Culture Representation: Taking place in New Jersey, the documentary film “Mallory” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) discussing the life and legacy of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, who committed suicide in 2017, after being bullied some students at her school.
Culture Clash: Mallory’s parents (Dianne and Seth Grossman) have sued the school district for not doing more to stop the bullying, while the bullying students were not punished.
Culture Audience: “Mallory″ will appeal primarily to people want to learn more about what to do to help with protection from and prevention of childhood bullying and suicide.
The documentary film “Mallory” should be essential viewing for anyone who cares about helping prevent bullying that can lead to suicides. It’s not an easy film to watch for people who are triggered by these issues. And the documentary doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers. But “Mallory” is a raw and very personal look at how one family experienced tragedy from these issues and is doing their best to that heal through educating people on what to do before it’s too late.
Directed by Ash Patiño, “Mallory” tells the story of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, who committed suicide on June 14, 2017, by hanging herself in her bedroom closet at her home in Rockaway Township, New Jersey. Her suicide came after several months of Mallory experiencing vicious bullying at school. She wasn’t getting physically assaulted. She was being verbally harassed and cyberbullied by some female students at her school. And on at least one occasion, one of the bullies told Mallory that she should kill herself.
On the surface, Mallory seemed to have an idyllic childhood. Her parents Dianne Grossman and Seth Grossman were happily married. They lived with Mallory and their older daughter Carlee in a comfortable, upper-middle-class home in a safe neighborhood. Carlee is not interviewed in the documentary, but she is seen in footage at events for Mallory’s Army, the non-profit anti-bullying organization that Dianne and Seth Grossman founded in 2018, in Mallory’s honor. Mallory excelled in gymnastics. And for a time, Mallory was also a cheerleader.
Several people who knew Mallory—including family members, schoolmates, teachers and other kids’ parents—describe her in the documentary as a happy-go-lucky, compassionate child who always knew how to make other people smile. Mallory’s mother Dianne also says, “Mallory connected with nature.” The documentary includes several clips of Mallory in home videos where she appears to be a well-adjusted, happy kid.
Sounds perfect, right? Well, perfect isn’t reality. As Mallory’s parents say in the documentary, Mallory seemed to be a happy child to many people. But the happiness was often a façade that hid her inner turmoil, especially in the last several months of her life.
Mallory had a best friend named Bianca Marchese, who is interviewed in the documentary. Bianca and her mother Katee Petro speak highly of Mallory and share a lot of fond memories of her. Some of the home video clips include Bianca and Mallory goofing off together. And yet, Mallory would often complain to her mother that she had “no friends” at Copeland Middle School, where she had transferred in the new school year.
Why was Mallory being targeted by these bullies? (Mallory’s alleged bullies and their parents are not interviewed for the documentary.) Dianne says she believes that the bullies were jealous of Mallory because they perceived her to be a privileged rich girl even though the Grossman family isn’t wealthy. Mallory was also bullied over her gymnastics accomplishments, and the harassment got so bad that Mallory quit her gymnastics team.
Bullying doesn’t just come in the form of insulting people or assaulting them. It can also come in the form of making people feel like an outcast by refusing to let them sit next to you and excluding them from social gatherings where they should be included. It happened to Mallory a lot at school, according to what she told her parents. Students and teachers at the school witnessed Mallory being mistreated in this way, according to several people in the documentary. And still, nothing was done to help Mallory by anyone at her school.
It’s one thing to have social cliques. It’s another thing to cruelly go out of your way to let everyone know why someone is being excluded from a group, to gang up on someone to maintain the exclusion, and to pressure other people to exclude that person too. Some people handle bullying better than others. For those who are mentally or emotionally fragile, it can be too much and can lead to self-harm.
Dianne comments in the documentary about the deep emotional pain that Mallory hid from her family. On the day of the suicide, “All she said was, ‘Hey, I had a bad day. When are you coming home?’ The sadness must’ve been overwhelming.” Seth adds of Mallory’s tragically short life: “We’re definitely lucky we got 12 years … There was a special uniqueness about her, from when she was a year old.”
In some parts of the documentary, Seth and Dianne are interviewed in Mallory’s room. And in one heartbreaking scene, they describe the day that Mallory died. Seth found her non-responsive in the closet. Dianne was in New York City with Carlee that day to see the Broadway show “Waitress,” but they rushed home when they heard that Mallory had hurt herself. It wasn’t until Dianne and Carlee saw the emergency medics and police at their house that they knew how bad it was.
In the months before Mallory’s death, Dianne and Seth Grossman repeatedly brought their concerns about the bullying to school officials and to the parents of the bullies. And the Grossmans say that nothing was done by the school or the parents. Dianne and Seth also say that although they noticed Mallory was sometimes sad about the way she was treated in school, they had no idea that she could be suicidal.
And that’s why the Grossmans filed a lawsuit against the Rockaway Township Board of Education, Rockaway Township and employees of Copeland Middle School, who are all accused of failing to protect Mallory from the excessive bullying. The Grossmans have received a lot of national media attention for this lawsuit, which has not yet been resolved, as of this writing. Any of the defendants who publicly responded have denied the allegations, but they are not interviewed in this documentary.
After the lawsuit was filed, Greg McGann resigned as Rockaway Township school district superintendent. The documentary includes commentary from a teacher (and obvious friend of the Grossman family) named Karin Kasper, who was not an employee of Copeland Middle School. However, she has this opinion of what happened in how the school handled the bullying of Mallory: “The school made it look like it was Mallory’s fault. There’s a huge amount of victim blaming going on in how they treated her.”
Since Mallory’s death, Dianne has made speaking appearances at many schools to educate people about bullying and suicide prevention. The documentary includes some emotionally powerful clips of her speaking at schools and sharing her personal story about what happened to Mallory. Dianne sums up one of the main messages that she wants to get across in her speaking engagements and with her Mallory’s Army work: “If this can happen to Mallory Grossman, it can happen to any one of our kids.” After one of these speaking appearances, Dianne comments in a documentary interview that the students who tend to cry the most at her speaking appearances are the bullies and the students who are being bullied.
The documentary also includes footage of several Mallory’s Army charity events, including a 5K running marathon, a hockey game, and a motorcycle ride. There’s also footage of student workshops where students act out scenarios of how they can prevent bullying and how to protect other students who are being bullied. It’s repeated several times in the documentary that bullying realistically won’t go away, but schools, parents and students need to be held more accountable in how bullying is handled.
Several people are interviewed in this film, but the documentary isn’t too overstuffed with talking heads. The interviewees include Dianne Grossman’s sister Angela Piazza; Diane Grossman’s mother Teresa Toella, and family friends Heather Gallagher and Meredith Lutz, whose son David Lutz was a friend of Mallory’s who says that he if had been able to see the bullying himself at the school, he would have tried to protect her.
Also interviewed are North Star gymnastic coaches Melissa Jones and Christian Campitiello, who have high praise for Mallory; Grossman family attorneys Diane Sammons and Bruce Nagel, who are partners at Nagel Rice Law Firm; licensed professional counselor Emily Ryzuk; Mallory’s Army member Jenn Stillwell; Inez Barbiero of Core Growth Strategies, which helps small businesses; and Teresa Reuter and Todd Schobel, co-directors of anti-bullying for STOPit Solutions, a Holmdel, New Jersey-based tech group aimed at stopping cyberbullying. There are some people (children and adults) interviewed who have experienced childhood bullying, including Daniel Mendoza, Keisha Johnson and Briana Beuselinck.
The Grossmans don’t just want change in the Rockaway school system through their lawsuit. They also want legislative change that can better protect school children from being bullied, even if they’re not in the Rockaway school system. Because the public educational system in the U.S. is controlled by individual states, the Grossmans are starting with their home state of New Jersey.
The documentary shows Dianne meeting with New Jersey state senator Joe Pennacchio of District 26 to talk about passing a New Jersey law to hold the state’s schools and parents of bullies more accountable for bullying that takes place in these schools. In the meeting, Pennacchio expresses his support for a possible bill proposal that parents of bullies have to go to court if their children who are accused of bullying. As of this writing, nothing has been changed in New Jersey laws about bullying in New Jersey schools since Mallory’s death.
The “Mallory” documentary has some minor post-production flaws that don’t take away from the movie’s overall message. Some of the editing in “Mallory” could have been fine-tuned better. And the sound mixing is very uneven at times. However, most people who watch this documentary would agree that the movie is very effective in its intention and that watching this film is both heartbreaking and inspiring.
Gravitas Ventures released “Mallory” digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed North American city, the action comedy film “Dark Web: Cicada 3301″ features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and a few Asians) representing the middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: A bartender who’s a secret computer hacker uncovers a Dark Web secret society of rich criminals called Cicada 3301 and is pressured by law enforcement to infiltrate this secret society.
Culture Audience: “Dark Web: Cicada 3301″ will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a painfully unfunny film that struggles to find anything resembling a coherent plot.
Just like the title of this movie, the action comedy film “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is vapid and badly conceived. It tries desperately to be a wacky caper film, but the movie’s convoluted plot is filled with cheesy comedy that includes a homophobic fixation on depicting gay male sexuality as something to shamefully ridicule. Almost all of the characters in this movie are unappealing. Good luck to anyone who wastes time watching this incoherent drivel until the very end. Even the movie’s mid-credits scene looks like a throwaway.
Directed by Alan Ritchson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joshua Montcalm, “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” has a misguided concept that can be described as “Mr. Robot” meets “National Treasure” meets an “Austin Powers” movie. The protagonist of “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a computer hacker who’s a loner, but he goes on a treasure hunt as a wisecracking spy for the government. It’s even more cringeworthy than it sounds. At 105 minutes, “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” feels like much longer, as viewers have to watch a lot of nonsense, and most of it still won’t make much sense by the end of the movie.
“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” takes place in an unnamed North American city. The movie was filmed in Canada and has a mixture of American and Canadian actors, but nothing in the movie looks specific to the U.S. or Canada. The name of the federal agency that the law enforcement people work for is also left out of the movie. There’s a lot of things in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” that are purposely vague, mostly due to terrible screenwriting and direction.
“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” opens with a scene of Connor Black (played by Jack Kesy) in a castle, pointing a gun at someone in a study room, uploading something on a computer in the room, and then destroying the computer. Connor then climbs out the window and over a wall. Suddenly, there’s an explosion that hurls Connor backward. It’s a scene that the movie circles back to later on, to explain how Connor got into this situation.
As the movie shows Connor falling in slow motion, he’s heard commenting in a voiceover: “Believe it or not, I’m falling through the sky like an apple over Newton’s head. Things have been a little fuzzy ever since.” It’s one of the many examples of how tonally off-kilter this movie is. “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a mindless action flick, but it also makes these pseudo-intellectual references where people have to know that Isaac Newton is being referenced in this bizarre attempt at a joke.
Throughout the movie, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers of “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” couldn’t seem to make up their minds about what type of audience they want for this movie: Is it the people who like the complex and edgy hacker drama of “Mr. Robot”? Is it the people who like artifact-finding adventures like “National Treasure”? Or is it the people who like deliberately zany spy comedies like “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”?
There is some overlap in these audiences, but not much. And the result is that “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a tonal mess. Connor Black is written as a strange amalgamation of all three male protagonists in “Mr. Robot,” “National Treasure” and “Austin Powers.” It’s no wonder that Connor is as annoying and confused as he is throughout the movie.
Early on in the movie, it’s shown that Connor is now a prisoner who is testifying on his behalf at a judge’s hearing. The “adventure” scenes of the movie are really supposed to be what happened that led up to Connor being arrested. This movie is so badly made that this scene doesn’t look like it was filmed in a courtroom. It looks like it was filmed in a library or a university meeting room with three tables placed in the room.
At the “defense” table is Connor, who is in a prisoner’s uniform, with his hands and feet cuffed in chains. And he doesn’t have a lawyer with him. Sitting at the “prosecution” table are five men: two attorneys (the one who speaks is played by Joe Bostick) representing the prosecution, as well as the three government agents who offered $5 million to Connor to find a darknet secret society called Cicada 3301. The government agents are leader Mike Croft (played by Al Sapienza), Agent Carver (played by “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” director Ritchson) and Agent Sullivan (played by Andreas Apergis), who all have contempt for Connor.
