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

The Smartest Kids in the World


Learning comes in all kinds of colors.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Amanda Ripley, Jaxon, Brittany, Sadie, Simone, Meneer Hofstede. Directed by Tracy Droz Tragos

 

It’s no secret that the American education system is in crisis. Differing ideas on how to fix it have been put forth by politicians, ranging from putting more money into education (although we spend more per student than any other developed nation save one) to using a voucher system to allow parents to send kids to private schools, with some feeling that public schools should be discontinued completely and education be left to for-profit private enterprises and religious entities.

But as author Amanda Ripley points out in her bestselling book that this documentary is loosely based on, nobody is asking the students themselves. So, director Tracy Droz Tragos did. Well, kind of. The film follows four students from disparate parts of the country as they go abroad to study as exchange students in four countries whose educational system is generally considered to be superior to ours. Most of this is due to the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA test. However, don’t expect to be told what markers are actually measured – the film doesn’t go into that.

Instead we follow Jaxon, a young man from Wyoming who is frustrated with his high school’s emphasis on sports which has gotten to the point that classes are essentially canceled on Friday so that athletes can participate in various sports and non-athletes can support from the stands (Jaxon himself is a wrestler). He feels unchallenged by the curriculum and sees the situation as an impediment to his future success, so he opts to go to the Netherlands to study, despite speaking not speaking a word of the language.

Brittany (who attended a high school only a few miles from Cinema365 headquarters) chose to go to Finland but was emtarrassed to tell her classmates that she wanted a better education, so she made an excuse that she wanted to visit Lapland because “that’s where Santa Claus was from.” She was surprised to discover an emphasis on student autonomy and less emphasis on homework and tests. There was even a sauna in the school for students to unwind when they feel stressed.

Simone, from the Bronx, is a child of Jamaican immigrants who place a strong emphasis on the value of education. She decided to go to South Korea because she felt that she would be better prepared for higher education that way. A strong work ethic enabled her to learn to speak Korean fluently by the time her exchange program was through. However, she observed that the pressure put on Korean students to perform and excel far exceeded the expectations placed on American students, which caused greater and more debilitating stress-related illnesses among Korean teens.

Sadie, who had been homeschooled in Maine until high school, was disappointed to find an emphasis on conformity and popularity. Most of the students were far behind her level of learning and she felt she was being held back. She went to Switzerland where she discovered that there were programs by Swiss employers to place students in apprenticeships to give them a feel for real-world skills that they would need to develop and help them choose the career path that appealed to them. All four of the countries that the students visited were significantly higher than the United Stats in both math and science PISA scores.

The main problem with the movie is that it doesn’t meaningfully address one of the big obstacles that other, smaller nations don’t have to deal with – the diversity and disparity of our country. The issues facing an inner city school – gang violence, drug use, broken homes, poverty – are very different than the issues confronting rural schools, or those facing suburban schools. While the Korean schools meticulously collected the cell phones of the students every morning, the Swiss and Finnish schools did not.

There is often a perception that kids are more into their social media and less into – well, anything else – and there is some truth to that, but that’s not a problem that exists only in the United States. There seems to be more of a feeling among the students in those four countries that they had a responsibility to be working hard for their own future, something that sometimes seems missing among American students, although it’s not completely gone – certainly the four students here were eager for something better.

A single 100 minute documentary really isn’t sufficient to go into the problems that modern students face; that schools are now teaching more how to take tests than in any sort of real learning (teaching critical thinking is an important aspect that is stressed in all four of those countries), the low pay and high burnout of teachers in this country (in other countries, teachers are well-paid and have similar status to doctors and lawyers), the issue of mass shootings in schools (something more or less unique to the United States), the crumbling infrastructure of most schools and a lack of political will to address it, And that’s just scratching the surface.

Ripley is absolutely correct that we need to listen to students and find out what they need and want out of schools; some may be more interested in fewer tests but more homework, while others would want the opposite. Some might prefer learning to be completely online without any sort of classroom instruction. The point is, the best experts as to what needs to be fixed in schools aren’t even being asked the questions we need to ask.

However, this documentary is a bit of a disappointment, giving only cursory coverage to the various programs in other countries and not really looking critically at the issues facing students and school boards alike, and this is too important a subject to give anything less than in-depth examination.

REASONS TO SEE: An important subject for all parents – and their kids.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as in-depth as it needed to be.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the United States spends more per capita on education than all but one developed nation, its PISA test scores in math and science consistently fall in the bottom third of developed nations.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Together

Wrestling With My Family


Chilling in the squared circle.

