Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened


Beware of bikini promises; they can be unrealistic.

(2019) Documentary (Netflix) Billy McFarland, Jason Bell, Gabrielle Bluestone, Shiyuan Deng, Ja Rule, Michael Ciccarelli, MDavid Low, Samuel Krost, Andy King, J.R., Brett Kincaid, Mick Purzycki, James Ohlinger, Grant Margolin, Keith van der Linde, Marc Weinstein, Martin Howell, Mark Musters, Luca Sabatini, Maryann Rolle, Calvin Wells, Jillionaire, Alyssa Lynch. Directed by Chris Smith

 

The Fyre Festival of 2017 has become a symbol of disaster. Mismanaged from the get-go, the ads promoted an experience of living like a celebrity (while rubbing elbows with supermodels), living in luxurious accommodations on a private island in the Bahamas, dining on five-star cuisine and listening to some of the hottest bands on the planet. Social media was all (excuse the expression) a-twitter over the event which had social media “Influencers” (a term I absolutely despise) raving about the party of the decade, one that would be remembered for decades as an iconic event.

The event will certainly be remembered but not for the reasons the promoters implied. When festival-goers arrived they found an absolute shambles; rain-soaked FEMA tents, cuisine that was comprised of a sad-looking cheese sandwich and a limp salad, no running water, port-a-potties, no musical acts and a staff which had no idea what was going on.

The Festival was the brainchild of Billy McFarland, a slick promoter who had sold a credit card to those who wanted to be associated with a particular lifestyle, a lifestyle he believed would reach its apex with the Fyre Festival. Partnered with rapper Ja Rule, McFarland hadn’t the least idea of what the logistics of putting together that kind of massive event entailed but he was sure an expert in promoting it, promising things that weren’t there and he didn’t have a prayer of getting.

This documentary, one of two that were released on competing streaming services within a week of one another, has one of those subjects that is very much like an automobile accident; you can’t look away even though you know it’s going to be a horror show. The splashier Netflix documentary mostly looks at the fall-out from the con but it does a great job of showing the rise and fall of the Festival through the eyes of those who worked on it.

It’s easy to be a little bit delighted that the young, wealthy Millennials who went got exactly what they deserved and there is some justification to that; one festival-goer brags about tearing down tents and pissing on mattresses because he didn’t want any neighbors (class act, that). You won’t feel sorry for those folks; after all, you know what they say about fools and their money. The people that you end of feeling for most are the Bahamian construction workers and caterers who went unpaid and were left holding the bag. Marianne Rolle, who was in charge of catering, lost $50K of her own savings and ended up establishing a GoFundMe account to get her workers paid.

Others who worked on website programming and promoting also had their lives and careers negatively affected. Some of them talk about realizing that there was a disaster looming on the horizon but being constantly reassured that things would work out. Spoiler alert: they didn’t. Mostly talking head interviews along with some cell phone footage from those who attended the disaster, Smith puts together the story in a concise and entertaining manner. Neither Ja Rule nor McFarland are interviewed here so we get little of his side of the story but as you’ll see from our upcoming review of Fyre Fraud that may not matter much in the long run. This isn’t world-changing but it is a good cautionary tale.

REASONS TO WATCH: A fascinating story that tackles the fallout from a con.
REASONS TO AVOID: More context is needed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for four primetime Emmys.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fyre Fraud
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Fyre Fraud

Where is Kyra?


The face of Michelle Pfeiffer tells the whole story.

(2017) Drama (Great Point) Michelle Pfeiffer, Keifer Sutherland, Suzanne Shepherd, Sam Robards, Marc Menchaca, Babs Olusanmokun, Mauricio Ovalie, Tony Okungbowa, Celia Au, Gabe Fazio, Bradley W. Anderson, MaameYaa Boafo, Hubert Pont Du Jour, Joel Marsh Garland, Nimo Gandhi, Jorge Chapa, Elizabeth Evans. Directed by Andrew Dosunmu

 

“There but for the grace of God go I” is a phrase we use to describe the less fortunate. It’s a particularly apt phrase; most of the time what separates us from those who are destitute is good luck or good timing. Very few of those reading this now are much more than a paycheck or two away from economic disaster.

When it comes to those of a certain age who are poverty-stricken, we have a tendency to turn away our gaze. When a child is poor, we have sympathy. When an elderly person is poor, we have myopathy. We don’t see them; we don’t react the same way. Even when they are just 60 years old or thereabouts, the attitude is more like “tough luck – you must have done something to get yourself in that predicament.” Often, that isn’t the case.

