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

CRSHD


Digital girls in an internet world.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parkland Rising


A class picture.

(2019) Documentary (AbramoramaDavid Hogg, Miguel Oliver, Cameron Kasky, Aly Sheehy, Emma Gonzalez, Ryan Deitsch, Fred Guttenberg, Kevin Hogg, Patricia Oliver, Jaclyn Corin, Sam Zeif, Ronit Redven, Rebecca Boldrick Hogg, Laura Sheeny, Stephany de Oliveira, Jeff Foster, Sandy Davis, Matt Deitsch, Jamal Lemy, Mitch Dworet, Andrea Ghersi, Amanda Lee. Directed by Cheryl Horner

 

School shootings have been the new normal for a couple of decades now, going back to Columbine in 1999. The one that may have captured the imagination of the country most, however, is the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018.

On that day, a former student with a history of emotional problems entered the school with an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon and opened fire indiscriminately, killing 17 people and wounding many more. It was the deadliest shooting at an American school and as with other school shootings, provoked anger and renewed calls for stricter gun registration and bans on AR-15 (and similar) weapons.

But the students did something that hadn’t been done after other school shootings; they became activists. Names like David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez and Cameron Kasky became household names. They organized what was to that time the largest march on Washington DC, March for Our Lives which also counted 88 other marches in tandem with the main one. It wasn’t just the parents speaking out; it was the kids themselves demanding change.

The tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School has been the subject of all sorts of scrutiny – I’m aware of at least five different documentaries on the subject including this one. This one begins with the 9-1-1 calls; we can hear, in the background, the Whomp! Whomp! Whomp! sounds of gunfire, bringing a sick feeling as they grow closer to the callers.

 

We see students grieving and mourning, and some of the steps taken in the days and weeks following the shootings. The students are required to bring clear plastic backpacks which is the subject of much derision. Hogg points out, accurately, that it wouldn’t be that difficult to hide a handgun inside one of those packs.

Most of the rest of the film focuses mostly on Hogg and Manuel Oliver, father of murdered student Joaquin “Guac” Oliver. Become activists in their own way; Hogg through organizing the March for Our Lives and the following tour of the States to urge voters in the 2018 midterm elections to vote out candidates accepting money from the National Rifle Association.

We also see the daily harassment Hogg received from pro-gun advocates, screaming at him from pick-up trucks that would then peel off, as if they were terrified that he might chase them down and beat them up. He received death threats (not mentioned in the film is that Hogg has claimed that there have been seven attempts on his life that were foiled by law enforcement) but seemingly handled them with a maturity you wouldn’t expect from a teen.

There is a very effective moment when the yearbook for the school is released; the memorial section for the seventeen dead celebrates their lives as Aly Sheehy, who worked on the yearbook, reads off their names.

As documentaries about the subject go, this one is among the best, although there really isn’t a lot of material here that isn’t available elsewhere. One thing in the documentary’s favor is that it is bringing back the question of gun violence back into the national conversation after it has been largely swept aside by the pandemic and George Floyd protests going on at the moment.

REASONS TO SEE: Very emotional in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: The subject may be overly documented.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing content, and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two survivors of the Parkland massacre took their own lives in March 2019.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Theatrical Release
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews; Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Parkland
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Outlaws

The Social Ones


It’s Facebook’s world and we’re just living in it.

(2019) Comedy (Comedy Dynamics) Debra Jo Rupp, Richard Kind, Stephanie March, Peter Scolari, Colton Ryan, Amanda Giobbi, Laura Kosann, Danielle Kosann, Setareki Wainiqolo, Desi Domo, Allegra Edwards, David T. Patterson, Jackie Hoffman, Davram Steifler, Gianmarco Soresi, Nicky Maindiratta, Nancy Nagrant, Nicole Kang, Martin Tsien, Vera Kelman. Directed by Laura Kosann

 

Social media has become a major force in our lives. We peruse Facebook daily, check out the Instagram of those we admire, watch our YouTube video channels and hang out in SnapChat, among other social media enterprises. It’s gotten so that we can’t say anything without wondering how we can make it a hashtag.

This mockumentary sends up social media culture. It revolves Round Influencer magazine – which covers the celebrities of social media – that is about to celebrate their fifth anniversary. The cover story for their milestone issue will feature the five most important social media influencers. There’s SnapChat sensation Dan Summers (Ryan) who has the largest following of anyone and is considered the biggest influencer in social media; fashion diva Josie Z (Giobbi) who terrorizes her assistant (Steifler) no end, viral chef Dixie Bell (Domo) who has the vocabulary of a sailor to go with a butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth Southern demeanor away from the kitchen, the self-proclaimed God of Memes Kap Phat Jawacki (Wainiqolo), and vlogger Jane Zap (Kang) who dresses animals in costumes and asks important questions of the day – “should I wear one barrette or two?”

