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 forgiven a lot easier 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, 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 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.

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.

Review: ‘Spaceship Earth,’ starring John Allen, Marie Harding, Kathelin Gray, Mark Nelson, Linda Leigh, Tony Burgess and Sally Silverstone

May 8, 2020

by Carla Hay

Biosphere 2 dwellers in “Spaceship Earth.” Pictured from left to right: Jane Poynter, Linda Leigh, Mark Van Thillo, Taber MacCallum, Roy Walford (in front), Abigail Alling, Sally Silverstone and Bernd Zabel posing inside (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Spaceship Earth”

Directed by Matt Wolf

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Arizona and California, the documentary “Spaceship Earth” has an all-white cast of people who are interviewed about their involvement in the environmental experiment Biosphere 2, where eight people lived in a giant sealed dome from 1991 to 1993.

Culture Clash: The Biosphere 2 principals and participants were accused of being cult members and frauds by several legitimate members of the scientific community.

Culture Audience: “Spaceship Earth” will appeal mostly to viewers who have an interest in documentaries about eccentric people or futuristic ideas about how to sustain Earth’s environment.

Biosphere 2 in “Spaceship Earth” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

The documentary “Spaceship Earth” isn’t actually about a ship in outer space. It’s about a well-publicized, non-scientific experiment where eight people volunteered to live in an elaborate, sealed bio-dome called Biosphere 2 covering 2.5 acres in Tucson, Arizona, from 1991 to 1993. The idea was that Biosphere 2 could be a prototype for humans to have colonies in outer space. This bio-dome was called Biosphere 2 because the group considered Earth to be Biosphere 1. Although this documentary (directed by Matt Wolf) is certainly fascinating, it raises some questions that aren’t really answered in the film.

The first half of this two-hour movie is an extensive history of the group of eccentrics (who were hippies in the 1960s) that launched Biosphere 2 with the help of Texas billionaire Ed Bass. The group’s leader is John Allen (also known as Johnny Dolphin), a former member of the U.S. Army and a graduate of Harvard Business School. Allen was much older than the mostly young people in their late teens to 20s whom he recruited to join an experimental performing arts group in the late 1960s and early 1970s in San Francisco. The group would call itself the Theater of All Possibilities and would perform around the world.

Allen and several of the group members are interviewed in the documentary, including Marie Harding, also known as Flash, who would become Allen’s wife and chief financial administrator; Kathelin Gray, also known as Salty; William Dempster, also known as Freddy; and Mark Nelson, also known as Horse Shit. They all “dropped out” of their conventional lives to live in a commune and follow the leadership of Allen. All of this sounds like a cult, but the group members deny that they are a cult.

Unfortunately, the “Spaceship Earth” documentary doesn’t interview anyone with a more objective perspective of what this group was about, since everyone interviewed in the movie has been in the group for years or benefited financially from the Biodome 2 spectacle when it launched in the early 1990s. The only real voice of skepticism in the documentary is archival 1990s TV footage of an interview given by whistleblower David Stumpf, a former Biosphere 2 scientist, who said that Biosphere 2 was a scientific fraud and that it was just “trendy ecological entertainment.”

By 1969, the group was fed up with the commercialism of the San Francisco hippie scene and moved to New Mexico to live at a place called Synergia Ranch. It was at this ranch, where the commune members grew their own food and had a self-contained sustainable lifestyle, that Allen started to delve more into the idea of building an enclosed biosphere environment where humans could live. They funded their lifestyle by starting different businesses and doing performances.

The Synergia Ranch group was inspired by several books, including Buckminster Fuller’s “Spaceship Earth,” the Whole Earth catalog and the works of William S. Burroughs. Even though the Theater of All Possibilities group lived a counterculture, hippie lifestyle, Gray says that the group “didn’t take drugs, which would kind of blow it.” It’s very hard to believe that statement, considering much of the group’s performances (shown in archival footage) look a lot like people whacked-out on psychedelics drugs.

Whether they used drugs or not, this group certainly had an unusual mindset that worshipped Allen. Nelson was a native of Brooklyn, New York, who had drifted from job to job before joining the group at the Synergia Ranch in 1969. Nelson says in the documentary that he was a taxi driver, a proofreader, a court reporter and a social worker before leaving New York for the alternative lifestyle offered by Allen and the group. “I really was looking for something different,” Nelson says.

