Audible


High school football is high school football no matter who plays it.

(2021) Documentary Short (Netflix) Amaree McKenstry-Hall, Jalen Whitehurst, Lera Walkup, Ryan Bonheyo, Jamal Johnson, Teddy Webster. Directed by Matthew Ogens

 

This new documentary on Netflix is only 38 minutes long. It’s one of those rare cases where you leave a movie feeling that you wish it had been longer.

The film follows Amaree McKenstry-Hall, a senior on the football team of the Maryland School for the Deaf. This is one of the most successful teams in the country having had a 47-game winning streak snapped as we begin the film. McKenstry-Hall, clearly a leader on the team, tells his team to keep their heads high – not to let one loss define them. They have one game left in the season – and it happens to be the homecoming game.

This is more of a slice of life film than a “triumph over adversity” film, although that element is certainly there. We never see the homecoming game or how it turned out. Instead, we see Amaree dealing with his deafness, feeling isolated at home – he was not born deaf but became dear after a childhood illness. His father left the family soon afterwards, but as we see in the film is starting to rebuild his relationship with his son after years of crime and jail led to a spiritual reawakening and a desire to make amends. The relationship between the two is fragile, but improving.

We also discover that Amaree is dealing with the suicide of his friend Teddy Webster, a young man who was taken out of the Maryland School of the Deaf and put into a public high school where he was bullied unmercifully, not just for being hard of hearing (other students would regularly flick his hearing aid out of his ear) but also for being gay. His boyfriend Jalen Whitehurst is a cheerleader on the MSD team, along with Lera Walkup, Amaree’s girlfriend.

As you might imagine, the film utilizes sound design to simulate from time to time what deaf people experience. Not all deafness is the same; some hear absolutely nothing while others hear muffled and distorted sounds. The students can feel the vibrations of the music at the dance (or at a bonfire) and dance to it with the reckless abandon of youth.

If there is one criticism to be made, it’s that the movie really kind of glosses over a lot of important things; the suicide of Teddy Webster is clearly an important element in the story, but it is brought in late and discussed only in generalities. The movie also moves from being about a football team, to being a slice of life for the deaf community, to being about an individual player, to being about bullying and maybe that’s a bit too much ground to cover in a movie just over half an hour long.

This film gives you a better idea of the day-to-day realities of being a deaf high school student; it doesn’t ask for or elicit sympathy, nor does it make the student outs to be any more extraordinary than any young person dealing with an issue. What it does is make them relatable; they are, at the end of the day, like any other kids their age – they love sports, they love music, they love hanging out with each other, they hurt when someone close to them is taken from them, and they worry about their future when they graduate. It is eye-opening in its own way, but I think that the movie at the end of the day reminds us that people with disabilities are no more different than you or I; they just have challenges that you and I don’t experience, and they have long since learned to adapt their lives around them. This one is definitely worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Leaves you wanting more. Incredible sound design.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit unfocused.
FAMILY VALUES: There is discussion of teen suicide and bullying, and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ogens has directed several films in the prestigious ESPN 30 for 30 series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pahokee
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Surge at Mount Sinai

Bullied (Rock Sugar)


Standing up for yourself, even when you’re terrified.

(2021) Drama (Gravitas) Jacinta Klassen, Olivia Sprague, Lulu Fitz, Saya Minami, Akira Matsumoto, Candice Leask, Kirar Mercy, Samuel Barton, Giustino Della Vedova, Edward Valent, Destiny Oung, Tobie Webster, Francine McAsey, Joshua Charles Dawe, Holly Dodd, Giovanni Piccolo, Isabel Mulrooney, Bianca Andreadis, Molly Fisher, Joanna Melo Howard, Justine Jones. Directed by Angela How

 

It is hard enough to grow up without someone deciding to make a victim of you for something that you have no control over, like the color of your skin, or your ethnic background. We are taught from an early age not to respond, but there comes a point where you feel you must sstand up for yourself or be a victim in reality.

Charlotte (Klassen) has a nice life; she lives in a beautiful home in a Melbourne suburb that looks onto what amounts to a private park for the neighborhood. While she has run-ins with her strict mother (Minami) and her father (Matsumoto) who is kind and more laid-back, but has a drinking problem. She’s pretty smart, although her mother feels her younger sister Isabelle (Mercy) has more potential.

As the film opens, Charlotte has been confronted by Brenda (Fitz) who has been bullying her unmercifully, largely because of her Asian heritage, but also because Brenda knows she can get away from it. She has curried favor with her teachers, is an outstanding gymnast and a “model student,” although I’m sure Charlotte would disagree. Charlotte’s most recent test has been an utter failure and Brenda wants to make sure everyone knows it, but when Charlotte reaches for the paper she ends up hitting Brenda. But the vice-principal, who calls Charlotte’s mortified parents into the office to discuss the incident, doesn’t believe Charlotte’s story about being bullied. She ends up suspended and grounded by her furious mom, although Dad suspects that his daughter isn’t lying.