Sitting at the third table that faces the other two tables is a panel of three judges: Judge Mary Collins (played by Victoria Snow), who does most of the talking; Judge Walters (played by Rothaford Gray); and Judge Bates (played by Marvin Karon). The judges ask Connor to tell his side of the story, which leads to the flashback scenes in the movie. During his “testimony” Connor is very rude to the agents, and he often gets up from the table in a disruptive manner. Connor and the agents also frequently interrupt each other.
Connor sometimes distorts the details in his “testimony,” by telling lies that Agent Carver is a closeted and horny gay man who’s attracted to Connor. For example, there’s a “fantasy” scene from Connor’s imagination where Agent Carter sexually licks Connor on the face. And in another “fantasy” scene, Agent Carter has a dildo strapped on his head after being in an “orgy room” with another man.
Telling these fabrications is Connor’s way of trying to humiliate Agent Carver, who gets upset every time Connor creates a false story about Agent Carter trying to seduce Connor and other men. These fantasies are depicted in the movie for laughs, but it’s not funny to use real or perceived homosexuality as a way to shame someone. “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” over-relies on these co-called “gay jokes” to the point where viewers have to wonder what kind of bigoted hangups these filmmakers have about gay men.
Connor is portrayed as a stereotypical arrogant jerk whom the filmmakers want to audiences to think is what you’re supposed to be if you’re a wisecracking, “no filter” action hero. He’s a bachelor in his early 30s who lives alone and works as a bartender. But he’s also a computer whiz who has a photographic memory. And when the government recruits a reluctant Connor to be a spy, he suddenly has combat skills that aren’t really explained in the movie.
“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” uses an an annoying visual technique of showing numbers and images on screen, to depict how Connor’s photographic memory works in his brain. The movie never explains why Connor is a bartender instead of working in a computer-related job. Maybe it’s to set up this clumsy plot development in the beginning of the story where Connor starts looking for Cicada 3301. He’s enlisted to be a government spy when government officials find out that he’s close to discovering Cicada 3301, and they want Connor to lead the government to this secret society.
Twenty-nine days before he’s shown falling out from a castle ledge, Connor is at the restaurant/bar where he works. He sees a rude customer give Connor’s waitress co-worker Lori (played by Linnea Currie-Roberts) a measly 50 cents as a tip for serving about three or four people. Before the customer leaves with his dinner companions, Connor steps in and confronts the customer about the insulting tip.
The customer, whose name is William J. Edwards III (played by Benjamin Sutherland), is unapologetic and angrily flicks a lit cigarette at Connor. This triggers Connor to a childhood memory of his abusive father (played by Patrick Garrow) flicking a lit cigarette at him. The movie has more of these flashback memories of Connor’s troubled relationship with his father. (Tomaso Sanelli portrays Connor as a child.) Connor responds to the cigarette-throwing, stingy customer by getting into a fist fight with him.
Later, when he’s at home in his dingy apartment and nursing his bruised knuckles, Connor decides to get revenge on William, the customer he fought with in the bar. Connor remembers William’s full name and goes on his desktop computer to log on to the Dark Web. Connor hacks into William’s Bitcoin and credit card accounts to mess up his credit, and he sends a computer virus to William’s email.
While surfing the Dark Web, Connor stumbles onto mysterious files from an entity calling itself Cicada 3301 that promises a huge treasure worth a fortune, for people who can crack Cicada 3301’s puzzle codes and clues that will lead to the treasure. The group’s logo is a cicada. And it’s implied that whatever “treasure” is being offered is illegal.
Connor is intrigued, but his first attempt at solving a Cicada 3301 puzzle results in him getting a message from Cicada 3301 telling him that he failed the test because he’s not smart enough. This insult causes Connor to get so angry that he smashes a beer bottle, but some of the beer spills onto the computer tower and short-circuits the hard drive. Connor is now more determined than ever to find out who’s behind Cicada 3301 and how to get some of the promised treasure.
Connor needs the money because he’s very close to being evicted from his apartment. Connor has already been served an eviction notice. His deaf landlord Mr. Costa (played by Anselmo DeSousa) threatens to change the apartment’s locks if Connor doesn’t come up with the money. Connor promises that he will have the money by the next day, but even the landlord know that’s a lie.
Connor seems to be fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), because he understands everything that Mr. Costa is saying just through hand signs. (The words hover over Mr. Costa’s head instead of appearing on screen as regular captions.) It’s never explained how or why Connor as ASL communication skills, just like it’s never explained why Connor works in a low-paying bartender job, even though he has advanced-level computer information technology skills.
Because the story in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is so jumbled, it throws in a precocious, foul-mouthed kid, and then makes this character disappear for no good reason. She’s a 10-year-old named Sophia (played by Alyssa Cheatham), who lives in the same apartment building as Connor. Sophia is first seen in the movie cursing out Connor for being late with his rent. It’s mentioned later in the movie that Sophia has a single mother (played by Quancetia Hamilton), who spends long hours working away from home. Therefore, Sophie and Connor hang out together a lot, with Connor as Sophia’s unofficial babysitter.
Connor seems to be aware of how odd it might look for a man his age to be spending so much time with a girl who’s not a family member. And so, when he and Sophia go to the library to do some research, there are some moronic jokes made about pedophilia. Connor doesn’t have the money to fix his computer, so he has to use Sophia’s computer or a computer at the library.
While at the library, he meets a sarcastic and pretty library assistant in her 20s named Gwen (played by Conor Leslie), who predictably ends up helping him with this Cicada 3301 hunt. Gwen becomes Connor’s more level-headed sidekick/accomplice. Gwen and Connor have the type of sexual-tension banter that indicates he’s very attracted to her.
But Gwen plays guessing games with Connor about her sexuality. In one scene, Gwen tells Connor that she’s a lesbian. In another scene, Gwen kisses Connor in a romantic way. In another scene, she tells him that she “goes both ways.” In other words, she’s bisexual or queer.
“Cicada 3301” is annoyingly preoccupied with portraying queerness as something to be ridiculed or used as a a homophobic punchline. The third member of this “National Treasure” wannabe trio is Connor’s best friend Avi (played by Ron Funches), who needs a lot of convincing to go on this Cicada 3301 treasure hunt. Avi is used later in the story as sexual bait to flirt with a museum front-desk attendant who’s openly gay, so that Connor and Gwen can sneak into the museum’s book archives while Avi serves as a distraction. All the stereotypical over-the-top gay male mannerisms are used in this scene, such as high-pitched squeals and hand fluttering.
Avi is a college professor of art history who becomes Connor’s reluctant recruit to help solve Cicada 3301’s puzzles, which require extensive knowledge of art history. Avi, who likes to wear bow ties and blazers, is the type of eccentric whose idea of fun is to play chess with old men in a park. Funches portrays Avi as someone with flamboyance and of vague sexuality, although Avi seems to be initially attracted to Gwen. Toward the end of the movie, Avi gets a female love interest named Shauna (played by Jess Salgueiro), whose presence is almost like an afterthought, as if to let viewers know that Avi really isn’t gay.
Avi likes to make cupcakes, and the movie depicts Avi’s interest in cupcakes as “effeminate.” Avi also has the role of the high-maintenance “scaredy cat”/worrier of this Cicada 3301-hunting trio. It’s just another reason for Avi to have more diva-like posturing in the movie, to try to make him the frequent butt of the movie’s not-very-funny jokes.
A lot of the movie consists of Connor, Gwen and Avi gathering clues and solving puzzles. There’s some gibberish about William Blake art and clues that suggest that Cicada 3301 is an Illumniati-type of group. In one preposterous scene, Cicada 3301 has rigged an entire set of street lights to blink out a message in Morse code. Connor conveniently knows Morse Code, so he deciphers the message.
And Connor has some visions that often don’t make any sense. In one of these visions, his 10-year-old neighbor Sophia is seen being taken out of her home on a gurney, with a sheet over her body, as if she’s dead. Her mother is shown wailing next to the gurney. Sophia is never seen in the movie again, nor is it ever explained why Connor had that vision. That gives you an idea how sloppy this movie’s screenplay is.
Connor, Gwen and Avi go through some more shenanigans that eventually lead them to a castle, where Cicada 3301 is having an orgy party that’s trying to go for an “Eyes Wide Shut” masquerade vibe. It goes without saying that there are people in this movie who wear animal masks—and not because it’s Halloween. There’s someone at the party named Phillip Dubois (played by Kris Holden-Ried), whose purpose in the movie is exactly what you think it is. And there are a few twists toward the end of the film that aren’t very clever and aren’t much of a surprise.
The cast members’ performances, which are mediocre, aren’t the main problem in this shoddily made film. The screenplay and direction are the weakest links. At one point in the movie, Gwen says to Connor: “Are you always this grating? It’s like living sandpaper, man!” Ironically, that’s a perfect description for “Dark Web: Cicada 3301.”
Lionsgate released “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” on digital and VOD on March 12, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on March 16, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian city, the comedy/drama “Stealing School” features a racially diverse cast (white, Asian and black) representing people connected in some way to the well-known (but fictional) Dupont University.
Culture Clash: At the university, a white teaching assistant/Ph.D. student faces off with an Asian undergraduate accused of plagiarism in a tribunal hearing, which will determine if the student will be allowed to graduate or not.
Culture Audience: “Stealing School” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dark satires of how social justice issues have an effect on how universities want to be perceived.
The astutely written “Stealing School” takes an incisive look what can happen when race, class, gender and political correctness collide in a Canadian university that wants to project an image of being progressive and inclusive. The true nature of the movie, just like some of the characters in the story, won’t always match a first impression. “Stealing School” appears to be a straightforward drama, but it’s really a dark satire about the lengths that people will go to to keep up appearances. The story (which takes place at the fictional Dupont University in an unnamed Canadian city) unfolds in layers. Viewers will be kept in riveted suspense to see if the whole truth will eventually be revealed in an investigation over a student accused of committing plagiarism.
Written and directed by Li Dong, “Stealing School” centers on an academic tribunal to determine if Dupont undergraduate student April Chen (played by Celine Tsai) will be able to pass her political science class. April is a computer science major who is a week away from graduating from Dupont. The reason for the tribunal is because April has been accused of plagiarism in an important political science assignment. The political science class is one of the liberal-arts classes that April is required to take in order to graduate. If the three-person judging panel at the tribunal decides that April is guilty of plagiarism, she’ll fail the class and won’t be able to graduate.
The class’ ambitious teaching assistant Keith Ward (played by Jonathan Keltz), who is a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s political science department, brought the suspected plagiarism to the attention of the university and filed the formal complaint against April. Keith is also the one who has appointed himself the lead person to present the case against April. He’s taking this responsibility as seriously as a prosecutor in a criminal trial. Meanwhile, April has vehemently declared that she is not guilty and she’s going to vigorously defend herself.
Sitting next to Keith during the tribunal is his reluctant supervisor Professor Alan Thornton (played by Matthew Edison), who doesn’t really want to be there. Professor Thornton is annoyed with Keith because Keith went behind Professor Thornton’s back to file the complaint against April. Professor Thornton went along and signed off on the complaint because he didn’t want to look ignorant about what was going on with April’s assignment, which Professor Thornton had tasked Keith to look over and grade.
At the tribunal, April has someone on her side who definitely wants to be there. Sitting next to her at is undergraduate student Micah Shaw (played by Mpho Koaho), who is a volunteer in the student advocacy department. Micah has aspirations to go to law school. And based on what he says in the movie’s conversations, he’s more inclined to become a defense attorney than to work for plaintiffs. Just like Keith, Micah has the type of personality where he wants to be the one to stand up in front of a room and take the lead in presenting a case.
