Review: ‘Ride the Eagle,’ starring Jake Johnson, D’Arcy Carden, J.K. Simmons and Susan Sarandon

August 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jake Johnson in “Ride the Eagle” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“Ride the Eagle”

Directed by Trent O’Donnell

Culture Representation: Taking place in California’s Yosemite area and briefly in Los Angeles, the comedy/drama “Ride the Eagle” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Latino and one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bachelor in his 40s travels to his estranged late mother’s remote house in the Yosemite forest, which he will inherit on the condition that he complete a set of tasks that she has left for him at the house.

Culture Audience: “Ride the Eagle” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching low-budget movies that skillfully blend adult-oriented comedy with heartfelt sentiment.

Susan Sarandon in “Ride the Eagle” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“Ride the Eagle” presents a charming mix of sweet drama and salty comedy in this story that covers the gamut of reconnecting with the past, appreciating the present, and moving forward from regrets in the future. It’s the type of independent film that proves that you don’t need a big budget or a large cast to have an impactful and entertaining movie. Thanks to admirable acting and the movie’s unfussy tone, a variety of viewers will find it easy to connect with “Ride the Eagle.”

“Ride the Eagle” is the feature-film directorial debut of Trent O’Donnell, whose background has mainly been in directing episodes of comedy TV series, including the 2011-2018 sitcom “New Girl.” O’Donnell co-wrote the “Ride the Eagle” screenplay with “New Girl” co-star Jake Johnson, and they are two of the movie’s producers. Having worked together on “New Girl” seems to have greatly benefited how O’Donnell and Johnson wrote the screenplay, which has a naturalistic flow that doesn’t feel like it was “written by committee.”

In “Ride the Eagle,” Johnson portrays Leif Reinhold, a Los Angeles bachelor musician in his 40s who gets some unexpected news in the beginning of the story. His mother’s longtime friend Missy (played by Cleo King) has shown up at his place to tell him that Leif’s estranged mother Suzanne “Honey” Reinhold (played by Susan Sarandon) has died of cancer. Honey abandoned Leif when he was a child, in order to live a free-spirited hippie lifestyle, and he hasn’t been in contact with her for years.

It’s never revealed in the story who raised Leif (his father is not mentioned), but what’s abundantly clear is that Leif considers his mother to be essentially a stranger. When he gets the news of her death, he doesn’t feel happy or sad. He says several times in the movie that he doesn’t feel much of anything at all about his mother being dead. Leif doesn’t seem to have any other relatives, since no family member except his mother is mentioned in the movie.

Missy has also gone to Leif’s home to tell him that Honey left her cabin-styled house in the remote Yosemite forest for Leif to inherit. There’s only one condition: Leif has to complete a set of tasks that Honey left for him on a list at the house. If he doesn’t complete the tasks, then the house will be sold and the proceeds will go to the charity of Honey’s choice.

Leif doesn’t feel emotionally attached to the house, but he’s intrigued enough to go there to see what the tasks are. His current living situation is also less-than-ideal. He’s been living in a makeshift guest house in his band manager’s backyard. Leif is a loner, and his closest companion is his black Labrador Retriever named Nora.

Before he can go on this trip, Leif has to ask permission from his erratic manager Gorka (played by Luis Fernandez-Gil) to take a day or two off from band rehearsals. There’s a somewhat funny segment where Gorka gets irritated that Leif has woken him up to have this conversation. Leif tells Gorka why he’s taking the trip, Gorka gives Leif the go-ahead, and Gorka assures Leif that he will tell the rest of the band why Leif will be unavailable for the next few days.

Viewers might wonder why Leif (who is a percussionist) doesn’t tell the band himself. But there are hints throughout the movie that Leif is the type of person who doesn’t communicate well if it means he can avoid uncomfortable conversations. Leif’s band members are not seen or heard in the movie, but it’s revealed in he story that Leif is 20 years older than the rest of the people in the band.

With Nora as his travel companion, Leif heads north to Yosemite to check out the house that he might inherit. When he gets inside, he starts looking in the kitchen cabinets and finds them filled with jars of marijuana and other plant-based drugs. Leif doesn’t look too surprised. His mother Honey was a painter, and there are several of her paintings hanging on the house’s walls.

Not long after he arrives at the house, the phone rings. The caller on the other line is a man who angrily asks Leif who he is but the caller won’t identify himself. Leif can barely say anything before the caller starts cussing out Leif and ends the phone call with this threat: “I’m coming for you, fuck boy!”

Leif is taken aback but not too rattled, because he thinks that the caller is probably one of his mother’s weird friends. The caller is later revealed to be someone named Carl (played by J.K. Simmons), who ends up stalking Leif. In the house’s living room, Leif finds folders containing the “to do” lists detailing the tasks that he has to complete. Next to these folders is a VHS tape containing messages to Leif from his mother, who wanted him to see these messages after she died.

The rest of the movie shows Leif going through the list of tasks and having some unexpected experiences along the way. One of the tasks is to take a kayak boat ride by himself, row across the lake, “feel the energy of the water,” and talk about his feelings about Honey’s death. Leif follows the instructions and says aloud: “I feel nothing. Sorry, but we didn’t know each other well enough.”

Another task is to go over to a nearby house while no one is there and leave a note in the back bedroom, and then exit immediately. No one seems to be home in the unlocked house, and Leif still feels uncomfortable being an intruder. He can’t resist the urge to read the note, which says: “Hey, dipshit. I owe you nothing, you rat fuck!”

Just as Leif is about to leave, something fairly predictable happens: He sees a man in a yellow puffer jacket (presumably someone who lives in the house) pass by in a nearby room. Leif manages to escape without getting caught, but viewers see that this mystery man has observed Leif running away from the house. It’s later revealed who this house resident is.

Another instruction for Leif is to contact any ex-love whom he thinks was “the one who got away” and make an apology to that person. Leif doesn’t think he’s ever had a “love of his life,” but the closest person who fits that description is an ex-girlfriend named Audrey (played by D’Arcy Carden), whom he dated for three years back in the early 2000s. Their phone conversation is funny and awkward.

At first, Audrey pretends that she doesn’t remember Leif, but then she lets him know that she’s just joking. It just so happens that Audrey is single too, having recently broken up with someone. And you know what that means: Audrey and Leif aren’t going to have just one phone conversation. However, she’s an eight-hour drive away, so there’s a long-distance issue if they have any type of reunion in person.

Some other things happen in the story (Nora goes missing, the angry caller comes looking for Leif), but there’s not a lot of contrived clutter. Slowly but surely, viewers see that Honey’s pre-recorded video messages and her instructions start to have an effect on Leif. The emotions he closed off from himself about his mother’s abandonment and why he and his mother never reconnected are feelings that he can no longer push aside or ignore during this experience.

All of the principal cast members bring memorable qualities to their roles. Sarandon and Simmons do versions of characters they’ve done on screen many times before (aging hippie for her, hot-tempered grouch for him), but they play these types so well that it looks very natural on screen. Carden’s Audrey character is sarcastically funny and emotionally intelligent in a way that a lot of female love interests are in indie dramedies like is one.

However, Johnson is front and center for the entire story, which wouldn’t work as well without his ability to have relatable humanity in his acting. “Ride the Eagle” succeeds not just because of the screenwriting and directing, but also because of Johnson’s appealing performance as a middle-aged man who has to deal with his wounded inner child. Leif is not an annoying man-child character that’s often found in comedic films because he’s mature enough to understand that people can cut themselves off from family members but can’t really escape from how those family members might have affected them.

Decal released “Ride the Eagle” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 30, 2021.

Review: ‘American Fighter,’ starring George Kosturos, Tommy Flanagan and Sean Patrick Flanery

July 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tommy Flanagan and George Kosturos in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter”

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1981, primarily in California and briefly in Iran, the dramatic film “American Fighter” features a predominanlty white cast of characters (with some Middle Eastern and African American people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A college wrestler, who has immigrated to California from Iran, gets involved in underground fighting to raise enough money to bring his ailing mother to the United States. 

Culture Audience: “American Fighter” will appeal primarily to people who like watching predictable fight movies.

George Kosturos and Sean Patrick Flanery in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter” uses every possible movie cliché about an “underdog” fighter who has to beat the odds and surpass people’s low expectations to reach a certain goal. There’s nothing creative or imaginative about this film. The only angle that makes “American Fighter” different from similar movies is that the protagonist is an Iranian immigrant in the United States. However, the fight scenes and the protagonist’s quest for a big payoff achievement is as formulaic and stereotypical as can be, regardless of the protagonist’s ethnicity.

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino, “American Fighter” takes place in 1981, when Iran was in political upheaval and numerous Iranians fled the country to seek asylum elsewhere. One family of refugees is the Jahani family: patriarch Farhad Jahani (played by Tony Panterra), his wife Goli Jahani (played by Salome Azizi) and their son Ali (played by George Kosturos, also known as George Thomas), who is about 18 or 19 years old. Ali has already been sent to the United States ahead of his parents, who plan to join Ali later. In the meantime, Ali is a college student who lives on campus when he’s not living with his uncle Hafez Tabad (played by Ali Afshar), who is Goli’s brother.

“American Fighter” is the sequel to the 2017 sports drama “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” with both movies starring Kosturos and produced by Ali Afshar, who plays Ali Jahani’s uncle Hafez in both movies. “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” which also had Ali Jahani as the protagonist, is based on Ali Afshar’s real-life experiences as an Iranian immigrant who was on his California high school’s wrestling team. “American Fighter” continues Ali Jahani’s story as a college student.

In the beginning of “American Fighter,” Ali is shown as a first-year student at the fictional North East Cal University in California. He’s on the school’s male wrestling team (called the Bulldogs), and he’s one of the more talented people on the team. However, Ali isn’t living up to his wrestler potential. And he experiences xenophobia and racism from people who are part of the team.

The Bulldogs’ Coach Jenkins (played by Kevin Porter) tells Ali, “I don’t want another foreign scholarship on my roster. You want to stay? You’ve got to show me something.” Meanwhile, in every movie about a student athlete involved in team sports, there always seems to be a jealous rival on the same team. In Ali’s case, it’s a bully named Chet Mueller (played by Vince Hill-Bedford), who frequently hurls racist insults at Ali during the team’s practice sessions. You can almost do a countdown to the inevitable fist fight that Chet and Ali will have.

When the day comes for Ali’s parents to travel to America, tragedy strikes. Before the plane takes off, a group of Iranian terrorists invade the plane where Ali’s parents are and take some hostages, including Ali’s parents. Ali’s father Farhad is shot and killed, while Ali’s mother Goli has gone missing. And making matters more stressful, Goli is sick with an unnamed ailment. She needs life-saving surgery and treatment, which is one of the main reasons why Ali’s parents wanted to immigrate to the United States.

Ali and his uncle Hafez are devastated by the news that Farhad is dead and Goli is missing. Ali and Hafez go to the local chapter of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services and are told that there’s nothing this government agency can do for them because it doesn’t get involved in terrorist kidnappings. However, Ali and Hafez find out about a mysterious Iranian operative named Mr. V (played by Parviz Sayyad), who lives nearby and who can give them “private” help.

Ali and Hafez meet with Mr. V, who tells them that Goli is probably being held hostage somewhere in Iran, but Mr. V’s team can find her and bring her to the United States, for a fee of $30,000. Hafez only has $5,000, while Ali sells many of his possessions (including his family jewelry and his car) and comes up with $9,000. Of course, that’s still not enough to pay the fee, and time is running out for Goli to get her life-saving surgery.

Ali’s best friend at school is Ryan Calder (played by Bryan Craig), who is on the same wrestling team. Ali confides in Ryan about his family and money problems. One night, Ryan takes Ali to an underground fight club, where Ali is shocked to see what’s going on. Ryan tells Ali that in the past, he sometimes participated in these underground fights to make extra money. Ryan stopped doing underground fights because he’s on the wrestling team and doesn’t want to risk getting expelled from the team.

Ryan introduces Ali to a Scottish man named McClellan (played by Tommy Flanagan), the tough and greedy chief of the fight club. McClellan’s right-hand man is Benjamin Duke (played by Sean Patrick Flanery), who goes by the name Duke and who mainly gives medical assistance to the fight club participants. Duke is a former boxing champ who’s now down on his luck and has a tragedy in his past because of his alcoholism. In other words, in a stereotypical movie like this one, he’s going to end up training Ali to be an underground fighter.

