Seed (2017)


Team Nomad’s success is no shoe-in.

(2017) Documentary (Something Different) Ethan Reid, Shahar Hussein, Pulkit Mahajan, Brian Collins, Adi Abili, Milan Koch, Saheen Ali, Paul Glaser, Christopher Wellise, Peter Berger, Brent Freeman, Sean Hughes, Devin Mui, Arjun Dev Arora, Ahmed, Bettirose. Directed by Andrew Wonder

 

When most of us think of hackers, we think of pimply-faced basement-dwelling laptop rats who take out their anger on not getting laid – ever –  by disrupting legitimate websites and from time to time stealing information from major Internet sites. Sometimes we think of the Anonymous hackers who disrupt the socially unjust. We rarely think of hacking as a source for positive change.

And yet AngelHack who were one of the earliest proponents of “hack-a-thons” (competitions for hackers) have turned the innovation of these code writing iconoclasts into potential businesses with seed money coming from Silicon Valley venture capitalists and other underwriters. It’s a very big deal in the hacking community and one of the most prestigious events on the Hacking calendar. They sponsor something called Silicon Valley week where dozens of hackers/code writers/would-be entrepreneurs get together, pitch their apps to first the AngelHack board who determine if they have the stuff to go on to the big stage where they can pitch their demos to industry leaders.

It’s a situation in which the stress levels are ratcheted up to an 11. The documentary follows three teams, including Team Report Taka with spokesperson Bettirose is trying to develop an app that will save lives in their native Nairobi, Kenya; Shahar Hussein is driving for Uber in New York while his brother-in-law Ahmed is watching over their start-up in Palestine which will help businesses there hook up with couriers to deliver packages. Finally Team Nomad, led by three teens are juggling high school with their app which will allow shoppers to take a picture of an item they see that they want to buy and then be taken to a site where they can buy it, something that appeals to the social media generation who can’t be bothered to look stuff up.

Each of these teams are among 14 teams from across the globe vying for interview time with venture capitalists and substantial seed money that could help their dreams take off. Each of the teams are in it for different reasons; one to change the world, another to make a better life for themselves and their families, a third just to prove they can do it.

It isn’t easy though. Team Nomad is having serious troubles getting their app to work for the demo. Shahar and Ahmed are not seeing eye to eye on their business’s future. The Report Taka team needs to be able to convince the various judges that their app is much more than a locally useful app that is worth developing for global use. The day they present after all is called Global Demo Day. The stakes are incredibly high.

This kind of film lives or dies based on how much the audience identifies with the various participants and ends up with a rooting interest for them. Team Report Taka came the closest for me; their app is one that collates reports of dumped garbage and analyzes it, helping the Kenyan government determine if it is proving a threat (garbage that collects in the rivers of Nairobi often contribute to flooding which can be severe enough to end lives). They have a difficult time communicating in English and perhaps understanding the capitalist culture that drives these kinds of things. It’s hard not to root for people who want to save lives though.

The other two teams are less altruistic. Both are working on apps that will aid e-commerce, and that’s all well and good. The teens involved with Team Nomad are often a bit cocky and considering they have a concept and not a working app makes one wonder if they are selling smoke and mirrors. Finally Shahar is maybe a bit mule-headed as is Ahmed and the two of them butt heads on some fairly basic issues. It isn’t always pretty.

Wonder has a nice visual sense and some of the shots here are really cool, but he for some reason decides to do some of the interview segments in unusual locations and positions; the Report Taka team is made to lie down on the floor like spokes on a wheel while Team Nomad is in a dark room lit by blue computer screens. I get that he wanted to get away from typical talking head tropes but it ended up being distracting and off-putting. An A for imagination but an C- for execution.

Nonetheless while the movie doesn’t really add much to the competition documentary subgenre, it is at least reasonably informative although some of the jargon may fly over the heads of those who aren’t technologically inclined. I consider myself reasonably tech-savvy and some of the things that the various participants said left me befuddled but I suppose most documentaries have their share of jargon, no?

I found the process that the teams undergo to be fascinating enough to overcome some of the films’ flaws. It’s available right now on Amazon Prime so those who are members of that service can stream the movie for free; it is also available for rent for those who are not Prime members. In any case, for those who are intrigued by how software is developed, this is a movie that will be right up your alley. For those who may prefer that how their Fandango app works be a mystery to them should probably give this one a pass.

REASONS TO GO: The process is fascinating.  Some of the cinematography is really cool.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a little bit jargon-heavy. Sometimes the filmmaker goes a little bit overboard with the artistic license.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity but not a lot of it.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three members of Team Nomad were all 16 and 17 years old when the process started and needed to be driven to preliminary events by their parents.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wordplay
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Logan

Made in China


Made in China

Jackson Kuehn and Dan Sumpter ignore the elephant in the room...or is it a beautiful Chinese woman?

(2009) Comedy (IFC) Jackson Kuehn, Dan Sumpter, Bronwyn Cornelius, Deng Juan, Syna Zhang. Directed by Judith Krant

 

The American Dream is no longer exclusively the property of Americans. The rest of the world has caught up with us in that regard. In fact, it could reasonably be said that given the global economic climate, the American Dream has become de facto the Chinese Dream.

Johnson (Kuehn) dreams of being a multi-millionaire. He has brilliant ideas in the novelty field and is well-versed on how ideas like the Slinky, the ant box and fake dog poop catapulted their inventors into wealth and privilege. Johnson has an idea for a household hygiene product that could do the same for him.

The trouble is, finding investors for his idea is no easy task. The American economy is in a shambles and people are not investing so much these days, so the would-be entrepreneur has to look farther afield for seed money. He sets up a meeting with a Chinese investor on Craig’s List and despite the objections of his family, gathers up his life savings and jets off to Shanghai.

When he is stood up by his prospective investor, he meets instead Magnus (Sumpter), a Brit who knows people and can actually help Johnson achieve his dreams. Johnson impresses him with his pluck and never say die attitude, but Magnus has his own agenda. Can Johnson’s product become the next Pet Rock? Or is Johnson’s naiveté going to sink his dreams like one?

Krant, who played Chang on the “Total Recall” TV series, approaches her first feature with a kind of gung-ho attitude. She takes her camera to locations not normally visited by Westerners in China’s most Western city, the back alleys and side streets. Whether or not she got permission to shoot there is likely problematic. It gives the movie a much more authentic look than had they just stuck to the iconic skyscrapers and amazing buildings that make up Shanghai’s distinctive skyline.

It also makes for seat-of-the-pants filmmaking. One gets the impression that some of the script was written to fit the circumstances. While the overall story is stuck to, certain scenes and vignettes seem to come completely out of left field as if Krant had exclaimed “this is an awesome place to film! let’s write a scene around it!”

Kuehn has a kind of offbeat charm and Sumpter has some charisma as well; the acting overall is more or less solid. Nothing here is going to impress one way or the other in that regard. What you will remember is the movie’s overall charm, it’s devotion to novelty items (and yes, there was certainly some research done into the subject) and its use of Shanghai locations very effectively. For a movie that is virtually unknown other than by those who saw it on the Festival circuit in 2009 and 2010, it’s surprisingly well-made and enjoyable.

WHY RENT THIS: Shot guerilla-style on the backstreets and skyscrapers of Shanghai. Endearing lead character.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One gets the feeling it was written on the fly.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few sexual situations as well as some bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mother of Tears