Alliances Broken


It’s all smiles and fun and games until the money runs out.

(2021) Sports Documentary (1091) Steve Spurrier, Chris Martin, Charlie Ebersole, Alex Orendorff, Mike Woodell, Robert Vanech, Roscoe Mynck, Conor Orr, Benjamin Sturner, Daniel Kaplan, Darren Heitner, Olivia Liette, Freddie Wehbo, Bryan Woodfork, Tom Veit, Dillon Smith, Dylan Sesco, Zach Bromwell, Aaron Evans, Jeff Fisher, Hines Wood, Christina Martin, Ronnell Hall, Jennifer Smith. Directed by Steven Potter

 

The National Football League is in many ways the 800-lb gorilla of professional sports. Not since the American Football League in the 1960s has the NFL had a serious challenge to its dominance, and even then it just absorbed the whole league into itself. There have been several start-ups since, mostly positioned in the Spring as to not compete directly with the NFL. The football graveyard is littered with their corpses; the World Football League, the United States Football League, the XFL and the United Football League – all started out with high hopes, only to end up scattered to the four winds.

Even the indoor Arena League didn’t hold out for long; after a brief resurgence, it too died. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t repeated attempts to try where the others failed, and at first glance the Alliance of American Football (AAF) seemed to have the ingredients to succeed. The visionary at its head was Charlie Ebersole, son of the sports broadcasting legend Dick Ebersole (who back in 2001 co-founded the XFL with Vince McMahon). He also had some pretty heavy hitters in the upper echelons with him; Super Bowl-winning GM Bill Polian, legendary coach Steve Spurrier, former Minnesota Vikings owner Reggie Fowler, and football strategist Jeff Fisher.

From the beginning, Ebersole preached fan interactivity. A web app was designed to allow fans to bet on plays in real time. A point system was designed that at the end of the season would give players a share of a prize pool depending on how much community work they did. Ebersole had a deal with CBS to broadcast games and a tireless staff that promoted the league and tried to get their communities fired up about spring football.

But it was all smoke and mirrors. The financing, which Ebersole had touted, just wasn’t there. Also, in order to get the league an advantage over the returning XFL, he rushed the league into action a mere eleven months after announcing its formation, giving the organization nowhere near enough time to develop. Starting a football league is not just coming up with some cool team names and announcing try-outs – there are literally millions of moving parts, from securing practice and game facilities, arranging for health insurance (players do get injured, you know), purchasing equipment for the players, the training room and the front office, arranging for travel and accommodations, and so on and so on and so on. These things take time and patience.

Perhaps it was the charismatic Ebersole’s charisma that had people believing, but believe they did, even when there were troubling signs – the league had difficulty meeting payroll after the first couple of weeks (as it turned out Fowler turned out to be laundering money and was indicted for it, taking out a gigantic portion of the league’s operating budget), the merchandise was priced insanely high, tickets were given away more often than sold in an effort to make sure that the television audience didn’t see a mostly-empty stadium. Also the broadcasting deal was not as advantageous as Ebersole led people to believe; most of the AAF games were broadcast on the cable CBS Sports Network which reached far fewer households.

Even so, it came as a shock when after only eight weeks the league ceased operations. Players were left high and dry, thrown out of hotels whose bills hadn’t been paid; staffers who had moved cross country suddenly found themselves in a city where they knew no one with a mortgage and no job. Many vendors went unpaid, forcing some of them into bankruptcy as well.

This documentary began life as a series of player interviews for the Orlando Apollos social media, but as things began to unravel, first-time filmmaker Steven Potter found himself making a different kind of movie. His inexperience shows in places; some points are hammered home with a great deal of repetition, others are given no exploration at all. Potter had almost no budget at all, utilizing money given him as a graduation gift to defray expenses. For that reason, we don’t really hear too much from the financial guys (other than through videos of interviews and press conferences) but we do hear from players like Chris Martin, an offensive lineman who had gone to the University of Central Florida and after playing on NFL taxi squads, finally had an opportunity to play in his home town. He is articulate and warm, although Potter does relate the story of the drowning of his son before the league started up, which is kind of brutally inserted into the film near the end, and creates some tonal problems.

But the story is nonetheless an interesting one, and Potter does a good job in laying it out. Given that there are two more spring leagues on the horizon – the XFL under new ownership, and a reboot of the old USFL – it appears that despite the daunting obstacles of starting up a professional football league and that no outdoor spring league has ever lasted more than three seasons – there are those still believing that this time it will work.

REASONS TO SEE: A thorough post-mortem of a league that was doomed to fail – and the human fallout from that failure.
REASONS TO AVOID: Interesting, but not essential.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and rude gestures.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Potter was initially hired to provide promotional films for the Orlando Apollos AAF franchise; after the league went belly-up, he decided to use his footage and create a documentary about the league’s rise and fall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Stairs

An Unknown Compelling Force


This camera holds the last images of a doomed expedition.