Nelson, Gray and other members of the group talk about Allen being a brilliant visionary, with the word “genius” used quite a bit to describe him. Nelson says Allen is like “a father figure” to him and that Allen is “charismatic,” “tempestuous” and a “genius.” Gray gushes, “I met geniuses before, but no one like John Allen.” Gray hints that she was in love with Allen too, but is purposely vague in saying how intimate she got with him.

Allen’s wife Harding, who said she was never the marrying kind, explains why she agreed to marry him: “It wasn’t for the normal married life type of thing. We were married to make a project.” In other words, their relationship is more of a business arrangement than a traditional marriage.

By 1974, the group members relocated back to California, this time to Berkeley, with the ambition to build a giant Noah’s Ark-inspired ocean ship in nearby Oakland. They succeeded in that goal, and named the ship the Heraclitus. They sailed around the world in the ship and used their construction skills to get jobs by helping construct various buildings.

The group’s adventures in the Heraclitus planted the idea of building a sealed colony that could possibly be used in outer space. In the documentary, many of the group members talk about wanting to “make history” and being at the forefront of futuristic living. One of the key members of the group was Margaret Augustine (also known as Firefly), who started out in the group as a 19-year-old neophyte with no construction work experience and ended up as a chief architect of many of the group’s projects.

It was in the 1970s that the group found an enthusiastic supporter in billionaire Bass, who wanted the group to go to different areas and improve the land. Bass (who is not interviewed in the documentary) is described as someone who was a rebel from a conservative family and is obsessed as the group is about futuristic living. Gray comments about Bass, “He really liked the sense of exploration and adventure.”

Having a wealthy benefactor gave the group more clout, and they began hosting conferences with international intellectuals and “forward thinkers.” Allen is quick to take credit for these conferences being among the first to introduce to the public the concepts of global warming and climate change.

Phil Hawes, a sustainable architect who frequently spoke at these conferences, is credited by the group for coming up with the idea of an adobe spaceship that could be a colony for humans in outer space. Another big influence on the Biosphere project was the 1972 movie “Silent Running,” starring Bruce Dern as a scientist who makes a greenhouse in a space station after all plant life on Earth has been destroyed.

The documentary gets a lot more interesting in the second half, which details the construction, launch and controversy of Biosphere 2. For the massive undertaking of Biosphere 2, which was largely funded by Bass, several scientific consultants were used, including those from the University of Arizona, the Smithsonian Marine Systems Lab and the New York Botanical Garden.

Augustine was Biosphere 2’s chief executive officer, while Harding was the chief financial officer. Harding says that it took most of the ’80s to build Biosphere 2, and it cost $200 million back then. Tony Burgess, a desert ecologist, was recruited to design Biosphere 2’s desert. About 3,800 species of plant and animal life were brought into the dome. The idea was that Biosphere 2 would be completely sustainable on its own, with nothing from the outside to assist for the two years that the people would stay in the dome.

And then by 1990, there was the massive search to find volunteers who were willing to live in Biosphere 2 and not come out for two years. Allen said that he wanted to select “free thinkers,” not followers. There’s archival footage of the auditions, which basically look like Allen telling people to do weird performance antics and exercises. The dwellers could still communicate with the outside world by telephone and videoconferencing, but Allen would be the one to decide who could talk to the dwellers and vice versa. That kind of extreme control by one person doesn’t exactly sound like an atmosphere conducive to “free thinking.”

In the end, eight people were chosen to be the Biosphere 2 dwellers: Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Abigail Alling, Bernd Zabe, Linda Leigh, Mark Van Thillo, Roy Walford and Sally Silverstone. MacCallum and Poynter were a couple, and so were Zabe and Alling. The documentary doesn’t mention if any of the Biosphere 2 dwellers had children.

Although all the Biodome 2 dwellers worked together in communal duties to maintain the space while living there, most of them had a particular specialty. Poynter was in charge of the agriculture and animals. MacCallum did a lot testing of the atmosphere and soil. Alling was the resident marine biologist. Zabe was the repairman. Walford, the oldest member (he was in his early 60s at the time), was the physician. Silverstone was the main cook, and she says in the documentary that only natural ingredients were used in the Biosphere 2 food.

