportunity.

REASONS TO GO:. A tremendous story of grief and love. Horn does his best with a difficult role. There are moments that are greatly affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Oskar can be a handful and at times it’s hard to root for him because of his faults. The movie is maudlin in places. Not enough Hanks and Bullock.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes have a lot to do with grieving and loss; some children may find this distressing and disturbing. Some of the images are disturbing and there are some pretty foul words, some of it used by Oskar.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thomas Horn won $30,000 as a champion on Jeopardy Kid’s Week.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Reign Over Me

BIG APPLE LOVERS: The movie is filmed in locations all over New York City, including several that rarely make it onto the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Haywire