Review: ‘The Other Lamb,’ starring Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman and Denise Gough

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “The Other Lamb” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Other Lamb”

Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed, mountainous rural area in the United States, the dark drama “The Other Lamb” has a predominantly white, mostly female cast of characters (with a few African Americans) in a polygamous religious cult, with a few brief appearances by police officers.

Culture Clash: The cult, which has isolated itself in a remote area, considers the outside world to be the enemy, and the wives sometimes have conflicts and power struggles with each other.

Culture Audience: “The Other Lamb” will appeal mostly to people who want to see an arthouse film depiction of a cult and the damaging effects of a toxic leader.

Raffey Cassidy and Michiel Huisman in “The Other Lamb” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Most movies about polygamous religious cults usually focus on the leader (who’s almost always a man) or one of the spouses. But the disturbing drama “The Other Lamb” is told from the perspective of the teenage daughter of the cult leader. There’s a growing sense of gloom and doom that director  Malgorzata Szumowska effectively infuses throughout the film. “The Other Lamb” isn’t a crime drama as much as it is a psychological, atmospheric portrait of someone struggling with her identity and having her individuality stifled by a group mentality that she has known her whole life.

Selah (played by Raffey Cassidy) is a teenager who’s the favorite child of the cult leader who calls himself Shepherd (played by Michiel Huisman), who definitely has a Messiah complex, even down to looking like he wants to be a modern-day Jesus. The cult is small—Shepherd has 18 female followers, some of whom are underage children—but the members of the group are extremely tight-knit, because they have isolated themselves in a remote, mountainous area that’s secluded in the woods. Why is Shepherd the only male in this cult? It’s explained in the movie, but astute viewers can figure out pretty easily why Shepherd is the only male, based on how he sees himself as the cult leader.

Although the movie doesn’t say exactly where the cult lives, they’re somewhere in the United States, because everyone has an American accent, and the cops who show up the movie are also American. (In reality, “The Other Lamb” was filmed in Ireland.) Shepherd dresses any way that he wants, but his female followers all have to follow a certain dress code that makes them look like they’re stuck in the Victorian era. They wear long, flowing robes—red for the adults, blue for the children, except during their religious ceremonies when the followers wear white. And their hair must be kept in a braided updo, except at night when they’re allowed to un-braid their hair, if Shepherd tells them to do it.

In the beginning of the film, things seem pretty blissful for Selah and the person she’s closest to in the group: Tamar (played by Ailbher Cowley), who is also also her half-sister. Selha and Tamar are shown frolicking in the woods and having fun near a majestic waterfall. And they also help take care of the group’s sheep, which are a constant presence in the movie. But, of course, all is not what it seems to be at first glance.

Selah’s mother has been dead since Selah was a baby. Selah has been told that her mother died during the childbirthing process, so Selah feels slightly jealous and insecure about the other children in the group whose mothers are still alive. That insecurity is demonstrated when Selah gets into a petty argument with Tamar, and Tamar immediately goes to her mother to take her side against Selah.

The movie also shows the inevitable jealousies and power struggles that are part of any group where people are competing to the the “favorite” of the leader. This cult is no exception, as there are simmering tensions between some of the wives and children. During the course of the movie, it becomes more apparent that the older wives feel more vulnerable to falling out of favor with Shepherd. And the inappropriate way that he looks at Selah, strokes her hair when they’re alone, and tells her how she’s special could mean that his interest in her is starting to become very sinister.

As is the case with many dangerous cult leaders, Shepherd has a very charming side, but he can also be extremely abusive and ruthless to anyone he thinks is disloyal to him. One of the ways that he has kept his followers in line is by making one of the wives an outcast because she dared to stand up to him and question some of the things that he was doing. It’s also mentioned that she was also punished for her “vanity.”

The “outcast wife,” whom the other members of the group call “impure” and “cursed” is Sarah (played by Denise Gough), who was one of the original cult members who joined the group at the same time that Selah’s mother did. Sarah is kept in a shack away from the rest of the group. It’s implied, based on Sarah’s bloody scars, that she’s been beaten as punishment. But something about Sarah intrigues Selah, and the teenager spends more time with the outspoken Sarah, who begins to have an influence on the way Selah thinks.

Meanwhile, one night, Selah notices that a police car parked in front of their living quarters. She overhears a cop telling Shepherd that he has to leave, and Shepherd replies that if he doesn’t leave he’ll probably get arrested. The next day, Shepherd tells his flock that they had to leave. Otherwise, he says, “The outside world will destroy us and take you all away from me.”

So off they all go, trekking through the rugged terrain to find another place to live in the area, with their sheep in tow . Even though one of the women is pregnant and due to give birth very soon, Shepherd keeps them on a rigorous foot journey, with Sarah relegated to being  the last person in the procession. And woe to anyone who can’t keep up. Shepherd beats and berates the pregnant woman when she collapses from exhaustion, and he orders her to keep walking.

During this grueling trek, Selah manages to steal some time away to be alone with Sarah. Selah finds out more about her mother and some secrets that change her attitude toward the only family she’s ever known. But there’s also something that happens in the movie that only viewers see (but Selah doesn’t) that shows there a big secret that she doesn’t know about. Sarah tries to warn Selah about Shepherd, by telling her: “His attention is like the sun—bright and glorious at first, but then it burns.” And later in the story, when Shepherd is alone with Selah, she finds out how depraved he really is.

“The Other Lamb” is not an easy film to watch if you don’t like to see vulnerable people being brainwashed, oppressed and abused. The movie can also be quite bloody, since the sheep are slaughtered for meat. And there are also scenes where Selah’s face or hands are covered in blood. She gets her menstrual period, apparently for the first time, and it terrifies her because it’s obvious that no one told her what a menstrual period is.

Because there’s an obvious villain in the story, it fuels the overarching question when watching this movie: How bad will things get and will anyone be able to break away from this cult leader’s reign of terror? There many artsy and stunning wilderness scenes in “The Other Lamb,” which has cinematography by Michał Englert. All of the actors are convincing in their roles, with Cassidy as Selah as the obvious standout because of the emotional roller coaster ride that her character goes through in the story.

The screenplay, written by Catherine S. McMullen, also has a level of authenticity in presenting a  group of people who’ve been cut off from the outside world for years. The children, who were all born into the cult, have no formal education and don’t know any better. What remains a mystery is the backstory of how these women got into the cult in the first place. However, one could can only surmise that this background was left purposely vague because the story is told from Selah’s perspective.

At times “The Other Lamb” might be a little slow-paced for some people. And the constant presence of the sheep is a little too on-the-nose as a metaphor, since obviously the people in Shepherd’s flock act like human sheep. However, as disturbing as it sounds, “The Other Lamb” is a coming-of-age cult story that shows how a teenager comes to terms with the tightly controlled life that was chosen for her and how much control she might have over her own destiny in the future.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “The Other Lamb” on digital and VOD on April 3, 2020.

 

2020 SXSW Film Festival migrates to Amazon Prime Video for limited time

April 21, 2020

The following is a press release from South by Southwest Conference and Festivals:

Amazon Prime Video and SXSW are joining forces to launch “Prime Video presents the SXSW 2020 Film Festival Collection,” following the unprecedented cancellation of the SXSW Conference and Festivals by the City of Austin due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

“Prime Video presents the SXSW 2020 Film Festival Collection” offers filmmakers in the 2020 SXSW Film Festival lineup an invitation to opt in to take part in this online film festival, which will play exclusively on Prime Video in the U.S. for 10-days. The one-time event will be available in front of the Prime Video paywall and free to all audiences around the country, with or without an Amazon Prime membership, all that is needed is a free Amazon account.

Filmmakers who choose to participate will receive a screening fee for streaming their film over the 10-day period. The launch date is yet to be announced, but SXSW and Prime Video are targeting a late April date. SXSW has shared details on the opportunity with 2020 filmmakers, who can opt in starting today.

Jennifer Salke, Head of Amazon Studios, said, “We’re honored to be able to provide a space for the SXSW filmmakers to share their hard work and passion with audiences for the first time. It’s been a privilege collaborating with Janet Pierson and the SXSW team to bring these diverse and inspiring films to viewers around the country. We are supporters of SXSW and other independent film festivals, and hope this online film festival can help give back some of that experience, and showcase artists and films that audiences might otherwise not have had the chance to see.”

“Ever since SXSW was canceled by the City of Austin, we’ve been focused on how we could help the incredible films and filmmakers in the SXSW 2020 Film Festival lineup,” said Janet Pierson, Director of Film at SXSW. “We were delighted when Amazon Prime Video offered to host an online film festival, and jumped at the opportunity to connect their audiences to our filmmakers. We’re inspired by the adaptability and resilience of the film community as it searches for creative solutions in this unprecedented crisis.”

“I’m thrilled that these two great champions of indie film (SXSW and Amazon Prime Video) are teaming up to resurrect this year’s canceled film festival,” said Jay Duplass, independent filmmaker and SXSW alum. “These are unprecedented times, and it’s going to take unprecedented solutions to carry on and celebrate these great films and the people who worked so hard to make them.”

Stay tuned to SXSW for more information coming soon. Follow us on TwitterInstagramLinkedIn, and Facebook for the latest SX news.

Review: ‘The Scheme,’ starring Christian Dawkins, Steve Haney, Dan Wetzel and Rebecca Davis O’Brien

March 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Christian Dawkins in “The Scheme” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“The Scheme”

Directed by Pat Kondelis

Culture Representation: The true-crime documentary “The Scheme”—about a corruption scandal involving the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and an aspiring manager of basketball players—interviews a mix of African Americans and white people representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Christian Dawkins, one of the men at the center of the scandal, says that he was the “fall guy” for widespread corruption in the NCAA and that he was unfairly entrapped by the FBI.

