Saturday, February 18, 2017

Movie Reviews: Soul Food Junkies, Jack Reacher 2: Never Go Back

Soul Food Junkies
Directed by Byron Hurt
When you think of soul food what comes to mind? Well I think of food that is traditionally associated with African-Americans such as slow cooked greens, sweet potato pie, macaroni-and-cheese, grits, ribs, chitlins, black-eyed-peas, fried chicken, spicy rice, and other such items. These dishes and style of cooking really come from different antecedents. Kidnapped Africans weren't blank slates. They brought to America their own varied African palates and cooking styles. Africans, Europeans and First Nations peoples in America all learned and shared, willingly or not, each other's recipes and tastes. And during slavery, obviously slaves didn't get the choicest cuts of meat or the best vegetables. They had to make do with what their enslavers provided for them and/or learn to grow their own food. Over the centuries these pressures all combined to create the style of soul food that most black people know today. However there is a problem. Soul food is often heavy in salt, fat, starch, grease and sugar, all things which in large quantities we know are not ideal for human consumption. Black people in America also tend to have some issues with obesity as well as the diseases and conditions which track closely with obesity. These problems include diabetes, hypertension, strokes, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, and cardiac disease, among other issues. Soul Food Junkies is a documentary film directed by Byron Hurt. It examines how the diet which black people used to survive in hostile conditions needs to be altered to help black people live longer and healthier. Hurt frames the story around his own family, particularly his father, who was obese and died of pancreatic cancer in his early sixties. This is not however a sad or preachy story. And it's also not a story which is blaming people who were victims of bad information. Not in the least bit. This is ultimately a very optimistic tale.

Hurt is a vegetarian. He explains how difficult it was both to become a vegetarian and talk to family members about his or their diet(s). Food is a very personal subject. It's wrapped up with race, culture, religion, self-image and nationality. When you reject someone's food it can be as if you are rejecting everything they represent. And telling someone that they're fat is usually such a nasty thing to say (even if true) that the person hearing that will not listen to any thing else that is said. Hurt doesn't want to turn people off from what he thinks is a positive message. He interviews doctors and chefs who explain what bad food does to the body and how tasty good food can be quickly and cheaply prepared. One older man talks honestly about his struggles with intimacy. Changing his diet and exercise plan helped with that, something his wife definitely appreciates. These are not just individual issues though. The film posits that the corporate takeover of food creation and distribution is even more dangerous than questionable soul food diets. Hurt talks to several food activists like Sonia Sanchez and Dick Gregory who make no distinction between the civil rights, racial or gender movements and the necessity for clean healthy food. If the Black areas of this nation are crammed full of places where you can purchase liquor and preservative laden sugary and salty junk food, but safe clean grocery stores are non-existent, then that is just as big of a civil rights issue as housing or job discrimination. And all Americans, regardless of race, suffer when the food chain has been over-industrialized and warped by subsidies for cheese and sugar. The further away we live from our food, the more preservatives we put in it, the less healthy it is to eat. Hurt does a deep dive into this discussion of food deserts and Big Sugar.

The film gives an optimistic take on neighborhood community gardens and markets. We see how healthy sprouts can be a nutritious meal for some. But this film is realistic. Human beings have evolved to have a taste for sweet and salty things. Few of us can, absent extreme willpower or doctor's orders, turn that off completely. Hurt doesn't necessarily like this aspect of humanity but he does recognize it. He allows people who are deep frying chitlins to speak of their love for soul food. And even a member of the Nation who waxes poetic about various salads and raw foods admits that fried chicken is hard to resist. Again, this film is not about berating people for the alleged bad choices that they make. That doesn't always work anyway. And Hurt's not interested in doing that. This film is about helping all of us to know better and do better. Food is often a balm for some deeper hurt that's going on inside someone. Historically black people didn't have the time or resources to get psychiatric help for the trauma that they underwent. Often times the larger society denied that any trauma had even taken place! So food was a way to self-medicate for some. It's going to be the next generation, people armed with better information about diet and food's relation to health, who will be eager to put down the potato chips and pick up an ugli fruit instead.  The choices you make when you're young can stay with you throughout life. This movie's subject matter reminded me of one of my healthy living cousins who is pretty doctrinaire about her diet decisions. Many Americans of both genders and all backgrounds need to learn how to eat to live, instead of continuing to live to eat. Part of this film's theme was Hurt making peace with his father's passing. Hurt shows how traditional soul food can be made in a healthier way. This was a great independent documentary that may teach you some things about black culture, health and food. Watch it.

Jack Reacher 2: Never Go Back

directed by Edward Zwick
This film was directed by the same fellow who directed Glory and The Last Samurai, among other films. If you are a fan of the books by Lee Child you may never quite buy the 5-6 or 5-7 brown haired Cruise as the fictional blonde 6-5 title character. Child has been kind about this discrepancy, pointing out that it would be difficult to find a leading man with the required height to play Reacher who could still get people to watch the movie. Anyway that aside Cruise does a more than adequate job here. He may not have the physicality that I imagined Jack Reacher to possess, but he has the confidence down in spades. Cruise walks and acts like he's 6-5 in this movie, and that's half the battle. Enough about that. What about the movie? Well this is a formulaic movie which hits all the right buttons you want to see a thriller movie hit. It's rated PG-13 but really this is something which would have been rated R for violence way back in the Pleistocene period otherwise known as the 80s. It perhaps says some not so nice things about our society that some occasionally explicit violence is considered just fine for children to watch. As as the other big bugaboo, sex, there's not much of that in this film. Nobody does the deed but there are extended and maybe occasionally gratuitous shots of a shapely woman bouncing running. I get the feeling that the writers/director left things out to ensure a PG-13 rating. Former Army Major and MP Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is a man who's decided that the best way for him to enforce the law is to live outside of the law and the army. Reacher wanders from town to town doing what he can to help people. 

Reacher's latest accomplishment was to help expose a ring of law enforcement officials engaging in pimping/human trafficking of illegal immigrants on federal land. Having put paid to those jagoffs Reacher decides that it's time to meet the officer who took over his old job and with whom he's been informally working over the past few months. This officer is Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Reacher and Turner have been flirting over the phone and via emails. They're looking forward to seeing if there is, if not a love connection, perhaps a bond of a more temporary kind. But all that will need to wait. When Reacher arrives at the base he discovers that Major Turner has been arrested for espionage and murder. And it looks as if she's guilty. And by the way the smarmy Colonel (Holt McCallany) overseeing the investigation just received an allegation that Reacher has a daughter (Danika Yarosh) whose mother has accused Reacher of not paying child support. So Reacher, civilian though he is, will have to be arrested by the MP's. But Reacher is pretty sure that he doesn't have any children. And he doesn't like conspiracies or being arrested. So the only thing for Reacher to do is to break Turner and himself out of jail to discover the real bad guys. Things proceed as you might imagine. The writing was pretty predictable but the pacing of the movie was pretty tight. Not much time goes by without some sort of action or ominous phone call. The set pieces were entertaining. This was basically a comfort food movie. Nothing special. Nothing horrible. Nothing too memorable. The years are starting to catch up with Cruise just a bit. It happens to everyone. Smulders and Cruise work well together. Both of their characters are a bit on the arrogant side.
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