During Ali’s first visit to the fight club, he has such culture shock that he ends up saying the wrong things. He asks McClellan about the possibility of participating in the fights: “So, you just pay us to beat each other up? Is that even legal?” Just as Ali is about to be thrown out for an insulting dimwit, a thug assaults Ali, and they start brawling. Ali capably defends himself, and McClellan is so impressed with Ali’s fighting skills that he invites Ali to participate in the fight club.

Ryan warns Ali not to do it, but Ali is desperate for money, and he eagerly accepts McClellan’s invitation. Ali easily wins his first fight, of course. And the money he gets motivates him to continue participating in the fight club, with increasingly dangerous risks. Not everything goes smoothly for Ali, because a movie like this has to have a “major obstacle” that he has to overcome before the movie’s climactic scene.

Meanwhile, Ali ends up having a romance with a sorority member named Heidi (played by Allison Page), who made the first move on Ali by inviting him to a party thrown by her sorority. It should come as no surprise that Chet seems interested in Heidi, but she rejects Chet’s advances and makes it clear that she wants to be with Ali. And so, it’s another reason for racist Chet to hate Ali.

Ali doesn’t tell Heidi about his family problems or about being involved in an underground fight club. Ali and Heidi’s romance is presented in this movie as very chaste. They go to a skating rink on their first date. And although Heidi and Ali eventually kiss, there’s no sex in the movie. Ali is depicted as someone who’s very shy and inexperienced when it comes to dating, while Heidi is the confident, extroverted partner in the relationship.

“American Fighter” director Piccinino co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Brian Rudnick and Carl Morris. The entire movie borrows from many other movies about teenage athletes who are underestimated, who train for a “long shot” dream, and the training is supposed to teach them about life. The fight scenes have some level of suspense, but they look overly staged and aren’t that exciting, compared to other movies about underground fight clubs.

Ali’s refugee immigrant experiences are used as a gimmicky plot device rather than being organic to his character. The closest that the movie shows to Ali sharing his connection to Iranian culture with Heidi is when he brings Iranian food to a picnic date with Heidi. The movie tries to make it look like Ali and Heidi are falling in love, but their conversations are very superficial.

That’s because this movie is really about the fight scenes, which aren’t very special. Ali’s mother Goli is shown occasionally while she’s being held captive in a room, to remind people why Ali is going through with these risky fights. Ali finds a way to get a letter to her, which is supposed to be the movie’s first big tearjerking moment, but the way it’s written is very hokey and melodramatic.

“American Fighter” makes some effort to be an authentic period movie that takes place in 1981. At an on-campus party, someone is shown breakdancing. And the movie’s soundtrack includes Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.” Ali and Hafez also anxiously follow the media’s news about what’s going on in Iran. However, these touches of realism aren’t enough to overcome the overall medicority of the film’s writing, directing and acting.

Kosturos does his best to show some emotional range, but it’s diluted by the hackneyed dialogue that he has to say in the movie. Flanagan and Flanery have played many characters involved in illegal activities, so they’re doing nothing new in this movie, while Craig’s Ryan character and Paige’s Heidi character are utterly generic. The appeal of underground fighting is how edgy and unpredictable it’s supposed to be, but there’s nothing edgy or unpredictable about “American Fighter.”

Lionsgate released “American Fighter” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 21, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on May 25, 2021.

Review: ‘The Sparks Brothers,’ starring Ron Mael and Russell Mael

July 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Anna Webber / Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers”

Directed by Edgar Wright

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Sparks Brothers” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American) discussing the career and influence of the American experimental rock/pop duo Sparks, including Sparks members Russell Mael and Ron Mael.

Culture Clash: The highs and lows of Sparks’ career included the Mael brothers’ sibling rivalry; relocating to England during a pivotal time in the duo’s career; parting ways with filmmaker Tim Burton on a movie musical that was supposed to be a big comeback for Sparks; and dealing with the fickle nature of the music business.

Culture Audience: Aside from die-hard fans of Sparks, “The Sparks Brothers” will appeal mostly to people who are nostalgic or curious about influential pop/rock musicians who never became superstars.

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Jake Polonsky/Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary director Edgar Wright makes it abundantly clear that he’s a massive fan of the pop/rock duo Sparks, so this film is more of a tribute than a well-rounded biography. At 140 minutes long, “The Sparks Brothers” can be an endurance test for people who aren’t die-hard Sparks enthusiasts. And since the documentary only interviews people who are either fans of Sparks or have worked with Sparks, the non-stop praise for Sparks can be a bit repetitive. However, the documentary is a fascinating look at the longevity of Sparks and the brotherly dynamics of Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael.

“The Sparks Brothers,” whose exclusive interview footage was filmed in black and white, is a documentary that makes some attempt to not completely follow the typical film biography format of mixing archival footage with new footage that was filmed exclusively for the documentary. Sparks is known as an experimental and offbeat act that never hit superstar mainstream status. And so, there are moments in the film that are nods to the quirky image of Sparks.

For example, director Wright can sometimes be heard talking to the Mael brothers off-camera in a cheeky manner to make a joke or set up a sight gag. When he asks the Ron and Russell why they decided to do an authorized documentary at this time in their lives, older brother Ron says, “We didn’t want to do a standard documentary full of talking heads.” Russell adds, “It would become too dry.” And then two buckets of water are thrown on the brothers.

It’s a facetious moment, because this documentary is actually full of talking heads—so much so that numerous people’s comments about Sparks take up at least 40% of the movie. Some of the best moments of the documentary, which tells the Sparks story in chronological order, is near the beginning, when it reveals photos and details about the early years of Ron and Russell being musicians.

Ron (who was born in 1945 in Santa Monica, California) and Russell Mael (who was born in 1948 in Culver City, California) are the only children of Meyer and Miriam Mael. Meyer was a commercial painter, graphic designer and caricaturist, who tragically died when Ron was 11 and Russell was 8. Miriam was a librarian. Ron and Russell were raised primarily in Pacific Palisades (an affluent suburb of Los Angeles), and the brothers performed in talent shows when they were school children.

Ron says that these talent shows were the first experiences that he and Russell had in getting a taste of the “addicting” thrill of affecting an audience. People unfamiliar with the Mael brothers’ teen years might be surprised to find out from this documentary that Russell (who’s known for his thin physique) was the quarterback of his high school football team. Russell says that he got the same adrenaline rush from playing in football games that he later got when he performed on stage as an entertainer. The Mael brothers say that the 1955 dramatic film “Blackboard Jungle” was a huge influence on them as children.

Ron and Russell attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where they started to play in rock bands that never really went anywhere beyond the local music scene. Two of those bands were Moonbaker Abbey and the Urban Renewal Projects. The Mael brothers say they first started getting serious about music when they began working with Earle Mankey, a founding member of Halfnelson, the band whose name was later changed to Sparks. Sparks’ 1971 eponymous debut album was originally titled “Halfnelson.” Mankey is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

At UCLA, Ron and Russell both studied film, which would influence the types of music videos that they made and their tendency to sometimes reinvent themselves with various images and costumes. But throughout their career, one image of the band remained true and constant: Russell as the extroverted lead singer (who was also a heartthrob in Sparks’ heyday) and Ron as the introverted keyboardist/songwriter/producer.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Ron had private struggles with being overshadowed by Russell, even though Ron was the one creating the band’s songs. It’s a common situation with musical duos and groups, because the lead singer is usually the one who gets most of the attention. But adding in sibling rivalry makes it a more emotionally complicated issue. Someone can stop working with a sibling, but that sibling will still be a family member.

Russell describes the early years of developing his stage persona as trying to emulate Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger and The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. “I was off by a few thousand miles,” he quips. The Mael brothers say other musical influences on Sparks were French New Wave bands. Given the brothers’ background in studying film, it’s not surprising that French New Wave in music and film had an effect on them, because there’s a very European style to the Mael brothers’ art.

Becoming a superstar act was never Sparks’ goal, but this documentary makes it clear that Ron and Russell Mael have wanted enough commercial success to be famous and to be wealthy enough to able to self-fund their projects in case no companies or investors were interested. There’s no question that Sparks has a very devoted fan base, but this documentary wants to bestow “legendary” status on Sparks. It’s a description that gives the movie a very fan-worship tone that exaggerates how far Sparks’ influence really went, compared to other non-mainstream arists who influenced a wider variety of people.

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary gives a comprehensive overview of the Sparks album discography, up until 2020, when the movie was completed. There’s a mention at the end of the film about the 2021 movie musical “Annette” (directed by Leos Carax), which features original music by Sparks, as well as the Mael brothers in supporting roles as actors. “Annette” (which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) is set for release by Amazon Studios in August 2021, thereby making it the second movie of 2021 (after “The Sparks Brothers”) to feature Ron and Russell Mael. “The Sparks Brothers” world premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and the world premiere of “Annette” is at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival,

“Annette” is the culmination of years of the Mael brothers’ dream to do a movie musical. “The Sparks Brothers” documentary includes their version of what happened when they parted ways with director Tim Burton on a movie musical called “Mai, the Psychic Girl,” based on the 1985-1986 manga series written by Kazuya Kudō and illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. The Mael brothers worked on the movie during a time (the late 1980s to early 1990s) when the duo’s career was in a slump, and they say they needed a hit project to keep them financially afloat.

Although the Mael brothers don’t give too many details on what led to Burton’s departure from the project, they make it clear that Burton was the one who walked away, and the Mael brothers were heartbroken over it. (According to numerous reports, Burton chose to instead work with Disney for 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and 1994’s “Ed Wood.”) The Mael brothers invested several years and most of their personal fortune into the “Mai, the Psychic Girl” movie. And once Burton was no longer involved in making the movie, all the other investors backed out. The rights to make the movie eventually went to other people, but so far, attempts to make “Mai, the Psychic Girl” into a movie have not come to fruition.

Another crossroad in Sparks’ career that’s discussed in the documentary is when the Mael brothers decided to relocate to England in 1973, after growing frustrated by their lack of commercial success in the United States. They fired their American band mates to start over in a completely new country. It was in England that Sparks began to blossom artistically and found a bigger fan base than ever before. Sparks’ popularity eventually spread all over Europe (mainly in western Europe), where Sparks had their biggest hits. The Mael Brothers moved back to the Los Angeles area in 1976.

Although Sparks has plenty of fans in other continents, Europe is where Sparks has been glorified the most. Sparks became so associated with England in the 1970s, that many fans who discovered them back then incorrectly assumed that the Mael brothers were natives of England. Sparks’ biggest string of hit songs were in the 1980s, including 1983’s “Cool Places,” from the album “In Outer Space”; 1986’s “Music You Can Dance To,” the title track of Sparks’ 1985 album; and 1989’s “Just Got Back From Heaven,” from the 1988 album “Interior Design.”

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary has plenty to say about the Mael brothers’ music, but very little to say about their personal lives, except for Russell mentioning that he was quite a playboy when he was young. The Go-Go’s co-founder/rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who’s interviewed in the documentary, says she dated Russell in the early 1980s, but their brief romance was more one-sided on her part. And in the early 1970s, Russell used to date a well-known groupie named Miss Christine, who was part of a short-lived all-female singing group called the GTO’s, whose first and only album was produced by Frank Zappa. Pamela Des Barres, a member of the GTO’s, is interviewed in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary.

There’s no mention if Ron or Russell ever married or if they have children—something they’ve refused to publicly talk about for years. However, it’s clear that even through their ups and downs, the brothers have remained close. The documentary shows that Ron and Russell have a routine of going to their favorite cafe in the Los Angeles area before going back to their home studio to work.

There’s some footage of the brothers creating music in their home studio. The documentary needed more of that type of behind-the-scenes footage and less talking heads giving Sparks testimonials. It’s fair to say that this documentary is overstuffed with people talking about Sparks and doesn’t show enough current footage of what the lives of the Mael brothers are like. The archival footage is good enough, but avid Sparks fans have probably seen a lot of it already.

A constant theme in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary is that Sparks has been very underrated in how much Sparks has influenced musicians in pop and rock music. What the movie ignores—although it’s pretty obvious when you see who’s interviewed in the documentary—is that when fans and other admirers talk about Sparks’ influence, they’re really talking about influence on mainly white people. Pop music nowadays is a lot more diverse than it was in the 20th century, so if Sparks really had as wide of an influence range as this movie claims, then there would be more diversity in the people being interviewed, not just in terms of race but also nationality and age.