Culture Audience: “The Scheme” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in true crime and sports scandals, but this documentary is openly sympathetic to Dawkins, the only person involved in the scandal who’s interviewed for the movie.

Christian Dawkins in “The Scheme” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

If high-school basketball stars are paid by people who want them recruit to a college basketball team, is that corruption or is that common sense? In the very slanted documentary “The Scheme,” former basketball wheeler dealer Christian Dawkins says it’s common sense. The law takes the opposite stance, and it’s why Dawkins was busted in a 2017 FBI sting that led to two trials and Dawkins becoming a convicted felon.

“The Scheme,” directed by Pat Kondelis (who won a Sports Emmy for Showtime’s 2017 documentary “Disgraced”), doesn’t even try to be about the filmmakers doing any original investigative journalism. Instead, it’s mainly concerned with being the first TV interview that Dawkins has given since he was arrested in 2017 and later served time in prison for fraud and bribery charges.

Although the epilogue of “The Scheme” mentions that key figures in the wide-ranging NCAA scandal declined to be interviewed for the movieincluding others who were arrested; coaches who were implicated but not arrested; and officials from the FBI and NCAAthis documentary instead gives a wide berth to Dawkins’ side of the story. “The Scheme” also relies heavily on interviews with journalists who actually did the investigative work that’s used in the movie, but the filmmakers chose not to do their own further investigations.

Dawkins even says in the documentary, “I don’t even want to tell my side of the story as much as I want to tell the bigger story and my opinion.” And yet, “The Scheme” filmmakers don’t follow up on the widespread corruption claims that Dawkins brings up while being interviewed. This failure to follow up is the equivalent of being handed a ball in a sports game and dropping the ball.

Dawkins was 24 years old when he was arrested in the 2017 scandal, which involved an extensive FBI investigation and federal prosecution by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, since many of the transactions took place in New York City. By his own admission, Dawkins is cocky, because he has long considered himself to be a marketing-savvy entrepreneur who’s destined for greatness. And, as the documentary shows, he has a tendency to stretch the truth or lie if it will make him look good or make him money.

The beginning of the film goes over his upbringing and background to explain how Dawkins ended up serving the longest prison sentence (18 months) out of all of the people arrested in the scandal. “The Scheme” interviews Christian Dawkins’ parents Lou and Latricia Dawkins, seated on a couch together, and they confirm that the family’s life revolved around basketball, because Lou was a basketball coach at top-ranking Saginaw High School in their hometown of Saginaw, Michigan.

All three of the  Dawkins kids—Christian and his younger brother and sister—played basketball in school. Their father Lou Dawkins says in the documentary that basketball was the children’s choice of sport and they took the initiative to play basketball, and not because of pressure from him. The skeptical “rolling eyes” reaction of Lou’s wife Latricia puts some doubt on that perspective, and she says, “I don’t know if that’s all true, but I’ll go with it.”

What the parents do agree on is that Christian showed signs of being interested in business from an early age, when he was about 10 or 11. Instead of sports magazines, he would be more likely to read business magazines. Lou says about Christian’s basketball skills as a child: “He was good, but he was stubborn,” and that Christian often had a hard time listening to advice and rules that his father gave him. But his parents lovingly describe him as “intelligent.” And his mother Latricia says about Christian: “My child has always been different.”

According to Christian, one of the biggest influences in his life was the 2000 non-fiction book “Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America’s Youth,” by Dan Wetzel and Don Yeager. (Wetzel, who covered the 2017 NCAA scandal for Yahoo Sports, is interviewed in the documentary.) Reading the book led to Christian starting a “basketball insider” website called Best of the Best Prep Basketball Scouting, which he started while he was in high school. The website charged $600 per person to get access to information about the best high-school basketball players in Michigan and other parts of the Midwest. Christian’s mother said she didn’t find out about this business until checks started arriving in the mail for Christian.

And showing his tendency to lie in order to make money, Christian admits in the documentary that he once ranked himself as a No. 1 basketball player on the website, even though he was an average basketball player. Christian’s attorney Steve Haney, who says he’s known Christian since Christian was about 10 or 11 years old, laughs when he remembers that Christian even lied about his height on the website, by claiming he was 6’2″, when he’s actually 5’10”. The documentary has archived pages from the website that actually show the rankings with the false 6’2″ claim.

But then tragedy struck the Dawkins family: Christian’s younger brother Dorian, who was a star basketball player in high school, died of an undetected heart condition when Dorian was 14. Christian says that Dorian is still the best friend he ever had. Dorian’s untimely death led Christian to start a charity basketball tournament with the American Heart Association, and the Saginaw hometown team switched its name from Team Pride to Dorian’s Pride. Christian also says he was responsible for getting Dorian’s Pride a hefty sponsorship deal with Under Armour. He claims that Dorian’s Pride was the only Midwest high-school team at the time to get a sponsorship with Under Armour.

Christian makes several other claims in the documentary, such as that he was the “general manager” of the Dorian’s Pride team when he was 16. He says that he “picked all the coaches and players, the tournaments we played in,” but there’s no sense that the filmmakers did any independent fact-checking for many of his claims, and they just took his word for it. All that Christian’s attorney Haney says about Christian’s role in Dorian’s Pride was that Christian “had an eye for talent and, more importantly, he worked.” Because of Christian’s accomplishments while still in high school, and because he was a better wheeler dealer than he was a basketball player, Christian says he decided not to go to college, so he convinced his parents that he didn’t need to a college education.

According to Christian, his first real job out of high school was as “managing director of financial services” at a company he doesn’t name. The company name isn’t as important as what Christian claims that he accomplished while working there: He says he became the youngest person to sign basketball players who ended up being first-round picks for the NBA: Elfrid Payton and Rodney Hood. Again, there’s no independent verification that Christian was the official representative of these two players at the time. He could have recommended that they get signed to his company, but that doesn’t mean he was the company’s authorized person to sign and represent these two players.

Whatever his real or imagined responsibilities were, Christian’s prodigy-like success caught the eye of sports agent Andy Miller, who recruited Christian to work for him. Looking back on their working relationship, Christian says in the documentary: “We were like Whitney [Houston] and Bobby [Brown]: We shouldn’t have been together.”

In yet another example of Christian having a tendency to exaggerate or embellish the truth, he claims in the documentary that while he worked for Miller, he was an “agent or a junior agent.” But Christian’s own attorney contradicts this claim, by saying that Christian was just a “runner,” an industry term for a person who cultivates relationships with athletes but doesn’t have the authority to sign or represent them. (Miller was not interviewed for this movie.)

During his tenure working for Miller, Christian ran into his first major legal scandal, when he was accused of misappropriating funds. In the documentary, Christian calls the scandal “Ubergate” because he was accused of running up a $42,000 Uber bill while working for Miller. In the documentary, Christian admits that his expense accounts were abused, but he puts most of the blame on unnamed people whom he claims had access to the accounts. Christian wasn’t arrested or sued over the scandal, but he was fired and his reputation was severely tarnished.

It was around this time that Christian said that he met a man named Marty Blazer through a mutual acquaintance, a banker named Munish Sood. Christian told them that he wanted to start his own sports management company specializing in representing high-school basketball players who would be recruited by colleges, but Christian needed investment money.

The company was going to be based in Atlanta, but Christian frequently made trips to New York City to meet with potential investors. Christian called his management company Loyd Management Inc., because “loyd” was an acronym for “live out your dreams.” Knowing that Christian was looking for a investors, Blazer (a shady character who turned out to be an informant for the FBI) introduced Christian to a man named Jeff D’Angelo, who was described as a wealthy guy who made his fortune in real-estate. Christian was also introduced to D’Angelo’s right-hand person Jill Bailey.

D’Angelo gave Christian hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to bribe college basketball coaches and certain Adidas executives to recruit high-school basketball players, who would also be steered to Christian’s fledgling management company for representation. Christian didn’t like this idea because he says he wanted to pay basketball players directly, instead of adding an extra unpredictable set of people to the mix.

“Paying players is the cost of doing business,” Christian says. He also repeatedly mentions in the documentary that he thinks all sports players (including those in school) should be paid salaries for playing sports. (It’s currently illegal for players in U.S. non-professional basketball leagues to be paid salaries for playing basketball.) Christian says that he was initially very uncomfortable with this business model of paying coaches and other officials, but D’Angelo kept pressuring him to do it, and Christian eventually went along with it since D’Angelo was paying for all of it.

But, by his own admission, Christian said he got greedy and kept most of the payment money for himself and spent a lot of it on “entertainment” (including strip clubs) for himself and the coaches that he was supposed to be bribing. Unbeknownst to Christian until it was too late, D’Angelo and Bailey were FBI agents. (Those names were aliases.) And the reason why “Jeff D’Angelo” kept pushing hard for Christian to pay coaches was because NCAA coaches are considered public officials, and it’s a federal crime for them to accept bribes.

In the documentary, Christian and his attorney admit that although Christian took the money (they couldn’t deny it, since many of these transactions were caught on FBI surveillance video), he was not guilty of directly giving any of the money to the coaches and Adidas officials. It’s why Christian pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the case resulted in two trials for him: one involving fraud charges, and the other involving bribery charges. A great deal of the movie is about Christian giving his perspective of being “set up” by the FBI.

Throughout the documentary, Christian’s grandiosity and high opinion of himself are very apparent. He claims to know “everybody in basketball” and brags about being smart when it comes to business. But, for a guy who’s supposedly “smart,” he made a lot of dumb mistakes.