(2019) Sports Biography (MGM/United ArtistsFlorence Pugh, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Kimberly Matula, Stephen Merchant, Chloe Csengery, Aqueela Zoll, Paul Wight, Eli Jane, Julia Davis, Stephen Farrelly, Hannah Rae, Theia Trinidad, Helena Holmes, Josh Myers, Thomas Whilley, Tori Ross, John Cena, Ellie Gonsalves. Directed by Stephen Merchant

 

When I first saw the trailers for this film, I thought it looked like a glorified recruitment video for the WWE – and it is. What I didn’t expect was that the movie would be as funny as it was and have the heart that it did. Then, I noticed that it was directed by Stephen Merchant, one of the co-creators of the original British The Office.

Based on the true story of the WWE wrestler Paige (real name: Saraya-Jade Bevis), it shows her formative years as a young wrestler (Pugh) in the family’s low-rent British wrestling promotion based in their home town of Norwich, the Mustard capital of England (we critics are required to know such things). She and her brother Zak (Lowden) have dreams of making it in the big leagues – World Wrestling Entertainment – and are encouraged by their ex-con turned grappler dad (Frost) and recovering ex-junkie mum (Headey).

When a WWE Scout (Vaughn) offers the two of them a try-out, it seems like their dreams will come true, but that’s quickly dashed when they offer a spot to Saraya – but not Zak. She’s loathe to go by herself but is eventually convinced to and she heads out to Orlando to the WWE training center there. Unsure whether she is living out her dream or her family’s, she struggles under the pressure but this is a movie after all, so you just know it’s going to end well.

Even armed with that foreknowledge, it’s surprising how much heart the movie has and that’s a tribute to the cast. Even Dwayne Johnson, the executive producer for the movie who recruited Merchant (who co-starred with him in The Tooth Fairy) to write and direct the film after seeing a documentary on Paige/Saraya in his hotel room while working in the UK, gets a little bit inspirational playing the Rock as an extension of himself. And, yes, the movie does seem to insinuate that if you work hard enough and have the “it” factor, you can come out of nowhere and become a WWE champion based on talent alone – which isn’t how it really works in anything, let alone professional wrestling – you still find yourself getting hit in all the feels. Yeah, it ignores the scripted nature of sports entertainment but nonetheless it will leave you with the warm fuzzies when it’s all over.

REASONS TO SEE: Pugh does a terrific job. Shows unexpected humor and heart.
REASONS TO AVOID: Probably won’t appeal to non-wrestling fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some crude language including sexual references, violence, and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Paige was forced to retire from the ring in 2018 due to a neck injury.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Peanut Butter Falcon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Root of the Problem

From Shock to Awe


In brotherhood there are battles.

(2018) Documentary (Self-Released) Mike Cooley, Matt Kahl, Chris Young, Ryan LeCompte, Brooke Cooley, Aimee Kahl.  Directed by Luc Côtė

 

Every day in America, 22 veterans take their own lives. That’s more than have been killed in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m pretty sure that’s not a statistic that recruiting officers feel free to share with potential recruits.

Mike Cooley and Matt Kahl are both former soldiers living in the Colorado Springs area. Both are married with children (Cooley’s wife is also a combat veteran). Both are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Both have been prescribed an enormous number of pharmaceuticals (over 90, according to Kahl who shows a medicine cabinet stuffed to the gills with pills) and both have found their treatments ineffective. Both describe an endless list of seemingly innocuous triggers, from people talking on cell phones, to being tailgated while driving to school (Cooley is attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) to flashes of light in a dark room.

Both men have been severely crippled by their disease. Their family lives have suffered; their wives feel helpless to ease the suffering of their husbands, who often take their frustrations out on their families or worse yet, shut down completely around them. They’ve tried all sorts of different forms of psychotherapy; none of them have worked.

In desperation, they have flown to Orlando to meet Chris Young, founder of the Soul Quest organization. He proposes using an Amazonian concoction called ayahuasca which is a powerful psychotropic drug that is currently banned in the United States (Young gets around it by using the drug in religious ceremonies and is a shaman with the Ayahuasca Church of the Mother Earth. He prefaces the ceremony by telling the men (who are accompanied by their buddy Ryan LeCompte) that they will experience a deep connection with the natural world.