However, it is the Christmas holidays and mom’s best friend Janice (Leask) who is pregnant, and her husband Mark (Della Vedova) are staying for the holidays. It ends up with excessive drinking (particularly on the part of the guys) and charlotte’s misery only deepens. Eventually, she goes out into the park while everyone is sleeping with a bottle, and you know that isn’t going to end well.

The next day the neighborhood is rocked with the news of Brenda’s disappearance. Charlotte knows more than she’s telling, even as Mark, Janice and her mom and dad aid in the search for the missing girl. At last, Charlotte uncovers some disturbing truths and must come to face her own role in all of this.

This is the first feature for Asian-Australian director How, and she has some nifty ideas, but I think she doesn’t have a clear idea on how to properly express them. The film takes a severe twist about 2/3 of the way through, a jarring turn that while you don’t expect to see it coming, turns the remainder of the film into a completely different movie than the one you were watching. The movie, already dark to begin with, turns pitch black. I think the film would have been better served dealing with Charlotte’s relationship with her mom, with Brenda and with her own ethnicity. Unfortunately, we are steered away from that as the movie goes off the rails. It’s a case of trying to do too much; the whole Mark storyline could have been a separate movie and should have been.

The acting here is, as is generally the case with micro-budget indies, fairly uneven. Klassen is solid as Charlotte, but not all of her juvenile acting peers are as comfortable in front of the camera as she is. The movie is technically proficient, and cinematographer Ben Milward-Bason comes up with some inventive camera angles from time to time. Most of the time though, it is an easy film on the eyes.

How has some really good ideas, and she needs to make sure that those go fully developed before charging off in another direction. She was on the way to making a powerful motion picture on a timely subject – Asian-Americans have been the target of an unprecedented spike in hate crimes as are Asians around the world, largely due to the rhetoric of a former American president and his supporters in regards to the recent pandemic. I’m not sure if all that was going on when How wrote the screenplay, but it is certainly a topic that requires further exploration. I just wish she had stuck to her guns and given it the focus it deserved.

REASONS TO SEE: How has some very good ideas.
REASONS TO AVOID: There were better ways to tell this story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity and a scene of pre-teen drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature for How, who graduated from UCLA; it was titled Rock Sugar upon its Australian release but had its name changed for American distribution.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dirties
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Birthday Cake

Better Days (Shaonian de ni)


Bullying is, sadly, universal.

(2021) Drama (Well Go USA) Dongyu Zhao, Jackson Yee, Fang Yin, Ye Zhou, Yue Wu, Jue Huang, Yifan Zhang, Yao Zhang, Xinyi Zhang, Allen Zhao, Xuanming Gao, Xintong Xie, Ran, Luyun Heliao, Bozhan Ju, Yingming Wang, Wellong Li, Zhongyu Guo, Dian Liu, Hu Pang, Xueping Liu, Meehz Chen, Mingyang Zhang, Meixi Wang, Yong Liu, Rumeng Liao. Directed by Derek Tsang

 

I think that it’s a given that people of a certain age – including my own – do not understand just how much pressure is on teens these days, how much they are expected to perform, particularly in certain cultures, from an academic and social standpoint. It is a wonder that everyone below the age of 18 hasn’t had at least one nervous breakdown by now.

In China, there is additional pressure if you can believe it. Getting into a good college is dependent on the student’s performance on a two-day long entrance exam known as the Gaokao exams; they are like the SATs on steroids. High school seniors are drilled endlessly on these exams which determine the placement of students in good universities, or less so. A student’s entire future rides on these exams, as well as the honor of their family and their school. Failure is unthinkable, and kids have been known to crack under the pressure.

One such hurls herself from a third story balcony into the rocky courtyard below, leaving a bloody mess for her fellow students to gawp at and take cell phone pictures of. That is, until her only friend Chen Nian (D. Zhao) lays her jacket over the corpse. It is a tender and decent gesture, but it puts Chen directly in the crosshairs of resident mean girl Wei Lei (Y. Zhao) and her posse of acolytes. Now Chen is being bullied.

It isn’t as if Chen isn’t under extraordinary pressure to begin with. Her mother (Wu) ekes out a living on the edge by selling illegal contraband. One step ahead of the law and about half a step ahead of creditors, she is often absent, leaving Chen to fend for herself and study on her own. “Graduate from a good college and we can escape this hellhole,” mommy tells her on a rare visit. I’m sure that helps Chen study harder, right?

