April 28, 2012. High and Low. Hotdocs Films Reviewed: Finding North, Off Label, The Queen of Versailles

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, Hotdocs, Movies, Poverty, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on May 9, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I’m back again to review a few of the many documentaries playing at Hotdocs, Toronto’s documentary mega-festival that opened yesterday. I used to think that documentaries were boring movies that you had to watch when nothing good was on TV. Then I went to Hotdocs.

It shows you what ideas, concepts, problems, and trends are hot right now it’s an amazingly diverse, fascinating platform for everything you’re going to find out about over the next year, pushed in your face all at once right now. It’s filled with good causes, jaw-droppers, shocking strange people, local heroes, and places you never knew about. And stories that are often better than the ones you see in regular mainstream movies.

You get hear new words like Tchoupitoulis (a fascinating trip through New Orleans at night) and Buzkashi! (a Tajik horseback sport.) See celebs like Rick Springfield; and hear about issues like Hindu Fundamentalism (the World before her) , and about Invisible Wars. And hotdocs offers free admission, daytime, if you have a student or seniors’ card. Don’t miss it.

So, this week, I’m talking about three American documentaries about lives at the bottom and at the top.

Finding North

Dir: Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson

This movie asks the simple question – how can so many Americans go hungry? And at the same time… be so fat? 50 million Americans are food insecure in oine of the world’s biggest food producers.

Well, the country is filled with food deserts — places where there is no affordable fresh food available in your neighbourhood. These are amazingly common, even In big cities. Junk food, on the other hand, is everywhere, and affordable, though entirely without food value. How did this happen? Facing North explains. The US government subsidizes big agriculture, to the tune of trillions of dollars (cumulatively speaking). It originally went to local small farmers, but now almost all of it goes to corporaRTE agriculture. So corn wheat and soy — and the cattle and pigs its fed to — are artificially cheap, while fruits and vegetables keep rising in price. The subsidies all go to make hi-fructose corn syrup and deep-fried pork rinds, while only one percent of the whole subsidy budget helps out fruit and vegetable growers. Even people in the movie (it follows families in the west the north east and the deep south) on food stamps or receiving food bank donations are trapped in a world of canned ravioli, chips and pop — fresh fruit and vegetables are way out of reach.

But some people are trying to break free. There’s a terrific scene where a school teacher In Mississippi introduces her class to a honeydew melon, many of whom look they’d never seen one before. This movie movie is a must-see for people concerned with food, nutrition and its effect on poverty.

So what else can you do if you’re just scraping by? The next movie shows one route desperate people are taking.

Off Label

Dir: Michael Palmieri, and Donal Mosher

The drug industry – I’m talking about the legal one here – is enormous. Doctors prescribe drugs for everything, and it generates phenomenal amounts of money. But the one of the big growth areas is off label prescriptions, which means using drugs that prevent epileptic seizures or combat psychotic mood swings for other purposes – like weight loss, calm feelings or just a good night’s sleep, mood stabilizers.

This drug testing used to be done on guinea pigs and caged monkeys, but they really want are human bodies – living ones – to test on. The movie shows the prisoners who used to be tested on for a few bucks – they were told it was just Johnson and Johnson’s bubble bath — until that got outlawed. Now they use, well, poor people. Human guinea pigs who are fed noxious chemicals in strange combinations, and are tested for their side effects. Some of them enjoy it, some not so much, but they all do it for the money.

Often the tests are to see how different drugs react with one another, since so many people have multiple prescriptions at the same time. Polypharmaculture – multiple drugs at once – is one of the biggest potential problems and is becoming ubiquitous despite their unknown side effects.

The movie also deals with the case of a doctor who pushed his patient, who was mentally ill, into double-blind testing of new drugs, even when there’s a clear conflict of interest – the doctor is involved in the study of drug interactions.

This has one of those OMG moments where you just stare at the screen with your mouth hanging open. Its not what you see, but rather, what a subject of the movie tells in graphic detail about what she’s been through. Absolutely shocking. Off label is a very good, very informative and eye-opening movie.

The Queen of Versailles

Dir: Lauren Greenfield

Just in case you’re saying “I don’t want to see any more poor people… they’re yucky” well here’s a documentary about a woman who finds herself super rich. Jackie is in her forties, a former beauty queen with an engineering degree from western New York who set her sites on a big-bucks hubbie. The first one didn’t fly, but with the second one she hit the jackpot. He’s a Yertle the Turtle (30 years her senior) balanced at the top of a time share empire, with properties in Florida and Las Vegas. She has 8 kids – she only planned to have a couple, but once she discovered the concept of nannies she just kept popping them out, cause you don’t have to do anything once they’re born. Jackie’s an impossibly aerodynamically-breasted, smart floozie, whose biggest problem is deciding if it’s a purple zebra or a hot pink cheetah (tank top) day. They fly around in private jets, and are so excited when they see the Palace of Versailles, that they decide to build their own, the biggest house in America, right in the Everglades, complete with a bowling alley, a sushi bar and a health spa, and Italian marble floors. It’s going to be a rococo kitsch-fest, and it’s going up.

And then… the stock market collapses, the real estate bubble pops, and suddenly they’re not so rich, the kids have to go to public school, and most of the servants get fired so there’s no one to clean up after Jackie’s yappy long-haired dogs anymore.

The Queen of Versailles is a hilarious look at the lives of a mega-rich family in America as they weather the economic downturn.

You can see The Queen of Versailles, Off Label, and Finding North – along with many many other great documentaries, like The World Before Her, – right now at Hotdocs. Also opening today is a delightful and funny claymation kids movie called PIRATES! It was made by the same people who did Wallace and Grommit, and I thought this one was almost as good. It’s playing now, check your local listings. Also stay tuned, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, and the Inside-out LGBT Film Festival are both just around the corner.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

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  1. […] And on a much lighter note, is the Queen of Versailles, a hilarious documentary by Lauren Greenfield about a pneumatically equipped compulsive shopper with many children and little yappy dogs; and her husband, an elderly time-share mogul, who, together, attempt to build themselves a replica of the Palace of Versailles in the Florida everglades — the biggest home in the world — but are caught in a lurch by the sudden bursting of the real estate bubble. (Read my Hotdocs review here.) […]


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