That’s how it is for Kyra (Pfeiffer). She was hit by the double whammy of divorce and a lay-off at nearly the same time. Now she lives in Brooklyn with her elderly mother Ruth (Shepherd) who has some serious health problems. Kyra runs errands for her, helps bathe and feed her and take care of Ruth’s daily necessities all the while turning in application after application for work, any kind of work. There isn’t any though, not for a woman her age (about 60). They live a meager existence on Ruth’s social security and pension.

Then even that is gone. Ruth’s health eventually fails completely and one day Kyra finds her lifeless body in the living room. There are condolences of course but Kyra doesn’t have a lot of friends and as she sits back with mounting bills she wonders what in hell she is supposed to do. She sells what she can and is able from time to time to get work handing out flyers but considering her debt it’s nowhere near enough. She does meet a guy, Doug (Sutherland) who is a driver who dreams of one day having his own cab medallion license but until then he’s driving for other people and is barely making ends meet himself.

Kyra is desperate and desperate people do things that they ordinarily wouldn’t do. She’s stuck in the position of doing whatever she as to do to survive – and takes her down a road that she never thought she’d travel.

The movie is dark in a lot of different ways; first and foremost it is a dark subject dealing with things that most of us would rather not face. As we grow older, we grow less employable and no matter how much we contributed to society and the economy in our youth, once we get to that point we are expendable, cast aside drones who have outlived our usefulness. Kyra gives the impression of being a hard work (she certainly works hard at finding work) but she is not the type of worker employers are looking for – young and willing to do more for less pay. It’s a sadly common story and one most of us choose to ignore; it’s hard to consider that sooner or later we are at that same point in our lives that Kyra is in. We will all face the same obstacles as she and that, like all unpleasant truth, is something we tend to not want to think about.

Pfeiffer has always been one of the most beautiful women in the world and she remains so; only those who have been paying attention realize what a talented actress she is – she didn’t get an Oscar nomination for nothing. Kyra is perhaps the least glamorous role she’s ever played and not uncoincidentally this is legitimately the best performance of her career. Kyra is tightly wound and so Pfeiffer uses an economy of gesture, expression and dialogue to get across her anguish, her fear, her frustration and her desperation. There aren’t a lot of histrionics except in a couple of cases. Otherwise Pfeiffer gives a spare performance relying a great deal on the silent tools that an actor utilizes. It is work worthy of Oscar attention but that is so unlikely to happen that the odds don’t bear repeating so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The movie has the advantage of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young but Young and Dosunmu make the odd choice of putting everything in room lighting that is dark – even the exterior shots seem to be done through a filter making everything look like late afternoon on a cloudy day. Young often frames the action through doorways and mirrors; we the audience become as Peeping Toms, observing uninvited the intimacies of Kyra’s life. The effect is unsettling and off-putting. I admire the creativity – I believe it is meant to illustrate the dreary darkness of Kyra’s life – but I question the practicality.

Also not working is the soundtrack. There is very little of it and generally what you hear is discordant and grating on the ears, like metal scraping against metal. It’s the kind of heavy metal that would make even a hardcore headbanger plug their ears. Again, one has to give props for the willingness of the filmmakers to go outside the box creatively but then one has to pay attention to the needs of the audience. Good intentions, questionable execution.

I’m giving this a mild recommendation for Pfeiffer’s extraordinary performance and the subject matter which is one Hollywood has been loath to tackle. I think if Dosunmu and company had handled this in a more straightforward manner they would have been far more effective in getting their point across. As it is they did make a movie that gives the viewer a lot to think about even if they don’t particularly want to.

REASONS TO GO: The subject matter is extremely timely. Pfeiffer delivers one of the best performances of her career.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is so underlit that it is often hard to see what is happening onscreen. The score, such as it is, is abrasive and eventually pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, adult themes and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is only the fourth time in her career that Pfeiffer has appeared as a brunette onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pursuit of Happyness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beirut

Mission Congo


Not so much humanitarian aid.

Not so much humanitarian aid.

(2012) Documentary (C-Colony) Pat Robertson, Robert Hinkle, Jessie Pott. Directed by David Turner and Lara Zizic

Florida Film Festival 2014

In the interest of transparency, I’m not a big fan of organized religion. Any human agency that acts as a middle man between the believer and whatever God they worship is highly suspect as far as I’m concerned. I’m suspicious of anyone who tells me they have an inkling of God’s plan, particularly if God’s plan includes my checkbook.