For starters, Christian admits that the sudden appearance of an angel investor (“Jeff D’Angelo”) who spared no expense (deals were done on a yacht and in lavish hotel suites) made him suspicious at first, but he didn’t do a thorough background check on D’Angelo. Christian says he thought about hiring a private investigator, but he decided not to do that because he asked a Drug Enforcement Agency contact (who’s not named in the documentary) to look into D’Angelo’s background, and the DEA contact  told Christian that D’Angelo was legitimate.

Another big mistake that Christian made was trusting Blazer, who had a long history of arrests and lawsuits (which were all public record), but Blazer mysteriously wasn’t in prison for his crimes. Any “street smart” person would immediately figure out that Blazer was probably avoiding prison time by being a confidential informant. And, as revealed by Christian’s two trials and journalists’ investigations, Blazer was indeed an informant for the FBI. But Christian, who repeatedly describes Blazer and “D’Angelo” as “idiots” and “stupid,” missed that big red flag. In the end, Blazer spent zero time in prison for his involvement in the scandal. So, who’s the stupid one?

And there was another red flag that Christian foolishly missed: The person calling himself “Jeff D’Angelo” (his real name still remains a secret) suddenly stopped doing business with Christian, and let his right-hand person “Jill Bailey” take over the transactions. The excuse was that “D’Angelo” had to go to Italy to visit his dying mother. But Christian didn’t try to find out if that story was true, because he said he didn’t really like “D’Angelo” anyway, and “Bailey” was easier to deal with on a business level.

In reality, as it came out during news investigations, “D’Angelo” had been removed from the case because he was allegedly stealing the FBI’s cash too. Haney says in the documentary that he tried to subpoena the mysterious “Jeff D’Angelo,” but the subpoena was denied. The documentary also mentions that it’s not known if “Jeff D’Angelo” is still working for the FBI. Even without the testimony of “Jeff D’Angelo,” the bottom line is that as long as the money kept flowing, Christian didn’t really care who was giving him the money. In the end, greed was Christian’s undoing.

“The Scheme” has a lot of re-enactments with Christian, as well as actual FBI surveillance and wiretaps. And the filmmakers are obviously sympathetic to Christian and his attorney Haney, given all the screen time that they have in the movie.

What’s missing from the documentary is any sense that the filmmakers cared about investigating the bigger picture that everyone interviewed in the documentary says exists—the NCAA’s widespread corruption, which includes the participation of major athletic-shoe companies (such as Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour) that pay millions to colleges for star athletes to wear their products. Unlike NBA players, the school players aren’t supposed to be paid to play basketball (a policy called “amateurism”), and the NCAA is a non-profit organization that gets massive tax breaks for the money it earns.

Christian was the one who spent the most time in prison for the scandal, while other people implicated in the scandal who are much higher up in the NCAA food chain did not even get arrested. Although the documentary is basically a platform for Christian and his attorney to complain about Christian’s prison sentence, the filmmakers don’t bother to ask why higher authorities were not held accountable in this scandal. And although the documentary includes statistics about how much money certain colleges and universities get from athletic-apparel companies, the filmmakers fail to detail or investigate how that money is moved around in possibly corrupt ways.

Christian even names some of the NCAA colleges and universities that he says are some of the worst offenders when it comes to misappropriating funds and bribing players to join their teams, yet the filmmakers don’t follow up on these claims. Christian also comes right out and says that it’s not uncommon for college coaches to use college basketball funds to hire hookers for high-school basketball players, as part of the recruiting process. Instead of uncovering anything new or looking into Christian’s claims about corruption and cover-ups, the documentary interviews journalists Rebecca Davis O’Brien (who covered the scandal for the Wall Street Journal) and Haney to rehash information that these journalists already covered for their media outlets.

“The Scheme” also doesn’t adequately explore the issue of racial inequalities in criminal justice. Christian frequently mentions in the movie that he was able to be “successful” because of his relationships with college-bound or NBA-bound basketball players and their families. (Toronto Raptors player Fred VanVleet is the only basketball player interviewed in the documentary, and he says he owes his career to Christian.) Because college-level and NBA-level basketball is a sport played by predominantly African Americans, Christian says that gave him an advantage to establish a type of racial rapport with players that agents and head coaches (who are predominantly white) do not have.

However, the filmmakers don’t ask Christian how his race could have been a disadvantage when he got caught in the FBI sting. “The Scheme” completely ignores the glaring fact that almost all of the people arrested in the FBI sting were people of color: Christian Dawkins; banker Sood; Emanuel “Book” Richardson (former assistant basketball coach at the University of Arizona); Lamont Evans (former assistant basketball coach at Oklahoma State University and the University of South Carolina); Tony Bland (former assistant basketball coach at the University of Southern California); and Merl Code, a former Adidas executive who was like a mentor to Christian. Jim Gatto (former Adidas executive) was the only white person arrested.

Meanwhile, the head basketball coaches at these universities (all of the head coaches are white) escaped arrest and in most cases got to keep their jobs. In the documentary, Christian claims that University of Arizona head basketball coach Sean Miller and Louisiana State University head basketball coach Will Wade blatantly lied to the media and the public about not being involved in illegal basketball deals. (Although Wade was suspended from his job, he was eventually re-instated.)

Christian says that Miller should be an “actor” for his performance at a press conference where Miller denied any involvement in the NCAA scandal. And the documentary includes Wade’s public denial of doing business with Christian by juxtaposing it with FBI wiretaps of Wade talking business with Christian. Christian and his attorney say that these head coaches who escaped arrest must have felt confident that they would be protected when they made their public denials.

Despite all this finger-pointing, the documentary does little to appear objective in trying to gather all of the facts. Instead, “The Scheme” is mostly concerned with letting Christian run the narrative. It’s clear that he did the interview to promote the fact that he’s trying to make a business comeback, but this time in the music industry—something that’s mentioned at the end of the film. (At least he’s smart enough to know that his sports career is over.)

Why the music industry? Because convicted felons aren’t as taboo there, says Christian. His attorney said that, in an example of Christian’s hustler mentality, while Christian was on trial, Christian secretly had meetings with people in the music industry to start his own record label.

And now that he’s out of prison, Christian has teamed up with Atlantic Records to fund and distribute a record label he’s founded called Chosen, even though he has no prior experience in the music industry. In the documentary, Christian doesn’t talk about any artists he’s signed to his record label, but he seems very happy with the undisclosed amount of money he’s gotten from Atlantic Records. Given his track record in handling funds, Atlantic might want to closely watch where that money is going.

In the end, “The Scheme” is kind of a reflection of the person whose perspective dominates the movie: There’s a lot of talk, but not a lot of new facts brought to the table.

HBO premiered “The Scheme” on March 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons,’ starring Cindy Casey-Holman, Steven Feldman, Edward Hu, Ginger Savely, Kelly Pickens, Marianne Middelveen and Raphael Stricker

March 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Cindy Casey-Holman in “Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons”

Directed by Pi Ware

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, this documentary (which interviews mostly white people and a few Asians) examines the controversies over the medical validity of a debilitating skin condition that’s known as Morgellons, featuring commentaries from patients and medical professionals.

Culture Clash: People in the documentary disagree over whether not Morgellons should be officially recognized as a disease by the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Culture Audience: “Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons” will appeal mostly to people who want to learn more about what’s being done about Morgellons and will also appeal to people who like watching documentaries about rare medical conditions.

Cindy Casey-Holman (second from right) in “Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The documentary “Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons” takes an up-close and personal look at what is currently a controversial medical mystery: Morgellons. Is it an undiagnosed skin disease or is it a figment of mentally ill people’s imaginations? The medical community is divided over what is the real answer. This documentary (directed by Pi Ware) responsibly presents both sides of the argument, but the film unquestionably sides with the patients who say that they have Morgellons.

People who say they have Morgellons have similar physical characteristics: They have painful skin lesions and open sores that often have hair or different-colored fibers growing out of these sores. The people with this condition also say that they feel like bugs or small animals are trying to crawl out of their skin. In addition, they also report having memory loss or other signs of neurological degeneration. (These are also characteristics of heavy methamphetamine use, but many of the people who have Morgellons are not meth users.) Because Morgellons seems to be a very rare condition that is not officially recognized by the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), many medical professionals are reluctant to diagnose patients with Morgellons.

Complicating matters is that fact that people with this skin condition often use extreme measures to try and get rid of it, which might or not not be indications of mental instability. In a medical consultation on camera with nurse practitioner Ginger Savely (who’s a Morgellons patient advocate), one Morgellons-stricken man in the documentary tells her that he’s been using a homemade, medically unapproved “remedy” of a topical paste that includes DDT (the main ingredient of insecticide) to treat his skin condition. The patient swears that this home remedy has been working for him. Savely, who is only consulting with him and is not his main medical professional, literally cringes and says that the DDT ingredient is “toxic.”

This inclination to treat the problem with self-remedies is why many medical professionals think that people who say they have Morgellons are really just mentally ill and should not be coming up with their own medical solutions to a problem that isn’t fully understood yet. People who have Morgellons are often accused of causing their skin sores through self-mutilation.

The documentary points out that there are some people who think they have Morgellons, but they actually don’t, and it’s those misinformed people who are giving the “legitimate” Morgellons patients a bad name. But herein lies the problem: Even if doctors believe that Morgellons is a medical condition, they often don’t agree on what would make a “legitimate” Morgellons patient.

Cindy Casey-Holman, a former registered nurse, is one of the leading activists to get medical professionals and health-related government agencies to take Morgellons seriously. In the documentary, she said she first noticed that she had the characteristics of Morgellons in the mid-1990s. In addition to the skin sores, she had a low-grade fever, swollen feet and a lot of anxiety. Betsy Anderson, one of her friends and a former co-worker, is interviewed and confirms this information.