With the exception of Icelandic singer Björk (who is not interviewed on camera), the people interviewed in the documentary are British and American people who were born before 1985. They include musicians such as Beck; Duran Duran co-founders John Taylor and Nick Rhodes; Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos; Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea; Todd Rundgren; Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum; Jack Antonoff; Bernard Butler; Erasure members Vince Clarke and Andy Bell; “Weird Al” Yankovic; former Visage drummer Rusty Egan; Electric Prunes singer James Lowe; former Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward; Martyn Ware, co-founder of pop groups Human League and Heaven 17; DJ Lance Rock; New Order members Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert; and former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.

Past and present Sparks associates interviewed include former Sparks drummer Tammy Glover; former Halfnelson tour manager/photographer Larry Dupont, former Halfnelson manager Mike Berns; former Halfnelson/Sparks drummer Harley Feinstein; former Sparks drummer Hilly Michaels; former Sparks manager John Hewlett; former Sparks road Richard Coble; former Sparks drummer Christi Haydon; former Sparks bassist Ian Hampton; former Sparks drummer David Kendrick; former Sparks guitarist Dean Menta; Sparks manager Sue Harris; and Sparks drummer Stevie Nistor.

And several people known for their work in movies, television or stand-up comedy weigh in with their thoughts. They include “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright; actor Mike Myers; actor Jason Schwartzman; actor/comedian Patton Oswalt; TV producers/writers/spouses Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino; actor/comedian Jake Fogelnest; actor/screenwriter Mark Gatiss; comedian April Richardson; actor/comedian Scott Aukerman; and comedian/TV host Jonathan Ross, who jokes that Ron and Russell Mael “don’t really look like a band. They look [institutionalized] people who’ve been let out for a day.”

Media people interviewed include broadcaster/columnist Katie Puck; journalist David Weigel; radio host Michael Silverblatt; and poet Josh Berman. Other admirers who have soundbites in the film are Sparks superfans Madeline Bocchiaro (president of the Sparks Fan Club), Julia Marcus, Vera Hegarty and Ben House. And behind-the-scenes music industry people interviewed include producer Tony Visconti and former Island Records A&R executive Muff Winwood.

If you’re exhausted or annoyed just by reading this list of names people interviewed for this documentary, that’s kind of like how it feels to watch this too-large number of people chiming in with their soundbites about Sparks and sometimes interrupting the flow of the movie. “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright clearly wanted to show as many people as possible who profess their adoration of Sparks, but the “less is more” approach would’ve served this movie better. And it certainly would’ve lessened the movie’s overly long run time.

“The Sparks Brothers” also has a bit of a pretentious tone in how it tries to make it look like people who aren’t fans of Sparks must have something wrong with them. Quite frankly, as talented as Ron and Russell Mael are, their music will never be a lot of people’s cup of tea. In fact, what this movie could’ve used is at least some perspective from people who are music experts but aren’t worshipful fans of Sparks and were never on the Sparks payroll. It would go a long way to explain why Sparks never caught on with a massive, worldwide audience.

Despite the overabundance of fawning over Sparks in this documentary, anyone who appreciates unique artists in music can find something to like about “The Sparks Brothers.” The movie also succeeds in presenting Ron and Russell Mael in their most candid on-camera interview spotlight. And the joy that Sparks has brought to so many people is obvious, so it’s a delight to watch in this movie.

Focus Features released “The Sparks Brothers” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘7 Days’ (2021), starring Karan Soni and Geraldine Viswanathan

June 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Geraldine Viswanathan and Karan Soni in “7 Days” (Photo by Eduardo Fierro)

“7 Days” (2021)

Directed by Roshan Sethi

Culture Representation: Taking place in Thermal, California, the romantic comedy film “7 Days” features a predominantly Indian and Indian American cast of characters (with a few white people who speak off camera) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two Indian Americans, whose parents are eager for them to find a spouse, meet on a blind date at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and find out that instead of having many things in common, they are complete opposites.

Culture Audience: “7 Days” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky romantic comedies with an “opposites attract” or COVID-19 pandemic angle, but the movie is often sluggishly paced and relies too much on stereotypes seen in many other romantic comedies.

It’s a little tiresome when American-made movies and TV programs stereotype men of Indian heritage as socially awkward, sometimes emasculated nerds. This over-used ethnic cliché is shoved in viewers’ faces to annoying levels in the romantic comedy “7 Days,” co-starring Karan Soni as a lovelorn Indian American who’s desperately looking for a wife. Geraldine Viswanathan plays his would-be love interest in the movie, but the story is told from the man’s perspective. “7 Days” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.

Directed by Roshan Sethi (who co-wrote the “7 Days” screenplay with Soni), “7 Days” is essentially a dull mumblecore movie with a COVID-19 gimmick. The movie is also Sethi’s feature-film directorial debut. And it just so happens that all of the people who appear on camera in the movie are of Indian heritage. This type of representation is rare for an American-made feature film, but it’s not enough to automatically guarantee that the movie will be great.

Unfortunately, “7 Days” has too many scenes that drag with dialogue that falls flat because of the clumsy comedic timing. Viswanathan seems to be more talented at believable facial expressions than Soni is, but there is no convincing romantic chemistry between these two actors at all. Whatever is going on between the characters that Soni and Viswanathan portray in the movie, viewers will get the impression that this isn’t a romance to root for but it’s going to be strictly a “friend zone” platonic relationship. The filmmakers want to make it look like a romance, but it’s all so phony and passionless.

The beginning of “7 Days” starts off with four real-life, middle-aged, happily married Indian couples talking about how they met, which was usually through arrangements by their families. (Soni’s parents are among the couples.) It’s an adorable introduction, but then the movie gets right to the fictional part of the story and the clichés. The next sequence is straight out of a Bollywood rom-com. Viewers find out that two unmarried young people have mothers who are scheming to find each of them a suitable spouse.

The bachelor and bachelorette are American children of Indian immigrants. The would-be couple are 31-year-old Ravi (played by Soni) and 28-year-old Rita (played by Viswanathan), who both live in California, but not in cities that are near each other. In voiceover narration, Ravi’s mother (played by Gita Reddy) and Rita’s mother (played by Zenobia Shroff) extol the attractive qualities of their respective children, as if they’re creating profiles for them on Indian matchmatching sites. (The mothers in this story do not have names.)

According to Ravi’s mother, Ravi is the youngest and her favorite of her three sons because he’s the most emotionally mature. Ravi works as a researcher at a local university. His mother describes him as kind and responsible. And he loves to cook vegetarian food.

According to Rita’s mother, Rita is a “free-spirit girl with strict moral values” whose hobbies include “caring for her future in-laws.” As for Rita’s food preferences, her mother says that Rita is a pescatarian, but she’s willing to be a vegetarian for the right family. Rita seems to be an only child, since there’s no mention of her having siblings.

In addition to having family members who play matchmaker, Ravi and Rita belong to several Indian-oriented dating sites. Ravi and Rita’s first date (a blind date) takes place in March 2020, during the first week of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns in the United States. Ravi has traveled to Thermal, California, where Rita lives. And their first uncomfortable date is a picnic in an empty reservoir. Rita and Ravi are both wearing masks, while Ravi also has on latex gloves.

Ravi is the epitome of an insecure, neurotic dork who has lived a very sheltered life. He says things that he thinks people want to hear so that they will like and accept him. And he often over-apologizes to the point that it gets irritating. In other words, he’s a typical sensitive male protagonist in a mumblecore movie.

Rita is more self-assured than Ravi, but she also has her insecurity issues. One of them is that she lives a double life. She presents herself as a straight-laced person to her parents, who don’t live near her, but she’s very different in real life. Rita is an unemployed slob whose parents are paying for her living expenses.

The conversation during Ravi and Rita’s picnic date doesn’t go very well. Ravi is nervous and sweaty. He tells a dumb joke about how he’s sweating just like he would in India. Rita seems unimpressed by Ravi. He’s also very conscious of following social distancing guidelines of staying at least six feet apart. At one point, he says to Rita with a forced laugh: “You’re so funny. We have great banter. Can you move back a few inches?”

Ravi likes to eat healthy food, and he doesn’t drink alcohol. He’s under the impression that Rita is also a teetotaler. When he brings out some lemonade in aluminum cans, Ravi is mortified to see that it’s hard lemonade.

He thinks he might have offended Rita for bringing alcoholic beverages on this date. He makes a profuse apology by saying that when he got the lemonade from the store, he didn’t look closely at the cans to see what type of lemonade it was. Rita tells him not to worry about it, but Ravi is the type of person who will worry about it.

This picnic date at the reservoir isn’t fun at all, so Rita suggests that they go back to her place. She lives in a middle-class house that looks tidy on the outside, but it’s very cluttered and unkempt on the inside. Rita is the type of person who will leave food wrappers, empty beer bottles and other garbage on tables and on the floor. It’s the first clue that Ravi and viewers have that Rita’s life, just like her house, is messy.

When they arrive at the house, Rita and Ravi both call their respective mothers to give them a summary of how the date is going so far. Even though there are no romantic sparks between Ravi and Rita, they both tell their mothers that this date has potential. Ravi is more invested because he’s traveled a long distance to meet Rita. And he’s the one who wants to get married in the near future.

Ravi doesn’t waste time in telling Rita what his life goals are: He’s soon going to buy a house, he wants to get married that year, and he wants to start a family the following year. He also plans to have three kids. Because Rita and Ravi met as a result of their mothers’ matchmaking efforts, it’s not considered too forward for Ravi to already be talking marriage on the first date. In fact, by traditional Indian custom, it’s not unusual at all.

As can happen in a very unrealistically contrived movie like “7 Days,” Ravi finds out that his rental car won’t be available until the next morning, so he won’t be able to drive back home that night. Rita recommends a hotel nearby where he can stay for the night. Ravi calls the hotel and finds out it will be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ravi doesn’t do what most people would do: Make a reservation at another hotel.

In reality (not in this movie), during the pandemic lockdown period, most hotels were still open and desperate for business. Hotels had plenty of vacancies because they experienced an enormous number of reservation cancellations during the lockdown period. But that reality is not in “7 Days,” because the entire movie is based on the contrivance of Ravi staying at Rita’s place so that the story can go exactly where you know it’s going to go.

At first, Ravi says he’s only going to stay until his rental car is ready. But the title of the movie already telegraphs how many days he’s really going to stay at Rita’s place. And in a formulaic rom-com like this one, that means he’s supposed to go through several uncomfortable moments because he and Rita are opposites.

The unrealistic plot developments continue. Ravi finds out that his rental car won’t be ready for three days, which is really the movie’s way of extending the time that Ravi has to stay at Rita’s house. And because there’s a “shelter in place” quarantine mandate in California, Ravi and Rita don’t go outside for most of the movie.

The “uptight nerd having awkward moments with the uninhibited love interest” is an angle that’s been done in many other rom-coms, and it’s played up to repetitive and ultimately tedious levels in “7 Days.” After Rita agrees to let Ravi temporarily stay at her house, he goes in the bathroom and is horrified to see a dildo on the sink. “Oh, this can’t be happening,” Ravi says to himself, as if he’s just seen a real body part.

Soon after Ravi finds out that he’s going to be staying at Rita’s place, he starts to really regret it. It’s because he overhears Rita on the phone, having raunchy sex talk with someone she calls “Daddy.” At first, Ravi thinks that Rita is talking to her father in an incestuous way. Ravi is naturally shocked and disgusted, but he made a wrong assumption.

Rita is actually talking to her older married lover who’s separated from his wife, but this married lover is vague with Rita on when he’s going to divorce is wife. He seems to be leading Rita on with an excuse that things are complicated for him in his marriage. “Daddy” never appears on camera in the movie and his real name is never revealed. He’s voiced by Mark Duplass, one of the executive producers of “7 Days,” who’s an actor/filmmaker with a lot of mumblecore movies in his filmography.

Most of Ravi and Rita’s interactions consist of more painfully unfunny banter. It isn’t long before Ravi finds out that Rita is almost everything that he doesn’t want in a woman: Rita says she never wants to get married. She drinks a lot of alcohol. And she loves junk food. There’s a scene where Rita enthusiastically eats fried chicken, even though her online profile says that she’s a pescatarian.