But Chen knows what the right thing to do is, and she puts her nose to the grindstone, but when she sees a young teen boy being beaten savagely, she calls the police. Xiao Bei (Yee) is nothing if not grateful. Even though he never graduated high school and lives as a low-level thug on the streets, he determines to be Chen’s protector. Despite themselves, the two begin to develop strong feelings for each other. Meanwhile, the bullying of Chen intensifies, leading to an assault. The school, focused on the upcoming exams, is ineffectual particularly since Wei Lei’s parents are well-connected. The cops are well-meaning but also ineffectual. So as things escalate, something is bound to go wrong. Can Chen survive in the pressure cooker?

This amazing film almost didn’t make it to these shores. At it’s debut at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, it was suddenly and without explanation, pulled as Chinese censors seemed to take a dim view of the portrait of the way young people are treated (one girl, suspended from school, is smacked around by her father in front of the entire school). There is an unspoken indictment of the Chinese method that promotes excellence at any cost. It also depicts students being crushed by the pressure. It is at the least an unflattering portrayal of the Chinese education system.

But just as inexplicably, the Chinese allowed it to be released and it did marvelous box office just as the pandemic was starting to hit. It’s based on a popular online novel, The film is beautifully shot by cinematographers Saba Mazloum and Jing Pin Yu. What you’re going to remember, however, is the startling performance by Dongyu Zhao, whose sad face is often expressionless, but her eyes and body language tell us everything we need to know. When her friend commits suicide, she is the only one to exhibit any sadness or remorse. It’s stunning work.

But the movie really drags, particularly in the final third where the story jumps around a bit. Much of the movie is told in flashback but we’re not really told by whom – I assume it’s an adult version of Chen as a teacher, but that’s never explicitly said. An opening title card also explains that the problem with bullying is a global one (which it is) and not explicitly a Chinese issue, although given the pressures placed on students I’m sure that contributes to the problem. A closing title card explains that since the movie was set the Chinese government has taken steps to address the problem, including punishing schools and bullies. I wonder if that isn’t treating the symptoms rather than curing the underlying cause of them.

REASONS TO SEE: Raw and intense. Dongyu Zhao gives a wonderful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly long and occasionally tedious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the nominees for the upcoming Oscars for Best International Film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mean Girls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Tiny Tim: King For a Day

The Social Dilemma


The digital trap.

(2020) Documentary (NetflixTristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailey Richardson, Joe Toscano, Sandy Parakilas, Guillaume Chaslot, Lynn Fox, Aza Raskin, Alex Roetter, Tim Kendall, Justin Rosenstein, Randy Fernando, Jason Lanier, Roger McNamee, Shoshana Zuboff, Anna Lembke, James Lembke, Mary Lembke, Jonathan Haidt, Cathy O’Neil, Rashida Richardson, Renee DiResta, Cynthia Wong. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

Like it or not, the Internet has become a part of the basic fabric of our lives. You are reading this on a computer or net-enabled device; there is no paper version of Cinema365 unless you happen to print out a copy of this review (and why would you want to do that?) so this is the only way to read what you’re reading. How’s that for meta?

But as much as we like to think that social media is a means of connection, it is also a means of division. This devastating documentary by the guy who brought us Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral shows us another way that our humanity is crumbling. It is ironic that much of this message will be contributed through the same social media platforms that have caused the issue in the first place.

Orlowski brings us interviews with former executives from such social media platforms as Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter as they discuss how what they thought was a force for good had a flip side. The monetization of the social media platforms led to the aphorism that “if the service is free, then you are the product” as algorithms determined what your interests are and tailored your experience to them. Certainly, that led to a kind of marketplace mentality – spend, spend, spend! – but also to something much darker as we began to build our own bubbles in which we are being fed misinformation designed to reinforce that bubble, leading us to the situation we are in now – so divided upon ideological lines that the results of the next election are likely to bring bloodshed regardless of who wins.

Illustrating this, we are shown a fictional family with three young children; a college-age daughter who has begun to reject what social media represents, a middle school age daughter who has become obsessed with getting likes for her posts, and a teenage boy who has begun to be influenced into extremist beliefs. It’s chilling how easily it can happen and so many of us have seen it happen within our own extended families.

The main interview subject here is Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist for Google who has emerged to become “the closest thing to a conscience for Silicon Valley.” He admits to being naïve about the possible consequences of his work for big tech, and as a result advocates now for regulating social media in the same way that broadcast and print media is regulated, or once was.

In fact, most of the experts interviewed here are for regulation and feel that a libertarian self-regulation solution isn’t practical. What is really telling is that when asked about letting their middle school-aged children having smart phones, every single expert said they would not allow it.