Since no doctor could diagnose what was wrong with her at the time, Casey-Holman said that she did the best she could to try to get better, and the symptoms eventually went away. However, the symptoms returned about seven or eight years later at one of the worst times imaginable: close to her wedding date. She’s had the condition in varying forms ever since, although she says at the end of the film that it’s nowhere near as bad as it was for her back in the 2000s.

Casey-Holman’s husband Charles Holman (who has since passed away) and an advocate named Dr. Greg Smith teamed up to co-found a nonprofit activist organization called the New Morgellons Order. That organization has since morphed into the Charles E. Holman Morgellons Disease Foundation, of which Casey-Holman is the director. She says in the documentary that she is based in Hughes Springs, Texas, after living in San Francisco for many years.

She is also the chief organizer of an annual Morgellons Conference, which gets a lot of screen time in the documentary. The movie doesn’t specify what year that the featured conference took place, but it’s mentioned that the conference was at a hotel in Austin, Texas. It’s a small event. Casey-Holman says in the film that the conference has less than 100 people attending per year. And in a room for panel discussions and speaker presentations, it looks like there are about 50 people or less in the room at any given time.

Casey-Holman says that people who believe they have Morgellons began to find each other through the Internet, beginning in the late 1990s/early 2000s. It was around this time that the media began reporting that people had this skin condition. People who say that they have Morgellons were once relegated to just Internet chat rooms to share their stories with others, but then they were starting to be interviewed on national television in news reports about Morgellons. And that’s when this skin condition started to get even more media attention.

The medical skeptics about Morgellons say that the publicity over Morgellons is one of the reasons why they think Morgellons is a medical hoax. Dr. Timothy Berger, a University of California at San Francisco dermatologist who used to be Casey-Holman’s doctor, comments on Morgellons: “I believe this was an Internet-associated situation. I hadn’t seen patients with the fiber complaint until the fiber story got universally spread.” Berger then compares people who say they have Morgellons to Vietnam War veterans who blamed their sicknesses on Agent Orange.

Another medical skeptic about Morgellons is Dr. Steven R. Feldman, a dermatologist based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He gets the most screen time in the documentary’s presentation of anti-Morgellons viewpoints, and he’s the closest thing to a “villain” in this movie. For starters, Feldman comes across as arrogant and condescending. He freely admits that in dealing with patients, what he says isn’t based on the individual but is often pre-rehearsed, canned talk. He also admits that he can appear to have a cheerful demeanor with patients, but it’s actually forced. “It’s for show,” he says.

When commenting on Morgellons, Feldman says, “Doctors can’t find anything objective causing these sensations … Morgellons and delusions of parasitosis, to many physicians, are exactly the same thing.” And to further drive home the point that Feldman is the “jerk” of this story, during his lecture presentation at the Morgellons Conference featured in the documentary, he tells the attendees that they’ll get better results in doctors’ cooperation if they are polite and nice to their doctors.

But what really sets off some of the attendees to respond angrily is when Feldman makes this outrageous statement more than once during his lecture: “I don’t believe that there are any bad doctors.” (Tell that to state medical licensing boards that have revoked numerous medical licenses for doctors due to malpractice or other reasons. There are also many doctors who have been convicted of medical-related crimes.)

Feldman’s statement that there are “no bad doctors” causes one particular conference attendee, Morgellons activist Kelly Pickens, to shout a rant at Feldman before storming out of the room. She later confronts Feldman again in a hallway after the lecture. Pickens has a tragic story that is told in this documentary, but that information won’t be revealed in this review.

Another Morgellons patient who’s featured in the documentary is Edward Hu, a former attorney in San Francisco whose medical condition became so severe that he had to leave his job as a federal public defender. His medical problems led to a falling-out between him and his younger brother Brian, a doctor who’s been skeptical that Morgellons is a real medical condition. The documentary shows Edward Hu in various states of his condition (some better than others) over time, as well as the two brothers’ attempts to reconcile.

Are there any doctors who believe Morgellons is real? Yes. The documentary interviews some of them. One is Raphael Stricker, an internist who considers himself to be a Morgellons specialist. He says that people who believe that they have Morgellons should try to avoid bringing in their own skin samples (often called “matchbox signs”) for doctors to test, unless those samples are specifically requested. As Stricker says in the movie: “Doctors make fun of the matchbox sign, because they see it as proof that they [the patients] are crazy.”

Another advocate for Morgellon patients is veterinary microbiologist Marianne Middelveen, who teamed up with Stricker to test a hypothesis that Morgellons could be caused by bacteria. The study’s results, which are shown in the documentary, suggested a strong correlation between bacteria and this skin condition.

The documentary also covers the long-held belief that Lyme disease could linked to Morgellons, since the symptoms for Lyme disease are similar. Another theory is that Morgellons is caused by a source within the body (such as a genetic defect) and not from a source that was introduced to the body, such as external bacteria. None of these theories has been medically proven.

In the documentary, Harry Quinn Schone, a medical historian and author of “Contested Illness in Context” mentions that for decades, medical professionals thought ulcers were caused by stress until it was proven that ulcers were caused by bacteria. But it took a lot of controversy, skepticism and scientific research before that conclusion was reached by the medical community. Schone suggests that Morgellons is in a similar misunderstood gray zone that ulcers used to be in, when it was believed that the cause for ulcers was more emotional/psychological than physical.

Another medical expert who is an advocate for Morgellons patients is Randy Wymore, an associate professor of pharmacology at Oklahoma State University. He believes that the CDC conducted a very flawed study that concluded in 2012 that Morgellons had no underlying medical condition or no infectious source. Wymore says that the sample size for the study was too small; he claims as little as 12 people actually participated in the study.

And according to Wymore, the long questionnaire that the CDC gave to people who were potential study participants showed a lot of bias in favor of the theory that Morgellons patients had psychiatric problems. The documentary does not mention if the filmmakers made any effort to contact the CDC for comment. The good news, says Wymore, is that because of continued testing, he’s seen that doctors are becoming less skeptical of Morgellons and are becoming more curious about how to treat this condition.

“Skin Deep” is undoubtedly sympathetic toward the patients, but there’s very little investigation into how authentic their stories are. As viewers, we’re supposed to take their word for it that the sores on their skin just mysteriously appeared with no explanation. While it might be true for some, it might not be true for others. The documentary doesn’t really try to prove the credibility of anyone identified in the film as a “Morgellons patient,” except for Casey-Holman, who has the aforementioned friend backing up her story.

“Skin Deep” director Ware also injects some melodrama by including re-enactments using actors. These re-enactments are borderline manipulative/cheesy and don’t seem very appropriate for a documentary about a topic as serious as people’s medical problems. Despite these flaws, “Skin Deep” does make it clear that even though people can disagree on what causes Morgellons, there are physical manifestations clearly showing that something is definitely wrong with these patients. The issue is what is really causing these skin sores and other problems associated with Morgellons.

As shown in the movie, because Morgellons is such a mysterious condition, patients are often not believed not just by medical professionals but also by family, friends and other loved ones. Several of the Morgellons patients in the movie say that Morgellons has ruined their health and ruined the relationships they’ve had with many loved ones. The suicide rate for Morgellons patients is extremely high, says Savely.

Nurse practitioners Savely and Melissa McElroy Felser, who are advocates for Morgellons patients, stress the importance of having compassion for those who are suffering. Whether or not Morgellons is a real disease, the suffering is real. And, as “Skin Deep” concludes, that suffering in and of itself is cause for alarm and for the medical community and other concerned people to do their part to address this problem.

Gravitas Ventures released “Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons” on digital, VOD and DVD on March 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Banana Split,’ starring Hannah Marks, Liana Liberto and Dylan Sprouse

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liana Liberato and Hannah Marks in “Banana Split” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Banana Split”

Directed by Benjamin Kasulke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy “Banana Split” has a predominantly young white cast of characters (with some African American and Asian representation) portraying middle-class teenagers.

Culture Clash: Two women in their late teens befriend each other, even though one of them is dating the other’s ex-boyfriend, and they agree to keep their friendship a secret from the boyfriend.

Culture Audience: “Banana Split” will appeal primarily to people who like female-oriented comedies that are entertaining and have adult humor.

Hannah Marks, Addison Riecke, Liana Liberato and Jessica Hect in “Banana Split” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Can you become best friends with the person who’s currently dating an ex-lover just a few months after the relationship ended? That’s the question posed in the breezy and somewhat raunchy comedy “Banana Split,” which has two women in their late teens going through this exact situation while hiding their friendship from the boyfriend. And making matters even more uncomfortable, the two women are also friends with the boyfriend’s best friend. If you’ve seen enough comedies like this one, then it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen, but the characters and the movie overall are so watchable and engaging that it’s an entertaining ride for most of the story.

The movie is told from the perspective of Los Angeles teenager April Krillholtz (played by Hannah Marks, who co-wrote the “Banana Split” screenplay with Joey Power), a brainy, neurotic type who’s a huge fan of “Harry Potter” and completely in love with Nicholas “Nick” Ellis (played by Dylan Sprouse), her high-school sweetheart of two years. A quick montage at the beginning of the film shows how April and Nick’s romance started and then began to deteriorate.

After having a platonic friendship, Nick and April decided that they wanted to start dating each other. But over time, their hot’n’heavy romance began to turn volatile, with a lot of arguing. (They even bickered during their prom date.)

And their relationship took a turn for the worst when they both got the news that they were accepted into universities on opposite coasts: Nick is staying on the West Coast to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara, while April is headed to the East Coast for Boston University, on an academic scholarship. Apparently, April didn’t tell Nick that she had applied to a college in Boston, so when he finds out that she’s moving there, that’s the final nail in the coffin of their relationship, and they break up.

After graduating from high school, April is spending her summer working as a concessions employee at a movie theater. She’s the type of person who scolds a customer for ordering a hot dog because she thinks the customer is better off not letting “the smell of pig parts permeate the theater.” (In case it isn’t obvious, April doesn’t believe in eating meat.)