Ravi’s and Rita’s lifestyle differences also extend to the type of movies that they like to watch. Ravi is a big fan of Bollywood movies, but Rita doesn’t care for this type of entertainment. She’s a lot more into American culture overall than Ravi is. And she seems to be faking to her parents that she’s interested in the Indian tradition of arranged marriages, because she doesn’t want to lose her parents’ financial support.

Issues of gender roles inevitably come up, as they tend to do in rom-coms. Ravi makes an offhand remark that Rita’s voice sounds like the instructional service app Siri. Rita immediately gets defensive and says, “You mean I sound subservient.” Ravi tells Rita that he identifies as a “male feminist.” Still, Ravi is slightly alarmed and surprised that Rita doesn’t like to cook. And he ends up cooking for both of them.

Rita has this to say to Ravi about why she doesn’t see marriage in her future: “It’s just someone else to fight and disappoint and hate. It’s exhausting.” And when fidgety Ravi gets restless in the house, Rita suggests that they just sit around and do nothing. “The less you do, the less you do,” she says.

This type of boring and witless dialogue goes on for much of the movie. Predictably, Rita spikes Ravi’s drink with alcohol to loosen him up. He gets angry that she spiked his drink, but then he gets drunk and does an atrocious standup comedy routine for Rita. While under the influence of alcohol, Ravi opens up about feeling vulnerable and self-conscious that his parents are divorced.

And then, someone in this mismatched duo starts having a persistent cough and develops a fever. And you know what that means in a rom-com with a COVID-19 gimmick. This plot development isn’t handled very well in the movie. “7 Days” essentially dismisses all the deaths and tragedies that people have experienced because of this pandemic and treats this harsh reality as something that would get in the way of a cutesy rom-com plot. If anyone dies of COVID-19 in this movie, it’s a tragedy that this movie brushes off as trivial.

Even in March 2020, during the early part of the pandemic when this movie takes place, people were aware of how quickly large numbers of people were dying from COVID-19. But in this movie, Ravi and Rita are depicted as being in a self-absorbed (and irresponsible) “bubble” where they don’t care to be informed about what’s happening in the news about the pandemic. They’re more concerned about doing things like a virtual exercise workout routine using Rita’s laptop computer.

Viswanathan and Soni are very talented and have had more appealing roles elsewhere. In “7 Days,” they both play characters that just aren’t credible as a romantic couple. Ravi’s neuroses are on full display, but Rita is an underwritten and underdeveloped character. She’s supposed to be the “wacky one” in the relationship, but her personality is ultimately hollow.

Viewers never find out why Rita wants to live an aimless, unemployed life. Her hopes and dreams are never mentioned. How she was raised by her parents, her work history and her social life (other than her affair with “Daddy”) remain a mystery. By the end of the movie, viewers still won’t know much about Rita.

And when you have a romantic comedy where one of the people in the would-be couple remains an enigma, the dialogue is wretchedly monotonous, and there’s no realistic chemistry between the two main actors who are supposed to be this couple, the end result is a disappointing and off-kilter rom-com that isn’t funny or romantic.

Review: ‘Witch Hunt” (2021), starring Gideon Adlon, Elizabeth Mitchell, Abigail Cowen, Echo Campbell and Christian Carmago

March 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Witch Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Global Screen/Fearious)

“Witch Hunt” (2021) 

Directed by Elle Callahan

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional California city of Thirteen Palms, the horror film “Witch Hunt” features a predominantly white cast (with a few Latinos, Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl is conflicted over her mother illegally hiding witches in their home to prevent the witches from being arrested, deported or murdered by government officials.

Culture Audience: “Witch Hunt” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies about witches and with teenage main characters, but the movie isn’t very scary and squanders the story concept with a rushed and disjointed ending.

Gideon Adlon and Abigail Cowen in “Witch Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Global Screen/Fearious)

“Witch Hunt” has a very interesting concept that would have resulted in an outstanding horror film if it had been handled in better ways. The concept is that in the United States, witchcraft is illegal, and a teenage girl has mixed feelings about her mother being part of an underground network that hides witches who are targeted for arrests, deportations or executions. It starts out as an intriguing horror movie with timely allegories about immigrant controversies in the U.S., but then it monotonously slides into a disappointing hodgepodge of ideas ripped off from other movies. “Witch Hunt” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The performances in “Witch Hunt” are far better than the movie’s plot, which tries to be edgy with social commentary and feminist sensibilities. But “Witch Hunt” ultimately becomes a watered-down “cat and mouse” game with baffling inconsistencies, weak horror tropes and characters making nonsensical decisions. And a character in “Witch Hunt” obnoxiously reveals (without spoiler alerts) the ending of the Oscar-winning 1991 classic thriller “Thelma & Louise,” which has a surprise ending that shouldn’t be revealed to viewers who don’t know how “Thelma & Louise” ends and who haven’t asked for this spoiler information.

Written and directed by Elle Callahan, “Witch Hunt” opens with a red-haired woman in a hangman’s noose who’s being burned at the stake in front of a courthouse somewhere on the East Coast in the United States. A small crowd has gathered to watch this horrific spectacle. A man dressed in a government uniform lights the fire.

In the crowd, the woman’s daughter (who’s about 12 or 13 years old and also a redhead) cries out, “Mom!” Meanwhile, before the woman perishes in the fire, she calls out several times, “Christ!” The visual effects in this scene are somewhat cheesy, but it could be more easily forgiven if too many other scenes weren’t such a letdown.

It’s later revealed in the story that the woman who was burned at the stake was convicted of practicing witchcraft, which is a crime punishable by death in the United States. The Bureau of Witchcraft Investigations (BWI) is in charge of finding and arresting witches. Only women and girls in this story are targeted for being witches. And almost all the witches happen to have red hair. It’s a pretty big plot hole, because if most of the witches in this story have red hair, then that would make it easier for the authorities to find them.

After this scene of a witch burning at the stake, the movie then cuts to three months later in the fictional Southern California city of Thirteen Palms. (“Witch Hunt” was actually filmed in Los Angeles.) Some mean girls are harassing a student in a high-school classroom during a U.S. history class. Two of the girls throw a wadded-up note at a redhead girl named Abby (played by Sydney Wilder). When she opens the note, she sees the words “Witch Bitch” surrounded in flames. Why the animosity toward Abby?

The “mean girls” clique consists of group leader Jen (played by Lulu Antariksa), who is stuck-up and vindictive; Kelly (played by Bella Shepard), who is spoiled and conceited; and Sofie (played by Anna Grace Barlow), who is shallow and somewhat empty-headed. It turns out that Abby has caught the eye of Jen’s ex-boyfriend Paul, who broke up with Jen three months earlier. When Jen sees Paul and Abby flirting in the school hallway, Jen tells cattily tells the other mean girls that Abby is a “slut” and practically snarls, “What does he see in her?”

Another teenager who hangs out with this snooty clique but who doesn’t bully other people is Claire Goode (played by Gideon Adlon), who is a free thinker and isn’t afraid to question out loud some of the government’s policies for witches. One of the policies that’s on an upcoming voter ballot is Proposition 6. A “yes” vote for Proposition 6 is in favor of allowing the California government to deport the children of convicted witches to Mexico, where witches are legal and are given asylum. The proposition came about because many people believe that being a witch is a biologically inherited trait, not just practicing a set of beliefs.

In the United States in this movie, there’s literally a witch hunt going on and deep-seated hatred against witches. During a school break, Claire, Jen, Kelly and Sofie watch a viral news video of a witch being caught by a mob at the U.S./Mexico border. “Witch Hunt” doesn’t get too graphic with its violence (this movie is clearly aiming for an audience that includes a lot of underage teenagers), but based on what’s shown, it’s implied that the witch was probably tortured and possibly killed by the mob.

Claire seems to be conflicted about how witches are being treated in this society. On the one hand, Claire believes that witches are criminals. On the other hand, she doesn’t believe that they should be tortured and killed just because they’re witches. Based on what Claire tells her friends and her mother, she thinks that witches should be locked up or deported.

There’s a reason why Claire has mixed feelings about witches. Her widowed mother Martha (played by Elizabeth Mitchell) has been hiding witches in a secret section of their home. The witches are smuggled in large wooden crate boxes by people in an underground network that are pretending to deliver office-sized bottled water dispensers in the boxes. Claire tells her mother to stop helping witches because it’s illegal and dangerous, but Martha ignores this request.

Martha handles the intake of the smuggled witches, but Claire knows everything that’s going on and is worried that they will get caught. Martha’s ally in the underground network is a man named Jacob Gordon (played by Treva Etienne), who transports the crate boxes to and from the Goode family home. He also takes empty water dispensers from the home, to make it look like he’s collecting bottles for recycling.

Claire has identical twin brothers named Corey (played by Cameron Crovetti) and George (played by Nicholas Crovetti), who are about 8 or 9 years old. They are examples of the many underdeveloped and ultimately useless characters in the movie. The twins add almost nothing to the plot. And the “mean girls” clique also ends up not being a very important plot device for the movie.

During the course of the movie, three witches are shown as those who’ve been smuggled into the Goode family home. The first witch is Gina (played by Ashley Bell), who appears to be in her 30s. Gina speaks in a strange language and has a palm-sized blue butterfly as some kind of magical creature. It’s implied throughout the story that Claire is irritated that these smuggled witches are taking up space in the home, as well as taking up her mother’s time and energy. Gina is eventually smuggled out of the home, and her fate is shown in the movie.

After Gina leaves, two other witches are smuggled into the home: Fiona (played by Abigail Cowen) is about 17 or 18 years old and her sister Shae (played by Echo Campbell), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. Fiona and Shae are hiding because they are orphans whose mother was executed for being a witch. It should come as no surprise to viewers (and it’s not spoiler information) that Fiona and Shae’s mother was the same woman who was shown burned at the stake at the beginning of the movie.

Fiona and Shae would be directly affected by Proposition 6, which looks like it’s going to get voted into law, since the majority of the population hates witches. Claire ends up becoming friendly with Fiona, but Claire is a little creeped out by Shae. One night, Claire wakes up in the middle of the night and is startled to find Shae staring at her, as if Shae is in a trance. Fiona makes an apology on behalf of Shae and explains that Shae is a sleepwalker.

Claire’s quick friendship with Fiona isn’t adequately explained, since the movie makes a big deal of showing how Claire is prejudiced against witches, and it’s the main reason why there’s friction between Claire and her mother Martha. One minute, Claire is calling witches “criminals.” The next minute, she’s hanging out with Fiona as if they’ve been best friends forever. It’s quite an abrupt about-face that doesn’t ring true.

Of course, a movie like this has a chief villain who is fanatical in his intent to hunt down witches. His name is Detective Hawthorne (played by Christian Carmago), who’s from the BWI. He doesn’t hesitate to commit police brutality to get what he wants.

Detective Hawthorne uses some kind of magical thermal pocketwatch to detect a witch’s presence. If the watch detects low air pressure, then that means a witch was recently there or recently did witchcraft there. It’s not a very clever detective tool for this story, because witches could be smart enough to cover their tracks by manipulating the air pressure.

Unfortunately, Detective Hawthorne is written as a very one-dimensional, predictable character. There’s no suspense or backstory for him. And so, viewers just get Detective Hawthorne being a very hollow antagonist right through the inevitable showdown toward the end of the film.

“Witch Hunt” attempts to draw parallels between bigotry toward witches and real-life bigotry toward undocumented immigrants who pass through the U.S./Mexico border. The hatred of witches is shown in ways that are overtly violent. For example, Claire and other students are out in the schoolyard when they witness a witch getting shot for trying to escape from a Border Patrol detention bus that was passing by the school.

The witch hatred is so out-of-control, attempted murder is allowed to test if people are witches. There’s a scene where BWI officials are at Claire’s high school to try to kill female students who are suspected witches. They strap the girls to wheelchairs, throw them in the school swimming pool, and see if any of them can escape from the wheelchairs during a certain period of time. If any of them can escape, that’s “proof” she’s a witch.

If any of them can’t escape and might die by drowning before the wheelchairs are pulled out of the water, the attitude is, “Oh well, too bad if someone dies.” It’s another terrible plot hole, because it doesn’t take into account that parents of innocent children would be outraged by this type of violence inflicted on their children at school. And not to mention that a school would be sued for these barbaric tactics.