Social media has given us an increase in depression and suicide among teens, a rise in bullying (of the online variety) and most distressing, a rise in extremist hate groups emboldened to come out of the shadows and create an online presence that influences both the left and the right.

None of the information here isn’t available elsewhere, but I can’t think of another source that has put this information in a more digestible, logically laid-out manner. The whimsical “inside the kid’s mind” sequences showing how the algorithms work felt a little out of step with the rest of the documentary which does drag a little bit in the middle, but the last 15 minutes definitely pack a powerful punch. Every parent should see this and everyone who spends more than an hour a day on social media should as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Thought-provoking and eye-opening. Presented in a very logical manner. An inside look at how social media molds policy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets bogged down a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, suggestive material and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “like” feature on Facebook was designed to provoke a release of endorphins, which contributes to the addictive nature of social media.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Web Junkie
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Valentina


Mother and daughter share a smile.

(2020) Drama (CorriolaThiessa Woinbackk, Guta Stresser, Rômulo Braga, Ronaldo Bonafro, Maria De Maria, Pedro Diniz, Leticia Franco, João Gott, Paula Passos. Directed by Cássio Pereira dos Santos

As humans, we like to put people in boxes. It makes it easier for us to figure out who they are, I suppose. The boxes can be narrow or broad – from a teenage girl to a gaming nerd to a math geek. Or maybe all of the above. People, though, seldom stay in the boxes we put them in.

Valentina (Woinbackk) is your average teen girl in Brazil. She likes music, argues with her mom, can be temperamental and has a healthy dose of drama in her DNA. She also happens to be transgender.

She and her mom (Stresser) have moved from Sao Paolo to a small country town to get a new, fresh start. Victimized by bullies at her own school, she is eager to enroll in school under her new identity. The problem is that the school won’t let her do that without the signature of both parents, including her father (Braga) who is no longer with her mom and who has had a hard time adjusting to the change that Valentina has undertaken.

At school, she is wary about telling anyone her secret, not wishing to be victimized again. She does start making friends but elects not to tell them that she wasn’t born a girl. However, complications begin to ensue when she is groped by a young man who works in the butcher shop who was, up to then, sweet on her. He in turn tells her bigoted brother who wants Valentina to be thrown out of school and is willing to go to extremes to see that it happens, including rallying the other parents in school to sign a petition. However, nothing is going to keep Valentina down – especially after her father turns up in her corner.

Woinbackk is a trans activist and popular YouTube personality in her native Brazil, and she has loads of screen presence; she has the ability to become a big star down the line with the right roles. One wonders how much of Valentina’s story is her story; I assume that she had her share of resistance to her decision to make the change. Woinbackk, if you get a chance to see her videos, has a forceful personality and it’s easy to see where Valentina got that aspect of her personality from.

In fact, one of the things I admire the most about the film is how Valentina is portrayed not as a transgender first and a girl second, but as a girl who just happens to be transgender. We get to meet the person, not a stereotype. Valentina could be any teen girl you meet in your own hometown – and there are probably several just like her that you don’t know about, who have elected as she did not to tell anyone for fear of persecution. One wonders why adults feel the need to terrorize a teenage girl, but that isn’t an unusual situation, in Brazil or the United States, sadly.

There are some elements of the movie that don’t work, unfortunately; at times the action becomes overly dramatic to the point where it feels more like a soap opera. The classroom confrontation at the end of the movie between Valentina and the bigot feels extremely contrived, and while it does hit the right feels, it never rings true.

That’s a shame because other than that this is a marvelous first feature for Pereira dos Santos, and an impressive acting debut for Woinbackk. A terrific character was created here, a true role model who isn’t perfect (Valentina can be a little hotheaded, and she has a tendency to not give her trust easily) but is still someone to admire. This is out on the festival circuit for now; hopefully one of the indie distributors that features LGBTQ films, or a cable/streaming service that serves that community will pick up this fine film.

REASONS TO SEE: Valentina is portrayed not so much as a trans girl, but as a girl who is transgender (a crucial difference).
REASONS TO AVOID: Has an occasional tendency to go the soap opera route.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: 82% of all Brazilian trans boys and girls drop out of school due mainly to bullying.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Fantastic Woman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
5 Years Apart

Summerland


A brief respite before the war.

(2020) Drama (IFC) Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Dominic McGreevy, Amanda Root, Jessica Gunning, David Horovitch, Aoibhine Flynn, Amanda Lawrence, Casper Allpress, Toby Osmond, Joshua Riley, Sally Scott, David Ajao, Nina Beagley, Sian Phillips, Daniel Eghan, Ty Hurley, Marie Hamm. Directed by Jessica Swale

We are increasingly reminded, in these days of pandemic and political divisiveness, that there was a time when everybody was expected to Do Their Bit. People made sacrifices for the greater good. Oh, how times have changed.