Leigh remembers what she thought of being part of this select group of Biosphere 2 dwellers: “This is a great, bright group of people that are really into what they’re doing … They’re wacky, and I fit right in.” Silverstone says, “I loved science-fiction movies where people were all living under glass domes.” In other words, Biosphere 2 was a dream come true for her. Silverstone later says in the documentary that after the two-year isolation period was over, she didn’t want to leave Biosphere 2 and that she would’ve lived there as long as she could if she were allowed to do it.

The day that the eight Biosphere 2 dwellers entered the dome was met with great fanfare and media attention from all over the world. The documentary has interviews with two of the people who were part of the publicity campaign: Kathy Dyhr, who was Biosphere 2’s public relations director, and public-relations strategist Larry Winokur, who was brought on board because, as Dyhr says in the documentary, she didn’t really know what she was doing and they needed someone with more professional PR experience.

The fact that all of the people chosen to live in Biosphere 2 were white and from Western countries (most from the United States, a few from European nations) probably wouldn’t be considered acceptable today in a more diverse-conscious society. When the Biosphere 2 project decided to raise money by opening up a visiting area, so visitors could look in the dome like people look at a fish bowl, some African Americans are shown in archival footage commenting on the lack of racial diversity of the people in the dome.

But that was just one criticism in a growing list of skeptical observations. Many scientists said it would be inaccurate for Biosphere 2 to be considered real scientific research, since it was an experiment that wasn’t going to be duplicated to double-check results, and there were too many unknown variables.

Things got even more controversial after Poynter accidentally got the tip of one of her fingers cut off in a grain threshing machine, and she had to go outside the dome to get medical attention. Having someone leave Biosphere 2 before the end of the two-year period automatically invalidated the highly touted main goal of the experience: that all eight dwellers would not leave Biosphere 2 for two years.

And then it was discovered by the media that when Poynter returned to Biosphere 2 after getting medical treatment, she broke another rule, by bringing in two duffel bags of outside supplies. And with another goal destroyed, tensions and conflicts grew inside and outside Biosphere 2.

The atmosphere in Biosphere 2 began to have dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide, so oxygen had to be pumped into the dome. It was another failure in the Biosphere 2 goal of not bringing in anything from the outside during the two-year period. According to Dyhr, as the media began to have more questions about the validity of the experiment, “Margaret [Harding] and John [Allen] became more secretive, and that reinforced the idea that they had something to hide.”

And criticism began to grow about the control that Allen (who’s not a scientist) had over the group, which further fueled accusations that the group is a cult. Desert ecologist Burgess tells a story about being threatened and terrified by Allen, after Burgess was accused of being disloyal for expressing his concerns to the media.

Burgess and Allen later put asides their differences. In the documentary, Burgess is quick to defend the group: “Frankly, I don’t know any organization that does an innovative start-up that doesn’t have cult-like aspects, especially in the corporate sector. We are hard-wired to create cults in the innovative phase of an organization.”

And then things really began to fall apart when more scientists quit the project and billionaire Bass, the group’s chief investor, got disillusioned. And then, Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon, the same one who later became famous for founding Breitbart News and being Donald Trump’s political adviser) got involved in the whole mess. Although the end results of Biosphere 2 have been widely reported and are in the documentary, that spoiler information won’t be included in this review.

After the controversy, this is what Allen has to say about Biosphere 2 all these years later: “We were people who recognized that climate change is a threat and tried to develop the means to counteract that threat.”

Because Allen and his group control so much of the narrative in this documentary, director Wolf fails to answer some basic questions. For starters, did any of the people in this commune group have children? There’s absolutely no mention of any of these people being parents, and how raising kids affected what they did for the group and for Biosphere 2. This is a documentary about a group of people obsessed with how future generations are going to live on Earth and possibly outer space, so it’s very strange for this documentary not to include information about if these people have any children.

Another glaring omission is that the documentary doesn’t have interviews with any scientists who weren’t on the Biosphere 2 payroll, in order to get more objective observations. Instead of spending a lot of time covering the history of this commune group, that screen time in the film should have been for putting into context what, if any, effects that Biosphere 2 had on today’s scientific plans or theories about environmental issues.

Although the documentary makes it clear that there were many scientist critics of Biosphere 2, the filmmakers never bothered to interview any of them for this documentary. It would have been a welcome balance to the obviously biased gushing about Biosphere 2 from Allen’s group members. It would’ve been more interesting to get further details over why so many scientists quit the project. Surely, some of them are still alive to interview, but the documentary doesn’t answer those questions.