Before she moves away to go to Boston University, April is living at home with her divorced mother Susan (played by Jessica Hecht) and April’s foul-mouthed 13-year-old sister Agnes (played by Addison Riecke). Agnes has no sympathy for April’s breakup blues because Agnes makes it clear that she’s had a longtime crush on Nick and wants him for herself one day. Agnes also isn’t shy about describing her lust for Nick in explicit ways.

Agnes is the type of precocious teen who likes to talk about how much she knows about sex to shock or anger people (namely, her sister). The two siblings frequently get into immature, curse-filled shouting matches that’s kind of hilarious to watch. Their permissive mother Susan just wants to keep the peace while telling a little too much information about her own sex life. The dynamics between these three characters (who are usually only seen together around a dining room table) make for some of the best scenes in the movie. As the obnoxious and petulant Agnes, Riecke is a definite scene-stealer.

One night, April goes with two of her friends—Sally (played by Haley Ramm) and Molly (played by Meagan Kimberly Smith)—to a house party thrown by a fellow classmate. At the party, April gets very drunk because she knows, through social media, that Nick has already moved on to dating someone named Clara (played by Liana Liberato), a young woman who’s around the same age but who didn’t go to the same high school as April and Nick. In fact, April knows very little about Clara, and it bothers April that Nick was able to find a new girlfriend so quickly after their breakup.

But wouldn’t you know it, Clara is at the party too. Clara is not with Nick, but she looks like she’s having fun at the party and she’s being very social. April eyes Clara from a distance with jealousy and suspicion. And then, April is shocked to find out that Nick’s nerdy best friend Ben (played Luke Spencer Roberts) already knows Clara, because her parents are his godparents. (Stranger coincidences have happened in real life.) Ben has remained friendly with April after the breakup, and she understands that he’s still going to be Nick’s best friend. What she doesn’t like is for Ben to be friendly with Clara.

While an intoxicated April is hanging out by herself in a bedroom at the house, in walks Clara. The two have an awkward moment before Clara admits that she deliberately followed April into the room because she thought it was best that they finally meet. And it isn’t long before Clara and April begin hanging out at the party like long-lost friends.

They have such a good time together, that at the end of the night, Clara insists that April take her phone number. April asks, “What about Nick?” And Clara replies that Nick doesn’t have to know.

Meanwhile, when April tells Nick’s best friend Ben that Clara gave April her phone number, Ben (who senses that he’s going to be caught in the middle of this unusual arrangement) advises April not to become friends with Clara because it would be too weird and inappropriate. But, of course, there would be no “Banana Split” movie if April took that advice.

The first time that April and Clara hang out with each other, they go to a diner and have (you guessed it) a banana split together. The dessert can also be considered a metaphor for what their friendship turns out to be over the summer—sweet, kind of decadent and with a high probability of getting very messy.

The two women are almost opposites. College-bound April likes to plan ahead and has limited sexual experience. (She lost her virginity to Nick, who’s the only guy she’s had sex with so far.) Clara who recently moved to Los Angeles from Fresno with no set plans, is more of a free-spirit, is more sexually experienced (Clara tells April that she’s had sex with 14 guys in her life so far) and is not as book-smart as April is.

The movie hints that their relationship could have turned sexual, when during one of their first hangouts together, Clara asks April if she wants to make out with her.  But April tells Clara that she’s not interested because she’s definitely heterosexual, and the subject is never brought up again.

“Banana Split” has a lot of montages of April and Clara doing things like going to the beach together, getting high together (mostly by smoking marijuana), and going out for meals together—not exactly the best way to keep their friendship a secret. Los Angeles is a big city, but there’s still a chance that other mutual friends of Nick and April (other than Ben) would find out.

During one of the first times that Clara and April spend time together, they end up talking about Nick’s sexual techniques, but that conversation quickly turns awkward when Clara finds out that Nick said things to April that he never said to her. April and Clara decide that the other big rule in their friendship (besides not telling Nick about their friendship) will be not to talk about Nick with each other.

To hide their friendship, they also agree not to post photos of themselves together on social media. And when April calls Clara, she shows up in Clara’s phone under the alias “Brad Pitt,” in reference to a joke that April made about Pitt’s movie “Fight Club.” (The reference to Pitt is kind of ironic, since Sprouse in “Banana Split” looks a lot like Pitt looked when he had long hair in the 1994 movies “Legends of the Fall” and “Interview With the Vampire.”)

The first time that April and Clara tell each other, “You’re my best friend,” is after they’ve checked into a motel together to get away from their routines and end up tripping on LSD together. And their relationship goes to the next friendship level when Clara, who has no family members in the area, asks April if she could meet her family. (You can imagine how dinner with April’s family goes, as long as bratty Agnes is there.)

Meanwhile, Ben knows all about April and Clara’s friendship. A great deal of what his character is all about is Ben nervously trying to keep the friendship a secret from Nick, while also scolding April and Clara about keeping it a secret from Nick.

Most of the characters in “Banana Split” are very defined in their personalities, but Nick is somewhat of a blank slate. It isn’t really made clear what his interests and goals are in life and what kind of family he has, so who he is as a person seems kind of vague throughout the movie.

What viewers do see of Nick is that he’s not your average pretty boy. For example, he has certain quirks, such as that he’s a fan of “Call Me Maybe” pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen and he shares April’s nerdy fandom of “Harry Potter.” But in other ways, he’s very much like a typical teenage guy who just wants to party.

“Banana Split” is the feature-film directorial debut of Benjamin Kasulke, who hits a lot of familiar beats that we’ve seen before in movies with female teenagers as the main characters. There’s the alternative-pop soundtrack (“Banana Split” features several songs written and performed by Annie Hart), the house party scene where one of the girls gets drunk and ends up vomiting, and the scene where a supposedly responsible character does something irresponsible just for the hell of it. (In “Banana Split,” Clara convinces April to leave her work shift two hours early just to hang out with her.)

But because the movie is so well-cast (Marks and Liberato give very convincing performances as opposite women who become fast friends), it makes these well-worn teen-comedy tropes enjoyable to watch. “Banana Split” is capably directed by Kasulke, and the movie benefits from the genuinely funny screenplay by Marks and Power.

And what about this story’s love triangle? Is Nick really over April? Are Nick and Clara falling in love, or is she just a fling before he leaves for college? And will he find out that April and Clara have become friends behind his back? The movie answers those questions, even though it’s pretty obvious that the real love story of “Banana Split” is the friendship that develops between April and Clara.

Vertical Entertainment released “Banana Split” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Vivarium,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg, Côme Thiry and Imogen Poots in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium”

Directed by Lorcan Finnegan 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the sci-fi thriller “Vivarium” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An unmarried couple who live together go to a mysterious housing development to look for a new home and find out that they can’t leave.

Culture Audience: “Vivarium” will appeal mostly to people who like unsettling suspense stories with a sci-fi angle.

Senan Jennings in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium” is a somewhat haunting sci-fi thriller that’s meant to give people the creeps and/or anxiety throughout the entire film. The movie—directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley—is actually a very simple story that gets drawn out over approximately 97 minutes. The middle of the film has a very sluggish pace, but there’s enough of the story to keep people interested to find out what happens in the end.

In the beginning of “Vivarium,” there are startling images of hungry baby birds in nests, demanding to be fed by their parents. It’s a metaphor for what happens later in the story, which takes place in present-day England. Gemma Pierce (played by Imogen Poots) is a teacher at a primary school (which is called elementary school in the United States) to children who look about 5 or 6 years old. After school lets out for the day, one of the girl students finds two baby birds stomped to death near a tree in the school front lawn.

It’s here that viewers first see Gemma’s live-in American boyfriend Tom (played by Jesse Eisenberg), who climbs down from a ladder placed near the tree where the birds were found. It’s not made clear what Tom does for a living, but since this is one of the movie’s few scenes that’s set in the “outside world,” one can assume he works as a handyman at the school.

Tom and Gemma are looking for a house and they have an appointment at a real-estate company that wants to show them a new housing development in the area. When they arrive at the office, Gemma and Tom are greeted by a very creepy real-estate agent named Martin (played by Jonathan Aris), who has the kind of unblinking, crazy-eyed look that would make most people feel very uncomfortable. There’s something “off” about his mannerisms too: His smile is too fake, his way of talking seems unnatural, and at one point in the conversation, he mimics what Gemma says, almost as if he’s mocking her.

Tom senses that something isn’t quite right about Martin, and so Tom is a little reluctant to go any further in the inquiry about the house. However, Gemma (in an effort to be polite) indicates that she still wants to see the property. Against his better judgment (and since they arrived in the same car), Tom agrees to go with Gemma to get a tour of the house. They follow Martin (who drives in a separate car) to see the house where they might live.

The housing development is named Yonder, which Martin describes as “both tranquil and practical.” And it’s definitely a Stepford-type environment. All of the development’s green two-story houses and yards are identical to each other. Somehow, Tom and Gemma don’t notice that there is no one outside on the streets of this large neighborhood. It’s a major red flag of what’s to come.

Unfortunately, probably because of this film’s low budget, all of the exterior shots of the housing development looks very CGI fake. Once the characters are in the mysterious Yonder environment, it’s very obvious where the “green screen” is whenever there are scenes that are supposed to take place outside.

During a brief tour of the house, which has the number 9 as its address, Martin  abruptly leaves Tom and Gemma at the house without a goodbye or any explanation. Gemma and Tom are ready to just write it off as a weird experience, so they get in their car to leave. But every time they try to find their way out of Yonder, they come right back to the house where they were. The bird’s eye view of the Yonder housing development also looks very CGI fake, like a video game.

