Marry Me


Do you take this pop star to be your unlikely wedded wife?

(2022) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Jennifer Lopez, Owen Wilson, Maluma, John Bradley, Sarah Silverman, Chloe Coleman, Michelle Buteau, Khalil Middleton, Kat Cunning, Taliyah Whitaker, Diego Lucano, Brady Noon, Connor Noon, Ryan Foust, Léah Jiménez Zelaya, Tristan-Lee Edwards, Scarlett Earls, Olivia Chun, Jim Kaplan, Jameela Jamil, Hoda Kotb. Directed by Kat Coiro

Rom-coms have their own peculiar kind of logic. They play on our romantic fantasies of finding true love despite apparently insurmountable odds. One of the most popular sub-genres is what I call the Pretty Woman effect, in which a ridiculously wealthy and/or famous person falls for an ordinary person from an entirely different world, and we get to see those worlds collide. But, like all rom-coms, true love eventually prevails – and that shouldn’t be a spoiler to any fan of the genre.

Pop star Kat Valdez (Lopez) came up from the streets of Brooklyn to become an international pop sensation, whose every move is chronicled on social media. She is about to hit a publicity bonanza; her hit song “Marry Me,” performed with her fiancée Bastian (Maluma) has spawned a huge tour, at the conclusion of which she and Bastian will perform the song together live, and then have their wedding ceremony onstage, live-streamed to more than 20 million viewers and an in-house audience at the venue.

In that audience is Charlie (Wilson), a middle school math teacher who doesn’t even want to be there. He got tickets to the exclusive event through the school’s guidance counselor Parker (Silverman) – who also happens to be his best friend – whose two guests had bailed on her. Charlie’s daughter Lou (Coleman) is a huge fan, so he agreed to go for her sake.

But just before the ceremony is to take place, word races through social media that Bastian cheated on Kat – with her assistant, no less – and the devastated bride-to-be comes onstage with a tearful excoriation of her love life, which had been carefully planned, only to end up with three divorces and now this never-happened. When she sees Charlie holding his daughter’s sign that says “Marry Me,” she is inspired in her grief and pain to propose to him. Charlie, thrust into the spotlight unwillingly, goes with the moment, not wanting to humiliate the already-devastated pop star further and says yes. The two are then married.

Kat’s manager (Bradley) wants to make sure this is spun in a way that doesn’t make Kat look more psycho than she already does, so they convince Charlie to hang in there and play husband for a few months, at which time she would make a generous donation to his school. He agrees…for the kids, of course. And if you know rom-coms at all, you know how this one will go.

The formula is so ingrained that Da Queen and I even before the movie started had bet that certain things would happen – and every last one of them did. To say that this movie is predictable is to underestimate predictability; unless you’ve never seen a romantic comedy before, you are just as likely to figure out how this movie will turn out and what steps it will take to get there.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing if the filmmakers pull off the steps with a certain amount of style (they do) and the leads are interesting and root-worthy (they are). There’s nothing here that’s surprising or innovative, but Coiro is a good director who knows that she’s making a movie written by algorithm; rather than fight it, she goes with it and even revels in it to a certain degree. I’m not a particular fan of Lopez, but she’s essentially playing herself here, or at least a version of her, and so she makes the character at least reasonably charming. The soundtrack is mostly performed by her (and in duet with Colombian pop star Maluma) and is fine if you like modern top 40 music, which to be honest I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that the songs are bad for what they are. It’s just not my taste. Anywho, getting back on track, Wilson has relied on a certain amount of frayed-around-the-edges charm since his career began, and he in many ways is the best thing about the movie, delivering the kind of performance we have come to expect and appreciate from him.

It can be said that both actors are a bit long in the tooth for their roles (both are in their fifties, playing characters who appear to be in their thirties) but that doesn’t really matter; they may be middle-aged at this point in their careers, but they have the experience to pull off this kind of movie without putting up much of a sweat. The result is a movie that has enough charm to see it through, but not enough to make you realize that you’ve seen this before and done better.