It also would’ve been interesting to get Allen’s response to all the criticisms that he was a bully who ran a cult and why his group seems to be lacking in diversity, in terms of age and race. Allen’s group seems to be a bunch of old, white former hippies. If this group is so great at “forward thinking,” where is this group’s next generation of members? They’re certainly not in this documentary.

These are questions that “Spaceship Earth” fails to answer, much like a lot of the mythology around Biosphere 2. It seems as if Allen has control over not just his group of followers but he also exerted a lot of control, directly or indirectly, in how this documentary was made. “Spaceship Earth” leaves viewers with the impression that the filmmakers could’ve dug deeper for more information, but chose not to do it because they didn’t want to lose Allen and his flock to provide the documentary’s majority of interviews and archival footage.

Neon released “Spaceship Earth” in select U.S. drive-in theaters, pop-up city-scape projections, virtual cinemas, on digital and on Hulu on May 8, 2020.

Review: ‘The 420 Movie’ (2020), starring Daniel Baldwin, Kelley Jakle, Lindsey McKeon, Aries Spears, Keith David, Krista Allen and Verne Troyer

April 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Daniel Baldwin in “The 420 Movie” (Photo courtesy of Sky Republic Productions)

“The 420 Movie” (2020)

Directed by Rob Johnson

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional Humbolt County (not the real-life Humboldt County) in California, the stoner comedy “The 420 Movie” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the middle-class who are all connected in some way to marijuana.

Culture Clash: A corrupt mayor and his two adult daughters come up with a “get rich quick scheme” to sell high-grade marijuana and electronic marijuana cigarettes to help pay off his debts.

Culture Audience: “The 420 Movie” will appeal primarily to people who want to watch a low-budget, lowbrow pothead comedy that’s also low on humorous content.

Lindsey McKeon and Kelley Jakle in “The 420 Movie” (Photo courtesy of Sky Republic Productions)

“The 420 Movie” starring Daniel Baldwin and directed by Rob Johnson—not to be confused with “The 420 Movie,” the 2009 stoner comedy written by, directed and starring James Blackburn—is as mindless and poorly made as you would expect it to be. But since it’s an obvious stoner comedy, people who are interested in seeing the movie should already what they’re getting into if they decided to end up watching. (“420” is slang for marijuana.) And since many people see stoner comedies in an “altered” state of mind, how much someone thinks this movie is funny might depend on someone’s level of sobriety when watching the film.

Just like a lot of stoner comedies, “The 420 Movie” features potheads trying to get out of a messy situation because of money and/or their drug activities. Baldwin is Edgar J. Hightower, a widowed, marijuana-loving mayor of the fictional Humbolt County, California (not to be confused with the real-life Humboldt County, California), which is a working-class suburban area that’s somewhat rural. How much does he love pot? One of his campaign promises was that he would make marijuana legal in the county if he got elected.

He kept his promise, and marijuana has become a booming business where the mayor lives. The movie shows that many people grow marijuana in their backyards and openly smoke weed in public. This is the kind of movie whose idea of a sight gag is showing an old lady smoking a joint while gardening.

But the mayor has a gambling problem, which has caused him to lose his fortune, and he’s now living in a trailer with his two daughters, who are in their early 20s. Sarcastic brunette Mary (played by Lindsey McKeon) recently left college in New York to come back to Humbolt County and work in her father’s marijuana dispensary shop. Bratty blonde Jane (played by Kelley Jakle), Mary’s young sister, opted not to go to college and instead decided to work in the shop. Their father Edgar has been trying to increase business for the shop and his Hightower Marijuana Farms, by filming a TV ad campaign, which is shown in the beginning of the movie.

To make matters worse for his financial problems, Edgar has embezzled the county’s budget money to fund his addiction to gambling and prostitutes. And he’s also racked up major debts by paying $2 million for a Mexican army to help protect his marijuana business, since he’s not about to limit himself to just selling marijuana legally when there’s more money to be made by selling it illegally. Krista Allen has a supporting role as Edgar’s assistant Ruth, who looks and acts more like a “Real Housewives” trophy wife than someone who’s supposed to work in an office.