The three people on the judging panel who will decide April’s fate are Josh Bertier (played by Jonathan Malen), an undergraduate student in the computer science department; recently hired Dupont University bureaucrat Deborah Lewis (played by Michelle Monteith), whose title is academic integrity officer; and Professor Richard Gould (played by Darrin Baker) from the political science department. Because the tribunal is being held so close to the end of the academic school year, the three panelists are a little restless and want to get these proceedings over with as soon as possible. It also doesn’t help that the air conditioner in the room doesn’t seem to be working on this sweltering day.
Bit by bit, several things are revealed about all of the people in this tension-filled room. Many of the people have personal agendas that affect the way that they act and what they say in public and private. For example (and this isn’t spoiler information), Professor Gould and Professor Thornton have known each other since they attended the same grad school together. But they have a distant relationship because Professor Gould suspects that Professor Thornton wrote an insulting letter to university officials about Professor Gould to urge the university not to give tenure to Professor Gould. Whoever wrote the letter failed in the attempt to smear Professor Gould, because he ended up getting tenure.
During a break in the tribunal proceedings, Professor Gould (who is normally mild-mannered) angrily confronts Professor Thornton in the hallway about that letter. All of his pent-up anger comes out, but Professor Thornton denies that he wrote the letter. Is Professor Gould being paranoid? Or is he correct in assuming that Professor Thornton wrote the letter? And how will this grudge affect Professor Gould’s decision in April’s case?
Meanwhile, during certain breaks in the proceedings, April (who comes from a Chinese immigrant family) talks to her mother (voiced by Celest Chong) on the phone because her mother keeps calling in excitement over April’s graduation. It’s revealed that 12 people in April’s family will be traveling to the university for her graduation. April has a very promising future. She’s a computer science whiz who created a publishing platform that was bought by a company called Snakeskin. And she already has a job lined up at an unnamed Silicon Valley company.
A series of flashbacks tell more of the story. These flashbacks go as far back as two years before the tribunal and as recently as three days before the tribunal. Private conversations with some of the characters reveal some of their conscious and unconscious biases. For example, Josh (the computer science student on the tribunal judging panel) tells someone that there’s no shortage of Asian people in the computer science department, with his tone of voice suggesting that by “no shortage,” he really means “too many.” Josh also tells the same person that April is a “unicorn” because not she’s a good-looking woman who works in computer science.
In another flashback, academic integrity officer Deborah is seen in her first day on the job having a nervous and awkward conversation with her immediate supervisor Irene McDonnell (played by Adrienne Wilson), who is the assistant vice president of academic operations. Irene invites Deborah to an upcoming dinner that will be attended by potential donors. It’s implied but not said out loud that these potential donors are from non-Western countries.
Irene tells Deborah that American universities aren’t as welcoming of non-Westerners are Canadian universities are. “We’re better than that,” Irene says haughtily of what she thinks is American universities’ bigotry. Irene also tells Debora that it’s important that the potential donors get the impression that Dupont is welcoming to people from non-Western countries.
Several witnesses are called during the tribunal, which takes place in one day. The witnesses include April’s roommate Kelly Nakashima (played by Kayleigh Shikanai); computer science professor Tim Mistry (played by Sugith Varughese); April’s writing coach Mark Lin (played by Andy Yu); and professional essay writer Elisha Sinclair (played by Clare McConnell), who freely admits that students pay her to write their school assignments. They all provide some level of comic relief when they say things that the judging panel doesn’t expect.
“Stealing School” has some sly commentary on the perceived value of a college degree. When university official Deborah asks essay writer-for-hire Elisha at the end of Elisha’s testimony: “Why do you help students cheat? Is it because you need the money?” Elisha has this snappy response: “No, we’re both shilling overpriced pieces of paper to kids too. Yours just happens to say ‘diploma’ at the top.”
One of the flashbacks reveals that a Dupont student named Russ Kasdan (played by Vas Saranga), a journalist for the university’s student newspaper, has heard about this confidential tribunal. Russ has been snooping around to try to get information about the tribunal for a potentially damaging exposé article that he plans to write for the newspaper. Someone in that tribunal ends up leaking valuable information to Russ, and this leak might or might not affect the outcome of the panel’s decision. In addition, there’s a room in the building with a ventilator where conversations can be heard from the nearby restrooms, unbeknownst to the people in the restrooms. And yes, there are are some interesting eavesdropping scenes in this movie.
“Stealing School” has some subtle and not-so-subtle depictions of power dynamics that have to do with race and gender. When Micah advises April to not testify on her own behalf and that he will speak for her, April angrily responds: “Can you please stop coddling me? I’m not a victim. I’m simply innocent.” It’s left open to interpretation if Micah would be that patronizing if April were a man.
Likewise, Adam is aggressive in his “prosecution” of April. He openly expresses hostility toward April and appears to resent that she has a cushy job lined up while he’s a low-paid grad student whose employment future is less certain. There are times when Adam acts like he thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. It’s left open to interpretation if Adam feels emboldened in acting like an “angry white man” because he knows it’s more socially accepted than if a woman or person of color acted in the same combative and arrogant way that he does.
Although all the characters in the movie play some role in the outcome of the tribunal, the biggest power struggle is between April and Adam. Their showdown is fascinating to watch because it’s clear that this battle is more than about who wins or who loses. It’s also about how they each feel that the outcome is a reflection of how the university treats students like them. Therefore, their racial and gender identities can’t help but be part of the equation in how April and Adam feel that they will be judged.
Because the showdown between these two students is essentially the heart of the story’s conflict, much of “Stealing School” relies on Tsai’s and Keltz’s performances to keep viewers interested. Keltz’s acting at times can be a little too over-the-top, but not excessive enough to ruin the movie. Tsai has the more interesting role and performance, which she handles capably, because April goes through a wider range of emotions than Adam does.
The supporting actors all have performances that range from good to mediocre. The movie’s original screenplay and wise editing choices elevate this movie, whose flashbacks could have made it a messy film if handled incorrectly. “Stealing School” writer/director Dong and cinematographer Jack Yan Chen also bring the right balance between a “bird’s eye”/observant view in some of the scenes that are in public and the “voyeur”/intimate view for the scenes that are in private. Overall, “Stealing School” is an impressive feature-film debut from Dong.
Up to a certain point in the movie, viewers will be kept guessing if April is guilty of what’s she’s been accused of doing. Although she’s the one being judged, “Stealing School” is really a clever and somewhat snarky indictment of academic institutions and how “political correctness” can be used as a weapon to cut both ways. And the movie sends a message that first impressions aren’t always the correct impressions.
Vertical Entertainment released “Stealing School” on U.S. digital and VOD platforms on February 26, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom in 2020.
Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans and briefly in Baltimore, the horror film “The Seventh Day” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos, Asians and African Americans) representing Catholic clergy and middle-class citizens.
Culture Clash: Two Catholic priests who hunt demons try to perform an exorcism on a 12-year-old boy who’s accused of murdering his parents and 16-year-old sister.
Culture Audience: “The Seventh Day” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching dull and mindless horror movies about exorcisms.
An exorcism patient who’s strapped to a bed probably has more fun than anyone who watches this tedious train wreck of a horror film until the movie’s very ludicrous end. “The Seventh Day” (written and directed by Justin P. Lange) also has an awkward mix of experienced, more talented actors with less-experienced, less-talented actors whose lack of talent further lowers the quality of this already substandard movie. It’s the type of forgettable horror flick that’s heavy on gore but unbearably light on an interesting, well-crafted story.
“The Seventh Day” begins with a flashback to Baltimore on October 8, 1995. A middle-aged priest named Father Louis (played by Keith David) is getting ready to travel somewhere with a priest in his 20s named Father Peter Costello (played by Chris Galust), who is Father Louis’ protégé. The two priests are going to an exorcism in Baltimore on the same day that Pope John Paul II was visiting the city. (The movie includes archival footage of this visit.)
Father Louis says in a voiceover: “It chose today of all days. The Holy Father, a mere stone’s throw away. I suspect that’s no coincidence.” What is the “it” that this priest is talking about? The demon that these priests are hunting, course.
Father Louis then tells Father Peter: “I fear that this one will be different from the others. This one seems to have a purpose.” Too bad this movie doesn’t seem to have a purpose except to badly recycle ideas from other exorcism movies.
And then Father Louis says, “Soon, Peter. I promise. I have complete faith in you.” This is the type of simplistic dialogue that’s littered throughout the movie. Viewers of this dreck will soon lose faith that it will get any better.
Father Louis and Father Peter are overseeing the exorcism of a boy named Nicholas “Nicky” Miller (played by Tristan Riggs), who’s about 12 or 13, with Nicky’s parents (played by Heath Freeman and Hannah Alline) also in attendance. Nicky is strapped to a bed. Because Father Louis is training Father Peter to be an exorcism master, Father Peter is leading this particular exorcism session.
As Father Louis says the Lord’s Prayer, the lights in the room start to flicker. And then little Nicky starts to talk like a man trying to sound like a demon. A possessed Nicky blurts out this insult to Father Peter: “You look lost, you dumb animal! You should find yourself a new shepherd!” Is this demon supposed to be terrifying or is this demon trying out someone’s rejected lines in a stand-up comedy insult act?
It might be bad comedy, not horror, because Nicky then shouts, “Smile like you’ve never done before!” His face (through some cheesy visual effects) then contorts into a bloody grin that would make “It” evil clown villain Pennywise laugh at the absurdity of it all.
All hell then breaks loose. The crucifix necklace around Mrs. Miller’s neck is snatched away by an unseen force quicker than a drag queen can snatch a wig. The crucifix is thrown across the room, right into the jugular veins of Father Louis’ neck. This injury then causes Father Louis to bleed to death, right there in the room, in the time it would take for Pennywise to let out one of his famous giggles. That was quick.
But that’s not all. Nicky’s skin on his arms starts to burn until his whole body bursts into flames. It’s one of the more gruesome scenes in the movie. Meanwhile, the Pope is visiting “a mere stone’s throw away” in Baltimore, and no one in the room bothers to ask, “Where’s the Pope when you need him?”
“The Seventh Day” then fast-forwards to the present day in New Orleans. Father Peter (played by Guy Pearce) is now a jaded, middle-aged clergyman. He’s in a meeting with an unnamed archbishop (played by Stephen Lang), who wants Father Peter to train a young priest named Father Daniel Garcia (played by Vadhir Derbez) to become a master exorcist. Father Daniel is called into the room, not knowing that he’s about to become an exorcist protégé.
As the archbishop explains to Father Daniel, they are part of a small secret society of Catholic clergy who still provide training on how to perform exorcisms. According to the archbishop, the Vatican adopted a negative attitude toward exorcism and stopped teaching exorcism rites. And now, only a “handful, no more than a dozen” Catholic clergy secretly train for and perform exorcisms.
The archbishop tells Father Daniel, “You need to know that Father Peter trained with the very best. And I feel, in my heart, that I’m putting you into the right hands.” The archbishop describes the late Father Louis as the “most revered” exorcist in this secret society. The archbishop, who knows about the botched exorcism that killed Father Louis, conveniently doesn’t tell Father Daniel about this messy tragedy.
The archbishop might feel that he’s putting Father Daniel in the right hands, but Father Peter isn’t as open to the idea of taking on this new trainee. At first, Father Peter is cold and condescending to Father Daniel and treats him more like an altar boy who’s supposed to do errands. At one point in the meeting, Father Peter orders Father Daniel to go across the street to get Father Peter some coffee.
And so begins Father Peter and Father Daniel’s training session, where they travel by car together in search of some pesky demons to expel. It has all the makings of a formulaic movie about a cynical and gruff older cop who’s assigned to mentor/train a naïve and eager-to-please younger cop—except that Father Peter and Father Daniel have crucifixes, not guns, as their weapons.
One of the first things that Father Peter tells Father Daniel is that he doesn’t like wearing a formal clergy uniform because it can intimidate some of the people with whom they interact. Father Peter’s preferred fashion style makes him look more like an angst-filled, scruffy liberal-arts college professor, with a well-worn plaid blazer and a chain-smoking habit as part of that image. It takes a little while for Father Daniel to loosen up in his wardrobe choices, but he eventually starts to wear more casual clothing when he’s with Father Peter, except when they want to use their priesthood to get certain privileges.