(2021) Documentary (1091) Liam Le Guillou, Svetlana Oss, Yuri Kuntsevich, Ken Holmes, Mick Fennerty, Oleg Demyanenko, Natalia Sakharova, Vladimir Askinadzi, Vladislav Karelin, Alexey Slepuhin, Aleksie Kutsevalov, Evgeniy Zinovyev, Tarzin Arkadevich, Andrey Picuzo, Valery Anyamov, Kharbina Aleksandrovna, Boris Bychkov, Alexander Fedotov, Anna Andreeva. Directed by Liam Le Guillou

 

On the night of February 1, 1959, a group of experienced hikers from Ural Polytechnic Institute had camped out in a pass near what locals call “Death Mountain” in the Ural mountain range. Sometime before the following the morning, the nine hikers fled their tent wearing only their sleeping clothes and no boots and ran into the subzero temperatures of the pass. After they didn’t report back when they were supposed to, a search party was organized. Their bodies were found in the snow, dead from exposure but with mysterious and grotesque injuries on their body. Their tent was found shredded, most likely by the panicked hikers who cut their way out of the tent and fled, according to the official report, “an unknown compelling force.”

Even back then, few bought it. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the investigative report was made public which led to further questions. A camera had been found near one of the bodies; the film had been developed and while most were pictures of smiling campers interacting with local villagers or trekking through the snow, one showed a mysterious figure standing on two legs. The very last picture on the roll, taken on the night the campers died, showed what appeared to be mysterious lights in the sky.

All sorts of theories have sprung up surrounding the incident, from a government cover-up after the hikers witnessed a weapon test they weren’t supposed to see, an attack by a Russian yeti (based on the photo of the bipedal figure), and even an attack by aliens (inspired by the last photo). As a result of the rampant speculation, the Russian government reopened the investigation, but closed it once again, citing an avalanche which led to the panic of the hikers.

To former photojournalist and current documentary filmmaker Liam Le Guillou, this seemed implausible. The British citizen found the story of the Dyatlov Pass incident (the pass now named after the leader of the ill-fated expedition) incredibly compelling and he came to be, he admits, obsessed by it. He contacted the head of a group dedicated to further investigation into the incident and was told to come to Russia if he wanted to find out the real story, so he did.

Along with an intrepid cameraman, Le Guillou proposed to investigate the incident himself using Russian sources, interviewing surviving members of the rescue team, criminologists and journalists along with American forensic and crime experts, reviewing the post-mortem photos (which are shown here, somewhat censored but still gruesome) and forensic evidence which still survives. He also decided to retrace the same journey taken by the Dyatlov party, using guide Kunitsevich, to see for himself where the tragedy took place.

The footage in the Urals is nothing short of majestic, albeit desolate. Snow-covered peaks and wintry vistas of bare trees and frozen rivers show the forbidding, unforgiving nature of the area, and gives viewers at least an inkling of what drew the young college students (although one of their number was actually much older than the rest of the group) to such a lonely spot.

Le Guillou also uses the diaries of the students to give them personalities as well as photos. It is eerie; they are so young and carefree, completely without any foreknowledge that they would never return from this trip and that their young lives would be cut short in a brutal manner.

And brutal it was indeed. One of the students had his skull nearly caved in; two others had serious chest wound, one of which was so severe that it bent part of the ribcage to puncture the victim’s heart; one hiker was missing her tongue and her eyes. Nearly all of them had some sort of defensive wounds All of the forensic investigators agreed that these were not wounds consistent with the avalanche story, but made by a brutal attack by humans.

Le Guillou also delves into the culture of the local tribes, who came under fire from some quarters as being complicit in the crime, or maybe even responsible for it. The argument goes that the hikers inadvertently stumbled into a sacred place or took a sacred object and were set upon by the tribespeople in retaliation. Le Guillou takes nearly all of the theories that have been advanced and dissected them; advancing some, disproving most.

The big problem here is Le Guillou himself. Not that he isn’t a thorough investigative reporter – he is – but he inserts himself a bit too much into the film, commenting over and over again how perilous the trek he is taking is, or how mindful he is that if something should happen there would be no help forthcoming. A good documentary concentrates on the subject because it is their story that is being told, not the filmmaker’s. Their story is far more compelling than that of Le Guillou.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is compelling and largely unknown in the West. The feeling throughout is eerie.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly dramatic narration that inserts Le Guillou into the story far too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some postmortem images of the bodies of the hikers.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally, ten hikers set out but Yuri Yudin was forced to turn back several days before his friends died by a bad back. He spent the rest of his days mourning their loss and after his own death in 2013, was added to the hiker’s memorial in the Urals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Staircase
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Woman in the Window

Take Out Girl


It’s not easy scratching a living in the mean streets.