The change in the men, after several ceremonies both daylight and night time, is remarkable. They are smiling again, able to reconnect with their families. The change is so remarkable that Brooke Cooley, herself suffering from PTSD but unable to tend to her own needs because of the severity of her husband’s condition, undergoes therapy utilizing MDMA, the psychotropic found in Ecstasy. She also experiences remarkable change.

Most documentaries these days tend to favor an non-objective point of view and that is certainly the case here. Although there is a warning that ayahuasca can be dangerous and should only be administered by those experienced with the drug, for the most part we are told that it is a miracle cure based solely on anecdotal evidence. There have been very few serious scientific studies of the plant-based drug and while the website does have some experts discussing the drug, none of that appears in the final film and quite frankly it could have used some. Also, like any other drug, ayahuasca doesn’t work the same way for everybody and it isn’t always helpful.

In fact, there are almost no talking heads other then Cooley, Kahl and their wives. Military footage from the Middle East is often interspersed into the film, forming a cinematic equivalent to the flashbacks the vets often suffer through – thankfully, however, Côtė doesn’t use animation or CGI to mimic the psychedelic experience of the ayahuasca.

There certainly is enough anecdotal evidence to mount a serious medical study of the drug, but the United States is reluctant to look into any sort of psychoactive substance with any seriousness, perhaps due to the disastrous LSD studies of the 50s and 60s. Big Pharma is also unwilling to allow such studies to be taken; they earn far more in treating the symptoms than they would from finding a cure. This is why capitalism and medicine shouldn’t mix.

Still, the problem that vets face with PTSD, depression and suicide is very real and the current means of dealing with it are woefully inadequate. Our veterans do deserve better and this movie at least makes that salient point. I only wish they’d gone about it with a little more research and skepticism; our veterans also deserve to see every side to a potential life-changing cure. There is no vetting of a drug that can admittedly be dangerous, and that in and of itself is also dangerous.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark portrayal of how our system fails veterans. Shows the effects of PTSD not only on the returning soldiers but on their families as well.
REASONS TO AVOID: Shows little objectivity when it comes to alternative treatments.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty fair amount of salty language, depictions of drug use and some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly 20% of all combat veterans who have returned from service in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Shaman
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Marching Forward


The Jones High Marching Tigers at the 1964 World’s Fair.

(2019) Documentary (University of Central Florida) James “Chief” Wilson, Del Kieffner, Carl Maultsby, Kay Kieffner Kimbrough, Jamaal Nicholas, Richard Fogelsong, Jamia Wilson, Joy Dickinson, Barbara Young, Nina Wilson Jones, Ben Brolemarkle, Virginia Wilson, Noel Wooley Weller, Karen Jones, Anthony Foster, Lyman Brodie, Barbara Kaye Burns, Lynn Kieffner Lockhart. Directed by Oswmer Louis, Lisa Mills and Robert Cassanello

High school is the time when the people we are as adults is influenced perhaps more than at any other time of our lives. The people who guide us (teachers, counselors, parents) are slowly displaced by our peers. The friendships we form in high school can be indelible, lasting the length of our lives even if we no longer have physical proximity.

Here in Orlando back in 1964, schools were segregated. Jones High School was one of the only high schools African-American students could attend. While race relations in Orlando were relatively mild, there was still plenty of things that needed to change – for example, members of the band recall demanding a nearby hamburger stand allow them to pay at the front window to get their burgers. Those demands resulted in a police action at band practice later that day.

Edgewater High School, by contrast, was lily white and fairly upper class. The students there were expected to become leaders of the community as well as of the state of Florida eventually. They had the best facilities available, the most modern amenities. Jones was lucky if they had enough books for everybody. The high school experience for students at these two Orlando high schools was night and day.

But both had one thing in common; marching bands that were among the best in the state. James “Chief” Wilson was the band leader at the time (and would continue to do so until he retired in the 1980s) at Jones and one of his closest friends was Del Kieffner, band leader at Edgewater. Both men took their jobs seriously of molding young people into a cohesive unit. Both men influenced their students who these days are of retirement age themselves, even now more than 50 years later. Both men are regarded fondly not only by the students who played in their bands but are revered by the institutions they served for so long and so well.

In 1964 the big news was the massive World’s Fair coming to New York City’s Flushing Meadow for a two-year run. On display would be the latest in manufacturing, tourism and amusements; the world was coming to New York and at the Florida pavilion it was determined that marching bands from high schools from around the state would be invited to play at the pavilion. The two best bands in the city were Edgewater and Jones; there was no doubt that Edgewater was going to go.