Cranky author Alice Lamb (Wilton) despises children. She types away on her “academic treatises” on British and Celtic mythology in her cottage in Kent. However, the Alice of 35 years earlier (Arterton) was….still in the same cottage and still despised children and still typing away at her academic treatises. That’s when Frank (Bond) shows up at her door. He’s an evacuee from London in need of a temporary guardian while his RAF pilot father and Ministry of Defense mother are busy fighting the war, each in their own way. Alice is flummoxed; she had no idea that a kid was coming to live with her but she is gently reminded that she volunteered, even though she doesn’t remember volunteering. In fact, she wants the boy taken somewhere else at once. The authorities promise to look into finding him a place to live, but it will take about a week and she needs to suck it up until then.

Alice is obviously not fond of people in general, and perceptive Frank realizes that there is something that caused this self-imposed solitude. He is not necessarily a brilliant child, but he has a good heart and keen observational powers and soon he begins to thaw out the chilly Miss Lamb, whom is thought to be a witch by the village kids and maybe even a Nazi spy. As such, she is often the butt of childish pranks, which further makes her despise the younger set.

But Frank is so genuine and so willing to please that eventually Alice begins to care for him – so much so that she begins to open up about her past, and the relationship with Vera (Mbatha-Raw) that dare not speak its name, but which was nevertheless the love of Alice’s life. Unfortunately, Alice is terribly inexperienced at the whole parenting thing and makes a huge mistake when faced with a terrible situation and ends up making a discovery about the identity of Franks’ mother that will shock her to her very core and nearly lose her relationship with Frank in the bargain.

One of the first things you will notice about the film is the absolutely lovely cinematography of Laurie Rose – although I am of the considered opinion that it is nearly impossible to make an English village look ugly. Nearly every shot is picture perfect, from the wild seaside to the snug interiors to the waving fields of wheat. You may end up considering a vacation to Kent somewhere down the line after seeing this.

The second thing you’ll notice is the strength of the performances here. Gemma Arterton is one of those actresses who seems to always turn in a strong performance but never gets the kind of credit she deserves. She certainly has the talent of an Anne Hathaway or an Emma Stone and those are the sorts of roles and movies she should be getting. It’s a shame that she isn’t. As for veteran Tom Courtenay, I could be perfectly happy of an entire film of him reciting the collected works of William Wordsworth; he’s the kind of actor that you fall in love with each and every performance. He has a small but important role here and he makes the most of it.

The flaw here is that the twist, when it comes late in the movie, is jaw-dropping and not in a good way. It will leave veteran cinema buffs shaking their heads and muttering “Really? You went there? REALLY?!?” However, getting to that point is so enjoyable and so beautiful to watch that at least in my case, I was in a forgiving mood by the end of the film.

Although available on VOD at present, it will be playing at the Florida Film Festival on Saturday, August 8th at 5:45pm at the Enzian. Tickets may be purchased here. It is not a part of the Virtual Festival selections, so if you are planning on only attending the Festival this year by remote viewing, you’ll have to pay the additional rental fees to your streaming platform of choice. It is, however, worth it. For those outside of Florida, it is also playing at selected theaters as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent performances by Arterton and Courtenay in particular. Goes to unexpected places occasionally. Lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: The twist is somewhat preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has no relation to the 2003-2005 TV series of the same name that starred Lori Loughlin, Zac Efron and Ryan Kwanten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77/100, Metacritic: 55/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Guernsey Literary and Eel Pie Society
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Apollo 11

Teacher (2019)


You might not want to forget your homework in this teacher’s class.

(2019) Thriller (Cinedigm) David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, Helen Joo Lee, Alejandro Raya, Cedric Young, Ilysa Fradin, John Hoogenakker, Karin Anglin, Sammy A. Publes, Charin Alvarez, Sam Straley, Bryce Dannenberg, Patrick Weber, Juan Lozada, Shawna Waldron, David Parkes, Sarab Kamoo. Directed by Adam Dick

 

Bullying has been a serious problem in American high schools for many years now. Despite efforts to curb the practice, there seems to be an ongoing issue of strong kids persecuting weaker kids – although who is truly strong and who is truly weak is not always easily evident.

James Lewis (Dastmalchian) is an English teacher trying to get across the intricacies of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to bored kids at Prairie Trail High School, in a tony suburb of Chicago. James is in the midst of a contentious divorce and is showing signs of alcoholism and rage – as the holes punched in the wall of his apartment attest. Still, he’s managing to keep it together and is on the verge of being granted tenure.