The bigotry against witches and suspected witches also comes out in hate-filled conversations from seemingly “pleasant” neighbors. A nosy neighbor named Cynthia (played by Deborah May) comes over to the Goode home and tells Martha that she heard that someone in their neighborhood was caught smuggling witches over the border. Martha pretends to agree with the bigotry of Cynthia, who says about the witches: “I don’t understand why the Mexicans are giving them asylum. They’re not refugees! They’re criminals!”

But for every scene that adds a touch of realism, there are two or three scenes that are dull or illogical. For example, in one scene, Kelly from the “mean girls” clique is shown trying to buy a ticket at a movie theater, but she’s barred from entry because the employee at the box office tells Kelly that her name is on a list of suspected witches. Claire sits on a bench nearby and watches as Kelly angrily denies that she’s a witch.

First of all, considering all the murderous violence against witches in this witch hunt, it’s kind of bizarre that there’s an entire scene showing that this society punishes suspected witches by not letting them go to the movies. If you think about it, witches who are persecuted in life-or-death situations are supposed to have bigger problems than not being able to go see a movie. And it doesn’t make sense that the government would go to all that trouble to ban witches from movie theaters, when there are other types of banishment that are much worse that could’ve been shown in this movie.

The scene is also illogical because even if movie theaters had a list of names of suspected witches, it doesn’t explain how people could get around that blacklist by paying cash or by using someone else’s bank card to buy tickets. Does that mean that people in this society have to show a photo ID every time they go to the movies and there’s a master list of blacklisted people that all movie theaters have? It’s never fully explained and it’s just a poorly conceived scene overall.

And in another illogical scene, Claire and Fiona sneak out and go to a bar that serves alcohol, even though there’s no explanation in the movie for why these obviously underage girls were allowed in the bar. And why would Fiona agree to this if she’s supposed to be in hiding? In this bar scene, Claire is surprised to discover that Fiona has never seen the movie “Thelma & Louise,” starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as two best friends who go on the run from the law after one of them kills a man who attempted to rape the other friend.

This is the scene in “Witch Hunt” where Claire blabs the whole plot of “Thelma & Louise,” including the surprise ending. (Viewers of “Witch Hunt” will find out later why Claire gave away all this spoiler information.) But what’s really ridiculous about this scene is that Fiona decides to do some attention-grabbing magic tricks in the bar, such as levitating liquid in a glass. Why go to a bar to do these tricks when they could’ve done all of that in a private location?

And then, the witchcraft is taken up several notches. Fiona suspends time and gets several bar stools to levitate up to the ceiling. Fiona then allows the bar stools to suddenly drop, just as she lets time to start again, while the bar patrons react in shock as they see the chairs fall from the ceiling to the ground. (These tricks are shown in the “Witch Hunt” trailer.) Claire and Fiona quickly run out of the bar, as if they just played a prank.

Of course, as gimmicky as these witch tricks are in the movie, it actually makes no sense for a witch who’s supposed to be in hiding to pull these kinds of stunts in front of people in a public place. Fiona might be a stranger to people in the bar, but Claire is more recognizable in the community. It doesn’t take long for word to spread that Claire is hanging out with a witch. And you know what that means when Detective Hawthorne finds out.

“Witch Hunt” has some scenes that are supposed to be spooky but just come across as a little bit amateurish, considering all the high-quality scares that are in plenty of other horror movies. Coincidence or not, Adlon was also in 2020’s “The Craft: Legacy,” another not-very-scary witch movie that had problems with its screenplay and direction. As the main character in “Witch Hunt,” Adlon’s acting is perfectly adequate, but Claire’s personality isn’t very memorable.

There are long stretches of “Witch Hunt” that are boring, while the last 15 minutes are rushed to cram in the climactic showdown and a last-minute explanation for something that was obvious throughout the film. And one of the worst things about “Witch Hunt” is when Martha makes a decision toward the end that’s completely contradictory to her purpose in the movie. Children might enjoy this movie more than adults who want a compelling and believable story. Ultimately, “Witch Hunt” panders to people who don’t have enough life experience to notice the big plot holes in the film.

UPDATE: Momentum Pictures will release “Witch Hunt” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘Smiley Face Killers,’ starring Ronen Rubinstein, Crispin Glover and Mia Serafino

March 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ronen Rubinstein and Mia Serafino in “Smiley Face Killers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Smiley Face Killers”

Directed by Tim Hunter 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed California city, the horror flick “Smiley Face Killers” features an all-white cast of characters, most of whom portray middle-class college students, and a few portraying vicious serial killers.

Culture Clash: A young man who’s a soccer player at his university is being stalked by serial killers in a van.

Culture Audience: “Smiley Face Killers” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching bottom-of-the-barrel horror films that are boring and use a misleading gimmick to get people’s attention.

Crispin Glover in “Smiley Face Killers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

The first thing that people should know about the horrendously dumb “Smiley Face Killers” is that this movie actually has nothing to do with the real-life Smiley Face Killers theory. It’s a theory that’s mentioned in the movie’s prologue: Since 1997, more than 150 young men across U.S. college campuses have drowned under suspicious circumstances. Because symbols of smiley faces were spray-painted at the scenes where many of the bodies were found, numerous people have come to believe that these deaths were caused by a serial killer or serial killers who use the smiley face as their signature.

One of the worst things about “Smiley Face Killers” (and there are many terrible things about this movie) is that it’s just a substandard slasher flick that has nothing to do with mysterious drownings. The people who are killed in the movie are stabbed, shot and/or bludgeoned to death in ways that have been seen before in hundreds of other horror movies. Therefore, the “Smiley Face Killers” filmmakers (including director Tim Hunter and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis) not only deliberately made this time-wasting film very misleading but they also failed to deliver anything original or suspenseful in the movie.

The movie begins with a gratuitously violent scene of a goat, pig and dog being murdered by an unknown person whom viewers can assume is the story’s main killer. The next scene takes place in Santa Cruz, California, on September 23, 2016. A young man walks to his car in an empty parking lot at night. A white van drives up next to him, he’s kidnapped, and then his dead body is shown discarded outside on some rocks near the California coast.

The next scene takes place in Santa Clarita, California, on March 14, 2017. It’s night and a young man is on a sidewalk and talking on his phone to a female friend as he walks several feet behind some of of his pals. They all look like they’re headed to a party or some other place to hang out together. And then, the same mysterious white van appears, pulls up next to the guy on the phone, and you know the rest.

Next, viewers are introduced to the movie’s protagonist Jake Graham (played by Ronen Rubinstein), an undergraduate student in his junior year at the fictional California University in an unnamed city. (Woodbury University in Burbank, California, was used for the movie’s campus scenes.) Jake is first seen doing laps in the school’s swimming pool. Does this mean that his swimming skills will come in handy at some point in the story? No.

Jake’s main sport at the school is actually soccer. Jake and his teammate/best friend Adam (played by Garrett Coffey) are two of the better players on the university’s soccer team They also like to party. After Jake finishes his swimming exercises, Jake and Adam are seen in an outdoor eating area. Adam asks Jake if he got the “E,” as in Ecstasy.

Jake says yes, but the drug dealer was “quite the weirdo,” and Jake is having second thoughts about doing Ecstasy. He tells Adam: “I don’t know how smart it is taking E on a Friday night when the next morning we have soccer practice.” Jake says he doesn’t even feel like going to the party that he and Adam planned to attend that night. Adam replies, “Come on, we’re not getting wasted. We’re just doing a little mellow E.”

Of course, Jake changes his mind and goes to the party, because every slasher movie with college-age people has to have the obligatory scene of people partying while a killer is on the loose. And then there are also the expected sex scenes. In “Smiley Face Killers,” the sex isn’t as explicit as it is in other slasher flicks, because Jake has “performance issues.” Jake goes over to the student house where his girlfriend Keren (played by Mia Serafino) lives, they go to her room to have sex, but things don’t happen the way they want.

And because of Jake’s “performance issues,” it’s here that viewers find out that he’s on the antidepressant Nardil. Jake’s mental illness is never fully explained in the movie, such as when he was diagnosed, if he has other psychiatric issues besides depression, and how it all affects his life. In the end, it doesn’t make a difference in this idiotic film, because the killer on the loose isn’t asking for people’s medical histories.

“Smiley Face Killers” wastes a lot of time with a dull storyline about problems in Jake and Keren’s relationship. Keren is upset because Jake has told her that he’s stopped taking his medication, and then he reluctantly tells her he’ll start taking his meds again. Jake is upset because he’s found out that Keren still keeps in friendly contact with her most recent ex-boyfriend Rob (played by Cody Simpson), who might want to get back together with Keren. Viewers will be upset the more time they spend watching this movie because most of it is a monotonous slog.

Throughout the movie, viewers see that the mysterious white van has been driving around campus near places where Jake is, but Jake is oblivious until one night the van starts following him while he’s on his bicycle. He’s able to lose the van, but this dimwit isn’t on alert and doesn’t do anything to protect himself. You already know that there will be another time when he’s going to see that white van again. And when he does, his reaction is one of the worst things about this annoyingly bad movie.

Jake gets other clues that he’s being stalked. He starts getting random text messages that say variations of “The water is calling you.” He immediately assumes that it’s a prank that Rob is playing on him. Rob vehemently denies it when Jake accuses him. That leads to Rob and Jake having a predictable argument.

Jake starts to wonder if someone really is out to get him. Keren thinks that Jake’s mental health is deteriorating because he might or might not be telling the truth about taking his medication. While all of this is going on, Adam still expects Jake to party as if they don’t have a care in the world.

Jake shares a house with a 30-year-old grad student named Devon Holmes (played by Daniel Colvin). One day, Jake comes home and finds a strange map in his bedroom. The map has smiley faces drawn up and down the coast of California. Jake assumes the map belongs to Devon, and he’s slightly annoyed that his housemate would leave this map in his room. And not long after that, the murder spree happens on and near the college campus.

It’s not a spoiler (since it’s in the movie’s title) to say that there’s more than one killer involved. It’s obvious from the first 10 minutes that the killers are the same people who are in that white van. Crispin Glover portrays the mute and unnamed leader of this murderous team. This creepy killer is the one who’s most likely to step out of the van and slaughter someone. The only spoilers for this type of mindless movie would be to reveal who dies and who doesn’t.

“Smiley Face Killers” is one of those horror flicks filled with people who are good-looking in a way that’s unrealistic of what most real California college students would look like. It’s the type of movie where there’s no diversity, and all the college students with speaking roles look like physically attractive actors instead of real college students. And the people in these student roles seem to have been chosen more for their looks than their acting skills, because the acting in the movie is unbelievably bad.

It’s also one of those movies that embodies everything that people ridicule in repellently awful horror flicks. Everything is extremely predictable, the violence is mind-numbing, and the people who are being chased in the movie make very dumb decisions. “Smiley Face Killers” is an example of a reprehensible movie that tries to cash in on real-life tragedies. But even in this ripoff movie, the filmmakers couldn’t even get the details right of what happened in the real deaths that are believed to be part of the Smiley Face Killers theory. The only mystery about the film is why the producers wasted their money to get this worthless junk made.

Lionsgate released “Smiley Face Killers” on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on December 8, 2020.

Review: ‘The Ride’ (2020), starring Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Shane Graham and Sasha Alexander

February 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Shane Graham and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges in “The Ride” (Photo courtesy of WSO Film Group/Roadside Attractions)

“The Ride” (2020) 

Directed by Alex Ranarivelo

Culture Representation: Taking place in Northern California and other parts of the U.S., the dramatic film “The Ride” (which is based on a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A juvenile delinquent, who was taught to be a white supremacist, is fostered and then adopted by an interracial couple, and he learns that he has a talent for BMX racing.

Culture Audience: “The Ride” will appeal primarily to people interested in real-life stories of redemption, even if it’s told in a very predictable and formulaic way.

Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Sasha Alexander in “The Ride” (Photo courtesy of WSO Film Group/Roadside Attractions)

“The Ride” is a biographical dramatic film that sticks to a certain formula that movies tend to have when they’re about people who’ve been able to overcome a troubled past to achieve some greatness. Based on the true story of professional BMX rider John Buultjens (formerly known as John McCord), “The Ride” takes a while to get to the heart of the story, it soars when it shows John’s transformation, and then it becomes a conventional sports competition by the end of the film. Despite having a lot of expected tropes, the cast members’ performances are appealing enough to make this movie worth checking out if people are looking for an inspirational and uplifting story.