However, Jones didn’t have the kind of budget to send their kids to New York. Everything would have to be done through donations and through fund raisers. Many thought Jones was the best marching band in the State – they’d won several competitions to back their case. Many felt that Jones had to go. Among those was Del Kieffner. This set the stage for history.

According to his daughters, Kieffner was never really concerned about the history-making aspect of the Edgewater-Jones relationship; he only knew it was the right thing to do. Wilson however, also according to his daughters, was savvier about what it meant. It would illustrate that Orlando was a much more tolerant place than other like places in the South. It is not beyond the realm of chance that this attracted the attention of Walt Disney, who was even then scouting locations for an East Coast Disneyland at the time. Disney had a huge presence at the Fair with many what would become iconic attractions being tested there, including It’s a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress. While there isn’t any documentation to corroborate this, it had to register that African-American tourists would be more welcome in Orlando than they would be in other cities.

The documentary is clearly a labor of love. It clearly shows the lifelong bonds of affection generated by being in band, as well as the influence the band leaders had on those kids – many of whom went on to become educators themselves. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of footage that exists of the band from that period other than some 16mm home movie footage so much of the film is made up of interviews with the people who were there and their descendants. Even though the film is a compact 61 minutes, the non-stop interviews can make it seem like a segment of 60 Minutes.

This is also a student project so many student hands can be felt during the making of this film, but surprisingly, it doesn’t feel like a student film at all. Many student documentaries tend to feel like the viewer is being led by the nose to a specific conclusion; this one allows the viewer to feel the sweep of history without feeling manipulated. Kudos have to go to the faculty members who guided the project and allowed the students to do their thing, but also keep the movie entertaining and informative.

There are some brief animated segments with fairly basic techniques but the animations do make a nice break from the interviews which the movie really needs. I do have to stress that in reading this review, you should be aware I saw it at a Florida Film Festival screening that was packed to the gills mainly with Jones and Edgewater students who were involved in the World’s Fair trip, or who had played in bands led by Wilson and Kieffner. It was a fairly enthusiastic environment and no doubt enhanced my enjoyment of the film. Most readers will be unlikely to be able to recreate that experience.

Still, this is a well-made documentary about a moment that has been largely overlooked by history. In a turbulent era, it showed that there could be mutual respect and even friendship between black and white. A lot of myths were punctured. The film makes it easy to take a look back and feel part of that era without becoming strident. That’s a massive plus in and of itself.

Currently the filmmakers are looking to place the movie in film festivals and hosted screenings. If you are interested in hosting a screening or are a programmer in a film festival interested in booking the film, go to the film’s webpage by clicking on the photo above and contact the filmmakers directly.

REASONS TO SEE: The bond formed within marching bands is clearly illustrated. Chief Wilson is an unsung hero. The animation, while basic, is effective.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit heavy on the talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes regarding racism and segregation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film began as a class project at the University of Central Florida; after class ended, the two faculty members (Mills and Cassanello) as well as several students worked to complete the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marching Orders
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Satan and Adam

The Florida Project


Get ready for your close-up, Orlando.

(2017) Drama (A24) Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian, Sandy Kane, Jim R. Coleman, Carl Bradfield, Mela Murder, Josie Olivo, Shalil Kamini Ramcharan, Kit Sullivan, Andrew Romano, Kelly Fitzgerald, Betty Jeune, Aiden Malik, Krystal Gordon, Cecilia Quinan. Directed by Sean Baker

 

It’s no secret that life isn’t easy. Making ends meet, particularly for young single mothers, is a constant struggle. Sometimes that struggle can take place in sight of the happiest places on earth, lending a particular poignancy to things.

6-year-old Moonie (Prince) and her mom Haley (Vinaite) live in the Magic Castle Motel, a budget motel on the 192 corridor near Disney World in a suburb of Orlando. The motel is managed by Bobby (Dafoe) whose rough edges sometimes mask the good heart he has underneath it all. Haley is unemployed, a former stripper who barely is able to make ends meet and the weekly rent for the hotel room is nearly always late. Mooney has a coterie of friends, most notably Jancey (Cotto) from the neighboring Tomorrowland Motel and Scooty (Rivera) whose mom Gloria (Kane) works at the nearby Waffle House, supplying Moonie and Haley with free food and also happens to be Haley’s best friend.