The two Hightower sisters have an ongoing sibling rivalry. Jane insists that she’s the “genius of the family,” while Mary disagrees. They often bicker, but they’re able to put teamwork to good use to come up with a possible solution to their father’s money problems. Mary has concocted a liquid THC formula that can be made into different flavors, while Jane has invented an electronic marijuana cigarette. They figure that the combination is bound to make them a lot of money.

The dispensary shop has two young employees who are enlisted to help Mary and Jane test their new product—Boogie (played by John Bain) and Roofie Amy (played by Stacy Danger), who got her nickname for her high physical tolerance for drugs, including not even being fazed by ingesting roofies, also known as “date rape drugs.”

Boogie is leading a double life. He still lives with his parents, who apparently don’t know what he really does for a living. When he leaves home to go to work, he’s dressed in a conservative suit and tie and carries a briefcase as he says goodbye to his parents. But as soon as he’s out of their sight, he changes into hip-hop street gear. And his car has a bumper sticker on it that says “White Republican and Proud,” but he covers it with a bumper sticker that says “Obama” on it when he goes to work. This is what is supposed to be the movie’s idea of “funny.”

Meanwhile, Edgar is feeling the heat from people he owes money to all over the place. One of the people he’s in debt to is Chief Ironweed (played by Keith David), an African American with a tiny percentage of Native American heritage who, by taking Edgar’s corrupt advice, was able to get control of the local Native American casino by playing up his very dubious connection to the Native American community. Edgar has racked up $270,000 in debts to Chief Ironweed’s casino.

Someone else who’s putting pressure on Edgar to pay up is a local gang leader called Tito the Terrible (played by Verne Troyer), who’s always accompanied by two unnamed henchmen. One of the cronies is a wannabe rapper (played by Aaron “Shwayze” Smith) who repeats almost everything Tito says (much to Tito’s annoyance), and the other henchman (played by Lee Larson) is a tattoo-covered goon who is the “strong and silent” type.

Tito and his thugs go to Edgar’s office to demand a cut of not only Edgar’s next 420 crop but also a cut of the marijuana crops of everyone in Humbolt County. The total haul for Tito will be enough to cover the $5 million that Tito wants from Edgar. (Troyer died in 2018, which tells you how long ago this movie was made.)

Mary and Jane eventually find out about their father’s massive debts, and they come up with the idea to rush the marijuana e-cigarette to market. But first, they need to test how strong it is. The movie culminates at a house party where Mary, Jane, Boogie and Roofie Amy go to do the testing, by charging $25 per hit. Also at the party is Mary’s ex-boyfriend Curt (played by Cody Kasch), whom she dumped because he cheated on her with his stepsister. And novelty rapper Riff Raff (playing himself) is at the party too.

“The 420 Movie” was written by Michael Anthony Snowden, who’s best known for working with the Wayans Brothers on 2001’s “Scary Movie 2” and 2004’s “White Chicks.” Just like those other films, “The 420 Movie” isn’t really about having a clever plot, but instead it’s about having a series of gags that are strung together in the hopes that it will resemble a plot. “The 420 Movie” doesn’t take itself too seriously, but the funny jokes (even the “so dumb it’s funny” jokes) are very few and far in between.

Most of the laughs in “The 420 Movie” don’t come from the main characters, but from Aries Spears, who has a supporting role as Patrolman Watkins, an African American cop who practices “reverse racism” by harassing innocent people if they are white. The Patrolman Watkins character is so over-the-top with his foul-mouthed and outrageous actions that Spears essentially steals every scene, even though he’s only in the movie for about 20 minutes.

The Watkins character (who smokes a joint when he pulls over motorists in traffic stops) is such a buffoon that he can’t be taken seriously. The character is obviously a way to poke fun at bigots who use race as a reason to take out their personal frustrations on others. It’s too bad that “The 420 Movie” didn’t feature the Watkins character more because it would’ve resulted in a much funnier film.

Overall, most of the other actors in the movie do a passable but forgettable job in their roles. “The 420 Movie” has some outside meta references in the film that are brief and aren’t very inventive. There’s a scene when Edgar is on the phone, with Mary and Jane in the room, and he says, “I’ve got Uncle Billy, Uncle Alec and Uncle Stephen on hold.” (It’s an obvious reference to Daniel Baldwin’s famous brothers.) And in a scene with Troyer, who’s best known for his Mini Me character in two “Austin Powers” movies, Tito holds up his pinky finger in a crook like the “Austin Powers” character Dr. Evil.

