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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Unstoppable


Unstoppable

Frank Barnes got lost on the way to the dining car.

(2010) Action Thriller (20th Century Fox) Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Chapman, Kevin Dunn, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Corrigan, Jessy Schram, Lew Temple, T.J. Miller, David Warshofsky, Elizabeth Mathis, Meagan Tandy, Andy Umberger. Directed by Tony Scott

Director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington have made five films together thus far, of which this is the most recent to date. They have run the gamut from action classics to just-cash-the-paycheck-and-run. Where does this one fall in?

Frank Barnes (Washington) is a veteran locomotive engineer who after 28 years on the job is being forced to retire in a few weeks. He is breaking in Will Colson (Pine), a wet-behind-the-ears conductor who has family that are high muckety mucks in the union. They are headed out on a freight run that will take them out of Will’s hometown of Stanton, Pennsylvania where his estranged wife Darcy (Schram) and young daughter are sleeping.

Meanwhile, over in a different part of Pennsylvania, Dewey (Suplee), a foul-up of an engineer, does the unthinkable; he leaves his cab while his train is under power to flip a switch. While he’s out, the trains’ throttle slips and begins to pick up speed while the gaping-mouthed Dewey watches. He makes a run to try to get into the cab but falls flat on his tush, much to the amusement of other workers in the yard. That will be the last anyone will be amused by the situation.

The train begins to pick up speed on a deadly course for Stanton. It is also carrying six tanker cars full of molten phenol, an extremely toxic chemical. As yard master Connie Hooper (Dawson) puts it, “it’s not just a train; it’s a missile the size of the Chrysler Building.” She neglects to add “and it’s heading straight for town!” With an antiquated curve that someone inconveniently put fuel depot tanks next to, a derailment in Stanton would be the biggest catastrophe that Pennsylvania has ever had – since the Eagles choked in the Super Bowl anyway. Cue the music of impending doom.

With corporate stooge Oscar Galvin (Dunn) putting the company’s profits ahead of the human toll that would surely result of a derailment in Stanton next to those fuel tanks, things look grim for the citizens of Stanton. Attempts to get an engineer on board via helicopter fail miserably, as do attempts to derail the train. However, after Barnes narrowly avoids being ploughed into by the runaway, he decides that the only way to avert disaster is to chase after the train backwards, hook it up to his own engine and try to wrest control of the train from the unmanned engine but can he make it in time?

Scott is a very competent director when he is in his element and this one fits perfectly in his comfort zone. He knows how to jack up the tension effectively, and while some of his methods are a bit cliché (A trainload of school children are approaching in the opposite direction on the same track? Horrors!) he at least doesn’t try to call attention to his own directing skills.

Washington has aged gracefully (which not all movie stars do) and has played this kind of working class hero many a time. He brings the right mix of gravitas and humor to the role, and reminds us once again just why he is one of the top stars in Hollywood. That Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek reboot) not only holds his own with Washington but actually makes his own mark leads me to believe that Pine is no one-trick-pony and could have a career in Hollywood comparable to Washington’s.

Dawson is one of those actresses who always seems to put on a good performance no matter what genre she’s doing or what kind of character. Here she’s a frustrated manager who knows that the people above her are corrupt and/or ignorant; eventually she just throws her hands up and allows Frank and Will to access their inner hero.

The movie contains very little CGI, which is rather refreshing. The trains look like trains and not like those created by CGI. Often, modern directors over-rely on computer graphics, confusing realism with real. Obviously, not a problem here. The action sequences of the train demolishing cars and derailers are pretty impressive, and again are mostly done with real trains.

This is the kind of movie that makes for a pleasant 90 plus minutes of entertainment. You don’t have to think too much and you don’t have to do much more than munch your popcorn and slurp your soda. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Perhaps that was a bad choice of words…

REASONS TO GO: Scott and Washington are old hands at this kind of action thriller. Pine holds his own with Washington which is no easy feat.

REASONS TO STAY: There are a few action clichés here which will remind audiences uncomfortably of The Taking of Pelham 123.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little coarse language and some action violence. This is perfectly fine for most older kids and teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Stanton Curve” depicted in the film actually exists as a rail line in Belaire, Ohio where the line runs on a historic elevated viaduct just after crossing the Ohio River. However, the fuel storage tanks shown in the film had to be added optically; nobody in real life is irresponsible enough to put fuel tanks in a location where a derailing train could impact into them and cause a devastating explosion – at least, I hope so.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a big bad action movie; to get its full effect you should see this in a darkened multiplex, preferably stuffing your face with popcorn, candy and soda. Hey, they’re all bad for you – why start feeling guilty now?

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1