As they spend more time together, Father Peter warms up to Father Daniel and opens up a little bit more to Father Daniel about his past. He tells Father Daniel about the horrific exorcism of Nicky Miller and that Nicky burst into flames and died. Father Peter says that he’s still haunted by this tragedy. Meanwhile, Father Daniel won’t tell Father Peter much about himself. When Father Peter asks Father Daniel why he wants to become an exorcist, Father Daniel doesn’t really give an answer.
Before Father Peter and Father Daniel find out about the big exorcism that they have to do in this story, there’s a nonsensical scene of the two priests encountering a demon at a run-down area where homeless people live. They stop in the area, since Father Peter seems to know a homeless charity worker named Helen (played by Robin Bartlett), who is there to distribute some food.
Upon arrival, the two priests see a homeless man named George (played by Acoryé White) chanting out loud while standing over a cylinder garbage can whose contents have been lit on fire. As Father Peter and Father Daniel get closer to the man, Father Daniel brings out a rosary and prays. George reacts as if Father Daniel is the crazy one.
Suddenly, Helen cries out in pain and a wind-like explosion happens that knocks everyone out except for someone who’s become possessed by a demon. (Take a wild guess if it’s George or Helen.) The two priests manage to exorcise the demon in the most mundane and predictable way possible. There’s really nothing terrifying about this scene. Besides, there’s another exorcism in the movie that’s supposed to be scarier but it’s even more ridiculous.
Charlie Giroux (played by Brady Jenness) is a 12-year-old boy who’s going on trial for the murder of his parents and 16-year-old sister. For now, he’s being kept in solitary confinement in a juvenile detention center. And so, Father Peter and Father Daniel naturally want to find out if this boy is possessed by the devil.
They use their status as priests to visit Charlie at the detention center. However, Father Peter thinks Father Daniel should learn how to do these interviews on his own, so Father Peter usually waits outside while Father Daniel talks to Charlie. Thus begins a tiresome and repetitive slog in the movie: Father Daniel does a series of interviews with Charlie, who tells the priest that he keeps having visions of strange men crawling on his chest until he can’t breathe. At one point, Charlie does the inevitable hissing “demon child” attack on Father Daniel, just in case it wasn’t clear that Charlie needs an exorcism.
There are also some distractions to stretch out the already thin plot. Father Daniel suddenly shows that he’s got psychic abilities, so he’s able to vividly see what happened in the Giroux house and what led up to the murders. And so, that leads to scenes of Father Daniel being a ghost-like voyeur in the house, where he spies on some family arguments. It explains the type of relationships that Charlie had with his father (played by Major Dodge), his mother (played by Stephanie Rhodes) and his sister Nellie (played by Evangeline Griffin) before the murders happened.
And there’s a very unnecessary and badly written scene of Father Peter and Father Daniel interviewing some kids, who are around Charlie’s age, at a hangout called Skate City, where the priests and the kids use a ouija board. And somehow, even though these two priests are not psychiatrists or lawyers and have no reason to be involved in Charlie’s murder case, Father Peter and Father Daniel have convinced the cops to let them watch while the police interrogate Charlie.
Longtime actors Pearce, Lang and David have considerable talent that is wasted in this junkpile movie. Fortunately for David, who has the unfortunate role of a priest killed by a crucifix necklace, he isn’t in the movie for very long. Lang has a mediocre supporting role that only gets a few scenes.
Pearce seems to know he’s in a terrible movie and makes an effort to bring some personality to a character that’s written as very hollow. Father David has a much more lackluster personality. Together, Father Peter and Father David are a dreadfully monotonous duo.
This horrendous movie is made worse by Derbez’s wooden acting and Jenness’ hammy over-acting. And because Derbez and Jenness share several scenes together, it makes for a lot of embarrassingly bad moments that are hard to watch. A more effective director should have been able to prevent this clumsy mismatch of actors by making better casting choices.
“The Seventh Day” writer/director Lange makes the same mistakes that a lot of directors of terrible horror movies make: They spend more time on violent mayhem and visual effects (none of which are that good in this film) and neglect the elements of telling a captivating and suspenseful story. The casting in this movie doesn’t work well, and there’s a plot twist which is predictable and obvious to anyone paying attention. It might be hard to pay attention though because “The Seventh Day” is so mind-numbingly boring that it might put people to sleep.
Vertical Entertainment released “The Seventh Day” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on March 26, 2021.
Directed by Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid
Danish, Arabic and English with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Copenhagen, Denmark, the dramatic film “Enforcement” features a cast of white people and Arabic people representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: During racial riots over police brutality, two white police officers are stuck in a predominantly Arabic/Muslim neighborhood after arresting an Arabic teenager for vandalism.
Culture Audience: “Enforcement” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in gritty dramas that explore issues of race and police brutality, even if some of the movie’s situations are too contrived to be entirely realistic.
“Enforcement” turns up the suspense and melodramatic moments in a tale of how prejudice and police brutality affect people in Copenhagen, Denmark. The movie mostly succeeds because of realistic portrayals of racism’s damage and because of the actors’ impressive performances. What isn’t so realistic is the movie’s plot: Two white cops in Copenhagen are stuck in a racial riot for hours without any backup.
Written and directed by Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid, “Enforcement” was formerly titled “Shorta,” which is the Arabic word for “police.” The movie is told from the cops’ perspectives, since viewers will find out more about their personal lives and feelings than the personal lives and feelings of the Arabic/Muslim people who are the targets of racial profiling and police brutality in this story. “Enforcement” shows what happens when two white Danish cops find themselves way outside of their comfort zone, in a situation where they’re in the racial minority and aren’t in the type of control that they’re used to having.
The movie takes some simplistic shortcuts in trying to find some healing among the racial/ethnic hatred that’s portrayed in this story. And that’s why “Enforcement” isn’t completely convincing in how it depicts law enforcement’s response to an uprising from people pushing back against police racism. “Enforcement” is essentially a chase movie about a “worst case scenario” for cops when they lose their power and authority in their jurisdiction because they’re being hunted and are outnumbered by angry rioters. It’s a situation that could happen in real life, but not to the extreme where two cops in a big city are completely abandoned by their colleagues during a riot.
It’s not spoiler information for this movie, because it’s the basis of what happens for most the story. In reality, the nation’s military and other federal law enforcement would get involved if the local police were overwhelmed during a riot. And so, viewers will have to suspend some disbelief that the two cops in this story have to fend for themselves for hours while they’re trapped in a neighborhood that’s under siege.
The two cops who are at the center of the story are Jens Høyer (played by Simon Sears) and Mike Andersen (played by Jacob Lohmann), two police partners who have opposite personalities. You know where this is going, of course: One is a “good cop,” and the other is a “bad cop.” Jens is the quiet and sensitive “good cop,” who is happily married and respectful of women. Mike is the loudmouthed and aggressive “bad cop” who is a bigot and cheats on his wife. Mike is about 10 to 15 years older than Jens.
In the beginning of the movie, Copenhagen is in upheaval over a police brutality case: An unarmed 19-year-old black Muslim named Talib Ben Hassi was strangled by two cops named Kofoed and Poulsen, who put the teenager in a chokehold while trying to detain him. During this assault, which was caught on video, the teenager shouted, “I can’t breathe!”
Ben Hassi is now in a coma in a hospital’s intensive care unit. The cops involved in the incident have been placed on a leave of absence while the Copenhagen police’s internal affairs department investigates. The controversy has caused riots and arrests in the city.
The center of the civil unrest is in Copenhagen’s low-income Svalegården neighborhood, which is where the Ben Hassi family lives. Svalegården has a large population of Muslim people of color. The cops in the movie repeatedly refer to Svalegården as a “ghetto.”
It’s established early in the movie that Mike is going to cause problems. A female colleague named Rønning (played by Josephine Park) has a conversation with Jens before they head into a staff meeting. Jens will be partnered for the first time with Mike, who has a reputation for being a racist and sexist bully. Rønning doesn’t hold back in telling Jens what she thinks of Mike, by saying that she’d rather “blow my brains out” than work with Mike as a cop partner.
During the staff meeting, their boss Captain Hedegaard (played by Michael Brostrup) tells the assembled cops to stay clear of Svalegården because an increased police presence will just agitate the people there even more. But of course, there would be no “Enforcement” movie if Mike and Jens followed those orders. Jens and Mike find out the hard way how much their captain meant when he said that he didn’t want send any more police into Svalegården.
During Jens and Mike’s first day together as cop partners, Mike doesn’t waste time trying to dig into Jens’ personal life to try to get a read on him. While they’re driving in their squad car (with “alpha male” Mike as the driver), Mike asks Jens if he’s married and has children. Jens says he’s married but doesn’t have children. Mike says he’s married with kids and then makes a derogatory comment about their female colleague Rønning by asking Jens if Jens has had sex with Rønning yet. (Mike uses cruder terms than what’s described here.)
Jens replies that Rønning is a former trainee of his and that it would be inappropriate to have sex with her. Mike replies: “That makes it even hotter: a bit of student/teacher action.” Mike also makes it clear that he has no qualms about cheating on his wife. As Mike and Jens patrol the streets in their squad car, Mike lets it be known that he thinks the cops in the Ben Hassi case should be completely exonerated. Mike also spews some bigoted comments about gypsies to make it obvious that he’s prejudiced against people who aren’t white.
Jens feels pressure to impress Mike, knowing that he’s stuck with Mike, and Mike has seniority over Jens. Jens tells Mike a story about how he accidentally set off a box of grenades at a police department where he previously worked. The building was evacuated, but people forgot for a few hours that there were two gypsies left behind in the lockup area. When they found the gypsies, they were terrified out of their minds. Mike and Jens laugh about this story, with Mike commenting about how funny it must have been to see that the gypsies had soiled themselves from fear.
It’s in this scene that viewers get the first indication that although Jens is the “good cop,” he’s willing to go along with what he thinks Mike wants, even if it means pretending that he might be as prone to corruption as Mike is. (This relationship might remind people of the cop characters that Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke portrayed in the 2001 movie “Training Day.”) A great deal of “Enforcement” is about answering this question: Is it possible for Jens to do the right thing when he’s faced with an ethical dilemma?
While on patrol duty, Jens and Mike follow a Mercedes-Benz E-Class that’s registered to a suspected criminal named Hamza Alfarsi. They follow the car into Svalegården, despite being given orders to steer clear of the neighborhood. Jens is a little hesitant about being in Svalegården, but since Mike is in the driver’s seat, Jens has no choice but to go along.
To no one’s surprise, Mike’s motivation for following the car is so he can see if there’s a way to harass the Arabic people who are in the car. Mike tries these intimidation tactics when he follows the car to a house and orders the people in the car to get out. However, Mike is soon surrounded by some Arabic men, and he backs off when he sees that someone is filming him with a phone.
Mike doesn’t say it loud, but viewers of this movie can tell that he’s infuriated about being embarrassed in front of Jens for this failed harassment attempt. And so, it’s easy to predict that Mike doesn’t want to leave Svalegården until he’s taken his anger out on other Arabs whom he wants to arrest. But before that happens, the two cops stop by a local boxing gym, where Mike does some more ego posturing, to show Jens that Mike is well-known in the neighborhood.
The gym is run by a man named Sami (played by Dulfi Al-Jabouri), who seems to tolerate Mike because he doesn’t want to get on Mike’s vengeful side. The movie makes a point of showing that someone has graffitied “Die Pigs” on one of the gym walls. In the gym are two teenagers named Iza (played by Issa Khattab) and Daniel (played by Abdelmalik Dhaflaoui), who are about 16 or 17 years old. Iza tells Sami that he wants to be a Big Brother (as in the Big Brothers mentor program), but Sami tells Iza that he isn’t old enough yet. It won’t be the last time that Iza and Daniel are seen in this movie.
Jens and Mike then go outside, where Mike spots his next Arab target. He detains a teenager named Amos Al-Shami (played by Tarek Zayat) to harass him, even though the teenager isn’t doing anything wrong. Amos is about 18 or 19 years old. Mike wants to provoke the teen into doing something that would be grounds for arrest.