Directed by Alex Ranarivelo, “The Ride” begins in Northern California, where most of the story takes place. John McCord (played by Alexander Davis) is only 9 years old, but he’s already living like an adult hoodlum. He and his friends have been recruited by a local white supremacist gang to commit crimes. The opening scene shows John and three other boys beating up a hospital security guard (played by Dorian Lockett) and stealing bottles of pills. But that’s not enough for these delinquents. They also brand the guard, who is African American.

John is caught and put in a juvenile detention center, where he kicks his cellmate Jose (played by Mario Gianni Herrera) just because Jose is Latino. And then, in a classroom at the detention center, three African American boys find out that John has a swastika tattooed on his neck, so the boys attack John. These scenes obviously show that a lot of John’s problems have to do with his racist beliefs.

Why did he turn out this way? John’s two older brothers Rory McCord (played by Richard Davis as a 14-year-old and Blake Sheldon as an adult) and Ewan McCord (played by the real-life John Buultjens) are both in the white supremacist gang which has become their surrogate family. John has an absentee father, while John’s mother Maggie McCord (played by Christina Moore) is a drug addict who’s been in and out of prison.

Maggie considers John to be a nuisance and refuses his pleas to let him live with her when he gets out of juvenile detention. While John is incarcerated, Maggie ends up dying from a drug-induced heart attack, essentially leaving John and his brothers as orphans. Seven years after being imprisoned, John (played by Shane Graham) is finally let out when he’s 16 years old, but he’s a very emotionally damaged person.

As a ward of the state, John is put in the foster care system. And the foster home he’s sent to live in is a nightmare for a white supremacist: Eldridge Buultjens (played by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Marianna Buultjens (played by Sasha Alexander) are an interracial married couple. Eldridge is African American, and Marianna is white. They’ve had no luck in trying to start a biological family, so they’ve decided to try foster parenting instead.

When John is taken to Eldridge and Marianna’s upper-middle-class home for the first time, he immediately assumes that Eldridge must be a rapper or athlete to be able to afford this house. John is surprised to learn that Eldridge, who’s originally from Kentucky, has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Eldridge and Marianna met when they were grad students at the University of California at Berkeley. She has a master’s degree in linguistics.

Marianna and Eldridge know about John’s upbringing as a white supremacist, but they wanted to foster him anyway. When John asks them why they chose him, Eldridge says that Marianna felt that their family wouldn’t feel complete without a child. Of course, John’s bigoted beliefs cause problems in his difficulty adjusting to his new home.

There are the expected scenes of him being rude and uncooperative. And he constantly spouts racist assumptions. For example, during his first dinner with Eldridge and Marianna in their home, John assumes that he’s going to be served collard greens, which is a traditional African American meal.

John is enrolled in El Dorado High School shortly after the school year has begun. But he’s a misfit in the school, where cliques have already been formed. On his first day of school, John sees some BMX riders outside who are fellow students. One of them makes fun of John because of the shoes that John is wearing.

After school lets out for the day, the bully and his friends find the wheels removed from their BMX bikes that were parked outside. John is immediately accused of this vandalism. Police go to the Buultjens house to question John, but no arrest is made because there’s no proof of who committed the crime.

However, Eldridge is no fool, and he lectures John by telling him that he won’t tolerate any criminal activities. Eldridge also makes it clear that John has been given a chance to turn his life around, and John better not ruin it. John asks Eldridge again why he was chosen to be in this foster family: “Why me? Why not a good kid?” Eldridge replies, “Everybody deserves a second chance.”

It isn’t long before John discovers something about Eldridge that explains why Eldridge didn’t mind taking in a troubled kid with a criminal background. Slowly but surely, John warms up to his new family. When Eldridge finds out that John might be interested in BMX bike riding, Eldridge not only teaches John how to ride a bike but he also buys John a BMX bike.

The rest of the story goes how most people would expect it to go. As John begins to become better-adjusted in school and his BMX talent begins to blossom, he eventually starts to enter competitions. It’s not smooth sailing, since he gets rejected more than once, but he’s persistent in pursuing his goals. John’s racist older brothers find out that John is living with interracial foster parents, so they come back into his life and cause trouble.

“The Ride” director Ranarivelo co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Hadeel Reda, J.R. Reher and Jean-Marie Sobeck. “The Ride” is a fairly solid film, but ironically, the BMX competition scenes that are supposed to be the most exciting are actually not as interesting as they should be. Maybe that’s because there are obvious stunt doubles which detract from these BMX scenes trying to look realistic. The best parts of the movie undoubtedly have to do with John’s expected redemption arc.

Bridges’ performance as Eldridge is at times a little stiff, but he and Alexander are convincing overall as caring foster parents, while Graham turns in a capable performance as teenage John. “The Ride” isn’t an award-worthy movie, but it efficiently serves its purpose for being a positive and life-affirming story that people of many generations can enjoy.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “The Ride” on November 13, 2020.

Review: ‘If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story,’ starring Juan Martinez, Jennifer Willmott, Maria De La Rosa, Rachel Blaney, Robert Geffner, Chris Hughes and Sky Hughes

February 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jodi Arias mugshot in “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” (Photo courtesy of Discovery+)

“If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story”

Directed by Christopher Holt

Culture Representation: The documentary “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” features a group of white people and some Latino people discussing the case of Jodi Arias, the California woman who was convicted of the 2008 murder of her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander in Arizona.

Culture Clash: Some people interviewed in the documentary say that justice was served with the murder conviction, while others say that the conviction was unfair because they believe Arias’ claims that she acted in self-defense.

Culture Audience: “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in notorious true crime cases.

Jodi Arias and Travis Alexander in “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” (Photo courtesy of Discovery+)

The Jodi Arias case has gotten so much publicity that most people who followed the story already know what the outcome was. On June 4, 2008, she killed her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander by stabbing him 27 times and shooting him at his home in Mesa, Arizona. Arias claimed it was self-defense, but she was convicted of first-degree murder in 2013. In 2015, she was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The documentary “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” (directed by Christopher Holt) doesn’t reveal anything new, but it does a very good job of presenting both sides of this tragic story.

The documentary includes interviews with some of Alexander’s friends and members of law enforcement who wholeheartedly believe that Arias is guilty. Representing the other side in the documentary are members of Arias’ defense team and an unidentified female relative, who wholeheartedly believe that Arias is not guilty because they think that Arias acted in self-defense. The documentary seems mostly objective in trying to present a balanced view of both sides.

The people interviewed in the documentary are:

  • Christopher Black, who knew Arias in high school
  • Rachel Blaney, a police detective in California’s Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office who interviewed Arias and investigated the case
  • Jeff Jensen, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints elder who knew Alexander and Arias
  • Maria De La Rosa, a defense mitigation specialist who is on Arias’ side
  • Professor Robert Geffner, a psychologist for the defense
  • Tom Fichera, Arias’ former boss at Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur, California
  • Chris Hughes and Sky Hughes, a former husband and wife who were friends of Alexander
  • Juan Martinez, the former Maricopa County, Arizona prosecutor who was the lead attorney in the state’s case against Arias.
  • Taylor Searle, one of Alexander’s friends
  • Richard Van Galder Jr., a homicide sergeant in Arizona’s Mesa Police Department
  • Jennifer Willmott, who is Arias’ defense attorney
  • An unidentified female relative of Arias who wanted to remain anonymous

The movie includes excerpts from Arias’ diaries that are read by an actress in voiceovers. There are also re-enactments for some of the scenes that involve Arias driving from California to Arizona on the day that she committed the crime, as well as re-enactments of of Arias and Alexander’s relationship in happier times. These re-enactments are a little tacky. The voiceover readings would have been sufficient.

A diary excerpt that’s read in the beginning and end of the documentary is: “Five things I’m grateful for: (1) babies; (2) pizza; (3) the shape of my body; (4) my hair; (5) Travis Alexander.” Considering what Arias is convicted of doing to Alexander, these words are haunting.

The movie goes pretty deep into the background and psychology of Arias. Viewers can make up their own minds if she’s an evil sociopath or a victim of a long history of abusive relationships. One thing is clear: She and Alexander had a relationship that was doomed to fail because of her obsessiveness and his unwillingness to give her the commitment that she wanted.

Born in Salinas, California, on July 9, 1980, Arias is the daughter of William “Bill” Angelo Arias (a former restaurateur) and Sandy Arias. Jodi has an older half-sister, two younger brothers and a younger sister. According to the documentary, her life was relatively stable until the family moved in 1995 to the smaller city of Yreka, California, so that Sandy could be closer to her relatives and because Bill was having some health problems.

In Yreka, Jodi was a misfit who was often bullied by other kids in high school, according to her former classmate Black. He describes Yreka High School as a “diverse” school when it came to race, but most of the students knew each other for years, so Jodi’s status as a newcomer automatically made her an outsider. Excerpts from her diaries reveal that she became addicted to smoking marijuana during her unhappy years in Yreka. She also had a troubled relationship with her parents, especially with her father. (Her family supported her before, during and after the trial.)

While she was in high school, Jodi began dating a man named Bobby Juarez, who was a few years older than Jodi. Juarez lived in a trailer and is described in the documentary as a strange recluse and very domineering. Jodi eventually dropped out of high school and worked as a waitress to support herself and Juarez, who was chronically unemployed. They broke up because he reportedly cheated on her often.

Jodi then moved to Big Sur, California, and got a fresh start working in hospitality at the Ventana Inn & Spa. Her former boss Fichera remembers her has a pleasant and down-to-earth employee. She was also romantically involved with a co-worker named Darryl Brewer, a much-older man who was a divorced dad. According to Fichera, that relationship didn’t last because Jodi wanted to get married and start a family with Brewer, but he did not.

Her next serious romance was with Alexander, who was born in Riverside, California, on July 28, 1977. He was a rising star as a salesperson/motivational speaker for Pre-Paid Legal Services (PPL). Jodi met Alexander in September 2006, at a PPL convention in Las Vegas. In November 2006, Jodi converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon religion, which was Alexander’s religion. Jodi and Alexander officially began dating in February 2007, but their relationship was tumultuous with multiple breakups and reunions.

Because she lived in Palm Desert, California, and he lived in Mesa, Arizona, for most of their relationship, they would often meet and stay at the home of Chris and Sky Hughes, who lived somewhere in the middle, in Murrieta, California. In 2007, Jodi moved to Mesa to be with Alexander, but that arrangement didn’t last. Alexander’s friends warned Alexander that Jodi wasn’t good for him, but he couldn’t make a complete break from her.

Chris and Sky Hughes, who were married during the time they knew Alexander, say that they saw signs early on that Jodi was too possessive in her relationship with Alexander. Sky says that she often caught Jodi spying on Alexander. Jodi would do things such as snoop in his phone without permission or eavesdrop on his conversations.

The documentary doesn’t go too much into Alexander’s background, except to reiterate what has already been reported. His friends describe him as a fun-loving, outgoing guy who was very flirtatious with women. The documentary doesn’t mention how he and his seven siblings were raised by his paternal grandparents, starting when he was 11, because his parents (who are now deceased) had drug problems.

As has been reported elsewhere, Alexander had two sides to him: He presented himself as a strict Mormon to some people and claimed that he was saving his virginity until he got married. But the reality was his other side: He definitely like to party, and he wasn’t a virgin.

He and Jodi took sexually explicit photos of each other. These photos surfaced after his death, and she detailed their sexual relationship in her diaries. Ultimately, Jodi and Alexander were incompatible because he was interested in dating other women, and she wanted a monogamous commitment from him that would lead to marriage.

Even though Alexander told people in 2008 that his on-again/off-again relationship with Jodi was over, and he was dating someone else, he was still secretly seeing Jodi on the side for sex. By all accounts, she thought that she still had a chance to get back into a serious relationship with him, but he saw things differently. Prosecutors say that the motives for the murder were jealousy and revenge.

On the day that Jodi killed Alexander in his home, they had sex. She took explicit nude photos of herself and Alexander. And she took photos of him during and after the murder. She left the camera in the washing machine, thinking that water would destroy the photo evidence. But through computer forensics, investigators were able to recover the damning photos from the memory card.