The movie is currently playing in theaters but is also available on the Peacock streaming service. Choose your method of seeing it according to how willing you are to drive to your local multiplex and see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Wilson has the kind of warmth to carry the film and Lopez has enough charm to get audiences to root for the couple.
REASONS TO AVOID: Encumbered by too many rom-com cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Believe it or not, this is the first time Lopez has used her own singing voice in a film; the only other film she sang onscreen in was Selena in which she lip-synched the songs of the title character.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Peacock
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Music and Lyrics
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Highwaymen

Don’t Look Up


Making America late again.

(2021) Disaster Comedy (Netflix) Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey, Michael Chiklis, Tomer Sisley, Paul Guilfoyle, Robert Joy, Jack Alberts, Ting Lik, Lance A. Williams, Shimali De Silva. Directed by Adam McKay

 

Some of you might remember the competing apocalyptic comet/meteor collision movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, both of which came out in 1998. Both featured American governments that acted decisively upon finding out about the upcoming end of days in an effort to avoid the end of Life as We Know It. But what if such a calamity occurred during the presidency of someone less competent?

Astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy (di Caprio) and the PhD candidate he’s mentoring Kate Diblasky (Lawrence) are by no means the upper echelon in their field, but they do have the advantage of looking in the right place at the right time (or, more to the point, the wrong place at the wrong time). They find a comet heading on a collision course with Earth and it will be here in just six months – time enough to maybe do something about it.

Except that President Orlean (Streep) and her idiot son/Chief of Staff Jason (Hill) are more concerned about the upcoming midterms than they are about a giant rock heading our way. Frustrated by a lack of government action or even interest, the two scientists take their case to the media in the form of the morning news program The Daily Rip. True to form, the talking head anchors Brie (Blanchett) and Jack (Perry) are more concerned with the disintegrating love life of pop star Riley B (Grande) than about their audience being wiped out by an oncoming – and very preventable – disaster.

The characters here are broadly drawn; clearly the President here is meant to be Trump and Jason could be Ivanka. There’s also a billionaire (Rylance) who seems to be cribbed from the Elon Musk book of billionaires. When Randall wonders why people aren’t panicking, we wonder the same thing. Of course, the movie was written to be a satire on the response to climate change (it can also be construed as a satire on the response to the pandemic but it was written years before COVID-19 was even a thing) but don’t that fool you; this is a time capsule of life in These United States circa 2021.

This is also a satire of the State of the Union, as it were. I suspect that even Trump would have reacted with a little bit more alarm had he been faced with an approaching comet, but then again, who knows? I have a feeling that those who really need to see the movie likely won’t; first off, because they’ll see it as another smack in the face from them liberal Hollywood socialists, and secondly won’t recognize themselves in it anyway. As one critic pointed out, how are you supposed to write a vacuous talking head blonde broadcaster when there already is a Laura Ingraham?

There are a few too many moving parts here and some of the big names in the cast are given very little to do, which is only to be expected. The one big sin that the movie commits is trying to do too much; I get that there’s an awful lot to satirize when it comes to our reaction to the climate crisis, but there comes a point where the point gets lost in the noise of all the ancillary points that McKay is making.

And maybe the offense that we’re all guilty of is the same one that this movie makes; we’re too busy talking at people to notice that we’ve stopped talking with people. The latter situation involves listening, and there’s precious little of that going on at this point in time. Maybe that’s the point that McKay is trying to make, but it does get lost in all the points he’s making about social media, broadcast news, the GOP, big business, and our general state of malaise.