Moonie pretty much has free rein to do whatever she likes, be it throw water balloons at tourists, venture out to the nearby farmland for a “safari,” and hurl profane epithets at sunbathing elderly women. Sometimes, she and Scooty pick up extra cash by carrying the luggage of tourists to their rooms. The reality of her situation is probably lost on Moonie; for all she knows this is how everybody lives. Still, she has an active imagination and if she is a bit on the wild side, it can be forgiven.

That wild behavior can be explained by Haley who is herself amoral, crude and immature. Haley spends her days reselling perfume and expensive resorts (illegally) and when that scheme goes sideways, selling her body while Moonie takes a bath in the adjoining bathroom. She also robs some of her clients from time to time reselling their Magic Bands at discount ticket places.

Haley always seems to be just barely keeping their heads above water but the tide is definitely coming in and it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes. What will happen to Moonie if it does?

Those of my acquaintance who have seen the movie are sharply divided regarding their opinions of it. Nearly everyone agrees – including the critics who seem to be pretty much in unison with their praise for the film – that the first 45 minutes and the last 20 minutes are some of the best moments in filmmaking you’ll see this year. The final scene however is where that divide comes in. Some say that it comes out of left field and completely ruins the movie. Others say that it is tonally perfect and makes a great film into a potential classic.

Count me in the latter camp. That’s pretty much all I’ll say about the ending, other than that it is consistent with the tone of the movie and if you understand that this movie isn’t about Haley as much as it is about Moonie you might be able to make peace with that final scene.. I know that for a few minutes I had many of the same complaints about that ending until I thought about it for a few minutes and then realized that it fits perfectly with the movie’s theme which has a lot to do with deliberately shielding yourself from the harsh realities of life.

The performances here are simply amazing. Prince is a revelation; this is simply put one of the best juvenile performances caught on film ever. Some of the language that comes out of her mouth is salty but it feels natural considering how the adults around her speak and how the circumstances around her warrant it. Be that as it may, Moonie is full of herself, more than a little wild and absolutely fearless – until very near the end when she reveals that under all the bravado she is still a little girl and that comes through during a poignant scene as things start to fall apart. Although I suspect Prince will have her choice of little girl roles if she wants them, she might be better advised to retire now. It’s hard to imagine her ever equaling this performance.

Dafoe is a veteran who has some memorable performances of his own to his credit and this is one of the most sympathetic portrayals of his career. He often plays characters with fairly hard edges; here those edges are still there but we see a lot more of the soft interior than we normally do with Dafoe. He watches the train wreck that is Haley and Moonie with appropriately sad eyes.

The performance that not as many critics are talking about belongs to Vinaite. She is flat-out brilliant. Whenever Haley takes her daughter off motel property, you instinctively wonder what fresh nightmare is about to unfold. It is cinema of the rubberneck variety, the phenomenon of drivers craning their necks to get a better look at an accident as they drive past. One has to remember that Haley is little more than a child herself, the tattoos and drugs and men a testament to the bad choices she’s made over the years. Critically, one doesn’t see or hear referred to any immediate family for Haley; other than Moonie, she’s on her own. It’s no shock then that her values are the values of the street, of survival.

It’s early in the awards season and there are plenty of highly regarded projects that still have yet to make it into the theaters but this has to be strongly in the running for at least a Best Picture nomination and maybe more. This is definitely a must-see if it is playing in an art house near you and if not, make every effort to see it when it comes out on VOD or home video. This is certainly one of the best pictures of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The performances here are wonderful, particularly by Prince, Dafoe and Vinaite. The cinematography is colorful and magical. This is the story of people literally living on the ragged edge.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is sharply divisive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content, adult themes and drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although most of the film was shot on 35mm, the final scene was shot on an iPhone without the knowledge or consent of those in charge of the location where it takes place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 91//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Motel Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Novitiate

Thar She Blows


Some of you may be aware that I’m based in the Orlando area. Starting later on tonight, we’ll be experiencing the leading edges of Hurricane Irma, the largest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic. While we are understandably nervous about the oncoming threat, do be aware that we are well inland and won’t receive the kind of devastation that they are predicting for the coast.