When a sociopathic rich kid named Tim Cooper (Jackson) starts bullying the nerdy Preston (Garry), a smart kid as well as the photographer for the school paper, Lewis isn’t happy about the development. Things begin to escalate though when Preston gets a girlfriend – shy, unselfconfident Daniela (Perez) – and Tim, also the star pitcher for the baseball team, gets two victims for the price of one. Mr. Lewis tries to intervene but a litigation-shy administration in the form of the school principal (Young) put the kibosh on any sort of disciplinary action. It doesn’t help that Tim’s dad (Pollak) is stupid rich and is one of those sorts who is used to getting his way by any means necessary.

\Mr. Lewis as it turns out was severely bullied when he was in school and to top it off, his father was an abusive alcoholic to make matters worse. Between the stress of everything, the flashbacks to his own tortured childhood and the disappointment that his life hasn’t gone the way he expected to lead to a reckoning that nobody could have expected – except for those who have watched a thriller or two in their time.

\Dick in his first feature-length film brings up some interesting and salient points about bullying, it’s effect on the psyche and society’s unwillingness to address it. The question is asked “when is violence justified” and the answer is obviously not an easy one nor is it treated as such here. Dick is a director who has some ideas and that’s always a good thing.

The problem here is that the story is just way too predictable. You can kind of figure out where this is all going in the first fifteen minutes. While Dick has some good ideas, he delivers them in a fairly hackneyed plot that telegraphs most of its twists. It does take a while for things to get moving at a really decent clip, so the attention-challenged might not take to this one as well.

Still, Dick gets the benefit of some really solid performances, many of them from largely unknown actors. Dastmalchian, who to date has mainly done supporting roles, shows he can handle lead roles with enough screen presence to light up China. Pollak, who started his career as a comic and impressionist, has proven himself a solid dramatic actor over the years and has never been better than he is here, both jovial and civilized as well as intimidating and brutish. The guy deserves some plum roles, casting directors.

Overall, this is a nifty film but not one that is going to rock your world particularly. I like some of the choices the filmmakers make here but other decisions seem to play it too safe. I do think that Dick has potential as a director; this isn’t a bad first film at all, but it’s not one that I believe will be an essential part of his filmography when all is said and done.

REASONS TO SEE: Dastmalchian shows some good presence and Pollak is always strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a short film with the same title that Dick made two years prior to the feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Class of 1984
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Leo DaVinci: Mission Mona Lisa

Long Lost


The femme fatale hard at work.

(2018) Erotic Thriller (Indie Rights) Adam Weppler, Catherine Corcoran, Nicholas Tucci, Fran Kranz. Directed by Erik Bloomquist

 

I think all of us from time to time wonder about (or even fantasize about) having long-lost family members we never knew we had. A rich uncle, birth parent or sibling who will take care of our problems like a deus ex machina descending from the rafters. But what would you do if you actually got a letter from such a relative?

Seth (Weppler) gets to find out the answer to his question. A struggling blogger, he is just getting by financially and maybe not quite even that. One day, he gets a letter from a man claiming to be his stepbrother, inviting him to his home in Greenwich, Connecticut – all expenses paid. Intrigued and with nothing better to do, Seth agrees to go. I know I would if I were him.

Seth ends up finding a huge, beautiful mansion with acreage and there he meets Richard (Tucci), the stepbrother he never knew he had. At first Seth is greeted warmly but then things get…well, weird. He meets Abby (Corcoran), Richard’s girlfriend that he neglected to mention, stepping nude out of the shower – and apparently not minding Seth’s presence a bit.

Richard turns out to be something of a hyper-competitive bully, urging Seth to play childish games like flashlight tag and something called “Fluffy Bunny” which involves stuffing mushrooms in the mouth (don’t ask). He also uses every opportunity to belittle and insult Seth who quickly tires of the abuse. Abby gets her share as well but whereas Seth can walk out the door at any time, Abby perhaps can’t. Besides, Abby is taking quite a shine to her boyfriend’s stepbrother and makes no bones about it which makes Seth distinctly uncomfortable. Seth has a bit of a stick up his anus, you know.

Even given the enticement of a very willing Abby, Seth keeps trying to leave and Richard pleads with him to stay, offering him ten Gs for one more night of his company. Seth can’t say no to that kind of money so he stays and then the party really starts to go off the rails.

In the 80s and 90s, erotic thrillers were a staple of cable TV and featured prominently on HBO, Showtime and particularly Cinemax. They have fallen out of favor in more recent days – the erotic part pales to the kind of pornography that is easily accessible on the Internet – and as a result the erotic thrillers that come out these days tend to be missing something either on the erotic or thriller sides of the equation.