(2020) Drama (1091) Hedy Wong, Ski Carr, Lynna Yee, J. Teddy Garces, Lorin Alond Ly, Dijon Talton, Mier Chasin, Lizette Hunter, Joe Rudy Guerrero Jr., Tony Bentajado, Cole Bernstein, Melissa Del Rosario, Adia Bell, Collin Hayes, Zavieh Harrell, Veronica Mitsuk, Marilyn Simon, Caslin Rose, Tania Nolan, Crystal Powell, Jody Marie. Directed by Hisonni Mustafa

 

Life is hard, particularly in neighborhoods that are not affluent. It seems like the game is rigged for those who already have all the money they could ever need and those who are just trying to get out of poverty and make a decent life for themselves have little to no chance at succeeding at that worthy goal.

Some just give up, but that’s not how Tera Wong (Wong) is wired. She is a born fighter, bred to take crap from nobody, and raised in an environment where you have to stand up for yourself or face being knocked down over and over again. That’s life in the bottom of South Central. She’s gone to college to learn business to better take care of her mother’s failing Chinese restaurant, but has withdrawn from school as she realizes that she is needed at the restaurant more.

Her mom (Yee) is bone-weary, suffering from a back injury she can’t afford to get fixed up – or even get decent pain meds for. She can’t even afford to take time away from work to rest her back. It’s a grim catch-22 that makes Tera, and her gang-banging brother Saren (Ly) angry and frustrated. Cousin Crystal (Chasin) also works at the restaurant, although her outlook is a little more optimistic. In the meantime, Tera knows all the side hustles in the world won’t elevate this restaurant out of the gutter, where she and her family seem destined to reside.

Then while out delivering, she crosses paths with Lalo (Carr), a local drug dealer. He seems to take a shine to Tera, who calls him on his crap, much to the disgust of Lalo’s enforcer Hector (Garces) and Girl Friday Chuey (Hunter). That’s when Tera hits upon an idea; she can run drugs for Lalo without ever being given a second glance. Most of Lalo’s runners affect a look right out of a gangsta rap video, almost asking for the cops to keep a wary eye out for them. Who would give a cute Chinese girl a second glance?

At first things work out better than Tera could have dreamed as finally she’s making enough money to help her mom in a concrete way. However, there is always a price to pay for walking on that side of the street and as tough as Tera may be, that bill will come due and sooner rather than later.

Urban crime dramas concerning unlikely people getting involved in the drug trade are nothing new; there are even several about Asian women getting caught up in drug distribution, some fairly recent. Few have had as electrifying a performance as the one delivered here by Hedy Wong to fall back on. Wong, who co-wrote the movie based on her own experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area, plays a young woman who has learned to keep the walls up and the defenses on high alert. Her stiff posture, with the baseball cap slung low over her eyes, her lips tight in a kind of cupid-bow pout with a hard edge on it tell you all you need to know about the character. She is seemingly fearless – until you look closer. Her eyes sometimes betray the fact that she’s in over her head and knows it.

Her hard edges might make it difficult to identify with the character early on; when someone mutters “bitch” under their breath after an interaction with her, you can’t help but agree. But that’s not her whole story, and as the movie unspools you begin to see deeper into a character who has had to become hard out of necessity.

The dialogue is meant to be gritty and snappy, but it comes off as a bit cliché. Also, while the movie starts off compelling, it seems to lose its way about halfway through and finishes with a sputter rather than a roar, utilizing an ending that feels rushed and unearned. You may well lose interest by that time; I just about did, although the final twist would have been a good one if the filmmakers had taken the time to develop the ending a little more. In other words, if they had given as much care to the ending as to the beginning this might have been a much more solid film, but you end up feeling like you watched half a movie by the time the end credits roll.

REASONS TO SEE: Starts out as a compelling urban drama.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam and peters out at the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity along with drug references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although meant to portray downtown Los Angeles, the movie was actually filmed in nearby Riverside.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Nice
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Citizen Penn

The Mothman Legacy


Beware the Mothman.

(2020) Documentary (1091Lyle Blackburn (narrator), Jeff Wamsley, Ron Lankham, Les O’Dell, Richard Hatem, Ashley Wamsley, Susan Sheppard, Jack Patrick, Lyn Cornwall Robinson, Marilyn Brokaw-Hall. Directed by Seth Breedlove

 

It is certain that we are fascinated by urban – and rural – legends. Creepypasta figures like Slenderman have taken urban mythmaking into the 21st century, but these legends have been around for much longer than even the Internet.