However, there will certainly be plenty of wind and rain and likely a loss of power. How long we’ll be without electricity is anyone’s guess; could be a matter of hours or days. Cinema365 will for that reason be offline for a bit but rest assured we will be back. However, it will only be for a short time; if everything goes as planned, I’ll be leaving on Sunday the 17th for a 12 day vacation, returning on the 29th. Regular publication will resume on the 30th. However, I will try to get out a review for Stronger on or about the 22nd. Otherwise, it will be an interesting couple of weeks. Those who are also in harm’s way of Irma, particularly those on the coast and those who have already been devastated by Harvey over in Texas, you are in our prayers as are those who may be affected by other storms as well as wildfires in the Northwest, flooding in Asia and other disasters that seem to be coming at us one after another. Hopefully we’ll be back shortly to provide you with a relief from this kind of news and take your mind off of things with talk of movies both big and small. Take care, all.

Tickled


From such things comes Internet tickle porn,

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, David Starr, Hal Karp, David D’Amato, Kevin Clark, TJ Gretzner, Richard Ivey, Alden, Jordan Schillaci, Marko Realmone, Debbie Scoblionkov. Directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

Once in awhile, a movie comes along that is a surprise to even the filmmakers. They start out making one story when all of a sudden it turns completely off the rails and heads into directions unknown. A good filmmaker will follow it as best they can. A great filmmaker will keep up with it and begin to help shape it themselves.

Journalist David Farrier from New Zealand has a tendency to follow quirky stories. When he saw an internet video for “competitive endurance tickling,” he thought at first it had to be a joke. When it turned out to be a thing, he thought it would make a great feature for his television program. He asked the producers of the videos he found, Jane O’Brien Media, he contacted them to set something up. To his surprise, he got a refusal. When he inquired as to why, he received sharply homophobic messages (David is gay) and as he pressed, the messages from the representative at Jane O’Brien Media became increasingly insulting and threatening.

His interest completely piqued, he asked for a face-to-face meeting with some of the people who worked for Jane O’Brien and met up with Marko Realmone and Kevin Clark, both members of the O’Brien legal team. The meeting didn’t go well and lawsuits were threatened if Farrier continued to pursue any sort of investigation. His journalistic senses now sensing a much different story going on, Farrier and his partner Dylan Reeve started digging into the world of the tickling fetish, speaking to David Starr, who makes fetish videos from his Orlando home, and Hal Karp who was a former talent scout for Jane O’Brien Media but who’d had a falling out with them since.

The more that Farrier and Reeve dug, the more they found instances of online bullying, threats and blackmail from Jane O’Brien Media to former employees and participants in the tickling videos which were essentially thinly veiled fetish videos. And as they did more digging going back to the online videos of one Terri DiSisto they discovered an alarming pattern of abuse, identity theft, harassment and internet fraud. Eventually all of this led back to one man: David D’Amato, the heir to a fortune from his lawyer father who seems to be the spider in the center of the web, a man who has jealously guarded his privacy. But what is he hiding?

This film, which played at the 2016 Florida Film Festival and can now be seen on HBO, is one that the viewer never knows what’s going to happen next. It is the kind of film that proves the adage “truth is stranger than fiction.” Although Farrier is making his feature film debut, he has tons of television experience and the movie benefits from it. The movie never drags and never fails to deliver twists and turns, some of them absolutely jaw-dropping.

The movie comes off like a suspense thriller and you feel a genuine sense of threat even as you think to yourself “this is an online bully hiding behind Internet anonymity” but at the same time you can’t be one hundred percent sure. Even during the Orlando sequence when Farrier portrays the fetish as an essentially harmless one (and thankfully so), there is a sense of menace that pervades the movie and one wonders if the lawyers will succeed in shutting down the pursuit of truth. This is a movie that illustrates just how important investigative journalism can be in finding out the truth even in the face of threats to career and reputation.

It should be noted that the D’Amato vigorously denies the veracity of the reporting here and insists that he is not involved with Jane O’Brien Media or Terri DiSisto in any way, despite documented evidence to the contrary. Lawsuits have indeed been filed although attempts to keep the film from being shown were unsuccessful.

While some may find the world of tickling fetish videos a bit too bizarre for their liking, to me this isn’t about the fetish so much as it is about control. Abuse thrives in silence and those who feel powerless often remain silent. Sometimes it takes someone with a powerful torch to cast light in the darkness and give a voice to the powerless. This is a terrific documentary which underscores just how necessary documentaries are.

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that will literally keep you guessing. The value of good investigative journalism is shown.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too bizarre for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two directors, a producer, the executive producer and one of the actors were all sued in U.S. Federal District Court by D’Amato and others in an effort to stop the film from being shown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Winter Sun

Sisters


Sisters partying like it's 1989.