Presiding over this zoo are twins Ava (D. Kosann) and Mia (L. Kosann) Archer, co-editors in chief of the magazine. Dealing with all the egos and vapid demands are causing their anxiety levels to skyrocket through the roof. They are augmented by a university professor (Scolari) who teaches bored college kids about social media “What is a like? Anyone? How about a troll?” an author of breathless romantic novels based on social media (Rupp) and a psychiatrist who treats on emotional disorders brought on by social media (March). And in the background? The architect of modern social media (Kind) although don’t mention MySpace to him – we all have our triggers, after all.

The movie owes much to the oeuvre of Christopher Guest; his This is Spinal Tap! really established the genre. Kosann has a similar style to Guest’s and a similar deadpan delivery. As it is for Guest, that’s a double-edged sword that when it works (Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind) can be amazing but also can be excruciating to sit through when it doesn’t.

Guest also had the benefit of comedic firepower that Kosann simply doesn’t have access to, names like the late great Fred Willard, Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Rob Reiner, and Harry Shearer, among others. While there are some pretty decent talents here (Domo and Giobbi stand out as well as veterans Kind, Scolari and March), they don’t approach that level. Kosann also has to contend with built-in obsolescence; this is the kind of movie that will seem quaint and out-of-touch in only a few years, so its staying power on VOD will likely be short.

What Kosann does well is send up our shallow, self-obsessed internet culture in which we are absolutely frantic with FOMO and need to document everything to the point of mania. I have to admit that I find it amusing to see a person staring at their smartphone with an expression like they’re analyzing Plato’s Republic or thinking up a new algorithm that will make it possible to end disease, war and poverty in a single day. If we as a society put in the kind of effort to eradicating those things as we do at staring at cat videos, we might just actually accomplish something.

The dry humor may not be appealing to everyone but the movie does have some laugh-out-loud moments, although those who have trouble telling apart Facebook from Instagram may not get as much value from the movie as those who are caught up in social media, and those folks might find this trite and condescending. Still, those who obsessively follow influencers and endlessly document the minutiae of their day may well find the attention to be exactly what they’re after.

REASONS TO SEE: A fairly accurate skewering of the social media generation.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit dry and low-energy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and rude behavior.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Laura and Danielle Kosann are sisters in real life, although not twins as depicted in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best in Show
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
A Peloton of One

Searching


Somewhere you never want to see your daughter’s photo.

(2018) Thriller (Screen Gems) John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Sara Sohn, Joseph Lee, Dominic Hoffman, Briana McLean, Roy Abramsohn, Kristin Herold, Ric Sarabia, Gage Biltoft, Lasaundra Gibson, Connor McRaith, Dominic Hoffman, Erica Jenkins, Johnno Wilson, Rasha Goel, Erin Henriques, Steven Michael Eich, John Macey, Betsy Foldes, Katie Rowe. Directed by Aneesh Chaganty

Every parent’s nightmare is for their child to go missing. In a world filled with predators who lurk disguised as would-be friends on social media sites, it is all too easy for a naïve youngster to get in over their heads in a situation that could prove to be dangerous.

David Kim (Cho) is a widower who hasn’t quite come to grips with the death of his wife and has become, in many ways, a helicopter parent, hovering over his daughter Margot (La) – the only family he has left other than his brother Peter (Lee) – to prevent the possibility of him losing her too. But when she doesn’t return home after an all-night study session and after some inquiries he discovers to his horror that she left the study session early, he calls the cops. Helpful detective Vick (Messing) gets his case and suggests he search through her laptop, which she had left at home (another ominous sign), to find out who she is close to and start contacting them.

The more David looks into his daughter’s online life, the more he realizes how little he really knew his daughter. With time ticking away and only a precious few clues as to her whereabouts to peruse, David grows more desperate.

The entire film is seen through laptop screens, smartphone screens, surveillance footage and news broadcast – very much a product of the 21st century. This could have been extremely gimmicky and towards the end it starts to feel that way, but first-time feature director Chaganty keeps things pretty fresh; he uses actual websites and apps in an effort to play to the target demographic who live their lives online. The problem with that is it is going to horribly date this movie in a matter of just a few years and it will lose its relevance quickly.