Sightings in Point Pleasant, West Virginia of a large winged man-sized bipedal figure with glowing red eyes began in the mid-1960s and came to a head with the tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge which killed 46 people. Since then, the Mothman has been assigned the trait of harbinger of death (one other later sighting is tied in the film to a jet crash).

Some might remember the 2002 movie The Mothman Prophecies starring Richard Gere which is concerned with the 1966 sightings of the creature, but the movie was based on a book by author John Keel; we don’t actually get to hear from the author, but the book figures heavily in the mythology and its effect on the town is discussed in much detail.

In fact, Breedlove does a good job of setting up the story by giving us a history lesson on West Virginia; how the area was settled by Scottish and Irish immigrants who brought their legends from home with them – elements of various Celtic creatures including the banshee are discussed. There are interviews here with the proprietor of the Mothman Museum in Point Pleasant and his daughter, with the screenwriter for The Mothman Prophecies and various citizens of the town including a few who had encounters with the creature themselves.

While the popularity of the movie brought notoriety to Point Pleasant which it continues to exploit, the town is certainly in a bind as the coal industry has taken a nosedive. However, the documentary feels curiously incomplete; there is little physical evidence and although we are taken to various locations where sightings took place, we don’t get a sense of uneasiness or anything supernatural. We see some watercolor representations of the Mothman but there are no photographs of the creature in existence, nor is there a whole lot of corroborating evidence of it here.

I get the sense that much of the information about the Mothman is easily available online, so those who are already interested enough in the creature to watch a documentary on it likely have most of this information already, but for those who aren’t familiar with it, this makes for a good stepping stone into the urban myth. It could have been organized a little bit better, but if you’re looking for convincing evidence of the existence of the Mothman, this ain’t it.

REASONS TO SEE: Very informative on an obscure subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little bit dry.
FAMILY VALUES: This are some frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The town of Point Pleasant capitalizes on the fame of the Mothman with a Mothman Museum open seven days a week (for which you can take a virtual tour here) and puts on an annual Mothman Festival (the next one is scheduled for September 18 and 19, 2021).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mothman Prophecies
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
She is the Ocean

Star Light


Scout Taylor-Compton looks for guidance.

(2020) Horror (1091Scout Taylor-Compton, Cameron Johnson, Robert Adams, Liana Ramirez, Garrett Westton, Chandler Rachelle, Hagen Mills, Tiffany Shepis, Kevin Jiggetts, Bret Roberts, Geoff Callan, Darryl Phillipy, James M. Jennings, Gregory Dean French, Victoria Graham. Directed by Mitchell Altieri and Lee Cummings

Horror movies are undergoing a kind of renaissance of late; there have been some real game-changers out there. One of the benefits of this kind of quality is that it tends to inspire other filmmakers to do better, taking sometimes cliché ideas and characters and elevating one, the other or both. The average horror buff only benefits from this kind of thing.

Dylan (Johnson) is a fairly typical high school kid; he’s not sure where his future is leading him and his main interests are in playing video games, listening to music – particularly that of his pop crush Bebe A. Love (Taylor-Compton) – and hanging out with friends, much to the disgust of his single mom (Shepis) and her judgmental pastor boyfriend (Jiggetts).

On the way home one night, he literally runs into a terrified girl who has been injured in a car accident. Unsure of what to do, he takes her over to his friend Nick’s (Adams) house, where a few stragglers are left after one of those graduation bashes that occur when the parents have left the area. Dylan’s BFF Casey (Ramirez), hot-headed Monty (Mills), jock Tex (Westton) and slutty Sara (Rachelle) all remain as it soon becomes apparent that the injured girl is Bebe.

But then her handler/driver/manager Anton (Roberts) shows up, demanding that the teens turn over the pop star to him. And he is creepy enough that Dylan says “not a chance in Hell,” not realizing that Hell is a lot closer than he thinks. Anton lays siege to the remote party house. Can Dylan really impress Bebe enough to get a relationship going? Who will survive the night? And what is the thing in Anton’s trunk?

This is a movie that is occasionally frustrating – it establishes some plot threads that seem interesting, but then does nothing with them, for example, but Altieri and Cummings did assemble a pretty fine cast of veterans like Taylor-Compton and Shepis, and some really strong up-and-coming talent, like Johnson and Adams.

The movie starts off with plenty of teen angst as we get the sense that things between Dylan and his mom aren’t too cool, but the movie morphs into an occasionally dazzling horror fest. Roberts makes an extremely creepy villain, and while the twists aren’t exactly world-shattering, the plot keeps humming along and a pretty frenetic pace and the strong performances enable you to care about characters that are essentially teen slasher stock characters – although you won’t believe for a moment that these are high school kids, which is a sin a lot of teen-centric horror movies commit.

