Pharma Bro


Justifiably the most hated man in America.

(2021) Documentary (1091) Martin Shkreli, Brent Hodge, Ghostface Killah, Milo Yiannopoulos, Judith Aberg, Billy the Fridge, Travis Langley, Josh Robbins, Cilvaringz, Ben Brafman, Thomas Keith, Andrew Pollack, Meg Tirrell, Jaclyn Collier. Directed by Brent Hodge

 

When Martin Shkreli was called “the most hated man in Ameica,” it was a distinction well-earned. Most know him for his price-gouging of daraprim, a drug needed by AIDS patients to combat toxoplasmosis, as well as in pregnant women; it is also a treatment for malaria. His arrogance, smugness and apparent lack of compassion made him a poster boy for unbridled capitalism and for Big Pharma in general.

In all honesty, I was a bit hesitant in reviewing this. I truly don’t want to give this jerk any more publicity than he already has – he seems to thrive on being in the limelight, much as a wrestling “heel” thrives on boos at a WWE event. And much of the allure of a documentary on the guy would be to give you additional reasons to hate the guy – I sure thought that feeding into my righteous anger against the guy would make me feel better.

But this isn’t that kind of documentary. Hodge, instead, is out to understand what makes a man like him tick. What motivates him to cultivate an image that attracts so much hatred. Hodge set out to interview a number of people, tending to steer clear of those who hate Shkreli with a passion (which is most people) and speaking to his lawyer Ben Brafman, former girlfriends, rapper Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan and his friend Billy the Fridge, reported Meg Tirrell and medical doctors Judith Aberg and Travis Langley.

Hodge also attempted to interview Shkreli himself, although the former hedge fund manager and pharmaceutical CEO wasn’t interested. Hodge went so far as to move into Shkreli’s building (which must set some kind of new standard for dedication to one’s own film) in order to get to know him, but still was unsuccessful at getting the interview he wanted. So, he instead travelled to Albania to the town where his parents immigrated from to talk to relatives living there.

Ultimately, we don’t really get much insight into what makes Shkreli do the things he does. We get some excuses about price gouging – “everyone else is doing it,” which of course is the kind of thing that would have prompted my mom to say “if everyone else was pouring hydrochloric acid onto their genitals, would you do that too” except that my mom would have probably said “jump off of a cliff” instead. My mom is much classier than I am.

Many of the ex-girlfriends interviewed here seem to be dazzled by Shkreli’s wealth and fame and as far as I can tell, so does Hodge. He seems to genuinely want the notorious Pharma Bro to like him, or at least that’s how it felt to me at times. Perhaps that was just a ploy to get the bad boy to do the interview, but still that impression does come off to an extent and it might be off-putting to some.

Clearly, Shkreli isn’t the only person behaving badly on Wall Street or within the pharmaceutical industry. Clearly, he’s not doing anything that hasn’t been done before and continues to be done, as lobbies for both Big Pharma and Wall Street have assiduously seen that the politicians that the very rich have helped get elected keep regulation to a bare minimum. Regulation is desperately needed to keep drug prices down, which while many politicians have echoed that sentiment, there has been a marked failure to act on it.

There isn’t anything here that will change your mind about wanting to punch this weasel straight in the gob if you’re already feeling that way. And, to be fair, there isn’t anything in here that is likely to make you want to punch him if you are already not disposed to doing so. But if anything, the documentary reinforces the idea that the moral bankruptcy of the Martin Shkrelis of the world is not necessarily uncommon or even unremarkable. He is everything that’s wrong with our society and as he rots in jail (he was convicted in 2017 of securities fraud) one would wish that what he really deserves is to not be in a Federal Country Club prison but in a nasty “don’t bend over in the shower” prison where he might genuinely feel the pain he inflicted on so many.

