Friday, June 26, 2009

Three reviews of this week's art house fare

We all probably should be hungry for the kind of information dispensed in "Food, Inc.," a documentary that takes us inside corporate agriculture and provides enough information to feed your worst nightmares about the lack of nutritional value in the food we eat.

Director Robert Kenner, working with authors Michael Pollan ("In Defense of Food" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma") and Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation"), reminds us that small farmers are practically extinct, that big-business bullies "independent" farmers into submission and that the result of all this corporate bludgeoning is a food supply of dubious quality. You will not leave feeling any fondness for Monsanto. The same goes for corn and corn syrup, which threaten our health and which find their way into much of our food.

The movie is divided into chapters, but at 94 minutes, it can only scratch the surface of a large and complex subject. Still, even this quick look is enough to put you off your feed.

Perhaps so that we don't totally loose hope -- or lunch -- Kenner provides a few optimistic touches. Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer, kills animals outdoors and without the cruelty of factory operations. Additional examples of good farming practices are provided.

I can't say that "Food, Inc." is one of the best-made documentaries I've seen, but the information is both useful and appalling. So what can we do? The filmmakers make some end-of-picture suggestions, but I left feeling more informed than optimistic.

"Unmistaken Child' takes us inside the often-mysterious world of Tibetan Buddhism. The journey, though fascinating, may be difficult for Westerners entirely to understand. We're talking about the part of Buddhism that deals with the reincarnation of a Tibetan master in the person of a one-year-old child living in a Nepalese backwater. Israeli director Nati Baratz approaches the subject as a neutral outsider, following developments in a carefully presented and illuminating way. Whatever you think about reincarnation, the movie proves a fascinating look at a venerable culture. It also demonstrates the remarkable devotion of a monk to his beloved teacher, a teacher he believes he has served during the course of two lives. "Unmistaken Child" is showing as part of Landmark's calendar program and is slated to run for one week at the Esquire.


With a movie entitled "The Stoning of Soraya M.," a plot summary is almost superfluous. This stark and unremitting movie is based on a book by Friedoune Sahebjam, which told the true story a murder that took place shortly after the establishment of the Islamic republic in Iran. Working in broad, often obvious strokes, director Cyrus Nowrastehtells the story of Soraya (Mozhan Marno), a woman who refuses to divorce her boorish husband (Navid Negahban). He wants to abandon her and her two sons financially so that he can marry a younger woman. In a male-dominated society, Soraya doesn't stand much of a chance. She has few allies in her village, aside from a sympathetic and outspoken aunt (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Looking for a way out of his marriage, Nagahban's character falsely accuses Soraya of adultery, an offense punishable by death. Hence, the movie's title.

The story's moral lines are clearly drawn, but the movie's willingness to go the distance -- showing the stoning -- makes it difficult to watch and raises a troubling question: Would we have been less inclined to see this injustice without an explicit look at the stoning or is seeing this bit of barbarism essential to our understanding? It's impossible not to feel for Soraya, but I think the movie stirred up enough justifiable outrage about the oppressive treatment of women long before the stoning arrives. Meanwhile, A framing device involving a French journalist (James Caviezel) who listens to the story as told by Aghdashloo's character doesn't add enough to justify its inclusion.

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