By no means is Star Light a game-changing horror movie, but it is solid and entertaining with enough to recommend it to fans and curious souls alike. Yes, there are movies out there that are far more innovative and maybe even more over-the-top but the filmmakers stick to what works and if they don’t take chances, they at least get the execution down properly. Not all horror movies can say that.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, reasonably scary and utilizes teen angst and slasher film tropes with equal gusto.
REASONS TO AVOID: Most of the characters are kind of stock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, teen sex and teen drinking, as well as some violence, terror and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Altieri and Cummings are two-thirds of the Butcher Brothers, horror specialist directors (The Hamiltons).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evil Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Attack of the Unknown

The Stand: How One Gesture Shook the World


The gesture that still shakes the world.

(2020) Sports Documentary (1091) Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Ralph Boston, Mel Pender, Francoise Hamlin, Patty Van Wolvelaere, Brian Meeks, Dr. Harry Edwards, Selma Roberts, Richard Lapchick, Tom Farrell, Craig Masback, Paul Hoffman, Steve Livingston, Edwin Roberts, Larry Questad, Michelle Sikes. Directed by Tom Ratcliffe and Becky Paige

 

We are all aware of the brouhaha that Colin Kaepernick found himself in when he chose to take a knee during the national anthem at NFL games to protest violence against people of color as well as racial inequality. However, that wasn’t the first time a single gesture at a sporting event polarized the country.

At the 1968 Summer Olympics at Mexico City, just such an event occurred. It had been a violent summer, with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King assassinated as well as Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. Protests against the Vietnam War were in full swing. Throughout the summer, black athletes, organized by San Jose State’s Dr. Harry Edwards, discussed boycotting the games altogether in protest of racial injustice, but at the end of the day were persuaded to participate.

In the 200 meter dash, American Tommie Smith was heavily favored to win. He was one of those who considered boycotting the Games, although in addition to feeling left out of his own country’s privileges, he also took great pride in being an American. Despite pulling a groin muscle in the semifinals, he managed to win the 200, setting a world record in the process. Fellow American John Carlos, both athletes at San Jose State at one time, finished third, just .04 seconds behind white Australian Peter Norman.

On the victory stand, both athletes were shoeless, wearing black socks only. Carlos wore a necklace of beads in honor of the black Americans who had been lynched over the years. Both men stood during the playing of the National Anthem with fists upraised, heads bowed, each wearing a single black glove. Both athletes heard boos cascading through the stadium as they exited the ceremony.

Reaction was swift and negative. International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage – who had not protested the Nazi salute at the 1936 Berlin games – wanted both men expelled from the Games. When the United States Olympic Committee refused, he threatened to expel the entire team. Both men were forced to leave the Olympic village and returned home to vitriol and death threats.

In the years since, their actions have been seen as acts of courage and of conscience, as well they should. The men are rightly considered heroes for taking a stand against injustice. This documentary, just a hair over an hour long, chronicles the events leading to that moment that is indelible in Olympic lore, with the genesis of the boycott and protests, the formation of Edwards’ Olympic Project for Human Rights which promoted the boycott, the contributions of the all-white Harvard rowing crew team who supported the boycott, and the aftermath of those actions. While there is an abundance of talking heads in the film, it does put together the events well and provides context. In particular, Smith and Edwards both prove to be compelling subjects – in fact, nearly all the interview subjects are, but those two truly stand out.

Given the backlash against Kaepernick and those athletes who continue to kneel at the Star-Spangled Banner today, the timeliness of this story is obvious. The fact that many of the same issues that Smith and Carlos protested in 1968 were still issues in 2018 is a sad testament to the institutional racism that continues to dominate the experience of Americans of color despite protestations to the contrary.This should be required viewing for all high school students.

REASONS TO SEE: Well laid-out.
REASONS TO AVOID: A plethora of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some depictions of racial violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Smith and Carlos were both pallbearers at the funeral of Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist on the stand with them that day, in 2006.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salute
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Valentina

CRSHD


Digital girls in an internet world.

 (2019) Comedy (Lightyear/1091) Isabelle Barbier, Deeksha Ketkar, Sadie Scott, Ralph Fineberg, L.H. Gonzalez, Isabelle Kenet, Abdul Seidu, Will Janowitz, Jack Reynolds, Elliott Kreim, Brandon Halderman, Gabe Steller, Alyssa Mattocks, Joe Boyle, Zach Dahl, Brandon County, Brandon Richards, Dylan Rogers, Patricia Lawler Kenet, Wulfahrt Blankfield, Kim Rojas. Directed by Emily Cohn

 

At a particular phase in our lives, we become with sex and getting it – particularly if we haven’t had any yet. It can turn into an obsession if we’re not careful, which we often aren’t.