In 1994, the Rwandan genocide was in full force and millions of refugees poured out of that country and into what was then known as Zaire, the neighboring country. Establishment of refugee camps was initially highly disorganized and soon the camps were beset by disease, starvation and overcrowding. Doctors Without Borders, the International Red Cross and other aid organizations immediately dispatched teams to help with the critical situation.

Televangelist Pat Robertson also sent out pleas for aid. He established the charitable fund Operation Blessing. He got on his television ministry program, The 700 Club to plead for immediate aid. That money, he told viewers, would be used to send out teams of doctors who would be boots on the ground helping those who needed it. Funds would also be used to send desperately needed medicine and supplies for the refugees.

As time went on, Robertson bragged how his organization had been a godsend in the crisis, among the first on the front lines of saving those in need, establishing a school in the nearby town of Dumi and setting up a farm to feed the surrounding area. Both entities, the website for Operation Blessing insists, are in full flower today serving the needs of the locals.

A story in the Virginia Pilot newspaper took a critical look at the funds for Operation Blessing and discovered that the claims being made on television weren’t backed up by the tax records for the charity. Documentarians Zizic and Turner decided to make a documentary on the subject.

Their assertion is that contrary to the glowing reports broadcast on The 700 Club and on the website of Operation Blessing (or OBI as it’s known as), OBI was not the presence it made itself out to be. Physicians from Doctors Without Borders don’t recall seeing a presence from the Robertson-backed organization, and what presence was there was usually accompanied by a camera crew.

In fact, the film alleges that Robertson was much more interested in his diamond mining operation through the African Development Corporation which he owned in partnership with a pastor in Zaire – what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact, planes carrying what were supposed to be shipments of aid and personnel to the refugee camp in Goma actually carried mining equipment, according to Hinkle who is characterized by the filmmakers as the Chief Pilot of Operation Blessing (although OBI denies he ever worked for them).

The filmmakers do show through broadcast footage from the Christian Broadcast Network (Robertson’s cable channel) and The 700 Club that doctors and medical personnel that they claimed had been flown there by Operation Blessing were actually from Doctors Without Borders and the supplies they showed were from the Red Cross. They do make a pretty compelling case.

The 2011 tax returns submitted by OBI list somewhere north of $120 million in revenue but are not specific as to where that money is going. The filmmakers make the reasonable suggestion that current laws protecting  tax-exempt charities (which the OBI is registered as) require them to show specifically how their money is spent.

We don’t get to see Robertson’s side of the story although apparently an invitation was extended to him and his organization to participate; they have threatened to sue the filmmakers (which apparently hasn’t yet come to pass as of this writing) and have issued press releases vehemently denying the charges leveled at them.

I would be the first to tell you that just because someone makes a documentary film doesn’t mean they are on the side of the angels; you can spin things about any way you want to so it behooves you to check into things more thoroughly before accepting the opinion of anybody on anything, particularly one with a very specific point of view. However, the filmmakers present their case so well using footage and testimony of people who were there, I can’t help think that if Robertson wasn’t guilty of outright fraud, he was at least complicit in misleading the public. Which one would think someone professing to follow the teachings of Christ would be loathe to do.

REASONS TO GO: Builds a well-ordered case against Operation Blessing in particular and televangelism in general.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks balance. Takes awhile to get going.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Tammy Faye

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Draft Day

Post Grad


Post Grad

Nothing like a little picnic in the frozen food section to make for a truly unique date.

(2009) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Alexis Bledel, Zach Gilford, Rodrigo Santoro, Jane Lynch, Michael Keaton, Carol Burnett, Craig Robinson, Kirk Fox, Fred Armisen, Bobby Coleman, Catherine Reitman, Andrew Daly, J.K. Simmons. Directed by Vicky Jenson

Graduating from college, especially these days, is like stepping through a door, only to find you’re thirty stories up with no floor beneath you. Like many of us, you either learn to fly or you splatter all over the sidewalk.

Ryden Malby (Bledel) has it all figured out. Get into the college of her choice? Check. Graduate with honors? Check again. Get a dream job at a ritzy L.A. publishing house? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh! That goes to her longtime nemesis Jessica Bard (Reitman).

