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A Place at the Table

Hungry in America

Feb. 25, 2013
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Most middle-class Americans grew up thinking that hunger happens elsewhere, in India or Ethiopia or some other famished land on the far side of the world. But hunger, which had been driven to the margins of American life after World War II, is making an unwanted comeback.

The apparent paradox of an increasingly obese society where, by some estimates, 50 million people (including one in four children) often worry about their next meal, is the subject of A Place at the Table. The documentary by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush begins by busting the stereotype that poverty is a problem confined to inner city African-Americans. A Place at the Table opens in rustic Collbran, Colo., a fragment of the Old West tucked into the Rocky Mountains. In Collbran, we meet families with slender budgets stretched so thin that breakfast cereal is eaten dry, and a waitress earning only $120 every two weeks is ineligible for food stamps.

Food stamps, nowadays actually a plastic debit card, are no picnic, either. According to a Philadelphia mother of two interviewed for the documentary, her purchasing power lasts three weeks out of the month. By another reckoning, the monthly allotment comes to around $3 a day per person, which helps solve the conundrum of the fat food stamp recipient. Good food usually costs more than the bad stuff. Since 1980 the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables has risen relative to inflation while prices for processed foods have fallen.

A Place at the Table
addresses other aspects of the U.S. nutritional problem. Many Americans in rural areas and inner cities live in food deserts, forced to drive 40 miles one way (or spend an hour on the bus) for fresh produce. Federal funding for school lunches is doled out from a budget Ebenezer Scrooge might have written if he held a seat in Congress, leaving students with a diet of fat, salt and sugar. Nutritional deprivation in childhood, say some experts, stunts development of thinking and social skills. The effects might be long lasting.

America doesn't know the starvation of India or Ethiopia in times of famine, but it is becoming increasingly familiar with hunger and malnutrition. The problem remains under acknowledged by politicians and pundits preoccupied with cutting spending rather than spending wisely.

Opens Friday, March 1 at the Oriental Theatre.



Home Movies/Out on Digital

The Bay

Part Jaws, part Alien and part Paranormal Activity, The Bay imagines terror erupting in a New England resort town where something is in the water. Director Barry Levinson (Rain Man) imposes a narrative voice on a sequence of pseudo-cinéma vérité pulled from cell phones, Skype, security video, dashboard cop car cams and news cameras. Dramatic structure is weak, but there are creepy moments along with a warning on the toxic run-off from agribusiness chicken farms. The Bay works as a sneaky spoof of social networking, mass media, local boosterism and mindless promotion of economic growth.

Paul Williams Still Alive

Paul Williams was the Muppet-like ’70s celebrity who wrote great sad, lonely pop hits, and filmmaker Stephen Kessler was a sad, lonely lad in those years. Williams was his idol. Still Alive is almost as much about Kessler as its purported subject, but the documentary works as a fascinating glimpse of stardom’s afterlife in the Internet age. Although many people barely remember him, Williams has found his fans online, and they turn out for his far-flung concerts and AA talks.

Top Gear: 50 Years of Bond Cars

In Dr. No (1962), a lumbering hearse chases 007’s modest compact economy car, a Sunbeam. It was an inauspicious start for the marriage of Bond and cars, which wasn't consummated until Goldfinger (1964) introduced that silvery Aston Martin with custom rocket launchers and ejector seat. Top Gear is a lively tour through the highs and lows of Bond cars, including Pierce Brosnan's infamous invisible vehicle. Remarkably, CGI is still not used in car chases—just stunt drivers and old school metal on metal.


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