The obviously low budget for “The 420 Movie” was put to good use in casting, hair and makeup, but not put to much good use in cinematography and sound mixing, which are uneven and very amateurish. There’s a scene with Mary and Jane at a swimming pool, and the cutaway editing in the scene has very bad mismatched lighting. There are some noticeable audio problems throughout the movie, and the soundtrack choices (mostly hip-hop) are extremely predictable. As it stands, “The 420 Movie” is not the worst stoner comedy ever made, but if you’re looking for a movie in this genre that’s really worthwhile, there are so many better options, such as “Dazed and Confused” or the first “Friday” movie.

Sky Republic Productions released “The 420 Movie” on digital and VOD on April 7, 2020.

Review: ‘I Still Believe,’ starring KJ Apa, Britt Robertson, Shania Twain and Gary Sinise

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

KJ Apa and Britt Robertson in "I Still Believe"
KJ Apa and Britt Robertson in “I Still Believe” (Photo by Jason LaVeris)

“I Still Believe”

Directed by Jon Erwin and Andrew Erwin (The Erwin Brothers)

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in California and partially in Indiana, the faith-based drama “I Still Believe” has almost an exclusively white cast representing the middle-class (with a few African and Latinos in minor speaking roles) and has a story based on the real-life contemporary Christian singer Jeremy Camp at the beginning of his career.

Culture Clash: During his first year in college, Jeremy gets involved in a love triangle with a young woman who finds out that she has cancer.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Jeremy Camp and anyone who likes predictable, tear-jerking, faith-based movies.

KJ Apa and Britt Robertson in “I Still Believe” (Photo by Michael Kubeisy)

Bring on the Christian melodrama. “I Still Believe,” which tells the story of how real-life contemporary Christian singer Jeremy Camp met and fell in love with his first wife Melissa, has enough weepy and sentimental moments to make a Hallmark Channel movie look downright cheerful in comparison. Because this dramatic film is based on true events that fans of Camp already know about (he’s written songs about it and done numerous interviews over the years about this period of time in his life), there really isn’t anything new that will be revealed here for his die-hard fans.

However, for everyone else, there are many indications of how this movie will go, from the cutesy lovebird moments to the emotionally distraught hospital scenes. “I Still Believe” is based on Camp’s 2011 memoir of the same name. Brother directors Jon Erwin and Andrew Erwin directed the movie (they also directed the 2018 biopic “I Can Only Imagine” about MercyMe singer Bart Millard), while Jon Erwin co-wrote the “I Still Believe” screenplay with Jon Gunn.

As the story begins, it’s September 1999 in Lafayette, Indiana (Camp’s hometown), and Jeremy (played winningly by a charismatic KJ Apa) is packing up his car to leave behind his supportive and loving parents and two younger brothers, as he heads off to California to attend college for the first time. (The college isn’t named in the movie, but in real life, Camp attended and graduated from Calvary Chapel Bible College in Murrieta, California.)

Before Jeremy leaves, his parents Tom Camp (played by Gary Sinise) and Teri Camp (played by Shania Twain) give him a brand-new guitar as a gift. They know he’s a talented singer and musician, so they’re encouraging him to use that talent in the best way that he can. (It should be noted that Sinise and Twain are in the movie for only about 20 minutes, since most of the story takes place when Jeremy was a college student in California.)

One of the first things that happens when Jeremy arrives on campus is he meets a personal hero: Jean-Luc (played by Nathan Dean), a French Canadian contemporary Christian singer who graduated from the school years earlier and has returned to do a concert on campus. Because Jean-Luc has “made it” as a successful artist, Jeremy approaches him backstage before the show to tell Jean-Luc how much he admires him and to ask for his career advice.

Jean-Luc tells him the best advice he could give is that being an artist isn’t about “making it” but what an artist’s songs give to people. Jean-Luc also tells Jeremy that songwriting is about authenticity. He confides in Jeremy that he’s been writing love songs lately with a special girl in mind.

To Jeremy’s surprise and delight, Jean-Luc then asks Jeremy to tune his guitar. The next thing you know, Jeremy is an instant guitar tech who gets to go on stage and hand Jean-Luc the guitar when it’s time for Jean-Luc to switch instruments. While giving Jean-Luc the guitar, Jeremy sees a pretty young student in the crowd who seems enraptured as she sings along to the music. And then she and Jeremy lock eyes with each other. It’s a “love at first sight” moment for Jeremy that is as sweetly sentimental as you would imagine it to be.