After demanding to see Amos’ photo ID, Mike asks for the last four digits of the Amos’ Social Security number. Amos refuses. Knowing his rights, Amos takes out his phone and starts filming this harassment. This act of self-protection seems to anger Mike even more. Meanwhile, Jens is standing by in case things turn violent. Some other teenagers, who are not too far away, are witnessing the harassment. Although the other teens can’t hear the conversation, they can see what’s going on.
Mike humiliates Amos with an illegal strip search, by ordering Amos to take off his trousers. Amos complies out of fear of being arrested, During the strip search. Amos remains stoic and calm, with a demeanor that seems to silently say, “You can’t break me.” Amos certainly has more dignity than the racist cop who abuses his power to bully people. The teens watching this harassment begin shouting at and jeering at the cops. Mike eventually backs off because the entire incident is being recorded on video and he feels that he has sufficiently embarrassed Amos.
As Jens and Mike drive off in their squad car, someone throws a cup of milkshake on the windshield of the car. (The movie never shows who was the culprit.) The teenagers scatter as the cops give chase, and Amos is the one who’s caught. Mike and Jens quickly arrest Amos for vandalism, but Amos protests and says he wasn’t the one who threw the milkshake.
The word soon rapidly spreads in Svalegården that another Muslim of color has been harassed by white cops. And that brings out an angry mob of mostly young Muslim men. The mob doesn’t come out all at once, but Jens and Mike quickly figure out that they’re not safe in this neighborhood.
And something happens to Jens and Mike’s squad car so that they can’t escape in the car. Eventually, Jens and Mike have to replace their police clothing items with civilian clothes, so that they aren’t recognizable as police officers. And to the dismay of these two cops, they call for backup and are told that their police department won’t send anyone to help them because it’s too dangerous.
There are some twists and turns to the story (some that are more predictable than others), which keeps the film moving with a tension-filled pace. Jens, Mike and Amos (who’s still in police custody) spend a lot of the movie just trying to stay alive. Although Jens appears to be the main protagonist at the beginning of the movie, there’s an entire section in the last third of the movie where Mike is the focal point after he and Jens get separated in the chaos.
Amos lives with his single mother Abia (played by Özlem Saglanmak) and his 5-year-old sister Amira (played by Lara Aksoy) in an apartment building. As day turns into night and Amos still hasn’t come home, there are scenes of a worried Abia wondering where Amos is, when she knows that there are riots going on and she’s fearing the worst. Amos hasn’t been answering his cell phone. It’s shown in the movie what happened to his phone. And for obvious reasons, Abia doesn’t call the police to report her son missing.
Aside from the expected shootouts and chase scenes, the real intrigue of “Enforcement” is in how Mike, Jens and Amos navigate the changing dynamics of their relationship as the story goes on and how race plays a role. Although it might be easy to assume that Mike and Jens should have let Amos go so that the cops could focus on defending themselves, Mike and Jens actually need Amos for protection. The cops know that the rioters are less likely to attack the cops if they have a person of color with them.
The cops begin to understand that, under these circumstances, their “white privilege” is actually a detriment that could cost them their lives. “Enforcement” isn’t subtle at all with this message. The movie shows in various ways how a racist cop like Mike, who’s become accustomed to getting away with inflicting terror on people because of their race, is now getting a taste of his own medicine. Jens, who represents white people who enable white racists, also learns some very hard lessons on what it’s like to be targeted for race-based violence.
The performances of Sears, Lohmann and Zayat get the majority of screen time. All three actors carry the movie quite well, even when some scenarios look over-dramatic. As filmmakers, Ølholm and Hviid show a knack for telling this story in a compelling way that doesn’t tie up all loose ends with a pleasant and pretty bow. “Enforcement” takes place in a 24-hour period, but the movie is clear with its message that systemic racism doesn’t go away after a night of rioting.
Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet Releasing released “Enforcement” in select U.S. cinemas and on demand on March 19, 2021.
Culture Representation: The documentary “Wojnarowicz” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American), mostly from the U.S. avant-garde/experimental art community, discussing the life and legacy of New York City-based artist/activist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, at the age of 37.
Culture Clash:Wojnarowicz battled against homophobia, HIV/AIDS bigotry and right-wing conservatives who thought that his art was too obscene to be displayed in mainstream galleries.
Culture Audience: “Wojnarowicz” will appeal primarily to people interested in the history of the New York City art scene from the 1980s to early 1990s, as well as stories about influential AIDS activists.
Some artists want to keep politics out of their work. But the late artist/activist David Wojnarowicz believed that every work of art is some kind of political statement. The illuminating documentary “Wojnarowicz” tells his life story in a way that would have gotten Wojnarowicz’s approval: by crafting the movie like a cinematic version of an art installation retrospective. Directed by Chris McKim, much of the foundation of the “Wojnarowicz” documentary comes from Wojnarowicz’s diary-like audio recordings, journals, photos and Super 8 films that he made from his early 20s until his tragic death from AIDS in 1992, at the age on 37. Many of Wojnarowicz’s loved ones, friends and associates provide commentary, but their interviews (with a few exceptions) are voiceovers only in the movie.
If people put together a list of 20th century visual artists from New York City’s avant-garde art scene who were controversial and unapologetically presented gay/queer erotica in their art, then Robert Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz would definitely be on the list. Wojnarowicz wasn’t as famous as Mapplethorpe, who preceded Wojnarowicz and broke barriers for LGBTQ-themed art in the 1970s. However, Wojnarowicz was more versatile (Mapplethorpe’s main art form was photography, while Wojnarowicz created art in many forms), and Wojnarowicz was a lot more outspoken about his political views than many of his contemporaries.
Because much of the “Wojnarowicz” documentary is told in Wojnarowicz’s voice from his personal recordings, it gives viewers an insightful look into his personality and his innermost thoughts. He had a lot of anger and cynicism, but he could also be very sensitive and empathetic. The documentary includes some audio from media interviews that he did, but they aren’t as interesting as the private recordings that he made to document his life.
The movie also reveals a treasure trove of mementos and previously unreleased footage that undoubtedly make this documentary the definitive visual biography of Wojnarowicz. It’s an impressive historical perspective of the New York avant-garde art scene in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. Based on who’s interviewed in “Wojnarowicz,” director McKim wanted to include, with few exceptions, people who knew Wojnarowicz personally to give their comments for the movie. You won’t find Wojnarowicz’s critics or talking heads who never met Wojnarowicz taking up too much of the documentary’s time with any of their opinions.
Those interviewed in the documentary include retired social worker Tom Rauffenbart (who was Wojnarowicz’s boyfriend from the late 1980s until Wojnarowicz’s death) and Wojnarowicz older brother Steven. Also interviewed are Cynthia Carr, author of “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz” and art critic Carlo McCormick. Other commentators include David Kiehl, curator emeritus of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Stephen Koch, author/director of the Peter Hujar Archive; gallery owner/curator Barry Blinderman; Anita Vitale, formerly of the New York City AIDS Case Management Unit; and Dr. Bob Friedman, who was Wojnarowicz’s physician when Wojnarowicz was living with AIDS.
But the people who have the most to say in the documentary are those who were Wojnarowicz’s contemporaries in New York City’s avant-garde and bohemian artists scene. They include writer Fran Lebowitz; filmmaker Richard Kern; Civilian Warfare gallery co-founder Alan Barrows; artist/collaborator Kiki Smith; filmmaker/photographer Marion Scemama; photographer Dirk Rowntree; curator Nan Goldin; artist Judy Glantzman; Gracie Mansion Gallery founder Gracie Mansion; former Gracie Mansion employee Sur Rodney Sur; P.P.O.W. Gallery co-founders Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington; and former 3 Teens Kill 4 bandmates Jesse Hutberg, Doug Bressler, Julie Hair and Brian Butterick.
Wojnarowicz’s critics are not interviewed in the documentary, but their perspectives are shown through archival news footage. Wojnarowicz’s controversies are not glossed over in the movie, and he exposed a lot of unflattering information about himself. For example, Wojnarowicz spent much of his teens and early 20s as a sex worker. He also freely admitted that he was psychologically damaged from growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father.
Perhaps the most conventional thing about “Wojnarowicz” is that it’s told in chronological order, which helps give the movie a coherent narrative. In his own words, through his personal audio diaries and media interviews, Wojnarowicz talks about his unhappy childhood, which led him to be a frequent runaway, beginning at the age of 11. Born on September 14, 1954, Red Bank, New Jersey, Wojnarowicz grew up with two older siblings: brother Steven (who was two years older) and their sister Pat. Wojnarowicz’s New York Times obituary lists two other siblings named Linda and Peter, but they’re not mentioned in the documentary.
When he was 11, Wojnarowicz’s mother Dolores separated from her violent, alcoholic husband and moved with her children to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Moving to New York City would have a profound effect on David as an artist, since much of his identity would come from being a New York artist, specifically from Manhattan’s Lower East Side/East Village. However, at one point in his childhood, perhaps because he was a frequent runaway, he ended up as a ward of the court in an orphanage, where he says his father temporarily kidnapped him.
David’s brother Steven says that David didn’t show any real interest in art when they were children: “We were too consumed with trying to survive.” However, Wojnarowicz biographer Carr says that Wojnarowicz developed his artistic tendencies as a teenager, when he discovered the work of French writers Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet. Carr explains why Wojnarowicz felt a kinship with Rimbaud and Genet: “They are outlaws and rebels. And he always identified with outsiders his whole life, and these were the outsider writers.”
Wojnarowicz was no child prodigy, because it took a while for him to find his identity as an artist. By his own admission, he spent most of his teen years and early 20s living on the streets and being a hustler. It’s made pretty clear that Wojnarowicz knew from an early age that he was gay. What isn’t detailed in the documentary is Wojnarowicz’s coming out story or how his parents reacted when he began living openly as a gay person. Based on what’s said about Wojnarowicz’s abusive father, one can assume that the father’s reaction wasn’t a good one.
At the age of 21, Wojnarowicz took a hitchhiking road trip across several U.S. states with his friend John Hall. This 1976 road trip inspired the first-known audio diaries that Wojnarowicz kept. The documentary includes a clip from one of his audio diary entries, where he describes in vivid detail a visit they made in Jamestown, North Dakota.
In September 1978, at age 23, Wojnarowicz and his sister Pat moved to Paris. He submitted a written collection of monologues called “Sounds of Distance,” but it was rejected by all the publishers he sent it to in Paris. According to Wojnarowicz, one publisher told him “the people in the monologues were wasted lives and a waste of time to write about them.” He took this criticism as a badge of honor for this collection: “Everything she said just reinforced my belief that it’s important.”
In June 1979, Wojnarowicz moved back to New York City because he says he missed the city’s unique energy. He describes Paris as a city that gives people a sense of security, and he preferred the edginess of New York City. Upon his return to New York, Wojnarowicz really began to find his identity as an artist. And ironically, it somewhat started with him paying tribute to one of his idols.
He made a face mask of Rimbaud and would wear it around the city. The documentary includes photos of him wearing the Rimbaud mask while on the street, in a diner or on the subway. This mask would later become one of Wojnarowicz’s most famous art pieces. But in a city with a lot of eccentric artists, Wojnarowicz needed more than just a Rimbaud mask to stand out.
Wojnarowicz began experimenting with different art forms, such as painting, stenciling, silk screening, sculpting and photography. He was also lead vocalist of an alternative rock band that wasn’t so much punk as it was spoken word anarchy set to music. That band was 3 Teens Kill 4, which got some recognition in the local music scene, but Wojnarowicz quit the band in 1982 over creative differences.
It was while he was a struggling artist that Wojnarowicz met the most influential person in his life: photographer Peter Hujar, who was well-known in the New York artist scene but always remained on the fringes of the upper echelon of portrait photographers in New York. Wojnarowicz and Hujar (who was 20 years older than Wojnarowicz) started out as lovers and then eventually settled into being best friends, with Hujar also being a mentor to Wojnarowicz.