This circling around the neighborhood goes on for quite a bit, as Tom argues with Gemma, demands to do the driving, and then he gets “lost” too. Gemma and Tom soon find out that they have no cell phone service. And as it starts to get dark, the car runs out of gas. In a major plot hole, Gemma and Tom don’t even try to see if anyone else is home who can help. Not that it would matter, since the movie’s entire plot is about them being stuck in this neighborhood with no one to help them get out.

Exhausted by their strange ordeal, they have no choice but to spend the night at the house. The contents of the house’s refrigerator has just one item: a gift basket with a bottle of champagne and fruit (strawberries), which Gemma and Tom consume since they have nothing else to eat and drink. Tom remarks that the strawberries have no taste.

The next day, Tom has the idea that he and Gemma should follow the direction of the sun to find their way out. They spend most of the day doing just that, climbing over neighbors’ fences and trekking through the streets. But to no avail. As it gets dark, the only house that they see with its lights on is the same No. 9 house that they were at in the beginning.

Then another strange thing happens: A box of food and other house essentials has mysteriously been delivered at the front of the house. (There’s no sign of who delivered the box.) Out of desperation, Tom (who’s a smoker) decides to use one of his cigarettes to light the house on fire, to see if anyone will notice the fire and call for help. Tom and Gemma watch nearby as the house burns to the ground, before they fall asleep.

When they wake up, Gemma and Tom are covered in ash. And the house has mysteriously appeared again, completely intact, as if the fire never happened. And then they get another box delivered to them. And what’s in the box sets in motion the rest of what happens to Tom and Gemma in the story.

The box has a baby boy in it, with a message: “Raise the child and be released.” Given that Gemma and Tom are stuck in this weird limbo environment, they basically don’t have a choice but to raise the child. (Côme Thiry plays the child as a baby.) The movie then fast forwards to 98 days later, and the baby has grown into what looks like a human boy who’s about 7 or 8 years old (played by Senan Jennings), thereby making it very clear to viewers that whoever Tom and Gemma are raising is definitely not human.

Tom is extremely resentful of the child, who has a tendency to randomly scream at the top of his lungs until he gets something. He always screams this way when he wants food, which is a nod to the bird scene that was shown in the beginning of the movie. One of the creepiest aspects of “Viviarium” is that the child (who doesn’t have a name) mimics what Tom and Gemma say in their own voices. The boy has a normal child’s voice, but more often than not, the voice that comes out when he speaks is a male or female adult voice.

Tom is quick to lose his temper and, at times, he deliberately abuses the child through physical assault and later by locking him in the car and refusing to give him food. Tom also refuses to call the child “he” and instead calls the child “it.” Gemma doesn’t like taking care of the child either, but she’s more patient than Tom is. In a scene that sums up their feelings about their forced parenting of this odd creature, Tom and Gemma both show the child their middle fingers in anger, and the child does the same. 

The middle section of the film somewhat drags down the pace of the story. There are repetitive scenes of the boy doing things that irritate Tom and Gemma. Although Tom wants to try and get rid of the boy in some way, Gemma can’t bring herself to do it, not matter how much she detests taking care of the boy.

At this point in the story, Tom has a distraction to keep him out of the house for long periods of time. He’s discovered, by flicking a cigarette on the front lawn, that the cigarette has burned a mysterious circle on the grass, which exposes the dirt on the ground. Tom begins digging the dirt and hears menacing sounds underneath. Digging as far as he can into the ground then becomes Tom’s obsession and takes up a great deal of his (and this movie’s) time. In one scene, Gemma speculates that the hole that Tom is digging will lead to hell. Tom replies, “No, we’re already there.”

Meanwhile, the boy who lives with them has been fixating on watching something bizarre on the house’s TV: black-and-white color patterns that look like psychedelic cell mutations. And in the house, Gemma finds a book that has strange coding and illustrations which are clues to what is possibly going on and what kind of being that she and Tom are raising.

“Vivarium” is by no means on the level of a Christopher Nolan sci-fi movie. A Nolan film has layers and layers of deep meaning that viewers will contemplate long after the movie is over. The ending of “Vivarium” actually explains exactly why all of this is happening to Tom and Gemma. The explanation is kind of basic and actually not all that surprising.

And because so much of “Vivarium” is repetitive (Tom and Gemma’s stir-crazy angst is pretty much 90% of the movie), the movie probably would’ve been better as a short film. However, if you’re looking for a movie to pass the time and give you some suspenseful chills, “Vivarium” should do the trick. Just don’t expect anything close to a masterpiece.

Lionsgate and Saban Films released “Vivarium” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020. The film’s Blu-ray and DVD release is on May 12, 2020.

Review: ‘Resistance,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer and Ed Harris

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg in “Resistance” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Resistance”

Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz 

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in World War II-era France, “Resistance” has a predominantly white cast of characters in a dramatic film inspired by the true story of a young Marcel Marceau and his involvement in the French Resistance movement against the Nazis.

Culture Clash: Marcel, whose artistic dreams are discouraged by his skeptical father, is at first reluctant to join the French Resistance, but he and others in the Resistance end up risking their lives in their fight against the Nazi regime.

Culture Audience: “Resistance” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in World War II stories or inspirational biographies told in a melodramatic way.

Clémence Poésy, Jesse Eisenberg and Bella Ramsey (second from right) in “Resistance” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

People who know about Marcel Marceau as one of the world’s most famous mime entertainers might or might know about his involvement in the French Resistance that saved thousands of Jewish people’s lives during the horrors of the World War II-era Holocaust. The emotionally riveting melodrama “Resistance” primarily tells the story of this part of Marceau’s life from 1938 to 1942 (when he was 25 to 29 years old), and his transformation from aspiring entertainer to war hero.

The movie (written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz) begins on November 9, 1935, in Nazi-controlled Munich, Germany. A Jewish mother and father (played by Aurélie Bancilhon and Edgar Ramírez) lovingly kiss their 14-year-old daughter before she goes to sleep for the night. But their lives are shattered when Nazis break into the home, kidnap the parents, and murder them in the street before the terrified daughter’s eyes. What happens to this girl is shown later in the story.

Meanwhile, the movie flashes forward to 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany, with U.S. General George Patton (played by Ed Harris) addressing a large group of American soldiers in a stadium. Patton says he’s going to tell them a story about “one of those unique human beings who makes your sacrifices and heroism completely worth it.”

It’s then that the story of Marceau begins in Strasbourg, France. It’s November 1938, when he was known by his birth name, Marcel Mangel. Marcel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) doing a mime impersonation of Charlie Chaplin on stage at a cabaret. No sooner does he get off the stage, he is pulled out into an alley by his disapproving father, Charles Mangel (played by Karl Markovics), an immigrant from Poland who thinks Marcel is wasting his time trying to be an artist. Charles wants Marcel to follow in his footsteps in the family’s butcher business, which Marcel does reluctantly as a “day job.”

Meanwhile, one of the butcher shop’s female customers has a daughter named Emma (played by Clémence Poésy), who Marcel asks about when she comes into the store. Marcel jokes that his father wants Marcel to marry Emma, but viewers can see from the Marcel’s demeanor when he sees Emma later that he doesn’t need any parental interference to be interested in her. They have the kind of back-and-forth “I’m trying to play it cool but deep down I’m attracted to you” banter that would-be couples have in movies when you know that there will be some romantic sparks between them later.

Emma and her sister Mila (played by Vica Kerekes) are part of the underground French Resistance movement that includes Marcel’s cousin Georges Loinger (played by Géza Röhrig), who was the head of the Jewish Boy Scouts during World War II. Georges, Emma, Mila and Marcel’s older brother Alain (Félix Moati) are all involved in helping rescue orphaned Jewish children and finding them a place to live.

Georges has asked Marcel to use his mime skills to entertain the children, but Marcell initially says no because he wants to use his free time to work on a play and his other artistic interest of painting. Marcel and Alain come from a  tight-knit Jewish family (their parents have a solid marriage), but Alain and Marcel have a strained relationship because Alain thinks that Marcel is too self-centered and arrogant.

And the movie shows that Alain is right. Even though Marcel is a mime on stage, he hates it when people call him “a clown.” As he tells his father haughtily, “I’m an actor!” Marcel also thinks that he’s too good to be a butcher and he’s destined for greatness as a famous and respected artist. No one can tell him otherwise.

But when a group of 123 orphans arrive in Strasbourg, and Marcel volunteers to borrow his father’s truck to transport them to an abandoned castle where the orphans will be staying, it sets in motion a life journey that at the time Marcel didn’t even know that he would be taking. In this group of orphans is a teenager named Elsbeth (played by Bella Ramsey), and she’s the same girl viewers saw in the beginning of the film. Elsbeth ends up bonding with Emma, who acts like a surrogate older sister to Elsbeth.

While at the castle, the frightened orphans are slowly put at ease by Marcel’s mime antics. It’s during these performances that Marcel realizes that he can use his art for something more important than his own career ambitions. However, Marcel still doesn’t want to give up his dreams of being an artist.

One day, while Charles watches his son Marcel working on a painting, he asks Marcel, “You dress like a clown. You paint a clown. Why do you do it?” Marcel replies, “Why do you go to the bathroom?” Charles answers, “Because my body gives me no choice.” Marcel tersely says before he walks out of the room, “There it is. That’s my answer.”

However, Marcel’s artistic dreams are put on hold when it becomes clear that the Nazis are getting closer to invading the region of France where he lives. Alain tells the others that they need to train the children to survive. And sure enough, the Nazis order the evacuation of the border towns in France. The Mangel family, like so many other Jewish families in the region, comply and think that they will eventually be allowed to go back to their homes. Tragically, they are mistaken.