This one, from first-time feature writer/director Erik Bloomquist, is missing out to a certain extent on both sides. While Catherine Corcoran is amazingly attractive and crazy sexy, there are no real sparks between her and Weppler. Her seduction of him seems arbitrary and forced in order to make the plot work; Seth as a character is kind of devoid of any sort of heat. He seems to be a nice enough guy but he’s super uptight and after awhile you just would rather spend more time with Richard and Abby. Tucci gets to have the most fun with his character who has an explosive temper and few redeeming qualities of his own, but Tucci plays him with enough gusto to make him interesting.

The thriller part is lacking a bit as well. While Bloomquist makes good use of the lighting (or often, the lack thereof), the atmosphere never really acquires the quality of suspense a film like this needs to work. The twist isn’t really a bad one, but by the time it comes you really haven’t developed any sort of reason to care. You are left with a feeling of “Oh, those crazy rich people, they can get away with anything BWAHAHAHA” which isn’t the way you want to leave an erotic thriller. The mansion itself is beautiful as is the grounds and Bloomquist makes excellent use of the setting.

I can’t say for certain that Bloomquist was trying to make a 90s-style erotic thriller but there are certainly elements here thereof. The overall tone is unsettling rather than suspenseful and I don’t think that’s what Bloomquist was going for. There are some scenes that work and Corcoran makes an excellent female lead and Tucci gives it the old college try but at the end of the day this is far too cliché to be worthwhile.

REASONS TO SEE: Corcoran makes a wonderful femme fatale.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very generic entry into the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, sexual situations, drug use and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tucci and Kranz were both members of the Suite 13 comedy sketch club while at Yale.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodbye Lover
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tangent Room

Postal (2019)


Another reason to hate clowns.

(2019) Dark Comedy (Self-released) Michael Shenefelt, Nick Madrick, Eric Vega, Elyse Dufour, Forest Scott Peyton, Chase Wainscott, Kennedy Brice, Sarah Alexandria, Mia Jackson, Tony Dermil, Jonathan Pawlowski, Steve Coulter, Dean Phillippi Sr., George Spielvogel III, Reid Meadows, Justin Miles, Keary McCutchen, William Blaylock, Elizabeth Saydah. Directed by Tyler Falbo

A lot of movies you can see coming. They hit all the right film festivals, have all the right stars, the right director, the right writers, get all the right buzz from all the right critics. The point is, you’re aware that the movie is something special, either a major blockbuster in the making or an important indie movie that is going to be making a lot of end of the year ten best lists.

Postal isn’t like that. Some might bring to mind the 2007 Uwe Boll film based on a videogame that essentially only has the title in common with this movie. For one thing, the 2019 version is based on a true story (and if you doubt it, stick around to the very end) which of course could only have happened in Florida.

Phillip (Shenefelt) is waiting on a package and not just any package, nor is this just any day. The package is an engagement ring that he plans to present to his girlfriend Brittany (Dufour) in Hawaii; in fact, his flight to Honolulu is leaving that very afternoon. He’s entrusted the package to Bronco Delivery, America’s most trusted package delivery service (think FedEx).

But something goes wrong. The package doesn’t arrive at its scheduled time, the time Phil paid extra to receive by. So, like any normal person, he gets on the phone to Bronco’s Customer Service department and that’s where normal gets left behind in the dust. It starts with an all-too-familiar annoyance; the phone tree to nowhere. Finally Phil gets to talk to an actual human being; Kevin (Vega). Although Kevin seems nice enough and willing to help, things start to slide down the chute in a hurry as little things begin to go wrong and an already stressed-out Phil begins to lose it.

More than this I will not tell you; this is the kind of movie that is at its most effective when you don’t know that much about it. Half the fun is being surprised by what turns up around the next bend. There are a lot of twists and turns here, some devastating and some simply unforeseen. Da Queen and I were fortunate enough to see this at its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival; when Da Queen loves a movie, she makes no bones about it and I have rarely heard her laugh as hard as I heard her laughing at this one; the only reason I missed some of her laughter was because I was bellowing with laughter myself.

The script is insanely clever and witty; it doesn’t give you much of an opportunity to consider anything as it careens from one situation to the next and just when you think it can’t top itself, it does. The acting here is stronger than the average local production, with Shenefelt delivering a star turn as a poor schlub in the throes of a kind of customer service nightmare that becomes…well, see for yourself.

The movie is on the Festival circuit for now but once people start seeing this thing, I suspect some indie distributors are certain to take notice. This is a definite crowd-pleaser and was far and away my favorite film at the Festival, which is saying something this year considering how strong the line-up was from top to bottom. This may require some patience to find (at least for now) but trust me, it is the kind of movie you owe it to yourself to see. No matter how bad a day is that you’re having, it’s nothing as bad as this guy’s.