Lebowitz said that even though she knew that Wojnarowicz and Hujar were once romantically involved with each other, they always gave her the impression of having a father/son relationship. Koch of the Peter Hujar Archive describes the Wojnarowicz/Hujar relationship as “more interesting than Van Gogh and Gaugin—very special and unique.” Wojnarowicz’s boyfriend Rauffenbart says when his own romance with Wojnarowicz began to get serious, he had to find a way to adjust to the close friendship that Wojnarowicz had with Lujar, because Wojnarowicz made it clear to everyone that Lujar would always be his best friend.
Wojnarowicz met some influential people in the art scene through Lujar. And when he was in 3 Teens Kill 4, Wojnarowicz also started to get some recognition, but not all of it was for the music. In the early 1980s, the band would often hang out at a nightclub called Danceteria (also hangout for artist Keith Haring and Madonna), which got raided for violation of a liquor license.
A small riot broke out and Wojnarowicz threw a molotov cocktail at a police car. He and some other band members were arrested, and they later threw a benefit show to raise funds for their legal defense. Butterick says that they didn’t really need to do the benefit concert because “the mob paid for the lawyers to get our cases dismissed.”
It was during this time of youthful rebellion that Wojnarowicz decided he wanted to stand out as not just unusual but also controversial, with art that some people might find disgusting. In an audio clip, he describes going to the city’s meatpacking district, finding discarded cow parts, and using those parts to create sculptures. He says that he also poured cow blood on stairs as part of his art.
At this particular time in the 1980s, there was no “hip” art gallery scene on the Lower East Side. As Sur describes it: “There were no resources like now, where you can go to the Lower East Side, where there are a dozen galleries you’ve never heard of showing stuff. There was nothing! There was SoHo, there was uptown and there were these established galleries. We didn’t feel we had entree into there, so we created space so we could show our work and have fun!”
This burgeoning alternative art scene was different from the type of scene that Andy Warhol led in the 1960s. Warhol and like-minded artists always maintained a level of glamour and more than a bit of fascination with celebrities. The art scene that Wojnarowicz came from wanted to shun the establishment for as long as they could, with art that was intentionally designed to be rudely provocative.
A lot of their work was literally created from garbage and other filthy throwaway items. The erotica in their art was unapologetically raw and could easily be described as pornographic. And because Wojnarowicz was known for putting a lot of male homosexuality in his art, it was automatically deemed not acceptable for certain galleries and other venues that showcase art.
Civilian Warfare, Gracie Mansion Gallery and P.P.W.O. Gallery were some of the places that launched to showcase art that other galleries would reject. Wojnarowicz found a home for a lot of his art at these galleries, before and after his art became accepted by more mainstream New York City art venues, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Civilian Warfare co-founder Barrows says: “We were really drawn to David’s militaristic imagery.”
The year 1982 was a pivotal one for Wojnarowicz. He left 3 Teens Kill 4 that year. His monologue collection “Sounds of Distance,” which had been rejected by publishers in Paris, was published. And 1982 was the year that Wojnarowicz and artist Mike Bidlo began making art in abandoned piers along the Manhattan side of the Hudson River.
Wojnarowicz’s frequent collaborator Smith (who took a well-known photo of Wojnarowicz posed as a bloodied assault victim) says in the documentary that the abandoned piers, which were the sizes of warehouses, had piles of discarded files from Bellevue Hospital. Bellevue had thrown away a lot of illustrations made by the patients in the hospital’s psychiatric facilities. Wojnarowicz used a lot of those illustrations in his art that he created at the piers. The piers were eventually demolished after city officials found out that the property was being illegally used by artists as creative spaces.
In 1983, Wojnarowicz’s first solo exhibition at Civilian Warfare led to another turning point in Wojnarowicz’s career. New York Times arts journalist Grace Glueck did a feature article about East Village artists, and the article prominently featured Wojnarowicz. After that New York Times article was published, Wojnarowicz became a darling of trendy art collectors. As described in the documentary, people began showing up in limousines to buy Wojnarowicz’s art.
Blinderman, who was the owner of New York City’s Semaphore Gallery at the time, remembers paying $3,000 for what would turn out to be one of Wojnarowicz’s most famous and controversial art pieces. The art piece’s title includes a homophobic slur that won’t be repeated in this review. But Wojnarowicz chose the title and the content of the art (which has homoerotic images) as an “in your face” response to homophobia.
In 1985, Wojnarowicz reached another milestone: He was chosen to be part of the Whitney Biennial. And he was commissioned to do an installation for the Mnunchin Gallery. (The gallery was founded Robert Mnuchin, the father of future Donald Trump political ally Steve Mnuchin, who served in the Trump administration as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.)
In an audio clip Wojnarowicz says that because he “despises rich people,” he purposely made the installation as disgusting as possible, with a lot of insect-infested garbage. Robert Mnuchin’s wife Adriana was reportedly repulsed by the bugs crawling around in the pristine gallery. However, Wojnarowicz was a hot brand name at the time, so he got away with doing what he wanted for the installation.
Wojnarowicz also dabbled in filmmaking, including collaborating with Kern on a short independent film called “You Killed Me First.” Wojnarowicz’s role in the film was as an abusive father. In a disturbing re-enactment of what his father did when Wojnarowicz was a child, there’s a scene in the movie of him sadistically killing a rabbit in front of his children, who are portrayed in the movie by adult actors. The rabbit wasn’t killed for food but out of pure cruelty.
Considering Wojnarowicz’s abusive childhood, his history of being a sex worker, and being a part of an art scene awash with illegal drugs, it’s not surprising that Wojnarowicz was a drug abuser. In the documentary, it’s mentioned that Wojnarowicz became addicted to heroin (he used needles), but Hujar got Wojnarowicz to quit heroin by issuing an ultimatum: If Wojnarowicz didn’t stop using heroin, then Hujar would cut Wojnarowicz out of his life. The documentary doesn’t mention if Wojnarowicz ever received any therapy for his problems with drugs or mental health. You get the feeling that he never did.
Rauffenbart, who says in the documentary that he met Wojnarowicz at a gay porn theater called the Bijou Theater, describes himself as someone whose life was transformed by Wojnarowicz. Before he met Wojnarowicz, he was used to hanging around very conventional people. Rauffenbart gives credit to Wojnarowicz for opening up his world to more variety and more fascinating people.
However, Wojnarowicz’s world was about to be rocked by a tragedy: At the age of 53, Hujar died of AIDS in 1987, just 11 months after he was diagnosed. It was also the year that Wojnarowicz and Rauffenbart found out that they were also HIV-positive. These diagnoses and the discrimination experienced by AIDS patients motivated Wojnarowicz to become an AIDS activist.
As for his career, Wojnarowicz learned the hard way how fickle the art world could be when his “Four Elements” show, which was dedicated to Hujar, flopped with audiences. The show had art with the themes of Earth, Water, Fire and Wind and included photos of Huhar on his deathbed. Toward the end of the documentary, there’s a poignant scene of Rauffenbart, accompanied by friend Vitale and P.P.O.W. Gallery co-founders Olsoff and Pilkington, attending a preview of the Whitney Museum’s 2018 Wojnarowicz retrospective.
It’s mentioned in the documentary that although Wojnarowicz and his sister Pat remained fairly close, his relationship with brother Steven was a lot more strained. They were estranged from the mid-1970s until they reunited in 1985. However, after Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, he and Steven had a major falling out over what Wojnarowicz perceived to be Steve’s homophobia, and they never saw or spoke to each other again. Wojnarowicz audio recorded their final argument, part of which is included in the documentary.
As an AIDS activist, Wojnarowicz participated in many protests about how the U.S. government and the health industry were mishandling the AIDS crisis. At a protest outside of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) headquarters, Wojnarowicz wore a hand-made jacket that read on the back “If I Die of AIDS—Forget Burial—Just Drop My Body on the Steps of the FDA.” That jacket became a symbol for AIDS activism.
Wojnarowicz’s “Tongues of Flame” exhibit would turn out to be his most controversial. Blinderman was now the director of University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, and he got a $15,000 government grant from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to commission the exhibit. It would lead to a lawsuit and divisive opinions on both sides. Around this time, Wojnarowicz had angered political and religious conservatives with an AIDS activist essay titled “Postcards From America: X-Rays From Hell,” which was published in the 1988 “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” catalogue for Artists Space.
In the essay, Wojnarowicz used insulting language about U.S. Congressmen Jesse Helms and William Dannemeyer and Cardinal John O’Connor (New York’s Archbishop at the time) who were all openly opposed to LGBTQ rights. The essay was accompanied by a photo of a Wojnarowicz art piece with an illustration of Jesus Christ injecting a needle in his lower arm, with a tube tied around his upper arm, like a junkie. Wojnarowicz said the art depicted Jesus taking on the burdens of society, including drug addiction.
It wasn’t long before Donald Wildmon of the conservative American Family Association and other anti-Wojnarowicz people got involved in a campaign to get Wojnarowicz banned from major art venues. These Wojnarowicz critics distributed photos of Wojnarowicz’s most controversial art and called Wojnarowicz a threat to decency. Under political pressure, the NEA then withdrew its grant money from the “Tongues of Flame” exhibit.
Wojnarowicz filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Wildmon and the American Family Association for distributing photos of his art without permission and for trying to damage his reputation. Wojnarowicz won the lawsuit, but was granted an award of just $1. University Galleries of Illinois State University ended up launching the “Tongues in Flame” exhibit in 1990 to enthusiastic crowds. In an audio clip, Wojnarowicz says he was expecting picketing and protestors outside the gallery, but no such pushback happened.
Toward the end of his life, Wojnarowicz began experiencing AIDS-related dementia, which is described in heartbreaking detail by Scemama. She remembers taking a road trip with Wojnarowicz to California’s Death Valley in May 1991. During the trip, it was the first time that she saw Wojnarowicz seem to forget who he was in a brief moment of memory loss. Seeing him in that condition stuck with her because it was then she knew how much he had deteriorated.
During this trip, Scemama took some visually striking photos of Wojnarowicz buried in the dirt, with his face partially peeking out from the ground. It was eerily symbolic of knowing that he would end up in an early grave by dying so young. It was also Wojnarowicz’s last photo shoot. Scemama says that every time she collaborated with Wojnarowicz, he came up with the ideas.
You don’t have to be a fan of Wojnarowicz’s work to appreciate his impact on the art world or on AIDS activism. You don’t have to agree with his political beliefs. What the “Wojnarowicz” documentary does so effectively is show that he overcame a lot of personal struggles in his life to express his truth, even if that truth made a lot of people uncomfortable. And that raw and open honesty is a legacy worth noting.
Kino Lorber released “Wojnarowicz” in U.S. virtual cinemas on March 19, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the Bahamas, the family drama film “Dolphin Island” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white and black) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.
Culture Clash: A British paternal grandfather, who has custody of his orphaned American teenage granddaughter, lives with her on a boat in the Bahamas, but the teenager’s maternal grandparents from New York City don’t approve of her living situation and want custody of her.
Culture Audience: “Dolphin Island” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in sentimental family-oriented entertainment, but the movie’s substandard acting and overly sappy screenplay will be too low-quality for many people’s tastes.
The filmmakers of “Dolphin Island” clearly intended to make this drama a family-friendly story. However, the movie has too much unrealistic corniness, sloppy predictability and terrible acting for it to be recommended to anyone looking for passably good, memorable entertainment. “Dolphin Island” is as formulaic as can be, but it’s made worse by the insipid dialogue and awkward performances by many of the cast members.
“Dolphin Island” was directed by Mike Disa, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Shaked Berenson and Rolfe Kanefsky. The movie takes place in the Bahamas. And if nothing else, at least people will see some nice Caribbean scenery. But right away, the movie has a sheen of phoniness in the opening scene on an island pier, which features the local people acting way too upbeat and chipper, as if they’re in an infomercial for Bahamas tourism. You almost except them to break out into song, like a Disney musical.
British native Jonah Coleridge (played by Peter Woodward) has been living in the Bahamas for the past 10 years with his 14-year-old granddaughter Annabel (played by Tyler Jade Nixon) on a small house boat/fishing vessel that he owns. Annabel is homeschooled, and Jonah makes a living by giving boat tours around the island. Annabel’s parents were marine biologists who died 10 years earlier in a diving accident. Jonah’s son was Annabel’s father.