Sisters partying like it’s 1989.

(2015) Comedy (Universal) Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ike Bairnholz, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Madison Davenport, Rachel Dratch, Santino Fontana, Britt Lower, Samantha Bee, Matt Oberg, Kate McKinnon, Jon Glaser, Chris Parnell, Paula Pell, Emily Tarver. Directed by Jason Moore

I’m a big fan of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. For one thing, they’re really, really funny and when paired up, even funnier. As a matter of fact, they might just be the best all-female comedy team of all time. Think about it; how many all-female comedy teams are you aware of? There definitely should be more of them.

So this is their second movie together after the successful Baby Mama and it has kind of a John Hughes-like scenario. Two sisters – Kate Ellis (Fey), a 40ish foul-up who is brash and sexy, and Maura (Poehler), a divorced nurse with a charitable compulsion that sometimes leads to awkwardness – are summoned home to Orlando (although only one scene was filmed here) to their ancestral family home which their parents (Brolin, Wiest) are putting on the market so that they can move into a retirement community and divest themselves of most of their possessions. The girls are meant to clean out their rooms so that the sale can be finalized the following Monday.

Much nostalgia ensues as the girls decide to throw one last blow-out party like the ones they threw in high school…when Maura would be the responsible one and Kate would party hard. With the realization that Maura never got laid in her own bedroom and the window of opportunity closing, Kate decides to snare James (Bairnholz), a hunky neighbor, to seal the deal.

Kate offers to be the designated party Mom and stay sober, which is a new role for her. She does have a teenage daughter (Davenport) but their relationship is rocky. In fact, the daughter has left the nest, exasperated by her mom’s irresponsibility and party party party attitude and she refuses to tell Kate where she is. Determined to prove herself responsible, Kate throws herself full tilt into her new role.

And that’s really it for plot. If you’ve seen one high school blowout party movie, you’ve seen them all and this is essentially a middle aged riff on that. It has that 80s John Hughes movie kind of vibe which isn’t a bad thing at all, but lacks the really laugh-out-loud consistency that Hughes was able to create for his movies. There’s more of a Farrelly Brothers consistency in which everything is thrown at the comedy wall and whatever sticks does, the more outrageous the better. There are more bra jokes in this movie than I think have been in any movie in cinematic history, and some drug humor (although nothing like a Seth Rogen film) for people who don’t do drugs. There is most definitely a been-there done-that feel to things, and while that can make for cinematic comfort food, it really isn’t what you want out of talents the likes of Poehler and Fey.

The good thing is that Fey and Poehler are one of the greatest comic teams in history – not just female, but any. Their chemistry is undeniable and the two play off of each other better than anyone working in the movies today. It’s at the center of the movie (as well it should be) and makes their roles as sisters thoroughly believable. Da Queen, who has a sister, agreed that it was a realistic portrayal of the dynamic between sisters.

There is a cornucopia of supporting roles, from SNL veterans (Fey, Poehler, Dratch, Moynihan, Rudolph) to WWE wrestlers (Cena) to Daily Show stars (Bee) and sitcom regulars (Bairnholz, Brolin). Most of the roles are essentially one-dimensional who are there to add a specific element (angry rival, studly drug dealer, drugged-out class clown, Asian pedicurist) to the proceedings, but like the leads are given very little to do that is really genuinely funny. Bairnholz shows some promise as a comic leading man though, and Rudolph manages to express every annoyed expression that it is possible for a human face to make.

Don’t get me wrong; this is entertaining enough that I can recommend it, largely due to Fey and Poehler, but this isn’t as good as it could and should have been. A pedestrian plot and lack of actual laughs turn this from what should have been a showcase for two of the most talented comedians working today into a just average comedy with too many characters and not enough character.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between Fey and Poehler continues. Some fine supporting performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Not enough laugh-out-loud jokes. The plot is too been-there done-that.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of crude sexual content, a fair amount of profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brolin and Wiest also play parents in last year’s indie film Life in Pieces.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Step Brothers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Won’t Back Down

99 Homes


These days a man's home is the bank's castle.

These days a man’s home is the bank’s castle.