Even though Jodi’s supporters vigorously defend her, they can’t erase the fact that she lost credibility when she changed her story more than once. First, she denied having anything to do with the crime. Then, when the photo evidence was found, she claimed that she and Alexander were victims of a home invasion by unknown intruders. And then, her last excuse (which was used in the trial) was that she killed Alexander out of self-defense because he was allegedly abusive to her.

Jodi’s arrest, interrogations by police and highlights from the trial are all covered in the documentary. Police detective Blaney remembers that Jodi came across as emotionally aloof when Blaney interrogated Jodi before the arrest: “It was hard to find Jodi’s soft spot.” The documentary does not portray Alexander as a saintly, since it mentions evidence brought up in the trial that he sent derogatory messages to Jodi when they were having problems in their relationship.

Jodi’s supporters in the documentary try to victim-blame Alexander, by saying that any mean-spirited text and email messages that he sent to Jodi somehow constitute enough reason for her to kill him in-self-defense. Defense psychologist Geffner says that Alexander was “leading a double life” and that “there was emotional and verbal abuse during the entire relationship” between Jodi and Alexander. Defense attorney Willmott comments that there was “formidable power and jealousy and cruelty from Travis.” De La Rosa goes as far to say that Jodi didn’t get a fair trial because of sexism and misogyny toward Jodi. Because Jodi was sexually active, “that made people hate her,” says De La Rosa.

What these defenders didn’t mention but the documentary does bring up is that Jodi admitted in her court testimony that there was no proof that Alexander physically abused her. The defense’s legal representatives also sidestep the issue of why Jodi changed her story so many times and tried to cover up the fact that she killed Alexander. And the defense psychologist doesn’t state that the excessive number of stab wounds and choosing an additional way to kill by shooting the victim are indications of overkill rage that go beyond self-defense.

In the documentary, Alexander’s friend Searle becomes so overcome with emotion that at a certain point in the interview, he couldn’t speak. He comments on this tragic murder: “There’s nothing in the world that can make sense of what happened.” Chris Hughes and Sky Hughes, who wrote a 2015 tribute book about Alexander called “Our Friend Travis: The Travis Alexander Story,” also express sadness over the tragedy of his death. However, police interview footage shows that shortly after Alexander was found brutally murdered, Chris and Sky were oddly laughing and grinning in the interview room when they said that Jodi probably committed the murder.

The documentary mentions that former prosecutor Martinez, who was fired and disbarred in 2020, has had his reputation ruined because he was accused of sexually harassing several women in situations unrelated to the Jodi Arias case. He was also accused of having a consensual but unethical sexual relationship with a female blogger who covered the Jodi Arias case and leaking information about the case to the blogger.

Martinez believes that his tainted legacy won’t change the facts and the outcome of the Jodi Arias trial. He says he got “no joy” in his victory in the Jodi Arias case. “I see myself as a conduit of the truth,” Martinez adds. Jodi’s attorney Willmott says that she is hoping that Jodi will get a new trial. But that is extremely unlikely, considering that Jodi’s own testimony at the trial had a lot to do with her conviction and why she was sentenced to life without parole.

Discovery+ premiered “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” on February 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Rebuilding Paradise,’ starring Michelle John, Steve ‘Woody’ Culleton, Carly Ingersoll and Matt Gates

August 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Rebuilding Paradise” (Photo by Noah Berger)

“Rebuilding Paradise”  

Directed by Ron Howard

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the documentary “Rebuilding Paradise” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A devastating wildfire nearly destroys the California city of Paradise, and the people affected have to fight to rebuild their lives while dealing with bureaucracy from the government and from the energy company Pacific, Gas & Electric, which was largely blamed for causing the fire.

Culture Audience: “Rebuilding Paradise” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in stories about how people recover from disasters.

Mauny Roethler in “Rebuilding Paradise” (Photo by Pete Muller/National Geographic)

What do you do when most of your city has burned down in a devastating fire? The documentary “Rebuilding Paradise” shows how people of the city of Paradise, California, had to cope with this trauma, after Paradise was nearly destroyed by wildfire that began on November 8, 2018. The wildfire (called the Camp Fire) killed 85 people, displaced 50,000 residents in Paradise and surrounding cities, and destroyed 95% of local structures—making it the worst fire disaster in California history.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard directed “Rebuilding Paradise” to show what happened in Paradise in the year after the disaster occurred. The documentary is filmed in a very conventional cinéma vérité style that fortunately is not cluttered with commentaries from people outside of the Paradise community. Howard respectfully lets the survivors express their feelings and open up about what they are going through, without trying to exploit them or manipulate any outcomes.

The movie begins with raw video footage taken of people trying to escape the fires, which literally surrounded several areas of Paradise. It’s harrowing to watch people’s fear and anxiety and to see the blazing infernos that they had to get through in order to survive. Phone services (land lines and mobile phones) weren’t working. And it was dangerous to breath the noxious, smoke-filled air.

Some people who took videos while they were in their cars didn’t know if they would make it out alive. Many people just barely made it out with just the clothes on their backs, while others who weren’t so lucky were trapped and lost their lives. “Rebuilding Paradise” doesn’t have any gruesome footage of people getting physically hurt or dying, but it gives viewers some idea of how terrifying the ordeal was for the people who experienced it.

What caused this disaster? Faulty and outdated equipment (specifically, an electric transmission line) from Pacific, Gas & Electric (PG&E), the main energy company in California, has been named as the main culprit. The Paradise area had also experienced a five-year drought. And on the day of the fires, winds reached about 40 miles per hour. And climate change/global warming made the area’s environment extremely vulnerable to wildfires.

“It really was the perfect storm,” says the Paradise Police Department’s John Singler in the documentary. Paradise Police Department’s Sean Norman adds, “It didn’t matter if we had a thousand fire engines on the ridge that day, this [disaster] was going to happen.”

“Firefighters are living climate change. It’s staring them at them in the face every day,” comments Singler. And because of climate change, these kinds of major fire disasters will become more prevalent, according to former Paradise Fire Department chief Ken Pimlott, who says in the documentary that there’s a rising trend of fires “lasting longer and becoming more extreme.”

At the time that the fire disaster happened in November 2018, the city of Paradise had a population of 26,800, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In December 2018, residents were allowed back into the city, after it was deemed safe enough. However, most people who lived in Paradise at the time the disaster happened didn’t want to go back and rebuild their homes. By April 2019, the city’s population had dropped more than 92%, to a little more than 2,000 residents, according to data released by the office of California Governor Gavin Newsom.

The mass exodus had a domino effect on the amount of money and resources that the city of Paradise could expect to get from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other government agencies. And it caused a vicious cycle: With a much smaller population, the city would get a lot less money and resources, which would make it more difficult and take longer to significantly recover from the disaster. And without a significant recovery, the city wouldn’t be attractive enough for people to want to live there.

For example, there was a real health danger to living in Paradise after the disaster. Even after the cleanup, the documentary notes that toxic chemicals (especially benzene) from the wildfires still permeated the city’s water supply. People were warned not to drink the city’s tap water. And not even taking showers or baths was considered safe, since many of the chemicals in the tap water have been known to cause cancer.

Carly Ingersoll, a Paradise school psychologist who says she nearly died during the fires, comments in the documentary about how her determination to stay in Paradise has come with a big personal cost: She had been planning to start a family, but was told by her doctor that she shouldn’t have a child as long as she is doing things such as taking showers and baths with Paradise’s tap water.

Ingersoll gets emotional when she also says that she thought that going back to Paradise after the fires would get easier over time, but it’s gotten harder. And because her job is to counsel students who also survived the wildfire disaster, “It’s kind of hard not to get triggered,” she says of reliving the trauma.

Another big problem was Paradise’s devastated school system. The wildfires destroyed eight of the nine schools in Paradise, so the Paradise school district had to scramble to find temporary places to have classes, including shopping malls in nearby cities and donated spaces. It’s an uncomfortable and disruptive way of learning that most parents understandably did not want their children to experience, if these parents were lucky enough to have options.

Teenage students’ perspectives in the documentary are primarily shown through schoolmates Brandon Burke and Zach Boston, who were seniors in high school at the time of the disaster. They are shown going back to the burned-down areas where their houses used to be and expressing wistfulness that Paradise might never be the same again. And on a more immediate level, they also worry that they wont be able to have their graduation ceremony at Paradise High School’s Om Wraith Field, due to government concerns that the field might have dangerous levels of post-wildfire toxins.

Michelle John, who was Paradise’s school superintendent at the time, had the monumental task of leading a team that needed to get Paradise’s education system back on track. The documentary includes a lot of footage of the frustrating bureaucracy, complications and stresses she had to deal with rebuild Paradise’s school system. It’s clear from the footage included in the movie that she has a true passion for education, and is an empathetic leader who can gets results through teamwork

She also has a very even temper, considering all the difficulties she encountered not just on the job but also in her personal life as a disaster survivor. The emotional support that she gets is primarily from her devoted husband Phil, a retired military veteran who says that the fire disaster gave him another type of PTSD. At one point, Phil reminds a stressed-out Michelle that she needs to eat and that whatever problems they have to deal with, their health should come first.

Like most of Paradise’s residents, Michelle and Phil lost their home, so the documentary shows them temporarily staying with Michelle’s cousin Roni Masuda and Roni’s husband. The two cousins had been somewhat estranged until the fire disaster brought them back together again. Michelle also leans on her family when she experiences another tragedy.

The documentary also prominently features Paradise Police Department officer Matt Gates, as he patrols the area and helps residents try to get their lives back on track. One month after the disaster, Gates is shown as one of the chief organizers for a much-needed community event for the December holidays. Matt and his wife Tenille, with their movie-star looks and their two adorable young sons, look like they have an ideal family.

However, Tenille says that Matt working very long hours after this disaster (working about 14 hours a day) has put a major strain on their marriage. She says she wishes he could be present for his own family as much has he is for other people. The documentary shows whether or not their marriage survived.

Steve “Woody” Culleton, who was 74 when the fires struck Paradise, is the most colorful character in the documentary. He says when he first moved to Paradise since 1981, he had a very band drinking problem. But he sobered up in 1984, and years later, he became the mayor of Paradise. “I went from being the town drunk to the town mayor,” he quips.

His love of Paradise is so strong that he was determined to rebuild his home and continue to live there, no matter what. A feisty raconteur, Culleton, says that at this point in his life, he doesn’t care what anybody thinks of him for wanting to rebuild in a city that could be in danger of another fire disaster. He likens it to people who still want to live on the beach Miami, even though it’s a direct target for hurricanes.

Culleton’s experience and wisdom as a former mayor of Paradise is also shown as being helpful when he attends city council meetings and town halls and gives advice to obviously less experienced and less knowledgeable city officials. Jody Jones, who was Paradise’s mayor when this documentary was filmed, is briefly shown in one of these meetings, but she’s not interviewed for the documentary.

Other city officials shown in the documentary include the town council’s Mike Zuccolillo and Melissa Schuster. Also shown briefly in the documentary are California state assemblyman John Gallagher, who represents the city of Paradise; Butte Country district attorney Mike Ramsey; Butte County sheriff Kory Honea; Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of Butte County Fire Safe Council.

The documentary also shows how two young couples and their children were living after the wildfires destroyed their homes and they had no where else to stay. Marcus Nelson and Krystle Young escaped the fires with their three young daughters, with only a few clothes as their possessions. They ended up at a Red Cross shelter in the nearby city of Chico, and the family eventually moved into a FEMA trailer. Kayla Cox and Justin Cox (who have three daughters) also lost their home and ended up renting a small trailer that Justin (who works as a school custodian) said cost more than it cost to rent the house they used to have.

Nelson says what some of the survivors also express in the documentary: No one really knows what it’s like to experience this type of devastation unless they’ve been through it themselves. Nelson comments, “Is was so sad and hurt for the people of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina [in 2005], but it doesn’t really hit you until it affects and hits you in your own backyard.” (Later in the documentary, some Paradise students are shown raising money for victims of the Alabama tornados in 2019.)

Both couples say that wildfire disaster has caused a lot of stress in their marriages. Kayla Cox was born and raised in Paradise, and almost all of her relatives live there, so she says that there is no way she is moving out of Paradise. Meanwhile, her husband Justin says he’s “done with California,” although later it’s shown that he and and Kayla are still together when they move into their new home in Paradise. Young says that she and Nelson broke up “many times” since the wildfire disaster, but they decided to get back together for the sake of their kids. Time will tell if these couples’ relationships will last.