Izzy (Barbier) and her besties Anuka (Ketkar) and Fiona (Scott) all are finishing up their freshman year at a private liberal arts college in Ohio. The three hit it off from the get-go and have formed a deep bond in the course of their first year. While Izzy frets about an astronomy final that she needs to ace, Anuka and Fiona are more into winding down the year with parties – particularly the exclusive “crush party” that is taking place off-campus.

If you aren’t familiar with what a crush party is (and you can be forgiven if you haven’t because, as far as I can tell, it is an invention of this film), you submit the name of a person you have a crush on to the party organizers. They then send an invitation to that person. If someone turns in a crush request for you, then you get one. If nobody turns one in for you, no invite.

The somewhat socially awkward Izzy is looking for this party to be the occasion of the erasure of her virginity. All three girls had made a pact to end the year deflowered and Anuka and Fiona have thus far accomplished that. While Anuka is unaware that Izzy hasn’t, Fiona knows. So Izzy has to decide which crush she needs to invite; the super-cool DJ (Seidu), the barista who may or may not know she’s alive (Gonzalez) or the overeager astronomy student who she has already dismissed as too awkward (Fineberg).

But getting to the party will be a bit of an adventure as the girls decide to get blotto before the party to calm down their nerves and end up…well, let’s just say that stuff happens that isn’t on the agenda. Will Izzy lose her maidenhood? Will she pass astronomy? And who was the one who crushed on her and got her the sought-after invite?

This is a movie that is aimed squarely at Gen Z; Cohn, who also wrote the film, is very social media-conscious and while she has a tendency to mix her visual metaphors (modern app representations and 80s video game graphics?) she at least has a visual style. Unfortunately, that style will serve to make this movie seem dated in a matter of months, given the speed at which we switch from one media platform to another. Facebook? So 2004. Instagram? 2010.

While it is a bit refreshing to see a movie about college kids trying to lose their virginity from a female point of view, there are a lot of the clichés of the subgenre that serve to render the point of view less fresh. Why bother to have girls in a role that has generally been assigned to guys if you’re just going to have them do the same things guys do, and make the same mistakes they do. I suppose the director might be going for a “guys and girls are not really that different” message, but that really doesn’t fly. Cohn goes to the trouble of making Anuka, Fiona and Izzy pretty realistic – these aren’t 30-something super-hotties who nobody would believe for an instant would have any sort of difficulty getting laid. They are girls who are pretty but not spectacular, smart but not perfect, awkward but not buffoons.

We are entering an era in which women are becoming more of a voice in the industry, as creators and as industry executives. Cohn has a legitimate shot at becoming the John Hughes of Generation Z, but she needs to trust in her characters and instincts more and write these girls as if they aren’t Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. My intention was to write “This isn’t Superbad, it’s Superworse” but that would be snarky and unfair. There’s a lot here that is admirable, but like Izzy herself, Cohn needs a little more self-confidence to let the girls in her narrative be girls and not like other characters in other movies. That would be a movie I could crush on.

REASONS TO SEE: The lead girls are so much more real than what we usually see in this kind of movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The app references and visuals are super-dated. The humor falls flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of sexual references, some profanity and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed entirely in the state of Ohio.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Superbad
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Starting at Zero

Nose to Tail


Cut off at the pass.

(2018) Drama (1091) Aaron Abrams, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Ennis Esmer, Salvatore Antonio, Brandon McKnight, Genevieve Kang, Caroline Bartczak, Lauren Collins, Jason Tome, Cody Black, Robert B. Kennedy, Brock Morgan, Rufio Luey. Directed by Jesse Zigelstein

 

In recent years, chefs have gone from being virtually unknown to becoming rock stars in their own right. A celebrity chef can pretty much write their own ticket, able to command the attention of foodies the world over who will walk across hot coals to get a table at their restaurant. For this, we sometimes excuse behavior we wouldn’t accept in our own workplace. If Gordon Ramsey were my boss, I’d be sitting him down in HR with a lawyer handy after one of his tirades.

Danny (Abrams) has gone from being the darling of hipster foodies, the hot young chef to being a dinosaur in his own bistro. His restaurant is hemorrhaging money and his past due bills are piling up; even though his restaurant is packed night after night, he is drowning in debt. The only life preserver on the horizon is his school chum Mark (Esmer) who has agreed to come to his restaurant for a meal with a group of potential investors who might prove to be the solution to his cash flow problems. He needs to wow the table or face the closure of a business he has spent ten years building.