REASONS TO SEE: May be the funniest film I’ve seen in years. Most people will be able to relate to having a really bad day. Strong performances, particularly Vega, Shenefelt and Madrick. Dufour makes an ideal fantasy figure.
REASONS TO AVOID: This might not be your kind of humor.
FAMILY VALUES: Here there be plenty of violence and profanity as well as some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature at the 2019 Florida Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jawbreaker
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Ask Dr. Ruth

Teen Spirit (2018)


Who said pop stardom isn’t easy?

(2018) Musical (Bleecker Street/LD Entertainment) Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe, Millie Brady, Vivian Oparah, Marius de Vries, Elizabeth Berrington, Olive Gray, Andrew Ellis, Ruairi O’Connor, Jordan Stephens, Tamara Luz Ronchese, Clara Rugaard, Daisy Lowe, Ursula Holliday. Directed by Max Minghella

 

I think it’s fair to say (and I think that most teens and millennials would agree) that the world is constructed to kill dreams. Those that want to be creative, expressive or otherwise different are discouraged; laboring at some soul-killing task over and over again is what’s expected. Nobody in their right mind wants to do that for the rest of their lives; some really don’t have much of a choice. Those that have talent though, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discouraging it.

Violet (Fanning) lives on the bucolic Isle of Wight off the coast of England, a place forever immortalized by the Beatles in ”When I’m Sixty-Four” thusly: “Every summer we could rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight (if it’s not too dear)” as well as a famous pop festival that took place there. Musically, that’s pretty much it for the Isle of Wight. It does possess a large Polish population of which Violet and her mother (Grochowska) are members of. Violet goes to school (she’s 17 years old), takes care of the horse that she rides whenever she can, works as a waitress in a pub after school and occasionally sings in a different pub; it is the last of these that mum disapproves of as being impractical so Violet has to do it on the sly. However, she does meet an alcoholic ex-opera singer who offers to be her manager so there’s that.

The family is in pretty dire financial straits; the horse gets repossessed because they can’t afford to pay for it any longer. Violet’s life is going exactly nowhere and she is frustrated as anyone would be. Then, a bit of excitement; the American Idol-like pop music competition show Teen Spirit is holding auditions in her town for the very first time and nearly everyone in school is trying out. Shy Violet decides to try out and to nobody’s surprise, she is selected for the local competition. To nobody else’s surprise, she ends up going to the finals in London which are televised. However, she needs a parent or guardian to sign off on her participation which her mother will never do so Violet remembers Vlad (Buric), the alcoholic ex-opera singer and puts him to work as her manager/instant guardian.

The rest of the movie you can pretty much figure out for yourself. There are a couple of swerves that aren’t particularly hard to see coming as well as some predictable moments of fame going to Violet’s head and a few heart-warming moments in between all the gaudily shot music videos of her performances, all bathed in pink and blue neon and looking like a New York art installation from the early 90s. That’s not bad in and of itself but it does kind of scream “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”  in an unnecessarily loud cinematic voice.

Fanning is a talented performer as an actress and not a half-bad singer to boot but her character, who is supposed to be terribly shy and innocent (except when she’s not) is so passive and bland that it’s hard to figure out why she would want to stand up in front of a television audience and pour her heart out onstage. We never get a sense as to why Violet is motivated to become a singer other than she likes doing it.

The songs that Violet and her competition perform are mainly covers of iconic pop songs over the last 20 years, many of which have to do with female empowerment which is part of the ostensible thrust of the film, although one has to consider the fact that Violet and her mother struggle mightily on their own but once a man comes in to the picture for guidance success is theirs. It seems quite at odds with the musical message the film seems hell-bent on sending.

But even though Violet is more vanilla, the relationship between her and Vlad is at least genuine and comprises the heart and soul of the film. Even though Vlad is a polar opposite to Violet, his gruff exterior masks a teddy bear interior that genuinely cares for Violet and wants her to succeed not for his own aggrandizement but for hers.

The performance footage is mainly over-produced; it’s telling that the most genuine and affecting performance is when Violet dances and sings No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in the privacy of her own bedroom; it’s raw and feels more authentic. That seems to be one of the few moments when we get a glimpse of who Violet truly is. We could have used more of them.

At the end of the day, this movie comes down to whether or not you like American Idol. If fresh-faced young people performing covers of familiar songs for the right to become a pop star in their own right is something that thrills you, chances are you’re going to love this film. If you find American Idol to be a cynical means of keeping potential pop stars as disposable product rather than genuine artists, you probably won’t care much for this film. Me, I tend to lean towards the latter but that doesn’t mean you won’t find something in the film to like.

REASONS TO SEE: The relationship between Violet and Vlad is believable and at the center of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story needs more fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content as well as depictions of teen drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are parallels to the film Flashdance and the theme from that film is even used in this one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Dreamz
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Marching Forward