It’s 1941. And while in France’s city of Limoges in Vichy, Marcel puts his  precise painting skills to good use and finds out he has a knack for forging passports, which he does for himself and several fellow Jewish refugees. It’s during this period of time that he changes his last name to Marceau, in order to hide his real Jewish surname.

Meanwhile, Marcel and Emma have gotten closer, while Alain and Mila have started their own romance. Along with Georges, they are all still heavily involved with helping orphans find a place to live. And it’s around this time that Alain and Marcel officially decide to join the Resistance. They tell their father, who is supportive.

As this is going on in France, viewers are then taken to Berlin, where Nazi lieutenant Klaus Barbie (played by Matthias Schweighöfer) is inflicting violence and terror on Jews and some of his fellow Nazis. (In one brutal scene, he viciously beats another Nazi in front of others because the man is gay.) The movie shows that this sadistic Nazi has a soft side when it comes to his family (he has a wife and baby daughter), which illustrates how several Nazis had the duality of being heartless murderers but also loving family men.

Before the end of the movie, Marcel and his group have a lot of harrowing, heartbreaking and life-threatening experiences. “Resistance” is not an easy film to watch if you’re extremely sensitive to seeing terrifying acts of murder and torture. It makes it all the more painful to watch because these are re-enactments of what millions of Jews and other people went through in real life.

And the movie also shows that the Nazis were not the only people to blame for the Holocaust. An untold number of non-Jewish people in Nazi-occupied countries betrayed their fellow Jewish citizens by giving up information about them for cash or other rewards. “Resistance” effectively shows how the culture of complicity allowed the Nazi reign of terror to thrive for as long as it did.

Although this is certainly an important story to be told, “Resistance” might have some people rolling their eyes at the melodramatic tactics used in telling the story. There’s a scene where one of the main characters goes missing and is found in a big city, just at the moment when this person is about to jump in front of train in a moment of suicidal despair and is rescued from committing that deadly act. This kind of too-good-to-be-true coincidence looks like it was fabricated just for the movie.

And in another part of the story that doesn’t make much sense, one of the characters is captured and tortured by a Nazi and then inexplicably allowed to leave. In reality, this person would’ve been killed, but it seems that this person’s life was spared in order to further the plot in another part of the movie. However, it’s one of the few parts of “Resistance” that doesn’t ring true. The rest of the film, which unabashedly tugs at people’s heartstrings, tells the story in a way that could have reasonably happened in real life.

“Resistance” director and Jonathan Jakubowicz and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz imbue the film with a sense of urgency in the war scenes and a sense of dramedy in the more light-hearted scenes. There are many sweeping shots at 360-degree angles that give the viewers a head-spinning overview of what usually is a pivotal scene in the story. But even with these artsy camera tricks, the movie doesn’t trivialize the dark side of this story.

As Marcel, Eisenberg gives a compelling performance, even if his real-life American accent occasionally slips out in the dialogue. He convincingly portrays Marcel as someone who evolves from thinking that nothing is more important to him than his art to realizing that there are other ways that artists can make an important difference in the world without giving up their passion for art. (Eisenberg’s mother was a clown in real life, so doing the mime scenes must have had special meaning for him.) “Resistance” is undoubtedly a story about how someone can triumph over tragedy, but it’s also a reminder that the horrors of the Holocaust must never happen again.

IFC Films released “Resistance” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Uncorked,’ starring Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance and Niecy Nash

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

“Uncorked”

Directed by Prentice Penny

Culture Representation: Taking place in Memphis and Paris, the comedy-inflected drama “Uncorked” has a diverse cast of African Americans and white characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An African American man in his 20s is torn between wanting to become a master sommelier and his father’s wishes for him to take over the family’s barbecue restaurant business.

Culture Audience: “Uncorked” will appeal mostly to people who want to see a relatable drama about family relationships, as well as what it’s like to try to break into the competitive and elite world of master sommeliers.

Mamoudou Athie and Courtney B. Vance in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

“Uncorked” takes an authentic and sometimes humorous look at the journey a young man goes through in pursuing his dream to become a master sommelier, even though it conflicts with family obligations. In telling this unique story for the screen, writer/director Prentice Penny just happened to make the protagonist an African American. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t take the cliché route of making the movie about racism or about an underprivileged person of color who gets help from a “white savior.” Instead, the movie touches on universal themes of family tensions and self-doubt through the lens of African American middle-class culture.

The two conflicting worlds of central character Elijah (played by Mamoudou Athie) are made abundantly clear in the opening credits, which alternate between montages of people making barbecue and people making wine. Elijah, who appears to be in his mid-to-late-20s, is holding down two jobs in his hometown of Memphis: He’s a sales clerk at a wine shop and a cook in his father’s casual barbecue restaurant. He’s a lot more passionate about his wine job, and he only works at his father’s place because he feels obligated to do it.

Elijah’s father Louis (played by Courtney B. Vance) inherited the barbecue place from his own father, and Louis expects to Elijah (his only son) to take over the restaurant someday. It’s truly a family business because Elijah’s mother Sylvia (played by Niecy Nash) also works there, as a waitress. Louis also has plans to open a second, more upscale barbecue restaurant in a “gentrified” neighborhood. Elijah’s close-knit family includes Elijah’s cousins, Elijah’s older sister Brenda (played by Kelly Jenrette), Brenda’s husband and their three kids,

However, Elijah’s passion is really for the wine business. It’s evident in how he lights up when talking about wine and recommending selections to customers at the wine shop. One customer in particular sparks more than just an interest in recommending wine. He meets a young woman named Tanya (played by Sasha Compère) when she comes into the store with a friend to get a bottle of wine for a party.

Tanya doesn’t know much about wine, but Elijah puts her at ease by asking her if she likes hip-hop. She says yes. In helping her make her choice, he explains that chardonnay is like the Jay-Z of wine, pino grigio is like the Kanye West of wine and riesling is like the Drake of wine. (She ends up getting riesling wine.)

It’s no surprise that Tanya comes back to the store on another day and takes Elijah’s suggestion to join the store’s wine club, which is how she gives Elijah her contact information. They begin dating each other soon afterward. (Their first date is at a roller-skating rink.)

Tanya encourages Elijah to pursue his dream to become a master sommelier—a title that, as of this writing, only 269 people in the world have ever held, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers. Elijah’s boss at the wine store, Raylan Jackson (played by Matthew Glave), also encourages Elijah and says he will put in a recommendation for Elijah if he ever wants to go to sommelier school. Raylan is a master sommelier, and Elijah looks wistfully at the sommelier diploma that Raylan has.

Meanwhile, there’s increasing tension between Elijah and his father Louis. When Louis tries to get Elijah to do things that will prepare Elijah to take over the barbecue business, Elijah makes excuses by saying he has other plans, usually related to his wine job. Over a large family dinner, Elijah mentions that he’s thinking about going to sommelier school. Louis then makes a snide comment to Elijah by expressing doubt that Elijah will follow through on that goal. He reminds Elijah that he’s had other career goals (including being a DJ) that Elijah eventually abandoned.

Elijah’s mother Sylvia, who’s completely supportive of Elijah, later scolds Louis in private for embarrassing Elijah in front of the family. The back-and-forth banter and conversations between Louis and Sylvia are some of the funniest parts of the movie. Their dialogue rings true for a longtime married couple.

What also rings true is the way that the movie shows that when it comes to pursuing a dream, sometimes people can get in their own way, through self-doubt and making excuses. Tanya essentially tells Elijah that’s what he’ll be doing if he doesn’t take a chance and apply to sommelier school. It’s the extra encouragement he needs to take the entrance exam. And he gets into the school—but not without a major sacrifice. The only way he can pay for the tuition is to use all of his savings.

Even though Elijah tells Louis he can still work at the barbecue restaurant while he attends school, both father and son know that Elijah is now on a path that will change their relationship forever. Elijah is a talented student and a quick learner. But it’s one thing to graduate from sommelier school. It’s quite another thing to pass the extremely difficult test to become a master sommelier. (Based on the small percentage of master sommeliers in the world, most people who take the test don’t pass.)

While attending sommelier school, Elijah meets the three other people who end up in his study group: neurotic and obnoxious Richie (played by Gil Ozeri); cocky and intelligent Eric (played by Matt McGorry), who’s nicknamed Harvard because he went to Harvard University; and sensible and sarcastic Leann (played by Meera Rohit Kumbhani). Another challenge comes when Elijah’s sommelier class goes on a trip to Paris that he can’t really afford. 

Will Elijah get to go to Paris? Will he pass the master sommelier test? And how is his relationship with his father affected by these sommelier ambitions? Those questions are answered in the movie, which has a few twists and turns along the way.

“Uncorked” is the first feature film by writer/director Penny, who’s a former writer/director for the HBO comedy series “Insecure,” starring Issa Rae. The movie is an admirable debut that shows Penny has a knack for entertaining writing and making the right choices in editing and casting. (All the actors adeptly handle the movies comedic elements as well as the overall drama.)

To its great credit, “Uncorked” doesn’t get bogged down in stereotypical tropes of an African American trying to break into a predominantly white industry. There are no racist villains in the story, nor does Elijah have a negative attitude about the extremely small percentage of African Americans who end up being sommeliers. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t water down the African American culture that’s shown in the movie. (The soundtrack is hip-hop and there’s plenty of realistic dialogue in the film.)

As the central character Elijah, Athie carries the movie with a significant deal of charm and empathy. He makes great use of facial expressions to convincingly portray the inner conflicts of someone who wants to please his father and yet be his own man. The father-son relationship is complicated, but there’s also enough respect between the two of them that they don’t deal with conflicts by having obscenity-filled shouting matches, which are over-used negative stereotypes in movies about African American families. “Uncorked” is ultimately about more than just pursuing a dream. It’s also about understanding that in order to stay true to yourself, you have to know you really are in the first place.