Still, Cho’s performance as a grieving husband and terrified father is universal and he is as good as I’ve ever seen him.  The director’s point of how rather than being connected by the Internet, we have actually grown more isolated and fragmented, is well-taken. Unfortunately, all the good will the film builds up is nearly lost with a preposterous ending that will lead to much face-palming, even with the online crowd.

REASONS TO SEE: Cho delivers the most powerful performance of his career. Really plays up the disconnect of the digital age.
REASONS TO AVOID: Jumps the shark a bit at the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexual references, adult thematic content and some drug references as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The firm where David works, AppEnsure, actually exists. It was founded by Chaganty’s father and both his parents are executives there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes::92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfriended
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mile 22

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

Hot Doug’s: The Movie


Hot Dog? Why, yes please!

(2016) Documentary (Random) Doug Sohn, Homaro Cantu, Steve Albini, Carlos Garcia, Barbara Tyksinski Benjamin Roman, Alex August, Steve Labedz, Michael Cantu, Brenda Maher, Octavio Garcia, Jose Luis Garduño, George Serveris, Alex Baez, Dan Sinker, Marco Roman, Michael Helminiak, Christian Garcia, April T.  Directed by Christopher Markos

 

Ah, the humble hot dog. Not even apple pie is as conscientiously American in the world’s imagination. While there are those who see New York City with their ubiquitous pushcarts as the hot dog Mecca, in recent years most outside the New York area would agree that Chicago is the epicenter for hot dog heaven and the Chicago dog the gold standard for dogs.

Douglas Sohn was the proprietor of Hot Doug’s, a hot dog in Chicago that was known for its rabid following. The line to get in normally stretched down the block and rare was the day when the average wait to get in wasn’t two hours or more. What made those dogs so special that Chicagoans, who aren’t exactly lacking for places to get a fine hot dog, were willing to endure waits – often in terrible weather – for his?

Sohn recalled that he started his establishment because he wanted a place that used the finest ingredients for their hot dogs. Early on, they stuck to basic frankfurters but eventually Doug decided to get a little wild; first off was the Atomic Dog, laden with spices and peppers. He asked his sausage supplier George Serveris for more exotic sausages and he responded with encased meat (as sausage lovers prefer to call them) from wild boar, rabbit and eventually such off-the-wall items as escargot and foie gras.

No less an authority than the late Anthony Bourdain – best-selling author, classically trained chef, TV host, world traveler and noted hot dog junkie – proclaimed Hot Doug’s one of 13 places you must eat at before you die. When he featured the show on his popular No Reservations program Hot Doug’s was transformed from a local hangout to a global phenomenon. Sure, the high-end hot dogs had a lot to do with it but much of the appeal lay with Sohn himself, who for fourteen years took every order at the front counter, interacting with his customers with goofy charm and a down-to-earth Midwestern sense of humor. He made each customer feel like part of the gang and that attitude carried on to the staff.

It all came to an end on October 3, 2014. Six months prior, the store announced on social media that it would be closing its doors for good on that date. When October 3 rolled around, the line was unbelievable as people waited in line in cold, rainy, miserable weather to get their last fix of Hot Doug’s. It was a testament to Sohn and his staff that although the staff knew well in advance that the run was coming to an end, almost all of them elected to keep working right up until the end.

The documentary clocks in at a brisk 56 minutes and Markos does an excellent job of giving the viewer a “you are there” experience. While there is some behind the scenes kind of stuff and a fair amount of talking heads, most of those he interviews are so engaging (particularly Sohn himself) that he can be forgiven.

Unfortunately, what he delivers in atmosphere he lacks in context. We get little reason for the store’s closing other than “it was time.” We also get no update as to what Sohn is up to now that his store is closed – he’s a pretty young guy so I assume he hasn’t retired on his hot dog earnings. One also wonders about the timing – did Markos know in advance about Sohn’s plans, or was he making the documentary and the closing just happened to occur while he was doing it. It doesn’t feel contrived so I’m inclined to believe the latter but one can’t know for sure.

One of the regular customers at Hot Doug’s summed up his impression of the store thusly: “It was a hot dog stand but it was a damn good hot dog stand” and that is about as fine an epitaph as any eating establishment could ever hope for. The film succeeds in portraying what it was like to enjoy a dog, the stand’s signature French fries cooked in duck fat and a cold beverage in a happening place. Legendary alternative rock producer Steve Albini’s studio was just down the block from Hot Doug’s and he enjoyed the rare privilege of being one of the only clients that could order ahead by fax, allowing the very busy Albini to skip the land although he felt guilty enough about it that when he visited the store on his own he would wait in line with everybody else and proclaimed that part of the overall experience of the joint was in fact waiting in line. While Hot Doug’s is no more, their legend will live on not only in the memories of the Chicago faithful who loved them but also in those who see this documentary and immediately have the urge to go and consume a dog at their local purveyor themselves. What more could you ask of any documentary?