Her carefully laid-out life derailed, she is forced to move back home with her Do It Yourselfer dad (Keaton), her long-suffering mom (Lynch) and her weird younger brother Hunter (Coleman) who dreams of soapbox derby glory while licking the heads of his elementary school friends. That kid’s got issues.

Also in the mix is Grandma (Burnett) who is picking out her tricked-out coffin and is generally rabid. There’s also nice guy Adam (Gilford) who is a friend who might possibly like some benefits although Ryden has her eye on the hot Brazilian neighbor (Santoro) who directs infomercials and is in this movie basically so he can take his shirt off.

Unable to land a suitable job, she eventually goes to work for her dad at his mall luggage emporium. He dreams of supplementing his income with a mail order belt buckle business. However, things begin to go south. Dad squashes the next door neighbor’s cat. The belt buckles he’s selling turn out to be stolen. Nice guy Adam, fed up with waiting on Ryden decides to go the law school route and heads to New York. Ryden’s carefully ordered world is unraveling and college never prepared her for it.

Director Jenson has previously done animated films like Shrek and Shark’s Tail. This is her first foray into live-action and it meets with middling results. The movie seems curiously static and lifeless in some places and the comedy seems forced which looks to be more a function of the writing than the direction. In fact, there are places that I wonder if there weren’t too many hands involved in the script i.e. studio execs trying to make this more palatable to a Disney Channel audience.

Bledel, who got notoriety in “The Gilmore Girls,” is a plucky heroine who hasn’t yet shown she can carry a feature film on her own. You would think she would have gotten the chance here, but oddly enough Jenson chose to put equal emphasis on a number of the subplots. It’s a shame; I would have preferred to see a little more focus on Ryden here but I imagine the temptation is when you have actors like Keaton, Burnett and Lynch to use them as much as possible.

They don’t disappoint. Keaton has the manic energy and offbeat timing that made him great in movies like Beetlejuice and Night Shift with a bit of the sitcom dad thrown in. He can dispense words of wisdom one moment then preside over a comic pet funeral the next. He doesn’t get the kinds of leading roles he once did but he still has it. It’s odd to see Lynch as the least quirky person in a movie, but here you have it. She has carved out a particular character niche for herself and she does it without peer. This is one of her more restrained roles yet, and it isn’t a career highlight.

When one sees Burnett playing the grandmother here, the first thing that comes to mind is “Now she’s reduced to this?” She is one of the great comediennes of her generation, certainly the equal of Lily Tomlin and Mary Tyler Moore. You would think the eccentric grandma would be beneath her, but then again that kind of role has served Betty White well.

Gilford, who is one of the fine young actors in “Friday Night Lights”, is given a thankless role that isn’t given a whole lot of depth. Nonetheless, he does a pretty good job making something out of nothing. However, the chemistry that should exist between him and Bledel isn’t really there, and that doesn’t help the movie any.

That’s an awful lot of criticism, but those who have stolen a peak at my rating might be surprised at how high it is. That is because the movie has a good heart at its core. Yes, the individual components are maybe not what they can be, but when you take the movie as a whole you walk away with a warm feeling. The family dynamic worked nicely and in the end they aren’t dysfunctional at all, which is somewhat refreshing in an era when families are depicted in comedies as real horror shows that might send a real-life family counselor screaming into the night, arms waving wildly overhead in a grim parody of Macauley Culkin circa Home Alone.

Needless to say, that doesn’t happen here. While I think the subject matter might have been explored better in a different way, there is at least something here that is pleasant entertainment, if nothing more and it is the nothing more that tends to set critic’s teeth on edge. If your standards aren’t particularly high, you can have a good time with this movie, and that’s really the way to approach it – just sit back, enjoy and don’t try to rewrite it too much in your head. That’s where disappointment is born.

WHY RENT THIS: While uneven, at the core the movie has a good heart despite the clichés. Keaton and Burnett are worth seeing in good movies or bad.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit of a pastiche, sometimes of things that are cliché and bland. For some reason the movie doesn’t focus enough on its main character.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few choice curse words and some sexual situations, but nothing your average teenager wouldn’t be comfortable with.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Alexis Bledel role was originally supposed to go to Amanda Byrnes, but she had to pull out of the project due to other commitments.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of quiz-type games entitled “What Not to Wear” and “Find Your Match! The Best Job for You.” There is also a featurette on interviewing tips, generally skewed towards young women, as well as Gilford and Bledel giving career advice.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.4M on an unreported production budget; I’m guessing that the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Unstoppable