Annabel’s parents co-founded a non-profit wildlife research and conservation center, which is is still open for business. However, it’s mentioned that business has slowed down because of the most recent hurricane. Annabel loves animals and ocean life, so it’s hinted that she probably wants to follow in her parents’ footsteps and possibly work at the wildlife center someday.
Jonah is currently a bachelor. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his second and most recent wife is now deceased. After Annabel’s parents died, Jonah moved to the Bahamas to take permanent custody of Annabel because he didn’t want to disrupt her life by having her move to another country. And he also fell in love with the Bahamas.
The opening scene of “Dolphin Island” is intended to show that despite their family tragedy, Jonah and Annabel have managed to have a pretty blissful life together. And since this movie is called “Dolphin Island,” you just know that there’s going to be a cute dolphin that does tricks in the movie. Her name is Mitzy, and Annabel considers Mitzy to be her best friend.
Jonah and Annabel adore each other. And as they walk through the pier, which has local businesses nearby, everyone greets each other with smiles, waves and friendly banter. It’s all a big lovefest where everyone gets along with each other. Well, gosh golly gee willikers, isn’t that sweet?
Too bad some of this good cheer is ruined by embarrassingly bad lines of dialogue. Jonah, who likes to smile a lot, declares about Annabel and Mitzy: “Every day is a good day, as long I have my two girls!” When Annabel stops to talk to a couple of the local men lounging at the pier, she foists a corny joke on them: “Where does a fish keep money? In a river bank!”
This is going to be an excruciating stay on Dolphin Island because the bad dialogue gets worse. Annabel and Jonah have a near-perfect life in paradise. What could possibly go wrong?
The first sign that things are amiss comes when a teenage boy, who’s around Annabel’s age, pickpockets a wallet from an unsuspecting tourist. As soon as the boy has the wallet, he turns around and pretends that the wallet fell out of the tourist’s pocket and plays the role of a Good Samaritan who’s returning the wallet. It’s a well-known scam where the con artist hopes that the wallet owner will offer a reward for the “found” wallet. And it works, because the tourist gives the teenager some cash as a thank you.
The next time that the pickpocket pulls this con game on another tourist, Annabel sees it happening not too far away, and the boy notices that Annabel has witnessed him committing this crime. She shakes her head in disapproval and points at the boy silently to indicate that he needs to confess immediately. The boy sheepishly tells the tourist that the wallet wasn’t lost but that he actually stole it. The tourist accepts the boy’s apology.
One of the things that’s problematic about this whole scenario is its racist overtone. The teenage pickpocket is black and the tourists are white. When viewers find out who the pickpocket is, it’s obvious that there was no reason to portray him in the movie as a criminal. Movies and TV shows have already oversaturated people with negative stereotypes of young black men as criminals. It’s disappointing that a supposedly wholesome movie like “Dolphin Island” has pandered to this damaging and racist stereotype for no good reason.
It turns out (and this isn’t spoiler information) that the teenage boy is new to the area. His name is Mateo Rolle (played by Aaron Burrows), and he’s not a poor and desperate street kid. He lives with his divorced mother in a loving, middle-class home. The movie gives no explanation for why he was pickpocketing people. It’s a horrible way to introduce a character who happens to be black by making it look like this person is a criminal.
The movie also makes it look like Mateo’s “crime spree” ended only because Annabel stopped it, which is the filmmakers’ way of making Annabel (who is white) look more virtuous than Mateo. The racist subtext is pretty obvious. At any rate, now that Mateo has been shamed and has shown remorse, he and Annabel start talking and quickly end up becoming friends. Because that’s what happens in a corny movie like this one.
Meanwhile, Annabel is going to have more to worry about than busting teenage pickpockets. A child protective services worker named Desaray Rolle (played by Dionna Lea) from the Freeport Social Services Department has shown up on Jonah’s boat to let him know that she’s investigating him, due to a complaint that was filed about the living conditions he has for Annabel. Desaray says she’s taken over for the previous case worker who passed away.
Jonah is immediately defensive and argumentative. He makes a bad impression on Desaray, who is skeptical of Jonah’s proclamations that Annabel is living in a safe and loving environment. It doesn’t help that Desaray sees some local men napping on chairs nearby on the pier, with some beer bottles near the chairs. Desaray assumes that these men are passed out drunk and that Annabel is living among a bunch of degenerate partiers.
Desaray tells Jonah that she thinks Jonah is a “beach bum … I should know. I was married to one!” Even if viewers didn’t know Desaray and Mateo’s last name was the same, the way that Desaray and Mateo are introduced in the story makes it pretty obvious that they are both related, in order to create come more dramatic tension. Eventually, it’s revealed that Desaray is Mateo’s mother. And so now, Annabel has found out that her new friend/potential boyfriend Mateo has a mother who has the power to determine if Jonah is an unfit guardian or not.
Who filed the complaint to investigate Jonah for how he’s raising Annabel? Jonah finds out when he gets a visit from a sleazy lawyer named Robert Carbunkle (played by Bob Bledsoe), who tells Jonah that he’s the attorney for the people who filed the complaint: Annabel’s well-to-do maternal grandparents Samuel Williams (played by David Raizor) and Sheryl Williams (played by Annette Lovrien Duncan), who live in New York City. Samuel and Sheryl, who haven’t seen Annabel in 10 years, have decided that they miss Annabel, and they want her to live with them in New York.
Robert offers Jonah a sizeable amount of money to give up custody of Annabel to the other grandparents. An infuriated Jonah immediately turns down the offer. And it’s during this heated discussion that viewers find out, when Jonah tells Robert, that before Annabel’s parents were married, Samuel tried to bribe Jonah’s son to break up with Samuel’s daughter because Samuel didn’t approve of the relationship. Jonah’s son refused the offer. And when Samuel’s daughter found out about the bribe offer, she remained estranged from her parents until she died. Samuel and Sheryl last saw Annabel at the funeral for Annabel’s parents.
Of course, this custody battle turns into a war. Samuel and Sheryl eventually arrive in the Bahamas for legal proceedings. A lot of what the judge will decide depends on what Desaray puts in her evaluation report. But Jonah has already said and done a lot to alienate Desaray, even though the way that Jonah and Desaray met just screams “meet cute moment,” where people who dislike each other when they first meet end up being attracted to each other.
Samuel is more ruthless about the custody fight than Sheryl is because Samuel thinks he can buy his way into getting whatever he wants. Annabel and Jonah don’t want to be separated from each other, so there are tears and meltdowns aplenty. The acting from most of the cast members is just plain amateurish, with many of the actors going too over-the-top with melodramatics. Woodward has moments where he shows he has more talent than the other actors, but he too eventually sinks into the quagmire of mawkishness.
People who have seen enough of this type of formulaic mush can easily figure out what happens for the rest of the story. The last third of the movie has an almost-laughable “race against time” chase scene in the water, because we can’t forget that the dolphin has to be useful in this schlocky film. If you’re going to visit “Dolphin Island,” just know you’ll be stuck neck-deep in silly schmaltz that will leave you cringing.
Entertainment Squad released “Dolphin Island” on digital and VOD on March 2, 2021.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Harry Styles and Roddy Ricch lead the list of nominees, with seven nods each. Following close behind is The Weekend, with six nominations.
The following is a press release from iHeartRadio and Fox:
iHeartMedia and FOX announced today the nominees for the 2021 iHeartRadio Music Awards, airing LIVE from The Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, Thursday, May 27 (8:00-10:00 PM ET live / PT tape-delayed) on FOX. The event also will be heard on iHeartMedia radio stations nationwide and on the iHeartRadio app.
Now in its eighth year, the iHeartRadio Music Awards will celebrate the most-played artists and songs on iHeartRadio stations and the iHeartRadio app throughout 2020, while also offering a preview of the upcoming hits of 2021. The show will feature award presentations in multiple categories, live performances from the biggest artists in music, surprise stage moments and will tell the stories of the winning artists’ road to #1. Since the Awards’ inception in 2013, the show has included live performances and appearances by superstar artists, such as Alicia Keys, Bruno Mars, Garth Brooks, Rihanna, Halsey, Justin Bieber, John Legend, Kacey Musgraves, Chris Martin, Bon Jovi, Maroon 5, Camila Cabello, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, Big Sean, Sam Smith, Madonna, Blake Shelton, Pharrell, Pitbull and many others.
“The iHeartRadio Music Awards is a true awards show recognizing the artists and songs fans have listened to and loved all year long,” said John Sykes, President of Entertainment Enterprises for iHeartMedia. “We are excited to be continuing our partnership with FOX on this unforgettable evening of music and stories.”
Artists receiving multiple nominations include 24kGoldn, AC/DC, AJR, All Time Low, Ariana Grande, Bad Bunny, Beyoncé, Billie Eilish, blackbear, BLACKPINK, Blake Shelton, BTS, Calibre 50, Cardi B, Charlie Puth, Chris Brown, Christian Nodal, DaBaby, Doja Cat, Drake, Dua Lipa, Future, Gabby Barrett, H.E.R., Harry Styles, J Balvin, Jhené Aiko, JP Saxe, Justin Bieber, KAROL G, Lady Gaga, Luke Bryan, Luke Combs, Maluma, Maren Morris, Megan Thee Stallion, Ozuna, Ozzy Osbourne, Pop Smoke, Post Malone, Roddy Ricch, Shawn Mendes, Snoh Aalegra, Summer Walker, Surf Mesa, Taylor Swift, The Pretty Reckless, The Weeknd, twenty one pilots and Young Thug. All nominees are listed below. For a full list of categories, visit iHeartRadio.com/awards.
“We couldn’t be more excited for this year’s iHeartRadio Music Awards,” said Tom Poleman, Chief Programming Officer for iHeartMedia. “This year’s awards will be a can’t-miss music event. We are looking forward to celebrating these top artists and their accomplishments, especially after a year that brought unprecedented challenges to the music industry and live events.”
In addition to paying tribute to music and artists, the 2021 iHeartRadio Music Awards will again celebrate the fans, giving iHeartRadio listeners the opportunity to decide winners in several new and established categories. Fan voting will determine this year’s Best Fan Army, Best Lyrics, Best Cover Song, Best Music Video, the Social Star Award, Favorite Music Video Choreography Award and the first-ever TikTok Bop of the Year Award.
Social voting begins today, April 7, and will close on May 19 at 11:59 PM ET for all categories. Fans can vote on Twitter using the appropriate category and nominee hashtags or by visiting iHeartRadio.com/awards.
Due to the pandemic, the 2020 live TV broadcast event of the iHeartRadio Music Awards on FOX was cancelled and winners were revealed for the first time on-air throughout Labor Day weekend across iHeartRadio stations nationwide and on the iHeartRadio App. Among the many winners of the 2020 Awards were Lizzo for Song of the Year, Billie Eilish for Female Artist of the Year, Post Malone for Male Artist of the Year and Jonas Brothers for Best Duo/Group of the Year. The 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards also honored Elton John with the Tour of the Year Award for his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour.”
This year’s awards will once again feature a broad array of categories — finalists (by alphabetical order) are:
Song of the Year:
“Blinding Lights” – The Weeknd
“Circles” – Post Malone
“Don’t Start Now” – Dua Lipa
“ROCKSTAR” – DaBaby featuring Roddy Ricch
“Watermelon Sugar” – Harry Styles
Female Artist of the Year:
Megan Thee Stallion
Male Artist of the Year:
Best Duo/Group of the Year:
Dan + Shay
twenty one pilots
“Go Crazy” – Chris Brown & Young Thug
“Holy” – Justin Bieber featuring Chance the Rapper
“Rain On Me” (Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande) – Richy Jackson
“Say So” (Doja Cat) – Cortland Brown
WAP” (Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion) – JaQuel Knight
“Bop” (DaBaby) – Coach Cherry & DaniLeigh
TikTok Bop of the Year(New Category): *Socially Voted Category
“Blinding Lights” – The Weeknd
“Lottery (Renegade)” – K CAMP
“Savage” – Megan Thee Stallion
“Savage Love” (Laxed-Siren Beat) – Jawsh 685, Jason Derulo
“Say So” – Doja Cat
“WAP” – Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion
Additional categories include Label of the Year, Titanium Song of the Year and Titanium Artist of the Year, and individual winners for Album of the Year in music’s biggest genres, including Pop, Country, Alternative Rock, Rock, Dance, Hip-Hop, R&B, Latin Pop/Reggaeton and Regional Mexican formats. Nominations are based on consumption data, including streaming, album sales, song sales and radio airplay.