REASONS TO SEE: Really gives you a sense of the time and place. Makes you want to eat a hot dog.
REASONS TO AVOID: Comes off as an infomercial in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Markos previously directed videos for the Obama presidential campaign.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Hot Dog Program
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Maiden

Roll Red Roll


We revere our sons but marginalize our daughters.

(2018) Documentary (Sunset ParkAlexandria Goddard, Detective J.P. Rigaud, Ma’lik Richmond, Shawn McGee, Michael Nodramus, Jeremy Jones, Rachel Dissell, Michelle Nelson, Mark Nelson, Gretchen Nelson, Madeleine Nelson, Mario Cuomo, Jeno Atkins, Vinnie Fristick, Reno Saccoccia, Walter Madison, Mike DeWine, Mike McVey, Marianne Hemmeter, Michele Robinson. Directed by Nancy Schwartzman

Rape culture has become an aspect of the news cycle in recent years, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement in which women on social media who have experienced some sort of sexual crime from harassment to rape identified themselves as survivors. We have seen it in the light, inconsequential sentences given to those convicted of rape. We have seen it in the way those who report it are traumatized not only by the crime but by how they are treated afterwards. Boys will be boys, and boys rape or at least so the line of thinking goes.

Steubenville is a small town in the Rust Belt, a largely working-class town. There are not a lot of opportunities in Steubenville; most people have dead end jobs in the service industry as the manufacturing jobs that were once the town’s lifeblood are mainly gone. It’s most famous resident was the legendary Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin; after that, the town’s pride and joy is its high school football team which has won ten Ohio State championships since 1925 and as recently as 2017. The town supports its football team with a fervor verging on the religious.

In August 2012, a preseason party in Steubenville ended up with a student from another school (identified in the film only as Jane Doe, although the girl involved was identified by name on Fox News and other outlets) was raped by several members of the Steubenville football team. The girl had been drinking a lot to the point where she was passed out or nearly so. Two of the members of that team – Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays – transported her to another party and then to a third. Photos were taken. Video was taken. Tweets were made.

The girl was humiliated by the social media attention, amounting to a second rape. She decided to press charges even though her memory of the evening was very fuzzy. Detective J.P. Rigaud was assigned the case and he began the process of interviewing people at the party that she last remembered being at – the first one.

In the meantime, crime blogger Alexandria Goddard – who grew up in Steubenville although she was then based in Columbus – saw an item about two football players being charged in the rape of a teenage girl and thought that there had to be more to it than that. She began digging, looking up tweets and Facebook posts, even managing to search the archives of Twitter to see deleted tweets.

What she found was shocking – the utter lack of empathy, the objectification, the misogyny displayed by the boys (and even to a certain extent the girls of Steubenville High who shrugged and said “She should never have gone with those boys”) who joked about the event “Song of the night: Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’.” “Holy shit! Something crazy’s going down, bro” and “She got raped harder than that black cop raped Marcellus Wallace.”

The town reacted with a mixture of shock – some shocked that the boys would behave as they did, others shocked that the blogger would treat their football stars as guilty before they’d even gone on trial.” Goddard was reviled and even feared for her safety as supporters of the football team called her all sorts of vile names and wished all sorts of disgusting things to be done to her. Eventually the Cleveland Plain Dealer picked up the story, then the New York Times. Finally, the hacktivist group Anonymous picked up on Jane Doe’s story and organized protests in Steubenville, targeting (somewhat unfairly) the police response, the town’s reaction, the lack of internal punishment for the players (neither Mays nor Richmond were kicked off the team despite the hard line taken by Coach Reno Saccoccia on underage drinking on his team.

Schwartzman presents the details dispassionately and chronologically. She is obviously outraged by what happened and she uses the film as a means of illustrating what rape culture means in a small American Midwestern town, supposedly the bastion of American values. One reporter mused “In protecting our sons are we putting our daughters at risk?” The short answer: yes.

The issue I have is that this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Boys aren’t born rapists; we see only a little bit of the atmosphere that produced Mays and Richmond as well as the rest of the football team who thought this girl’s suffering was a big joke. While Richmond breaks down when apologizing to Jane Doe and her family in court, we never get a sense if Mays ever felt remorse or if the rest of the team felt any. Did anybody actually learn anything?