Jeremy is so smitten that when he sees her hanging out in the theater after the show, he goes up and introduces himself to her. They have a cautiously flirtatious conversation. Her name is Melissa Henning (played by Britt Robertson, in an emotionally believable performance), and she invites Jeremy to hang out with her and some friends at the beach after the show.

It turns out that Melissa is a close friend of Jean-Luc, who’s also there at the beach, to Jeremy’s surprise. Melissa is so close to Jean-Luc that she says that she and Jean-Luc are “best friends.” As Jeremy lets this information sink in (and it becomes obvious that this is the “special girl” that Jean-Luc is writing love songs about), he still tries to figure out a way to date Melissa.

At the beach, Jeremy has brought his guitar, so that’s how Melissa first finds out that he can sing and play. And since she seems to have a thing for musicians, Jeremy’s talent probably makes him even more attractive to her. She plays it cool, but her reaction to him singing and playing shows how much Jeremy has piqued her interest. (Apa does his own singing in the movie. And he’s pretty good.)

When Jeremy is alone with Melissa, he asks her point-blank if she and Jean-Luc are dating. She says no, but she admits that Jean-Luc might have romantic feelings for her that aren’t mutual. Jeremy doesn’t waste time in expressing that he’s available and interested in dating Melissa, but she tells him that she promised God and her protective older sister Heather that this semester that she wouldn’t have any distractions from her studies and that Jeremy is definitely a distraction.

Undeterred, Jeremy persists in asking Melissa out on a date every time he runs into her on campus, until finally she says yes to one date. She agrees on the condition that she and Jeremy see each other in secret because she doesn’t want to hurt Jean-Luc’s feelings.

On their first date, Melissa and Jeremy go to a planetarium. While in the Hubble Space Telescope room, Melissa turns out to be very knowledgeable about astronomy trivia. After she rattles off some facts about outer space, Melissa says, “I’m just one star in an infinite galaxy.” And Jeremy replies as he looks at her meaningfully, “Well, some stars shine brighter than others.” Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

One date turns into two and then into more dates. And soon, it’s obvious that Jeremy and Melissa have fallen in love, but Melissa still wants to keep their relationship a secret because she’s afraid that it will ruin her friendship with Jean-Luc. This deception bothers Jeremy, but he goes along with it because he doesn’t want to lose Melissa.

Meanwhile, Jean-Luc has been acting as a mentor to Jeremy and has even offered to help Jeremy make a demo recording that could lead to a record-label contract. Jean-Luc has also offered to pass along the demo to the right people to help speed up the process. In other words, this love-triangle situation has turned into something even more complicated than when it started.

According to the movie’s production notes, there was no real-life love triangle between Jeremy, Melissa and Jean-Luc, who is based on real-life French Canadian musician Jean-Luc La Joie, the lead singer of the Christian rock band The Kry. In real life, Jean-Luc and Melissa were just friends, and Jean-Luc really did help Jeremy, early on in Jeremy’s career. But the filmmakers decided to make the Jean-Luc character in the movie as a combination of the real person and the numerous guys who were also pursuing Melissa during the time that she and Jeremy began dating.

Whether or not Jean-Luc finds out about the secret love affair turns out to be the least of Jeremy and Melissa’s problems. Just as Jeremy’s career is taking off, Melissa finds out that she has cancer. The rest of the movie shows how this devastating diagnosis affects their relationship. (And if you know what happened in real life, then you already know how this movie is going to end.)

All of the actors do a fine job with their performances. As the central characters in the film, Apa and Robertson (who also played a young couple in love in 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose”) have natural chemistry together that makes them convincing as two people who’ve fallen hard and fast for each other. But there are moments in the movie that are so melodramatic and cliché-ridden that they’re downright cringeworthy. And there might be some non-religious people who could be offended at the idea that prayer can cause medical miracles. But this isn’t a movie for atheists or people who don’t like Christian movies. “I Still Believe” will definitely be a crowd-pleaser for the film’s intended audience. For everyone else, proceed with caution or avoid the movie altogether.

Lionsgate released “I Still Believe” in U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Lionsgate Home Entertainment has moved up the digital and VOD release of “I Still Believe” to March 27, 2020.