The film chronicles the day of that dinner. Danny is already in hot water with Chloe (Chorostecki), his house manager and sometime lover who he stood up the night previous. He is perturbed because the new hot food truck with the new hip not chef (Tome) is parked cross the street from his eatery. His sommelier (Antonio) reports that none of his wine providers will extend any credit to him any longer. His landlord (Kennedy) has had it up to here with missed rental payments and bounced checks; he has to the end of the month to get caught up or Danny will be evicted.

To make matters worse, a supercilious food blogger (Collins) informs Danny that his talented sous chef Keith (McKnight) is jumping ship for the chance to become an executive chef in his own restaurant. And Danny has forgotten that his ex-wife (Bartczak) is bringing his son (Black) over because it is his day to watch him. Along the way, Danny will rant, scream, and berate his put-upon staff while pushing away the one person who seems to believe in him at all. As the night progresses, Danny seems to be falling apart. Can he pull it together to save his restaurant?

First-time feature director Zigelstein paints a realistic portrait of life in an upscale bistro, and of the challenges (that are sometimes insurmountable) that independent restaurants face. It is no secret that restaurants fail at a staggering rate; it is one of the toughest businesses to succeed at.

Abrams does strong work as Danny, a man whose own hubris is his own worst enemy. Danny believes that he is still the biggest and brightest star in Toronto; that belief has become increasingly delusional and everyone knows it except Danny. He’s not a pleasant person to be around and he’s certainly not a pleasant person to work for. He’s the stereotype of an asshole chef, the kind we see on TV and in the movies and whose behavior may be amusing from a distance, but if you are forced to deal with it day after day would no doubt provoke PTSD in a major way. Danny’s tirades and tantrums eventually grow wearying and by the time the movie comes to an end you may not give a ratatouille whether Danny saves his bistro or not.

That aside, the movie feels pretty authentic to me, but as I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen myself you might want to take that with a grain of salt. This is definitely not a film for Vegans (there’s a scene that is critical to the plot that involves the butchering of a hog, and it appears they use an actual hog carcass or at least a realistic facsimile of same) nor is it a film for those whose idea of a high class meal is the daily special at Appleby’s. Nonetheless, there’s enough here to merit a look-see and as the rental fee is extremely reasonable ($3.99 at most streaming services), you really can’t go wrong.

REASONS TO SEE: A realistic look at some of the obstacles restaurants face.
REASONS TO AVOID: There comes a point where the tantrums become tiresome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of profanity and some brief violence. There are also images of meat being butchered that may upset vegans or those sensitive to such scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Abrams and Chorostecki had supporting roles on the excellent but lamentably canceled Hannibal.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Made in Italy

The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom


Not your ordinary publicist.

(2019) Documentary (1091Howard Bloom, Lashette Williams, Jeff Bridges, Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Ted Coons, Kyle McLaughlin, David Sloan Williams, Sruan Pal Singh, Amir Saddiqui. Directed by Charlie Hoxie

 

We are generally so caught up in our own lives that we really only comprehend the things that are an immediate part of those lives – the need to provide shelter, food and the basics, the relationships we are in, the news of the day and whatever drama is playing out in our lives or in social media.

It takes a good deal of discipline to look away from the minutiae of our lives and to concentrate on the bigger picture. The questions that are most important – who are we, what is our place in the universe, how do we interact with the universe, why must we die – we rarely have time to address those  issues and even if we do, we rarely have the knowledge or intellect required to address those questions intelligently.

Howard Bloom sees things differently. In the 70s and 80s, he was a publicist in the music business, with a client list that included Michael Jackson, Prince, Styx, ZZ Top, Joan Jett, Run-DMC, Billy Joel and AC/DC, among many others. He was considered the best in the business at what he did. He had a company that was making money hand over fist and he hung out with the elite of pop music. That all ended in 1988 when he contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an insidious disease that left him bedridden for more than a decade, barely able to tolerate human company.

Bloom combated his disease with his intellect. If he couldn’t move, he could think. He began to find things that improved his situation little by little, medications and exercise. Gradually, he was able to bring himself to a semblance of a normal life through rigid self-discipline and keeping to a routine. His wife may have divorced him but he found solace in looking outward at the cosmos. He began writing books on various aspects of the human condition, including creation, Islamic fundamentalism, and the colonization of space. His world began to expand from the four walls of his bedroom in a Brooklyn brownstone to the limits of the universe itself.

This documentary is a look at the now 74-year-old author (as of the filming of the documentary) and he has an interesting, quirky nature with vocal patterns that remind me of Jeff Goldblum. He also has a sonorous voice, not unlike another famous Howard, DJ Howard Stern. He has interesting stories to tell, and a unique viewpoint. He shoots from the hip and if that at times can be grating (at one point he likens graduate school as an “Auschwitz of the mind”), but he is also capable of some really interesting concepts (“Maybe we’re not alive to achieve goals; maybe we’re alive to just pursue them”).