Also, these kids are all working class kids. I wonder if this case would have been treated the same way if the defendants came from a more privileged background. We’ve seen high profile cases in which wealthy white young men got off virtually consequence free for their actions. Some would say that relatively speaking, Mays and Richmond did the same.

Maybe that wasn’t Schwartzman’s function as a documentarian to find all the answers. The question is certainly raised in my mind at least so in that sense the documentary is a success, but it is a very hard film to watch emotionally and especially for those affected directly or (in my case) indirectly by rape, misogyny and sexual objectification. Goddard – the heroine of this story and a true inspiration – wrestles with the thought that she may be causing Jane Doe harm by forcing her to endlessly relive the events of that evening. Goddard comes off as a tough cookie but she dissolves into tears thinking about it.

Rape culture is a fact and we are living in it. Attitudes have to change, that much is certain. Women don’t deserve to be raped, no matter how much they drink, what they might choose to wear or where they choose to be. Men are not entitled to have sex with a woman who doesn’t want to or can’t give consent. Maybe in some way this movie – which will be playing the Florida Film Festival in a few weeks – will help move that change along.

REASONS TO SEE: The facts are well-presented. This may be the most in-your-face depiction of rape culture ever captured.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is a very hard movie to watch even if you haven’t directly been a survivor of sexual violence but particularly if you have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and frank discussions about rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was selected to kick off the 2019 season of the acclaimed PBS documentary film series POV in June.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Out of Blue

Tattoo Girls


Woman, circa 2018

(2018) Documentary (Green Box) Agata Wisniewska, Katarzyna Stawczyk, Kasia Dominiak, Katarzyna Hubinska, Marta Bochenek, Patrycja Jachymek, Agnieszka Powlowska. Directed by Miguel Gaudêncio

 

It has never been particularly easy to be  a woman and that has never been more true than in 2018. Often they are treated as objects and yet so much is expected of them. Guys can throw on a shirt and pants, glide a stick of deodorant under their arms and flounce out the doors. We would be aghast if women did the same thing.

All of the subjects in Tattoo Girls (and there are seven of them) have tattoos but that is not necessarily who they are. In fact, this really isn’t about the ink at all – this is not about biker chicks with Mohawks and piercings showing off body art to loud heavy metal, or thrash music. These are everyday women who chose to have tattoos as a means of self-expression and not all of the tats are easily visible.These are not alt-girls making a statement with body art; rather these are seven ordinary women in various walks of life – teachers, fashion designers, morticians and students – who are just getting on with things in the Polish city of Szczecin, a city of nearly half a million people on the banks of the river Oder.

We are shown bits and pieces of the daily lives of these women; women at work, women at rest, women exercising, women socializing. There is nothing especially extraordinary on a comparable level – these are just women getting about things as they do all over the world, every day of the week. This is clearly a slice of life, but one demarcated with a variety of aerial shots of Szczecin, taken I assume with a drone. They’re actually quite fascinating although after nearly two hours they begin to wear a little thin.

The women aren’t identified until the closing credits which means you’re watching people without knowing their names. As the dialogue is mostly in Polish with subtitles, that makes it a little hard attaching a name to a face which tends to depersonalize the subjects. Of course, that may be the director’s intention – turn the women into everywomen – but for those of us who want to feel some sort of bond with the subjects it is frustrating.

This is beautifully shot, from the various scenes with the women going about their lives (and Szczecin is a beautiful subject one must admit) to the sometimes breathtaking aerial shots, this feels almost hypnotic, like ambient trance music. I would almost recommend watching this on a rainy day, preferably in comfortable clothes with a glass of wine close at hand.

If I had a real beef, it’s that all of the women are essentially in a certain age group, from college age to early middle age. I’m not sure why there weren’t women of an older demographic included in the film but I suppose wrinkles and grey hair aren’t nearly as photogenic…or perhaps women of a certain age aren’t interesting.

In a year when women are standing up worldwide to patriarchal attitudes and making it clear in no uncertain terms that things must change, this film makes a compelling accompaniment. All the women here take on traditional feminine roles – creators, nurturers, teachers – without appearing to lose anything in the process. If this is what it means to be a woman in 2018, then it’s easy to see that the future of femininity is in safe hands.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is beautiful; even the aerial shots are works of art. The girls are very real and highly watchable.
REASONS TO STAY: The editing seems a bit arbitrary. There is a definite lack of context.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sobel was based in Qatar for five years producing pieces for CNN, the Guardian and other news outlets; this allowed him to gain extraordinary access to the laborers and the camps.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Realeyz, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Day in the Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Would You Like to Be My Neighbor?

