Cents


Girls can be great at math too.

Girls can be great at math too.

(2016) Drama (Cents LLC) Julia Flores, Lillie Kolich, Jy Prishkulnik, Claire Mackenzie Carter, Monique Candelaria, Esodie Geigner, Lora Martinez-Cunningham, William R. Stafford, Kate Chavez, Lindsy Campbell, Laurel Harris, Catherine Haun, Kristin Hansen, Zechariah Baca, Vivian Nesbitt (voice), Melissa Hipple, Paige Kelly, Katy Burke, Kelley Lewallen, Lauren Myers. Directed by Christopher Boone

 

It’s a little known secret but there is the beginning of a scene in New Mexico going on. Talented filmmakers have begun to produce some interesting and challenging films in the area and it might just be that the Land of Enchantment might just be the next hot filmmaking mecca.

Sammy Baca (Flores) is an only child, being raised by her mother Angela (Candelaria) who got pregnant at 15 and has been Sammy’s sole parent all along, Angela’s boyfriend having sent her packing the moment responsibility reared its ugly head. Angela works as a nurse practitioner but wants to take the next step up and go to medical school to become a doctor. It has been a challenge for her; Angela has received rejection after rejection which has given her ego a pounding. Sammy wonders why Angela is even bothering; nobody believes in her, not even Sammy.

Sammy herself is unpopular. She’s got some serious talent with math, able to solve complex problems in her head at only 12 years old and has gotten tutoring in advance calculus from Ms. Dyer (Geigner), a math teacher who has taken an interest in Sammy. Sammy is regularly getting in trouble with the principal (Martinez-Cunningham), the latest episode being illegally selling gum at school (I didn’t even know that was a thing).

There happens to be a penny drive going on at school under the aegis of school Queen Bee Hannah Evers (Prishkulnik) who rules the roost with an iron fist, using social media as a way to keep those beneath her (which is everyone) in line. Hannah’s coterie is also involved, including Katie Schmidt (Kolich) who was Sammy’s best friend until the fourth grade, and Emily Foster (Carter) who is a bit of a toady with ambition.

Sammy hits upon an idea to make more money for the penny drive. Basically it involves having people pledging to give one penny each day, but the hook is that they also then must bring in another person the next day to pledge a penny the remaining days, then each of them bring another person the next day and so on and so on. It’s a pyramid scheme, yes, even though the drive is for a good cause, but a pyramid scheme nonetheless that will collapse of its own weight eventually. Still, it’s making more money than the drive had previously which makes Hannah absolutely insane with jealousy…and Sammy has plenty of secrets that can be used to hurt her.

I will have to admit that this is one of the most authentic movies I’ve seen regarding pre-teen and tween girls, as well as about their relationship with one another and with their moms. A lot of times we see kind of a sanitized version of girls this age as essentially brave little princesses who save the day with smarts and Girl Power! Their moms are wise and adoring and nobody ever makes any mistakes.

All the characters here make some fairly big ones; Sammy herself has a moral compass that doesn’t always point true north. She doesn’t always do things for the right reasons and she has something of a chip on her shoulder. She says some genuinely hateful things to her mom – just like adolescent daughters sometimes do. That doesn’t make Sammy a terrible person; it just makes her a person.

This is definitely a femme-centric movie; guys who prefer car chases and explosions will probably find little of value here for them, although they might just get educated about how 12-year-old girls think and act which might come in handy if they ever, you know, have a daughter or a sister. I think a lot of women will find this familiar territory in a good way; they will find themselves relating to a girl who is outcast because she is capable, and they’ll also relate to the Queen Bee situation at school, particularly younger women who have been through schools in the age of social media.

With adolescent girls comes adolescent drama and there is an awful lot of door slamming and temper tantrums (some thrown by adults) here. Those with a low tolerance for that kind of thing may well find this unpalatable, but in general, this is a very solidly made movie that doesn’t really shake the foundations of filmmaking but simply tells a story well, and makes it relatable and realistic – even better. Those are some talents that even some longtime pros don’t have. All in all this is an impressive feature by a filmmaker with a great deal of potential from an emerging filmmaking center. It’s the kind of work that long careers are built on.

REASONS TO GO: The portrayal of middle school girls and their relationships is quite authentic. The film is surprisingly charming.
REASONS TO STAY: As is true with most adolescents, there is a great deal of temper tantrums and door slamming. Sammy to begin with isn’t the easiest person to like.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is nothing here that would be unacceptable for middle school kids or their parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The school scenes were filmed at Desert Ridge Middle School in Albuquerque.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, VMX, VOD (check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Will Hunting
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Anatomy of Monsters

Stink!


Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

(2015) Documentary (Area23a) Jon J. Whelan, Jeffrey Hollander, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, Andy Igrejas, Cal Dooley, Leonard Lance, Jan Schakowsky, Karuna Jaggar, Brandon Silk, Rosa Silk, Jane Houlihan, Dr. Richard Denison, Dr. Jennifer Sass, Christophe Laudamie, Dr. Arlene Blum, Steve Herman, Jack Corley, Gretchen Lee Salter, Stacy Malkan. Directed by Jon J. Whelan

documented

As consumers, we feel confident that the products on store shelves or in Internet-based shopping company warehouses are safe for consumption. We rely on watchdog government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate which chemicals can be used and which can’t, and to know what is in the products that we buy. It might come as a shock to you that they don’t.

It came as a shock to single father Jon J. Whelan as well. Jon, whose wife Heather passed away a few years ago from breast cancer, had bought pajamas for his two tween daughters for Christmas from the tween lifestyle store Justice, whose products drove his daughters absolutely giddy with delight. However when the pajamas were taken out of their packaging, he noticed a very powerful odor that smelled “chemical” to him.

His late wife had always tried to be aware of what ingredients were in the things they consumed and used, and hyper-concerned due to his wife’s recent passing, he tried to call Justice and get a sense of what chemicals were being used for the pajamas. To his surprise, they didn’t know. He started making calls to the corporate office, to corporate officers, to Michael Rayden, the CEO of Justice – he even called the manufacturing plant in China.

He was met with a stone wall. Either the people he spoke with didn’t know, or told him that the ingredients were “proprietary trade secrets.” Looking into the laws that governed these things, he discovered that the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, instead of protecting Americans from the use of unknown chemicals that may or may not be carcinogenic, gave corporations loopholes in terms of labeling when it came to fragrances and flame-retardant compounds in that those items could be labeled proprietary and the companies were not liable to list the ingredients therein. In fact, after having the pajamas analyzed by a lab, he made the disturbing discovery that several of the chemicals found in the pajamas were carcinogenic – including one that had been banned by the FDA.

Contacting advocacy groups, he discovered further chilling facts – such as the incidence of breast cancer in the United States went from 1 in 20 in the 60s to 1 in 8 today, and that the amount of chemicals in the bloodstream of newborn babies numbered in the hundreds – chemicals that weren’t supposed to be there. He also discovered that consumer protection laws that regulate toxic chemical use were far stricter in the European Union than here. Even the laws in China were more strict. America had somehow become a third world country when it comes to consumer protection.

Interviews with corrupt lawmakers, corporate shills and lobbyists who not only obscured the truth but blatantly lied to legislative bodies make this akin to a Michael Moore ambush-style documentary, and in an era when distrust of corporate entities is at an all-time high, an effective method. Many advocacy groups are calling for a strengthening of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, or at least an updating of it, something that industry is fighting tooth and nail.

Whelan utilizes graphics and animations that have a bit of a 60s vibe to them, colorful and cartoonish. While occasion the tech-speak can be intimidating and the presentation a bit scattershot, this is clearly the labor of love for a father still grieving for his wife, who appears in home movies interspersed throughout, along with video of his cute and bubbly daughters.

Whelan, like many of the advocacy groups whose representatives he interviews during the film, advocates for stronger regulatory powers for the EPA and the FDA, tougher restrictions on the use of chemicals, and transparency in labeling. All of these seem pretty reasonable, although when he interviews opposing viewpoints, they tend to prevaricate to almost nonsensical levels; they pay lip service to consumer protection but their actions prove the only protecting they are doing is of corporate profits. As Whelan puts it, if everything in these products is safe, then why is the chemical industry working so hard to prevent us from knowing what is in the products we buy every day?

The information presented here is sobering; there is literally almost no way to protect yourself from the use of toxic chemicals in nearly every product we use in the home. Anything that has a fragrance in it is likely to have man-made petrochemicals in it because they are far cheaper than organic chemicals. The long-term effects of repeated exposure to these chemicals is unknown; as one physician says, “We are quietly becoming genetically modified by toxic chemicals. We aren’t test subjects; we’re guinea pigs.”

REASONS TO GO: Effectively connects the dots. Clearly a labor of love. Chilling info.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie took three years to film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gasland
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The 33

Dolphin Tale 2


Life is a splash!

Life is a splash!