REASONS TO SEE: A fairly thorough attempt to understand Shkreli.
=REASONS TO AVOID: Hodge appears a bit starry-eyed by the fame and wealth of Shkreli.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shkreli is expected to be released from prison in 2023.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Madoff
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Last Night in Rozzie

Best Sellers


Nobody does glee like Michael Caine.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Aubrey Plaza, Michael Caine, Cary Elwes, Scott Speedman, Ellen Wong, Veronica Ferres, Victoria Sanchez, Elena Dunkelman, Frank Schorpion, Alexandra Petrachuk, Elizabeth Etienne, Charli Birdgenaw, Rachel Osborne, Frank Fiola, Christopher Hayes, Susan Almgren, Michelle Rambharose, Florence Situ. Directed by Lina Roessler

 

Like many industries in this digital age, the book publishing industry has changed radically over the past fifteen years. Like Hollywood, they rely heavily on blockbusters to pay the bills and not so much on literary gems. Besides, people don’t really read books so much anymore; they are more likely to read (if they read at all) on Kindle or some such device.

Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) has inherited her father’s boutique publishing company which has fallen on hard times. Despite Lucy’s best efforts to modernize the country with young adult fantasy books, sales have been unspectacular and there are buyers sniffing around, smelling the desperation. Lucy needs a bestseller badly, but doesn’t have anyone on her roster that might deliver one anytime soon. And you know what they say – desperate times call for desperate measures.

That desperate measure is Harris Shaw (Caine), once a young lion of literature whose book Atomic Autumn was a massive cultural touchstone in the Seventies, but hasn’t had a word published since. Conveniently, he contractually owes the publishing house a book. So Lucy sets out with her doughty assistant Rachel (Wong) to wheedle a book out of the reclusive author, who is reclusive for a reason – he can’t stand people, and the feeling is pretty much mutual. However, his own financial situation has become precarious – you can only survive on royalties so long – and he reluctantly agrees to supply Lucy with a new book, The Future is X-Rated, with the stipend that not a word in the manuscript is to be edited. That triggers a clause in the contract that requires him to participate in a book tour for his new work.

Being a feisty curmudgeon, he does his level best to be a bad boy. Instead of reading his work, he reads Letters to Penthouse at his readings. He urinates on his own book and instigates chants of “Bull Shite!” which becomes a popular meme. However, as the young publisher discovers to her chagrin, viral videos and online memes do not translate into hardcover book sales – who knew? Turns out, nearly everybody else.

But both Lucy and Harris are wounded souls and while at first they are wary and somewhat annoyed with one another, they discover that they have much more in common than they at first thought. And that they need each other a lot more than they could have imagined.

The crusty, irascible literary icon is a hoary Hollywood cliché that has been done over and over again, but rarely better than how Caine does it here. This is one of the 88-year-old actor’s most compelling recent performances and he reminds us that he’s a two-time Oscar winner for a reason. Plaza makes a terrific foil and also reminds us that she is one of the most consistently high-quality actresses operating in movies over the past ten years. Putting both of them in the same movie was a casting coup.

It’s a shame that the movie shifts gear in the final act and goes the tear-jerking route which feels predictable and unearned. I don’t have an issue exploring the vulnerabilities of the characters – that’s what makes a movie like this interesting – but just the way in which it’s done, specifically the circumstances (I don’t want to give away what they are) is just highly disappointing overall. I wish that writer Anthony Grieco had trusted himself a bit more to come up with something a little less by-the-numbers – or the producers trusting him to do the same.

So what we end up with is a better-than-average movie that manages to overcome a whole mess o’ cliches with overall charm and a surfeit of strong performances, particularly from Caine and Plaza. This isn’t going to be Oscar bait by any means, but it’s a seriously entertaining movie that is likely to kick off the fall movie season with a satisfying bang particularly for older moviegoers and cinephiles alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Plaza and Caine are treasures. There is enough charm here to overcome its faults.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets pretty maudlin near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a scene of sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Roessler’s feature film directorial debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of the Tour
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Nowhere Inn

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

Not Going Quietly


Ady Barkan having a dad moment with his young son.