The documentary also includes coverage of PG&E’s legal responsibility and being held accountable for the wildfires that devastated Paradise. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich and attorney Joe Earley are shown leading a town hall meeting with residents to advise them on how to fight for their rights in dealing with PG&E. And the documentary includes a tension-filled town hall where PG&E representative Aaron Johnson faces an angry crowd with canned apologies. (The outcome of Paradise residents’ class-action lawsuit has been widely reported, but won’t be mentioned in this review in case it’s spoiler information for some viewers.)

A scientific point of view about fire prevention is offered by pyrogeographer Zeke Lunder, who says that fires are inevitable, but “we cant vegetation-manage our way out of the problem.” Lunder and fire and fuels field technician  Danny Davis are shown in the documentary setting little fires to a wooded area in Paradise to demonstrate potential weak spots and strong spots in the area, based on the post-disaster terrain.

The word “resilience” is a word that comes up quite a bit in the documentary when survivors talk about what it takes to get through the disaster that they experienced. However, “Rebuilding Paradise” also serves as a warning that what happened to this city in California would not have been as devastating if it had not been for corporate negligence and denial over how the world’s climate is changing. (In the documentary’s end credits, it’s mentioned that “emissions resulting from making this movie were balanced by investments in projects that benefit wildlife, air quality, water and local economies.”)

At the end of the documentary, there’s a connection made between the Paradise wildfires and other devastating environmental disasters that happened during the year that the documentary was made. It’s up to viewers to decide how much these disasters could have been different if people had treated the environment better and what all of that means for any future environmental catastrophes.

National Geographic Documentary Films released “Rebuilding Paradise” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 31, 2020. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is September 22, 2020. National Geographic will premiere the movie on November 8, 2020.

Review: ‘We Are the Radical Monarchs,’ starring Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest

July 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “We Are the Radical Monarchs” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“We Are the Radical Monarchs”

Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the documentary film “We Are the Radical Monarchs” features a racially diverse group (African American, Asian and Latino) of parents, women and girls who are involved in the Radical Monarchs, a social-justice group for girls of color that was formed in Oakland as an alternative to the Girl Scouts.

Culture Clash: The Radical Monarchs are taught politically progressive ideals, but the group gets criticism from conservatives who think the group is inappropriate for children or exclusionary of white people.

Culture Audience: “We Are the Radical Monarchs” will appeal primarily to politically liberal people or people who believe in social-justice groups.

A scene from “We Are the Radical Monarchs” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

How young is too young for kids to learn about social-justice activism? That’s up to children’s parents or legal guardians, but the documentary “We Are the Radical Monarchs” shows how two unapologetically liberal-minded women in the San Francisco Bay Area decided to form a social-activist group for girls called the Radical Monarchs, as an alternative to the non-political Girl Scouts.

Directed in cinéma vérité style by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, “We Are the Radical Monarchs” (which was filmed from 2015 to 2017) obviously won’t appeal to everyone politically, but at the very least it shows how the members of the Radical Monarchs are being taught to express their rights to free speech in their quest to make the world a more open-minded and tolerant place. The girls in the documentary are bright, inquisitive and respectful of each other and of adults.

The Radical Monarchs launched in December 2014, in Oakland, California, when co-founder Anayvette Martinez, a single mother, saw that her then-10-year-old daughter Lupita was part of a Girl Scout troop that treated issues related to people of color as secondary or not as important as other issues. As Martinez says in the documentary, “I wanted her to have a troop that centered her as a girl of color.”

Martinez (who was a community organizer at the time) joined forces with like-minded Marilyn Hollinquest to co-found the Radical Monarchs specifically for girls of color and as a way to teach them to be involved in social-justice issues. They decided to affiliate the Radical Monarchs with Black Lives Matter, after being inspired by the August 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown (an 18-year-old unarmed African American) by white police officer Darren Wilson.

The documentary shows Martinez and Hollinquest leading the Radical Monarchs’ first troop (with girls ranging in ages from 8 to 11) in discussions about race, gender identity, LGBTQ issues, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, peaceful protests, immigration, affordable housing, civil rights and fighting against discrimination. The Radical Monarchs often have guest speakers (who are usually activists) at their meetings. Transgender women and people with disabilities are among those shown in the documentary as guest speakers.

And just like the Girl Scouts, the Radical Monarchs get badges. But the Radical Monarchs badges are for achievements in political activism and social justice, rather than specific careers or non-political hobbies. (Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza is shown attending a few Radical Monarchs events as a show of support, such as when she hands out merit badges.) And even though the Radical Monarchs are not old enough to vote, the girls are very politically involved, since the documentary shows them doing things such as attending protests and marches (including the 2017 Women’s March in San Francisco); speaking at city council meetings; and visiting with politicians in California’s state capital of Sacramento.

Hollinquest (who has a background as a development director dealing with laborer rights) explains the need for the Radical Monarchs to exist: “Youth get underestimated a lot [for] how much they see, hear and know. And because of the adults around them being uncomfortable talking about topics, then things don’t get talked about. So, for us, the Radical Monarchs is the safe place where they can come. We are trained, and we can talk about these issues in a comfortable way.”

Martinez and Hollinquest met while they were in graduate school at San Francisco State University. Both women say in the documentary that they identify as “queer” (Martinez and Hollinquest are just friends, not a couple) and outspoken feminists. In addition, Hollinquest and Martinez say that they are teaching their Radical Monarch members to have progressive views, but they also encourage the girls to always ask questions about what they are taught and what they see around them.

The documentary shows that self-acceptance, inclusion and standing up for others who are being discriminated against are values that are constantly being taught to the girls. There are question-and-answer sessions where the girls are allowed to ask anything they want. And they are encouraged to support each other like sisters. For example, when one of the girls breaks down and cries when remembering how she was bullied in school because of her skin color, the other Radical Monarchs rally around to hug her and comfort her.

And the girls are taught to look carefully at the media to understand that who controls a media outlet has a lot to do with how that media outlet shapes stories and puts out certain images. For example, in a session called Radical Fashion, members of the Radical Monarchs are shown two different female-oriented magazines—InStyle and Ms.—and asked to point out the differences in how women and girls are portrayed in each magazine. Not surprisingly, the girls say that they think Ms. portrays the female gender more realistically and has smarter articles. The girls are then told that Ms. magazine was founded and is owned by women, while InStyle is not.

“We Are the Radical Monarchs” thankfully doesn’t get distracted with bogging down the documentary with “expert” political commentary from people who have nothing to do with the organization. Instead, the filmmakers let the interview commentary come directly from people who are involved with the Radical Monarchs, as members, leaders or parents. For example, when the Radical Monarchs visit the California State Capitol Building in Sacramento, the film shows highlights of the visit as the girls interact with the politicians there (such as state senator Holly Mitchell), rather than pivot to overstuffing the documentary with separate interviews with the politicians.

One of the Radical Monarch girls named De’yani, who’s interviewed in the documentary, comments on being the only African American girl in her Girl Scouts troop. By contrast, in the Radical Monarchs, she says, “You get to learn cool stuff about social justice and race, compared to talking about selling cookies and money and stuff.”

Indeliso Carillo, a mother of one of the Radical Monarch girls, comments: “So many of our kids feel invisible. And this is a place for them to not feel invisible and to really develop into believing that they have a place here and a voice that needs to be heard.” Laticia Erving, another mother of a Radical Monarch, adds: “Radical Monarchs gives her a sisterhood of young girls who look like her. Their focus is making a change in the world.”

The documentary also addresses the criticism, ridicule and hate that the Radical Monarchs get from people who think the group is damaging to children. Archival clips from Fox News are included as expressing some of this criticism, which usually argues that the girls are being “brainwashed” and that the Radical Monarchs are a “racist” group.

Although the Radical Monarchs leaders do not say explicitly say that white girls are not allowed to join the group, the larger question that the documentary filmmakers should have asked is, “How many white girls have wanted to join the Radical Monarchs?” Because if the answer is “none,” then there’s no racist discrimination. But if white girls wanted to join but were turned away (and the documentary did not present any evidence that this has happened), then that would definitely be racial discrimination.

It also speaks to another big question: “How many white parents would feel comfortable letting their child join a group where a white person would be in the racial minority and the group discusses uncomfortable topics such as racism against people of color?” The Radical Monarchs leaders say that their members already know what it’s like to live every day in a country where they are a racial minority and treated like a second-class citizen just because of their race. And that’s why the group was created in the first place: so that their members can be in a group where being a non-white person isn’t a “minority” stigma.

Rene Quinonez, a father of one of the Radical Monarchs, comments on the current reality of living in the United States: “White folks set the standards of beauty … education … everything in our community. That’s a huge injustice. When we create a space for these young women, it’s not excluding everyone. It’s about recognizing the injustice of these women not having this space [in the overall U.S. population].”

One of the most emotionally moving scenes in the documentary is when the Radical Monarchs visit with former Black Panther Party member Cheryl Dawson, who tells them what it was like to fight for civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the girls asks Dawson if police brutality has gotten better or worse since the days when she was a Black Panther. Her chilling response: “It’s gotten worse.”

Several of the adults in the documentary (including Dawson and Radical Monarchs co-founders Martinez and Hollinquest) say that they wish that they had a group like the Radical Monarchs when they were kids. It’s mentioned many times in the film that one of the biggest issues facing the group leaders is how to expand their program, since they are constantly being asked if they will start Radical Monarchs chapters in cities outside of the San Francisco Bay Area.

As with many start-up nonprofits, fundraising and not having enough money are major issues. And the documentary shows how grass-roots the Radical Monarchs organization was in its first few years: The group didn’t have an official office and instead worked out of Martinez’s home. However, the Radical Monarchs did get a lot of media coverage almost from the beginning of their launch. That exposure was crucial in helping their name recognition and building on that success.

The documentary also gives a personal background on Martinez and Hollinquest, who say that even though they share the same political ideals (and coincidentally, the same birthday), they have very different upbringings and personalities.

Martinez, who says she’s the more extroverted co-founder, grew up in San Francisco as the daughter of Central American immigrants. Her mother was a feminist and her “biggest advocate” who encouraged Martinez to get a college education, while Martinez’s conservative father expected her to have a more old-fashioned lifestyle. Martinez says she was the first openly queer female editor-in-chief of the California-based college student newspaper La Gente, and she got a lot of death threats because of it.

Hollinquest, who says she’s more introverted than Martinez, grew up in a strict Pentecostal household in the rural city of Tulare, California. Her parents were so conservative that Hollinquest says that she wasn’t allowed to wear trousers when she was a child. And she was also taught that women had to be submissive to men. Needless to say, her coming out as queer must have been a shock to her family, although Hollinquest doesn’t go into details over what that experience was like for her. She’s obviously in a place of self-acceptance now, and is spreading that self-acceptance message to girls who might not get that support in their own homes or at school.

A great deal of the documentary shows how Martinez and Hollinquest launched Troop 2 for the Radical Monarchs while still leading Troop 1 and while still working in their day jobs. It’s as exhausting as it sounds. Fortunately, they had plenty of volunteers who eventually came on board to lead Troop 2. The documentary includes footage of Martinez and Hollinquest having meetings planning their goals for the Radical Monarchs’ growth and expansion.

Some of the girls (including Martinez’s daughter Lupita) helped evaluate potential leaders of Troop 2 and gave their feedback on which ones they thought were the best. Lupita is one of the most articulate and poised girls in the group, but there are no signs that she let her mother’s Radical Monarchs position of power go to her head. And when Lupita tells an emotional story about how she and her mother were evicted from their home after the landlord raised the rent to an amount they could no longer afford, it isn’t with a self-pitying attitude but with a take-charge positive attitude that the experience fuels their fire to fight for affordable housing for people who are less fortunate.

“We Are the Radical Monarchs” doesn’t try to hide that it’s heavily biased toward liberal causes and the Democratic Party. (The documentary includes the expected reactions to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.) But putting party politics aside, this documentary is a fascinating look at how girls are speaking out and taking action for human-rights issues that matter deeply to them. And it wouldn’t be surprising if some Radical Monarchs alumni get elected to political office someday.

PBS premiered “We Are the Radical Monarchs” as part of the “POV” series on July 20, 2020.