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

The Social Ones


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened


Beware of bikini promises; they can be unrealistic.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Doug’s: The Movie


Hot Dog? Why, yes please!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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