(2021) Documentary (Greenwich) Ady Barkan, Racheal King, Elizabeth Jaff, Cory Booker, Helen Brosnan, Brad Kleffer, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tracey Corder, Nate Smith, Kamala Harris, Carl Barkan, Ana Maria Archila. Directed by Nicholas Bruckman

 

There are those who consider COVID-19 little worse than the average flu (rightly or wrongly) but one disease that everyone agrees is absolutely horrible is ALS. It is a fatal degenerative disease that slowly robs the victim of every facility and sense, until they are imprisoned in a body that is unable to do anything, all the while retaining full cognizant function. There is no cure and no treatment for it; all one can do is ride it out to the bitter end. Both baseball Hall-of-Famer Lou Gehrig and Nobel-winning physicist Stephen Hawking were among the most notable people to contract the disease.

Ady Barkan was a progressive activist and lawyer who worked for a number of causes. An engaging young man with a room-blinding smile, he had a young wife and a beautiful baby boy. But then, the 32 year old was given the devastating diagnosis; ALS, and doctors figured he had three to five years to live.

But worse still than that diagnosis was dealing with the medical insurance companies. Doctors prescribed a breathing apparatus that was absolutely essential for Baran’s continued living, a device they termed “uncontroversial,” but his insurance company denied it as “experimental.” Frustrated and angry, Barkan chose to channel his frustrations into activism and began advocating for universal health care. And then, Trump got elected and Barkan, wo was going to become more and more dependent on the health care system for his very survival, realized he was in serious trouble.

A chance meeting on a plane home saw a conversation between Barkan and then-Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona in which Barkan pleaded with the Republican politician to “be a hero” and vote against the Trump tax cut (a plea that ultimately proved futile). However the media-savvy activist Liz Jaff, who filmed the encounter, co-founded the Be a Hero PAC with Barkan and they set out to change hearts and minds.

In some things they were successful; aided by their efforts, the 2018 elections saw the Democrats retake the House of Representatives. In other things, they were not; despite their efforts, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, despite accusations of sexual misconduct. Barkan worked diligently, trying to advance the agenda of the left while holding the tide back on the politics of the right, but it was taking a toll. The disease was ravaging his body, soon confining Barkan to a wheelchair; he became unable to do basic things like dress himself, bathe himself and feed himself. Eventually, the disease robbed him of his very voice and the film begins and ends with Barkan, addressing Congress by the aid of a computer voice that Barkan operates by using his eyes.

Throughout, we are shown Barkan’s indefatigable sense of humor, his continuing passion, and his unassailable love for his family – wife Racheal (herself a college professor and published author) and infant/toddler son Carl. We also see the toll that the disease coupled with the workload takes on Barkan physically. One cannot help but admire Barkan’s courage.

And if the film gets a little bit hagiographic in that sense, it is understandable Most people given a diagnosis of a fatal disease are not going to use their last years working hard as an activist for a cause; they are going to spend as much time as humanly possible with their families, and do things that are important to them, be it a trip to Disney World or taking a luxury cruise.

Most of what is onscreen is footage from Barkan’s activism coupled with home movies. Amazingly, although his wife Rachael is very much in evidence in the film, we don’t hear from her much, or at least not in meaningful ways. We see the toll taken on Barkan, but we rarely see how the care for a person in Ady Barkan’s position takes its own toll on his loved ones.

For a man for whom family is so demonstrably important, it is a glaring omission. Still, watching Barkan push ahead through his own body’s breakdowns, his occasional despair and the indifference of politicians who mouth platitudes of sympathy out of one side of their mouths and then vote to imperil his life out of the other. Of course, politicians are an easy target to despise, just as people like Barkan who are tilting at windmills with the last of their strength are as easy to admire. Nevertheless, those like Barkan should receive the plaudits they deserve – as the politicians who oppose them the ignominy.