REASONS TO SEE: An absolutely stellar cast. A commentary on spin and misinformation, particularly in regards to climate change and the pandemic.
REASONS TO AVOID: Preaches to the choir.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual content, violence and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was nominated for four Oscars at the 2022 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews; Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mars Attacks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Catch the Fair One

The Rise and Fall of LuLaRoe


LuLaRoe retailer Sharon Tucker and her son Elijah examine some of their wares.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Rick Ross, Stephanie McNeal, Vivian Kaye, Elijah Tucker, Joy Saavedra, Christina Hinks, DeAnne Brady Stidham, Sharon Tucker, Meg Conley, Jean Marie, Amanda Montell, Mark Stidham, Vivian Kaye, Jill Domme, Wendi Rogers, CJ Sanders, Carla Hadfield, Heather Blithely, Brittany Hunter. Director Uncredited.

“Work hard to get ahead.” That’s the mantra we Americans have heard essentially all our lives; that the secret to a good life was putting our nose to the grindstone and working our tushies off. As that has been exposed to be a bill of goods that has no basis in the reality of the 21st century America, many have turned to adding income in order to make ends meet, let alone get ahead.

DeAnne Brady Stidham and her husband Mark founded LuLaRoe as a women’s clothing company in 2013 with their emphasis on what they described as “buttery soft” leggings with somewhat over-the-top prints and colors. Rather than selling through stores, they enlisted their own retailers – mostly white moms – who sold through social media, posting upbeat videos with the go-for-it attitude of a Jazzercize class.

This type of venture isn’t new. It’s called “Multi-Level Marketing” and has been used successfully by Tupperware, Avon and Mary Kay Cosmetics – all, again, mostly utilizing white moms. But there is an inherent danger in this kind of business and it has to do with recruiting. The more retailers that a product like LuLaRoe can entice, the more sales they make and the more profit. To encourage sales growth, they gave their retailers incentive to sign up new retailers by giving them a bonus for the orders put in by their recruits. This is essentially a pyramid scheme, and they are illegal.

The reason that they’re illegal is that the money flows upwards and those on the bottom of the pyramid generally are left having made a worthless investment while those at the top rake in the dough. The retailers began to notice that the once-high quality leggings began to deteriorate drastically in quality with ugly patterns and forming holes in them with only a single wearing. Retailers found themselves unable to sell the low-quality and increasingly unattractive leggings and were left with thousands of dollars in merchandise that they couldn’t sell. Many of them wound up deeply in debt and some found their relationships with family and friends strained or even broken.

This documentary, airing exclusively on Discovery Plus, examines the cult-like environment that the Stidhams created, using what one expert called “toxic positivity,” in which low sales would be blamed on poor attitudes, or too-small inventories. Top sellers were rewarded with Carnival Cruises or trips to Cancun. Authors and experts on cult behavior Rick Ross and Amanda Montell both detail how LuLaRoe’s environment is similar to that within a cult, while online activist Christina Hinks discuss the evils of Multi-Level Marketing.

This is definitely a cautionary tale, one that continues today – LuLaRoe continues its behavior, as they show in footage from their 2021 Cancun retreat – but it’s clear that this is meant to warn people about how easy promises of “full-time pay for part-time work” can be deceiving and lead to terrible consequences. That LuLaRoe preyed on women desperate for a sense of camaraderie is repulsive.

But keep in mind that while the subject matter is compelling, the format of the documentary is pretty standard and the story not particularly well-told. One can easily glean the same information from Stephanie McNeal’s original BuzzFeed article that detailed the tactics of LuLaRoe, or by the Amazon documentary mini-series LuLaRich which goes into greater depth, although requires more of a time commitment from the viewer. In any case, this is a non-essential documentary on a subject of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: A thorough look at an American scandal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Like many documentaries of this nature, relies on a parade of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing, although kids may find this boring.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is essentially a documentary form of the BuzzFeed article by McNeal that exposed the Stidhams and their business practices.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gig Is Up
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonder Park

Children of the Enemy


Patricio Galvez cuddles his grandson.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Patricio Galvez, Clive Stafford Smith, Alba Galvez, Katalina Galvez, Mio Galvez, Persraw Baker Hussein, Eskandar Saleh, Stefan Åsberg, Isobel Coles, Adam Mattinen, Cecilia Uddén, Terese Cristiansson, Jacek Machula, Simon Sowell, Rena Effendi, Beatrice Eriksson. Directed by Gorki Glaser-Müller

Dostoyevsky wrote that a civilization is judged by how it treats its prisoners. That could also be included as to how it treats its enemies – or their children.