Netflix premiered “Uncorked” on March 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Human Nature’ (2020), starring Fyodor Urnov, Jennifer Doudna, Antonio Regalado, Jill Banfield, Alta Charo, George Daley and Stephen Hsu

March 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Human Nature” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

“Human Nature” (2020)

Directed by Adam Bolt

Culture Representation: This science-intensive documentary about human genetics includes interviews with a racially diverse group of scientists, medical professionals, entrepreneurs and people affected by health conditions who are mostly in the United States.

Culture Clash: The ethical dilemmas over altering human genetics continue to be debated in scientific communities.

Culture Audience: “Human Nature” will appeal mostly to people who like documentaries that go into great details about human genetics, but the movie might bore other people who have no interest in this topic.

A visual representation of Cas9 in “Human Nature” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

Should people have the right to alter their own genetics? And should they also have the right to decide how their children will be genetically engineered? Those are the dilemmas presented in the fascinating but very slow-paced documentary “Human Nature,” which bites off a lot more than it ends up chewing.

The movie (directed by Adam Bolt) ambitiously examines this very broad and wide-reaching issue by taking a deep dive into all the scientific breakthroughs and progress that have had led up to where scientists are now—having the capability to alter human genes before someone is born. It’s a step that most medical professionals aren’t willing to take yet on humans (it’s been done for years on plants and non-human animals), but the step has reportedly already been taken with unidentified twin girls born in China in 2018, according to the documentary’s epilogue.

Most of the documentary’s experts believe it’s only a matter of time when genetic engineering will become a possibly widespread option that people will take for themselves and for their unborn children. Whether it’s genetic cloning, selecting the genetic qualities that a living being should have, or removing unwanted genetic qualities, it’s now possible for science to do this on humans.

The movie goes into a lot of detail about how the family of DNA sequences known as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is the key to the science of altering genetics/DNA in humans. Cas9 (an immune-system protein that helps bacteria fight off DNA viruses) is also mentioned as extremely important in the area of genetic altering that aims to get rid of genes that cause health problems. Without going into all the details that the movie does, the simplest way to put it is that CRISPR is a DNA system that can be programmed to prevent viruses from attacking the immune system, and Cas9 is like the “police inspector” for the system.

But instead of spending so much time covering the “how” of altering human genetics, “Human Nature” should’ve spent more time covering the “why” and answered this question: “What are we going to do about it, now that it’s already happened?” The fact that human genetic engineering is no longer science fiction and there are already at least two known genetically altered people who are living right now (something that should’ve been mentioned in the beginning of the film, not the end) makes much of this documentary look like a long-winded science lecture.

For example, the documentary explains that most people who want to alter human genetics have two main motivations: (1) to stop or prevent life-threatening diseases and (2) to pick and choose which types of genetic qualities they want for themselves or their children. The first reason doesn’t present as many ethical dilemmas as the second reason.

But even the first reason prompts a major question which the documentary doesn’t adequately address: If genetic alterations can get rid of genes that cause life-threatening illnesses, then that will result in millions and possibly billions more people who can live longer and healthier lives. But is planet Earth prepared for this massive surge in the world’s population? Are there enough resources in the world to sustain this population?

Scientists have been warning that Earth is already overpopulated. Experts are predicting that by the end of the 21st century, the world’s environment and resources will reach dangerous levels of depletion, based on how things are going now. It’s one thing to tout these genetic breakthroughs that will help millions or billions of people live longer. It’s another thing to look at the long-term consequences and discuss how or if the world is prepared for these consequences. Unfortunately, “Human Nature” missed this opportunity by focusing more on the “cause” than the “effect.” (It’s ironic, considering that “Human Nature” is a movie about scientific research, and the “cause and effect” rule is a basic rule of scientific research.)

To its credit, “Human Nature” has an impressive list of people who are interviewed, even if the documentary is a little too overstuffed with these talking heads and should have interviewed at least a few experts in population science. The documentary’s talking heads include Harvard Medical School dean George Daley; Fyodor Urnov of the Innovative Genomics Institute; University of Wisconsin at Madison bioethicist Alta Charo; and University of California at Berkeley scientists Jennifer Doudna (a biochemist) and Jill Banfield (a microbiologist).

Also interviewed are Jorge Piedrahita, who works in transitional medicine at North Carolina State University; Harvard University geneticist George Church; Max Planck Institute biochemist Emmanuelle Charpentier; the Broad Institute bioengineer Feng Zhang; Stanford University sickle-cell researcher Matt Porteus; University of Alicante microbiologist Francisco Mojca; MIT Technology Review reporter Antonio Regalado; and Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder.

“Human Nature” does a great job of illustrating (with eye-catching graphics) a lot of the science that’s discussed in the movie. It’s a big help for people who are not scientists. But it won’t be a big help for people who don’t want to feel like they’re stuck in a biology class, because much of the documentary looks like something that would be shown in a school.

“Human Nature” (which is divided into six chapters) also could’ve been edited with better focus. The documentary jumps around from profiling a young sickle-cell anemia patient in the beginning of the film, and then goes into a very long section with the talking heads discussing CRISPR and genetic research. Somewhere in the middle of that, the movie introduces viewers to a couple who has an albino daughter. And then toward the end, the documentary finally explores what should have been the movie’s focus all along: How and why will this genetic science effect the world’s population?

UC Berkeley’s Banfield gives one of the more memorable quotes in the documentary when she says that she sometimes has a nightmare where she dreams that she’s met Hitler, who asks her: “So, tell me how Cas9 works.” Banfield says, “I wake up thinking, ‘Oh my God! What have I done?'” It’s that very real possibility that human genetic alteration will be used for nefarious purposes which is keeping it from being a mass-market science for now.

However, “Human Nature” does interview people who’ve started businesses that are involved in pushing research for human genetic altering for the greater good. They include Synthego co-founders Paul and Michael Dabrowski; Genomia Prediction founder Stephen Hsu; and eGenesis co-founder Luhan Yang.

Of these entrepreneurs who are interviewed in the documentary, Hsu seems to be the most eager to make this science available to the general public. On the one hand, he says it’s “insanity” to think that people might use this science with Hitler-like intentions. On the other hand, he also freely admits in the documentary that people who want to alter genetics on others (their own children, for example) will usually gravitate to choosing genetic qualities that will make the genetically altered people look more like them.

Unfortunately, the movie barely acknowledges what it would mean if humans could preserve DNA of dead people and use that DNA later. (It sounds creepy, but that’s a dark side to this genetic science that “Human Nature” doesn’t really mention it at all.) And the movie only scratches the surface of what the long-term consequences would be if people use science to mess with the natural evolution of the human race. Likewise, the issue of genetic alteration being available to only those who can afford it is briefly mentioned but not adequately explored.

Ultimately, “Human Nature” excels if you want to know the details about what goes on in the science labs that are part of this groundbreaking research. However, the movie falls short if you’re the type of person who wants to know how this research is going to apply to the real world, not only today but also for decades to come.

Greenwich Entertainment released “Human Nature” in select U.S. theaters, on digital and on VOD on March 13, 2020.

ACM Presents: Our Country special to air in former ACM Awards time slot will include at-home acoustic performance, Kenny Rogers tribute

March 26, 2020

Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood  (Photo courtesy of ABC/Image Group LA)

The following is a press release from the Academy of Country Music and Dick Clark Productions:

The Academy of Country Music® and Dick Clark Productions announced today the all-star lineup of performers for ACM® Presents: Our Country, a two-hour special featuring intimate conversations and at-home acoustic performances with Country Music’s biggest stars, along with clips from the Academy of Country Music Awards’™ 55-year history. Confirmed performers include Kelsea Ballerini, Dierks Bentley, Kane Brown & John Legend, Luke Bryan, Brandi Carlile, Eric Church, Luke Combs, Sheryl Crow, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Tim McGraw, Old Dominion, Brad Paisley & Darius Rucker, Thomas Rhett, Blake Shelton & Gwen Stefani, Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood, and Keith Urban. The special will be broadcast Sunday, April 5 (8:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT and 7:00 PM CT) on the CBS Television Network and on CBS All Access.

ACM® Presents: Our Country will also honor 10-time ACM Award® winner Kenny Rogers with performances by Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley and Darius Rucker. As previously announced, artists will appear from their homes to share heartfelt thoughts and perform acoustic versions of Country hits. Additionally, video clips from previous ACM Award broadcasts will highlight favorite ACM moments from the past. It will be a night filled with entertainment, hope and reflection, bringing the healing power of music to Americans at a time when they need it most.

The special will broadcast during the time slot previously scheduled for the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards, which will now be broadcast Wednesday, Sept. 16 (live 8:00-11:00 PM ET/delayed PT) on the CBS Television Network and streaming live and on demand on CBS All Access. The 55th ACM Awards, hosted for the first time by reigning ACM Entertainer of the Year and 15-time ACM Award winner Keith Urban, honors the biggest names and emerging talent in the Country Music industry.

For more information, visit ACMcountry.com. You can also like Academy of Country Music on Facebook or follow on Twitter at @ACMawards, follow on Instagram at @ACMawards and sign up for the FREE ACM A-List for more immediate updates.

About ACM® PRESENTS: OUR COUNTRY
ACM® Presents: Our Country invites fans to join their favorite superstars for a new kind of entertainment special featuring at-home acoustic performances with top Country artists along with clips of their favorite moments from the Academy of Country Music Awards’™ 55-year history.  is produced for television by Dick Clark Productions. R.A. Clark, Barry Adelman, Mark Bracco and Amy Thurlow are executive producers. Damon Whiteside is executive producer for the Academy of Country Music®.