REASONS TO SEE: Barkan is courageous, engaging, and inspiring. Points out the cowardly nature of politics.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fails to get enough commentary from Racheal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and a sexual assault is discussed.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the producers of this documentary are actor/activist Bradley Whitford and the Duplass brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pride of the Yankees
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Raging Fire

Lily Topples the World


Great art requires patience.

(2021) Documentary (Wheelhouse Creative) Lily Hevesh, Will Smith, Katy Perry, Lucy Belvin, Shane O’Brien, Mark Hevesh, Danny Lichtenfield, Aaron Kyro, Brian Cen, Yong Wa Kim, Lucas Dotson, Catherine Hevesh, Chris Wright, Nathan Heck, Jason Epnick, Tiffany Szeto. Directed by Jeremy Workman

 

In this era of social influencers and instant YouTube stars, one of the biggest is Lily Hevesh. With over three million subscribers and more than a billion views of her more than three hundred videos, she has become a YouTube celebrity. What does she do for this fame? She knocks down dominos.

Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. She refers to it as “domino art” and even that sells it a bit short. She sets up dominos in complicated lines and structures, utilizing architectural and engineering skills as well as aesthetic ones. Putting these installations together takes a great deal of patience and a light touch. The dominos are not the standard black with dots kinds, but colored pieces that form figures and words and cause viewers to ooh and aah when they are knocked down.

You’ve probably seen some of her videos on social media without knowing it was her – she goes by the name of Hevesh5 online – and many of her peers who also create domino art were quite surprised to discover that she’s a young woman – the niche field is dominated by men. There is no doubt, however, that Lily is one of the very best at what she does, if not THE best.

The documentary picks up with her freshman year at Rensselaer Polytechnic University, where the freshman class is delighted to discover that they have a celebrity among them. Lily’s eventual roommate Lucy Belvin is shocked to discover that the celebrity is her roommate – Lucy was unfamiliar with her channel before she met Lily. We eventually discover that Lily was adopted at age one from a Chinese orphanage by a white couple in New Hampshire; Lily was raised in a largely Caucasian environment, to the point where she describes that she would do double takes when seeing Asian faces because they would be so rarely glimpsed when she was growing up.

She developed her fascination with dominos at a young age and started her YouTube channel at nine, where it steadily increased until it became the juggernaut it is today. Her one to three minute videos show a good eye for camera movement and an understanding of the physics of toppling, which unfortunately doesn’t translate so much to the documentary which often captures the dominos from the wrong angle, or the dominos pass out of frame. Also, Workman often puts music over the toppling dominos; Lily’s videos allow you to hear that lovely clicking of the falling dominos.

After a year at RPI, Lily came to the conclusion that college would not be the path to what she wanted to do, which was to further develop her YouTube channel and her brand, translating to her own line of competition toppling dominos. To do so, she attends a number of toy fairs hoping too hook up with manufacturers, most of whom pass because they see her dominos as more of a niche market. But her persistence and determination are inspiring.

Besides that, she’s just a charming subject, very genuine indeed. She truly appreciates her fans who in turn treat her with hero-worship, which she reacts with compassion. I would have liked to have gotten some insight as to her feelings about the recognition but that’s a question that’s never asked. In fact, a lot of questions don’t get asked here. Instead, we are treated to ten different large-format installations that get toppled from all over the world, including one on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and her many appearances at conventions for YouTube content creators. I didn’t think it would be possible to end up being bored with domino toppling, but that happens here. Even Lily would be the first to tell you why she keeps her videos at three minutes apiece.

I don’t think that Workman, who had previously done the excellent documentary The World Before Your Feet, intended to make this a documentary about domino toppling, but the insistence of putting so many installations into the 90 minute run time turns it into just that. The most interesting parts of the movie are those that center on Lily’s journey, her reams and ambitions and what makes her get out of bed every morning. I wish we could have seen more of that.