(2014) Family (Warner Brothers) Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Bethany Hamilton, Charles Martin Smith, Julia Winter, Austin Stowell, Austin Highsmith, Juliana Harkavy, Betty Landin, Denisea Wilson, Carlos Gomez, Julia Jordan, Tom Nowicki, Taylor Blackwell. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

The inspirational story of Dolphin Tale introduced us to Winter, a dolphin rescued by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium whose tail had to be amputated after being caught in the wire from a crab trap. After being fitted with a prosthetic tail, she became an inspiration to disabled persons everywhere – and to a lot of non-disabled people as well.

Now Winter is in a different kind of trouble. Her long-time companion at the Aquarium has passed away and she has fallen into a deep depression, even lashing out and injuring her friend Sawyer (Gamble) who has been with her from the beginning. Sawyer is now a handsome high school teen whose relationship with Winter has not gone unnoticed by the marine biology community – he’s been invited on a semester at sea program normally limited to college students. It’s quite a big deal and everyone expects him to go but Sawyer is conflicted; he doesn’t want to leave with Winter in serious difficulties.

Winter has become a big attraction for the CMA which has embarked on an ambitious expansion program led by their new board head Philip Hordern (Nowicki)  who is concerned that the star attraction might be taken away. In fact, USDA inspector (Smith) has given the aquarium 30 days to pair Winter with another female dolphin or the government will force them to move her into an environment where she can be properly socialized.

It so happens that the CMA has a female dolphin that they’re taking care of, but Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick) seems reluctant to pair the two. His reasons for it are correct though – the dolphin they have rescued is making a full recovery and there is no reason to keep the perfectly healthy dolphin at the aquarium whose mission has always been Rescue, Rehab, Release. Clay’s hot-headed daughter Hazel (Zuehlsdorff) is furious at her father whom she sees as abandoning Winter, but also disrespecting her for not soliciting her input. Because she has a PhD and everything, right?

So the dolphin will be released and Winter will be moved. Sawyer mopes around and despite the advice of his mom (Judd) and curmudgeonly Dr. McCarthy (Freeman) who designed Winter’s appendage still doesn’t know if he wants to seize the day. But the thing is, where there’s life, there’s Hope.

This isn’t quite as good as the first Tale. It’s a bit more convoluted and a bit more cliche, with the kids more or less running the show and the adults generally treating them as equals. In that sense, the movie doesn’t talk down to its audience although there’s not a lot of reality here – teens and tweens aren’t generally handed the reins of an operation the size of a CMA, particularly when the welfare of animals are concerned.

Gamble has matured into a handsome young man which is sure to set a lot of hormonal tween girl hearts a-flutter. Zuehlsdorff is a bit shrill in places but manages to capture the child-parent conflict pretty solidly and allows herself to come off as illogical and overly emotional in a situation when her father is thinking of the welfare of the animal above his own personal needs. It’s a good life lesson.

In fact, the movie is filled with them. There’s a whole lot of information on the various marine animals depicted here which in addition to the dolphins includes sea turtles and Roofus, the zany pelican from the first movie who is even more present here. In fact, Roofus gets more screen time than Judd or Freeman. Take from that what you will.

The adult cast is solid and the look of the film sparkles. Yes, there are some CGI dolphin moments and occasionally those moments are obvious but for the most part this is a good looking movie giving a very alluring quality to Florida in general. Being familiar with the Clearwater area, I can tell you that it captures the area nicely.

The movie can be a little bland in places. The filmmakers wanted the movie to be wholesome and for the most part it is to the point where it’s so inoffensive that there’s nothing to really hold onto. There are no antagonists to speak of; it’s just a bad situation which is the way life generally is. There are appearances by surfer Bethany Hamilton as herself – you might know her from Soul Surfer, an inspirational movie made on her own life – and whose presence on the current season of The Amazing Race is likely to boost up the box office here a little bit.

I honestly can’t fault the movie much. It doesn’t do anything truly wrong, it just doesn’t really excel either. For the most part, I can give it a mild thumbs up for family audiences. Those without kids may find it mildly diverting particularly if they love dolphins but adults may find the movie tedious. Watching the dolphins do their thing is definitely the best part of the movie. The humans around them – not so much.

REASONS TO GO: Some moments of grace, particularly when the actual dolphins are involved. Wholesome.
REASONS TO STAY: Ham-handed kids movie cliches. Lacks realism. Bland.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some mild dolphin peril but otherwise suitable for all family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth movie in which Judd and Freeman have appeared together in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoot
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dead Silence