We don’t get a lot of information about what is in Howard’s grand theory; we know that he has compiled thousands of pages of documents detailing his thoughts. He is also concerned about his own mortality, and is anxious that his work be preserved and has engaged a friend, Dubai gym owner Amir Saddiqui, to execute his will when he passes. Howard is nothing if not eclectic in the composition of his inner circle.

Mostly, we hear Howard talking about Howard and even though the film is barely over an hour in length, it does start to sound a bit like an ego trip gone digital after awhile. I don’t believe that’s necessarily what he was aiming for but I think he is really using this as a means to steer people towards his books of which there are seven currently. He comes off as pretty likable (and he does admit to wanting to be liked, which seems to me to be a fairly common attitude for us primates with delusions of grandeur) and he definitely likes dogs and often stops to hug them while out and about. That’s my kind of guy, for certain.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the concepts are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too much Howard, not enough Grand Theory.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bloom contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1988. He didn’t leave his apartment again until 2000.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Brief History of Time
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (2019)


Thick as thieves.

 (2019) Crime Drama (1091Jesse Janzen, Dustin Miller, Tommy Koponen, David J. Espinosa, Jillian Rohrbach, Brett Rickaby, Atim Udoffia, D. Brad St. Cyr, Jeanne Young, Bobby Real, Courtney Conklin, Stacey Hall, Tyler McDaniel, Doug O’Neill, DeeDee Avert, Brian Barnes, Robyn Colburn, David Jon Foster, Christa Hewitt, Michelle Kuret, Melinda Rayne, Bunny Stewart. Directed by Josh Pierson

 

They say crime doesn’t pay, but you couldn’t prove that from the movies. For every Dog Day Afternoon there’s a The Sting. No, if you are a movie buff, the message you’re likely to get is that when in need of quick cash your most effective option is a criminal act.

Jeff (Janzen) finds himself in just that position. He owes the local crime boss – incongruously named Bunny (Udoffia) – more than 100 grand, and having just gotten out of the joint, he doesn’t have that kind of scratch on him. However, he’s been boinking the sexy blonde wife (Rohrbach) of a crooked land developer named Bob (Espinosa, the poor man’s Dennis Farina) and the two are in the process of divorcing. Tracy (the said sexy blonde soon-to-be ex-wife) is positive that Bob has hidden some of his assets – a half a million dollars’ worth – in the house in cash so that he doesn’t have to pay it to Tracy. Jeff hits upon the idea of robbing Bob and paying off his debt.

He enlists the help of his brother Barry (Miller) and best friend Tim (Koponen), convincing them that the job will be an easy one, in and out and nobody getting hurt. Of course, you know that’s not going to happen. Bob turns out to be home unexpectedly and the cash? Nowhere to be found. Now it turns into a test of will; how badly does Jeff want the money and how far is he willing to go to get it. For Bob, it’s how much is he willing to take to keep it. Which one will emerge on top?

This is one of those movies where the director wears his heart on his sleeve. You can tell what kind of movie he wants to make – a smart, sexy caper comedy with snappy dialogue and humor that doesn’t lie in one-liners but in bizarre and outlandish situations. He wants this to be high octane with not much time spent on exposition, so much of that is done via flashback.

The problem with inserting flashbacks into a film is flow. Caper comedies, particularly, need good flow and that’s not easy to achieve. The problem here could be in editing, but I don’t think it was – I think it was in preparation. You need to know what your film looks like before you shoot it and if you’re ambitious enough to want to do a movie that relies as heavily on timing as this kind of movie does, you’d better know the timing down to the second. Unfortunately, we end up with a movie that’s rather choppy and goes into a flashback just as we’re getting into the story.

The performances are mainly okay although not dazzling. Janzen, who reminds me of a young Kevin Bacon crossed with an Entourage-era Kevin Dillon, shows the most potential as the sad-sack loser who is not nearly as brilliant a criminal mastermind as he thinks. He alone gets the sense of pacing in the dialogue.

There are a few plot holes – if this was supposed to be an “in and out job” where nobody gets hurt, why bring guns? Also, it’s never clear why Tracy tells Jeff about the cash stash. Still, those are minor issues that more experience behind the typewriter will help eliminate.

You get a sense that this film could have been better than it was. Hopefully, we can chalk it up to being a learning experience for Pierson because he does show some potential here. I think with a little more seasoning, he is certainly capable of making some memorable films. Unfortunately, this isn’t one.

REASONS TO SEE: Janzen reminds me of a cross between Kevin Bacon and C. Thomas Howell.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film has the pacing of an engine in need of a tune-up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, violence (some of it unintentional) and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature-length film for writer-director Pierson after having made eight short films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
What Men Want