The movie is currently playing at the Florida Film Festival where Florida residents can view it virtually by going to the link below. Currently without a distributor, the movie will doubtlessly be making the estival rounds throughout the spring and summer but I think it likely it will find a home with some distributor and end up with either a limited theatrical run or maybe even a spot on PBS or Discovery Plus. In the meantime, you can view Lily’s YouTube channel here and subscribe to it if you wish.

REASONS TO SEE: As fascinating as the domino art is, Lily’s story about finding her identity and creating a brand for herself are much more so.
REASONS TO AVOID: Spent too much time on toppling dominos and not enough on Lily’s story.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily was responsible for the domino toppling scene in the Will Smith movie Collateral Beauty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Levitated Mass
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache

Better Days (Shaonian de ni)


Bullying is, sadly, universal.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Murder: The Family Next Door


The smiling faces of the brutally murdered.

(2020) True Crime Documentary (NetflixShanann Watts, Chris Watts, Sandi Rzucek, Frank Rzucek, Celeste Watts, Bella Watts, Mark Jamieson, Ronnie Watts, Cindy Watts, Frankie Rzucek, Nickole Atkinson, Nichol Kessinger, Michael Rourke, Luke Epple, Jim Benemann, Marcelo Kopcow, Tom Mustin, Theresa Marchetta, Karen Leigh. Directed by Jenny Popplewell

 

The Watts family of Frederick, Colorado seemed to be as normal as they come. Chris Watts worked for an oil company; his wife Shanann – 15 weeks pregnant – worked for a marketing company. She had arrived home from a business trip early at nearly 2am on August 13, 2018, dropped off by her friend and colleague Nickole Atkinson. Later that day, when Shanann missed an OB-GYN appointment and after Nickole texted her friend without getting a response, Atkinson called Chris to let her know she was worried about Shanann.

At the Watts residence, it turned out that Shanann and both of their daughters – four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste – were all missing. The police were called. Chris addressed the media and pleaded for the safe return of his family, but as the investigation continued, the picture of a perfect family began to unravel and it turns out that the couple was having intimacy issues, despite the fact that Shanann was pregnant.

Eventually, the truth came out and it would send shock waves throughout the community that the family lived in, but also through the families of both Chris and Shanann. Those who have any sort of interest in true crime can guess where the investigation led.

British filmmaker Popplewell takes a unique spin on the events of a case that was fairly well-known at the tail end of 2018 (he would be convicted in November of that year, a mere four months after the crimes were committed which is lightning fast by judicial standards). Rather than using tried-and-true true crime tropes like dramatic recreations, talking-head interviews with the family and friends of those involved as well as the investigators, and expert testimony, she tells the story entirely through social media posts by the victim, text messages from the victim to her husband and to Atkinson, and police surveillance footage of both the polygraph, the confession as well as body-cam footage of the initial response to the victim’s home.

I give Popplewell full marks on this unique spin on the true crime documentary. You won’t see another film quite like it, and you get a bit of a sense of who the victim was as well as her husband. This serves to give the story an immediacy that sometimes lacks from other true crime documentaries, but it also lacks the emotional impact. We see things from a distance; for the most part, the family was depicted as happy and normal but when the computer was turned off, reality was a different story. For those who routinely watch true crime shows like Dateline: NBC and 48 Hours, this will feel familiar; it will also feel like you know what happened even before the police get their confession, even if you aren’t familiar with the details of the case as Da Queen was not, yet she accurately predicted who the killer would be, basically from the moment that they were reported missing.

Fredrick is the kind of suburban neighborhood that is movie-perfect; manicured lawns and beautiful homes, kids playing in the streets, everybody knows everybody else. Spielberg couldn’t have painted a more comforting picture, but yet a brutal crime took place here nevertheless which should give the viewer pause. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique presentation of a true crime documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really very surprising for even casual followers of true crime.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime was also depicted in a 20/20 episode as well as on episodes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. The murder was also the subject of Lifetime movie Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer which the family of Shanann Watts was not consulted about and spoke out against
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any number of shows on the Discovery ID channel.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Herb Alpert Is…

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