The Circle


It looks like Tom Hanks is trying to recapture his Cast Away look.

(2017) Thriller (STX) Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton, Karen Gillan, Beck, Nate Corddry, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Mamoudou Athie, Eve Gordon, Poorna Jagannathan, Elvy Yost, Ellen Wong, Lauren Baldwin, Nicola Bertram, Julian Von Nagel, Amie McCarthy-Winn, Regina Saldivar, Amir Tatai, Smith Cho. Directed by James Ponsoldt

 

There’s no doubt that the world is changing. Social media and the presence of cameras nearly everywhere have guaranteed that our concept of privacy will have to change radically. We must learn to live with the reality that everything we do is not only findable online but is subject to the scrutiny of trolls.

Mae (Watson) is a customer service drone in a dead end job she can’t stand. Coming to her rescue is Annie (Gillan) who works in management at The Circle, a sort of cross between Facebook, Google and Big Brother. Like all social media outlets, The Circle seems to be almost an obsession with its users who post the most mundane details of their day so that friends and strangers can pass judgment.

Mae’s dad (Paxton in his final role) has Multiple Sclerosis and her mom (Headly) has been worn ragged caring for him. Her ex-boyfriend Mercer (Coltrane) is suspicious of the ongoing loss of privacy and is retreating from the modern connected world, moving to a rustic artist retreat that is essentially off the grid.

Mae however has picked a grand time to join up with The Circle. Co-founder and CEO Eamon Bailey (Hanks) is releasing a new product – a miniaturized camera that people can wear all day long that utilizes facial recognition software to allow them to find friends nearby and of course post everything they do – literally every moment of their day – online. Mae, after a rough start, has become a convert “Circler” and is selected to be the first person to have total transparency online.

However with total transparency comes collateral damage – not everyone wants their every moment on display and it ends up causing friction with those Mae loves the most and leads to a tragedy nobody could have predicted. This leads her to do some digging and she soon finds out that not everything at the Circle – or everyone – necessarily has benevolent intentions.

This is based on a book by Dan Eggers who gets the Silicon Valley culture nicely. In some ways, the movie pokes fun a bit at the tech culture of “play hard, work harder” with Mae getting a visit from Circlers who are concerned she’s not participating in any groups – or working on weekends. In some ways the big problem with this poorly-reviewed movie is that it really doesn’t know what it wants to be – at times it feels like a corporate espionage thriller, other times a social commentary and still others a sci-fi cautionary tale.

The graphics are nifty and nicely extrapolate what our online experience is going to look like in maybe a decade or less. The film is also blessed with a marvelous cast. You literally can’t go wrong with Hanks who doesn’t play villains often and even this villain is less villainous than Oswalt’s corporate weasel who is more of a traditional villain. Bailey is charming and folksy, a cross between Steve Jobs and Garrison Keillor. And, of course he’s Tom Hanks, the modern Jimmy Stewart.

But then there’s Watson who is a marvelous actress and perhaps one of the most beloved actresses in the world. She was simply flat here, never really gathering my sympathy or attention. I was far more drawn to Hanks’ character which is not unexpected given Hanks ability and screen charm. But as she proved in Beauty and the Beast Watson is thoroughly capable of carrying a movie and here she simply doesn’t.

I liked the social media aspect which the movie seems to be on the cusp of exploring further but it never really does. It feels like the filmmakers were anxious not to offend millennials which they figured would be a large chunk of their target audience; unfortunately what that wound up doing was diluting the message and taking away much of the film’s bite. Overall it feels a bit like cinematic pablum.

That’s not to say that this is a complete waste of time. The movie does accurately portray our society’s obsession with celebrity and the growing importance of internet celebrity; it also makes points about our obsession with connection and the growing loss of privacy. These are all valid and salient points and I would have loved to see more exploration of them. Instead we end up with something of a generic thriller that ends up disappointing more than it excites. Circles, after all, have a tendency to end up where they start out – and so does The Circle.

REASONS TO GO: Hanks is a riveting quasi-villain. The graphics are nicely utilized.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a wasted opportunity in terms of sociopolitical commentary. Nothing here really impresses.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality, some drug use and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Headly and Paxton who play Mae’s parents have both passed away since they filmed their roles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eagle Eye
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Unforgettable