(2015) Drama (Broad Green) Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown, Tim Guinee, Nicole Barré, Yvonne Landry, Noah Lomax, J.D. Eyermore, Cullen Moss, Jordyn McDempsey, Ann Mahoney, Judd Lormand, Deneen Tyler, Donna Duplantier, Wayne Pére, Cynthia Santiago, Juan Gaspard, Nadiyah Skyy Taylor. Directed by Ramin Bahrani

It wasn’t that long ago that the economy tanked in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Homes were being foreclosed upon at rates unheard of since the Great Depression. Families were displaced, the rich got richer and in essence nothing has changed since then other than the banks are being more circumspect somewhat, but none of the regulations that had kept this from happening before have been reinstated.

Taking place in 2010, the events in 99 Homes are said to have actually happened although I’m unclear whether they took place in the Orlando locale the film is set in. Dennis Nash (Garfield) is a construction worker who discovers that the builders of the development he’s working for have run out of money and that the past two weeks he’s been working are going to go unpaid.

His childhood home, which he lives in with his mother (Dern) and grew up in is underwater and he’s several payments behind. The bank isn’t terribly interested in anything but foreclosure and his trip to court has left him reeling; the judge, overwhelmed with the number of foreclosure cases, simply rubberstamps the bank’s request and sends Dennis packing. Dennis is told he has 30 days to appeal.

A few days later realtor Rick Carver (Shannon) shows up at Dennis’ door and without so much as a fare-thee-well tosses him, his son Connor (Lomax) and his mom into the street along with all their stuff. He is forced to move them into a skeevy hotel which is mostly filled with other evictees, some of them who’ve been there two years or more. He needs to find work now more than ever but there simply isn’t any to be had, the construction business hit hard by the fact that banks aren’t making business loans so there is nothing being built.

When he discovers that some of his tools are missing, he goes back to Carver to demand their return. Carver, impressed with his moxie, puts him to work doing a particularly disagreeable job on a foreclosed home whose previous owners let their displeasure be known in a rather spectacular way. Carver, admiring Nash’s work ethic, hires him on to do odd construction jobs and then to snatch air conditioning units from foreclosed homes that the banks will pay Carver money to install “new” units, which of course Carver simply has Nash reinstall the old units. Shifty, no?

Eventually as Nash continues to help Carver do his dirty work, Carver puts him to work doing the work that Nash is most wary of – presiding over foreclosures. Nash is sympathetic to the victims but soon becomes good at it and continues to help Carver with his chicanery. He even helps Carver set up a deal that will make them both unimaginably rich.

The issue is that Nash has a conscience and it’s beginning to get pricked, particularly in the case of a particular homeowner (Guinee). And when it all comes to a head, will Nash choose money or conscience?

This is a movie that captures the Great American Nightmare circa 2015 (yes, it’s still the Great American Nightmare). It’s a story that’s all too tragically common and will hit an emotional resonance that will touch even those who haven’t had money problems in their lives.

Garfield takes a role that he’s really more suited to than the teenage costumed superhero that he has been playing most recently. He’s still not the commanding screen presence that he might be but he’s a talented actor in his own right. What shines here though is Shannon as the slimy real estate agent whose greed and cynicism are palpable. He has a speech in which he talks about America bailing out winners that sounds like something Trump would say. I daresay that the orange-haired Republican Presidential candidate would probably like this movie for all the wrong reasons.

Dern, who has become one of the best actresses that is always getting notice but never getting noticed if you catch my drift, is once again magnificent here. She is the movie’s conscience and there are few actresses who can pull it off without being maudlin but Dern accomplishes it. She probably won’t be more than an afterthought for a Best Supporting Actress nomination here but that’s more because the script goes off the rails at the end.

Yeah, the ending. Let’s talk about it. What bugs me about Hollywood endings is that you establish a character, establish their credibility and then as the movie ends suddenly they change and act a completely different way than they’ve acted throughout the film. That’s not the way real people act and audiences know that. If you’re going to be charitable through the first 85% of the movie, the audience is going to expect you to be charitable the last 15% too. You have to follow your own internal logic. This movie doesn’t do that.

Still, it’s a fine movie that for the most part covers an issue that faces all American homeowners even those who think they’re well off. Other than that 1% we’ve heard so much about, most Americans are only a single paycheck away from financial issues and once you’ve got those it can be excruciatingly difficult to climb out from under them. The game is rigged that way and nobody wants to talk about it. Thank goodness for filmmakers like Bahrani who do.

REASONS TO GO: Real life horror. Terrific performances by Shannon and Dern.
REASONS TO STAY: Inexplicably bad ending.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language including some sexual references and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Garfield has worn facial hair in a film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Margin Call
FINAL RATINGS: 7/10
NEXT: All This Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records