Patricio Galvez, a middle-aged musician who had emigrated to Sweden from Chile, made headlines in Scandinavia in 2018-19 when he attempted to rescue his seven grandchildren from the notorious Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. You see, his daughter Amanda had converted to Islam along with her mother (at the time divorced from Patricio) and had an arranged marriage with Michael Skråmo, a notorious ISIS recruiter from Norway. Eventually the two moved to Syria over the objections of Galvez, and taken their four children with them. While in Syria, they kept busy – Amanda had three more children there and was pregnant with an eighth when she was killed in an air strike. A couple of months later, Skråmo died during the fall of the caliphate, shot to death in front of his children.

The children were placed in a refugee camp and as the children of ISIS terrorists, were essentially persona non grata in Sweden. Galvez didn’t see the children of terrorists, however; he just saw his grandchildren and put up a tremendous fight to get them out of the camp. But the clock was ticking; the children were severely malnourished and were growing weaker and more ill with each passing day.

The movie chronicles the ordeal of Galvez, which is mostly down time waiting on bureaucrats to return his call, or for some action or another to be taken. He enlists the aid of humanitarian groups, but they can accomplish later. He begins a media campaign which seems to spur the Swedish government into action. However, the Swedish public is less sanguine about the affair; the social media posts are (predictably) nasty, urging Galvez to return to Chile and pointing out his failures as a father to raise a terrorist, wondering if he would be fit to raise these children as well or would they turn out to be just as radical as Amanda turned out to be?

Galvez is very conflicted. On the one hand, he mourns the loss of his daughter, realizing that she was lost years earlier when she was radicalized. He also mourns the damage done by his son-in-law and ISIS in general, all the lives disrupted, the women used as sex slaves, the children left as orphans. But throughout, he perseveres. He realizes, better than most, that the sins of the father (or the mother) should not be visited upon the sons (and daughters).

It is at times a difficult movie to watch; some of Amanda’s letters to her father from Syria are absolutely chilling, as are the home movies the two sent him of the kids. There are some joyous moments, as when Patricio finally gets a breakthrough from the Swedish diplomatic corps and Glaser-Müller puts down the camera to embrace his friend, who is overcome. The grandmother makes an appearance, further complicating matters.

The children themselves we see little of and when we do see them, their eyes are pixilated so that they can’t be easily identified. They are clearly traumatized but for all that, they are still just kids, innocent victims of parents who had followed a path of evil.

There are some negatives here; we don’t really get a lot of personal background. We aren’t told when and how Patricio’s marriage to Amanda’s mother ended, or how the two women ended up converting to Islam and why. Then again, this isn’t meant to be Amanda’s story, although she looms large throughout. We also aren’t told how Patricio managed to afford staying in the hotel near the Iraq-Syria border for a month and a half, or how he could afford to take off work (or even whether he is employed). We learn almost nothing about the mundane details of Patricio’s life, other than that he is a doting grandfather, a grieving father and a musician. A few more blanks needed to be filled in. The score is a bit on the intrusive side as well.

But that aside, this is a powerful documentary that looks at the war on terror from an entirely different viewpoint. The film is currently playing in a limited run in Los Angeles, as well as available for streaming as part of the DOC NYC festival online (see link below). While there are some questions that can never be answered – how can an apparently well-adjusted person be radicalized to that degree – it at least lets us look at the questions it can answer.

REASONS TO SEE: Patricio is a compelling subject with a warm, engaging smile but still a broken heart. Plays almost like a thriller in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really doesn’t give us much insight as to who Galvez is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Like Galvez, Glaser-Müller is a Chilean-Swede.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mass
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Dean Martin: King of Cool

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