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iHeartRadio and Taco Bell are once again teaming up to celebrate the fans, artists and music that kept us all connected over the past year. Fans can tune in to a memorable moment in the show, compliments of iHeartRadio and Taco Bell.
Executive producers for the “iHeartRadio Music Awards” are Joel Gallen for Tenth Planet and John Sykes, Tom Poleman and Bart Peters for iHeartMedia.
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iHeartMedia, Inc. [Nasdaq: IHRT] is the leading audio media company in America, reaching over 250 million people each month. It is number one in broadcast and streaming radio as well as podcasting and audio ad tech, and includes three segments: The iHeartMedia Multiplatform Group; the iHeartMedia Digital Audio Group; and the Audio and Media Services Group.
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Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional rural town of Bluefield, Kentucky, the horror flick “The Devil Below” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: Four geologists and their tour guide try to solve the mystery of an abandoned mine that trapped 195 people decades earlier, and the explorers uncover sinister forces during their excursion.
Culture Audience: “The Devil Below” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching formulaic and mindless horror movies.
There’s absolutely nothing creative or original about the dreadfully predictable horror flick “The Devil Below.” It’s about a group of people who go somewhere remote and “forbidden” to try to find out why numerous people have mysteriously died or vanished in this death trap. The group of explorers think nothing will happen to them. And you know what happens next. Even though this concept has been recycled countless times in horror movies, there are ways to bring some freshness to this concept, but the “The Devil Below” fails miserably.
Directed by Bradley Parker and written by Eric Scherbarth and Stefan Jaworski, “The Devil Below” (formerly titled “Shookum Hills”) checks every horror cliché box in this lazy and unimaginative story. The acting is mediocre and the dialogue is forgettable. The movie starts off explaining that the death trap is a now-abandoned coal mine that was owned by the Shookum Hills Mining Company in the fictional rural town of Bluefield, Kentucky. In 1970, 33 people died and 162 went missing in an unexplained mining accident.
The opening scene shows another death in the present day: A miner named Schuttmann (played by Will Patton) is with his son Eric (played by Duncan Novak) near the mine, when a strange force seems to grab Eric and pull him down into the mine shaft. Meanwhile, someone or something stabs Schuttman in the neck. It won’t be the last that viewers will see of Schuttman though.
Sometime later (the movie doesn’t saw how much later), a feisty tour guide named Arianne (played by Alicia Sanz) is getting ready to lead a group of four geologists, who want Arianne to take them to the Shookum Hills mine, which is no longer on any current maps. Arianne doesn’t want to tell these geologists that she has no idea how to find the place. She needs the money that they’re paying her, so she decides to just “wing it” and hope they won’t figure out that she doesn’t really know how to get to the abandoned mine.
The four geologists are:
Darren Atkins (played by Adan Canto), the group’s ambitious and aggressive leader who has a checkered past that is eventually revealed in the story,
Terry Ellis (played by Jonathan Sadowski), a structural geologist, who is the jokester of the group.
Shawn Harrison (played Chinaza Uche), a field geologist/comparative mythologist, who is the skeptical worrier in the group.
Jaime Cowan (played by Zach Avery), the laid-back and easygoing member of the group.
The town of Shookum Hills in Kentucky burned down years ago and also isn’t on any current maps. On the way to the abandoned mine that Arianne doesn’t really know how to find (Arianne and the four geologists are in Arianne’s Jeep), she decides to stop at a nearby convenience store. The store is predictably dark and dingy, and the scruffy store clerk looks at this obvious out-of-towner with some suspicion.
When Arianne shows the clerk an old map of the Shookum Hills mine and asks how to get there, he immediately becomes hostile and says he doesn’t know. When Arianne leaves, the clerk gets on the phone and tells the person on the other line, “Dave, we have a problem.” The next thing you know, Arianne and the geologist crew are being chased through the woods by some of the local residents in a truck.
Arianne figures out that the people chasing them will go straight to the mine if they lose track of Arianne’s Jeep. And sure enough, that’s what happens. Arianne sees the direction where the truck is headed. And that’s how Arianne and the geologists find the mine. Or is it a sinkhole from hell? It’s easy to predict what will happen from there.
Shawn explains why he’s skittish about being there: “The prevailing theory is there was never actually a coal mine but America’s response to the well to hell … The Russians drilled about eight miles in Siberia until the drill broke, and they lowered a heat-resistant microphone into the well and heard this sound. Some say it’s the screams of the damned.” He then plays a scratchy audio recording of people wailing in agony. And with that, Shawn has already telegraphed what’s going to happen in this story.
As the body count piles up, “The Devil Below” uses the annoying horror movie trickery of making it look like someone has died but that person is really still alive. The first two-thirds of the movie are quite dull, but the last third is just absolutely moronic. Let’s put it this way: People who should have no logical reason to realistically move about or be alive, due to severe bodily injuries, end up acting as if they only have some pesky bruises. What’s lurking inside the mine is also very stereotypical.
The cinematography of “The Devil Below” is an ugly brownish hue for most of the film, except in the underground mine scenes, which at times has a bright red glow. This underground death trap is supposed to be hellish, so of course the filmmakers chose the most predictable color to represent hell. There’s a certain hell that viewers will experience if they watch “The Devil Below” to the very end. And that’s the hell of knowing that they wasted time watching this idiotic and boring movie.
Vertical Entertainment released “The Devil Below” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the Ivory Coast prison of MACA, the dramatic film “Night of the Kings” features a nearly all-black African cast of characters (with one white person) who are prisoners, prison employees or imagined African royalty.
Culture Clash: During a powers struggle in the prison, a young man is chosen by the inmate leaders to entertain the prisoners by telling a story as part of a ritual.
Culture Audience: “Night of the Kings” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in African cinema and stories about prison subcultures that are rarely told in narrative feature films.
“Night of the Kings” is set in a prison, but the film is more about the freedom of imagination under oppressive conditions. It’s probably one of the more unique prison movies ever made. But much like a stylistic fever dream, not all of the storyline will be easy to follow for people who prefer more straightforward narratives. “Night of the Kings” (written and directed by Philippe Lacôte) is still riveting cinema for people who appreciate filmmaking that doesn’t follow all the usual clichés of movies that are set in a prison.
That’s because the Ivory Coast prison where the movie takes place is MACA (also known as La Maca), a facility for male inmates that is said to be the only prison in the world unofficially run by the inmates, according to prison warden Nivaquine (played by Issaka Sawadogo). The prison guards and other employees just watch the inmate spectacles and stay alert for any violence that might break out. Inside MACA, like any other prison, there is a hierarchy.
According to the production notes for “Night of the Kings,” the real MACA (where exterior scenes for the movie were filmed) has a racially diverse population. The MACA shown in this movie consists almost entirely of black Africans, with a mute, middle-aged white prisoner named Silence (played by Denis Lavant), who is depicted as an eccentric who likes to carry a chicken on his shoulder.
The MACA prisoners walk around freely without shackles or handcuffs. And the main reason why they’re kept under control is because the prison guards have guns, while the prisoners do not. However, that doesn’t mean that violence can’t erupt any any given time.
In the beginning of the movie, a written intro is shown to explain the MACA power structure and traditions: “The MACA prison is a world with its own codes and laws. The first law is that the Dangôro, the supreme master, rules the prisoners. When the Dangôro falls ill and can no longer govern, he must take his own life.”
In this movie, the ailing Dangôro is named Blackbeard, or Barbe Noir (played by Steve Tientcheu), who has two prisoners competing to replace him: coldly calculating Lass (played by Abdoul Karim Konaté) and impulsive hothead Half-Mad, also known as Demi-Fou (played by Jean Cyrille Digbeu). In an early scene in the movie, Blackbeard (whose ailment isn’t described, but he wears an oxygen mask) has a verbal confrontation with Lass, who doesn’t try to hide that he’s impatient to take control of the prison.
Blackbeard warns Lass, “If you keep disrespecting me, Lass, you’ll lose your protection. If you lose my protection, you’ll be another lackey.” Lass replies, “You’re asking for a war. Open your eyes, Blackbeard. And look around. You’re not in charge anymore.” An offended Blackbeard yells at Lass, “Shut up!”
Whenever there is a rising red moon, the MACA tradition is to choose a prisoner to tell a story to the rest of the inmates. This storyteller is called a Roman. Blackbeard announces that he’s going to announce a new Roman for the upcoming rising red moon.
And new Roman (played by Bakary Koné) is also a new prisoner. He’s a 19-year-old pickpocket, and his real name is never revealed in the story. He is just called Roman. When Roman arrives in Nivaquine’s prison warden office, Nivaquine interrogates him and slaps him. In the office, Roman notices a magazine with a cover headline that reads “War Against the Microbes.” This magazine cover later gives him the inspiration for the story that he tells the prisoners.
When Roman finds out that he’s been chosen to tell the story, he’s treated almost like a hero and lifted on the shoulders of the other inmates. Roman also meets a potential friend in the shower area named Razor Blade, also known as Lame de Rasoir (played by Macel Anzian), who’s around the same age. Razor Blade is a self-described street kid who used to work on a cocoa plantation near Tiassalé.
But it’s not all camaraderie in this prison. A transgender female prison named Sexy (played by Gbazi Yves Landry) is sexually harassed and cornered by several of the inmates. One prisoner named Koby (played by Stéphane Sebime) is particularly aggressive to Sexy and it’s implied that it’s because she is transgender. And later, a near-riot breaks out as prisoners express their loyalties to Lass or Half-Mad.
The only thing that brings some peace and distraction to this discord is Roman’s captivating storytelling. The inmates gather around Roman as he weaves this tale. It’s here in the movie that “Night of the Kings” starts to resemble live theater, with the prisoners sometimes chiming like a Greek chorus or sometimes dancing in unison.
Roman’s story is about he grew up with Zama King, the king of the Microbes, whom Roman says he met because they went to the same school together. Roman begins by invoking some religious preaching: “If God says you’ll be a thief, you’ll be a thief. If God says you’ll be a murderer, you’ll be a murderer. If God says yea, no one can say no.” He calls himself a “pickpocket, a swindler, shyster, scoundrel, a real thief.”
Roman then spins a tale about how he grew up with his aunt Salimata, a traditional griot. Through re-enactments that re shown in the movie, Roman then goes on to describe how Zama King’s father Soni (played by Rasmané Ouédraogo) was a beggar and how Soni’s relationship developed with the women who wife Hélène (played by Marie-Josée Néné). Roman also tells the story of the Queen (played by Laetitia Ky), who would rise to power with Zama King.
Much of “Night of Kings” depends on the charisma of Roman, who has command of the room but also knows that he’s making a lot of things up as he goes along and that the crowd could easily turn on him if they become bored or skeptical of his story. Bakary Koné makes an admirable acting debut in “Night of the Kings.” His performance seems natural in a way that perhaps might have been too polished if the role went to a more experienced actor.
With “Night of the Kings,” Lacôte has creatively crafted a story within a story, but is not a perfect film since some of the editing choices could have been better. As Roman tells his tale of power struggle in the world of Zama King, the MACA prison is undergoing its own conflicts over power. Roman learns how to express himself as an individual and how the power of storytelling can bring people together. Regardless of how the movie turns out, viewers are left with the feeling Roman has a new appreciation for freedom of personal expression, and this knowledge will stay with him, whether he’s kept behind prison walls or not.
Neon released “Night of the Kings” in select U.S. cinemas on February 26, 2021, and on VOD on March 5, 2021.