Review: ‘Blow Up My Life,’ starring Jason Selvig, Kara Young, Ben Horner, Davram Stiefler and Reema Sampat

October 5, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jason Selvig and Kara Young in “Blow Up My Life” (Photo courtesy of WPDA Studios)

“Blow Up My Life”

Directed by Ryan Dickie and Abigail Horton

Culture Representation: Taking place in Middletown, Connecticut, the comedy/drama film “Blow Up My Life” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American and two Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A software engineer, who has been fired from his job at a pharmaceutical company, becomes a whistleblower who has to change his identity when he finds out that his former employer is selling an app that gets people hooked on a vaping pen that is supposed to wean people off of opioid addiction but instead gets people hooked on the vaping pen.

Culture Audience: “Blow Up My Life” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in watching fast-paced thrillers that have deadpan comedy.

Jason Selvig and Reema Sampat in “Blow Up My Life” (Photo courtesy of WPDA Studios)

“Blow Up My Life” is an appealing and sometimes awkward mix of snarky comedy and suspenseful thriller. Jason Selvig and Kara Young are a dynamic on-screen duo in this story about a whistleblower on the run. The abrupt ending might get mixed reactions. Some of the slapstick gags look a little too contrived, but the movie excels when it’s about the people who are caught up in this crime drama.

Written and directed by Ryan Dickie and Abigail Horton, “Blow Up My Life” (formerly titled “Dead End”) was filmed on location in Middletown, Connecticut. “Blow Up My Life” manages to make a sweeping and absorbing story out of a relatively small cast and not very many locations. The scandal in the story is about deadly corruption at a corporate pharmaceutical firm that is about to become a public company.

In the beginning of “Blow Up My Life,” software engineer Jason Trumble (played by Selvig) works at a pharmaceutical company called Furenza, whose biggest product is a vaping pen called Doxie, which has low dosages of opioids that are meant to wean people off of high-dosage opiods. It’s similar to how a nicotine patch or nicotine gum is supposed to help people quit smoking tobacco. Jason has created the Doxie app that is supposed to regulate a safe dosage in the vaping pen.

Furenza expects that its IPO (initial public offering) will be a success and will add hundreds of millions of dollars in value and cash flow to the company. Not long before this crucial IPO rollout, Jason is fired after it’s discovered that he made a past video of himself doing drugs and the video was posted online. After his exit from Furenza, Jason starts his own computer repair company called JT Computer Repair, where he is the only employee.

One day, Jason happens to get a call from his former Furenza boss Gary Johanssen (played by Davram Stiefler), who wants Jason to make a house call to do a repair job for Gary’s laptop computer. Jason sees it as an opportunity to find anything scandalous on Gary’s computer. (In real life, Selvig and Stiefler are the comedy duo the Young Liars.)

What Jason finds out shakes him to the core: Several people at Furenza know that the Doxie app that Jason created is deliberately malfunctioning and causing people to get hooked on using the Furenza vaping pen. Some people have died from drug overdoses as a result, but Furenza has so far not been linked to these overdoses, because the people who use Doxie are usually known to already be addicted to drugs. Furenza is relying on people to get hooked on Doxie as the main sales strategy for Doxie.

Jason decides to download a copy of the evidence from Gary’s computer. His cousin Charlotte “Charlie” August (played by Young), who’s an expert computer hacker, encourages Jason to become a whistleblower and take the information to the media. Jason is very naïve when he tells Charlie that he doesn’t think that Gary is involved in this corruption because Jason thinks Gary seems like too nice of a person. Charlie, who has more street smarts than Jason does, tells him that Gary would have to be involved or aware of the corruption since the evidence was on Gary’s computer.

Jason knows exactly which journalist should get the story: His former love interest Priya Prasad (played by Reema Sampat), who has moved on to a new boyfriend. The movie doesn’t really make it clear if Priya and Jason were actually in a serious romantic relationship. What’s clear though is that Jason hasn’t really gotten over Priya. He hopes that giving her this news exposé will impress Priya and might get her show a romantic interest in him.

Before Jason meets up with Priya, he has a confrontation with Gary in a parking garage. During this confrontation, Gary essentially admits that he knows about the malfunctioning Doxie app that gets people hooked. Gary sneers at Jason: “It doesn’t matter what you think because you don’t work at Furenza anymore.”

Gary then admits that he was going to fire Jason anyway because the thinks that Jason was after Gary’s job, which is an accusation that Jason vehemently denies. Jason and Gary get into an argument. And then, something happens in that parking garage that convinces Jason that he really needs to expose Furenza’s corruption with the evidence that he has.

Because of what happened in the parking garage, Jason goes into hiding. Charlie drops off several things for Jason at a secret location so that he can have a new identity. Jason gets a fake driver’s license with an alias. He is also now posing as a delivery van driver for a phony business called Rhoda’s Gormet Catering. (In one of the movie’s deadpan jokes, Jason immediately notices that “gourmet” is misspelled.)

Jason meets with Priya, who is grateful and excited about getting this big news scoop. However, she tells Jason that he needs to get evidence that Fumera’s CEO knew and encouraged the deadly nature of the Doxie app. Fumera CEO Blake Davis (played by Ben Horner) is a somewhat stereotypical greedy and ruthless corporate executive. Jason teams up with Charlie to spy on Blake by planting a spy cam in a bouquet of flowers and delivering it to Blake by convincing him that the bouquet is from a potential financial investor.

The rest of “Blow Up My Life” shows how Jason gets into increasingly dangerous situations. Through it all, he keeps an audio journal and gets advice/help from Charlie, who is fully on board with Jason being a whistleblower. Jason’s audio journal entries and his voiceover narration for the movie are meant to be semi-running jokes in the movie.

The partnership between Jason and Charlie has echoes of the partnership of “Get Smart” characters Maxwell Smart (also known as Agent 86) and Agent 99 in the “Get Smart” comedy franchise: The man is the lead character in this duo, but the woman in this duo is the smarter one and gets her male partner out of tricky situations that he’s not capable of doing on his own. Many of the best scenes in “Blow Up My Life” are with Jason and Charlie, who have a snappy rapport that’s entertaining to watch.

“Blow Up My Life” has a few tonal issues where the comedy and the drama don’t blend together very well in some of the scenes, but this combination works for most of the movie. Selwig and Young carry the movie with their acting and great comedic timing. The movie’s other cast members in the movie give solid but not spectacular performances. Writers/directors Dickie and Horton make an above-average feature-film debut with “Blow Up My Life.” Even if the subjects of Big Pharma and IPOs have no interest to you, “Blow Up My Life” should keep most viewers interested in what’s going to happen throughout the movie.

WPDA Studios released “Blow Up My Life” in select U.S. cinemas on September 18, 2023. The movie will be released of digital and VOD on November 21, 2023.

Review: ‘Orphan: First Kill,’ starring Isabelle Fuhrman, Rossif Sutherland and Julia Stiles

August 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Isabelle Fuhrman in “Orphan: First Kill” (Photo by Steve Ackerman/Paramount Pictures)

“Orphan: First Kill”

Directed by William Brent Bell

Culture Representation: Taking place in Darien, Connecticut, and briefly in Estonia and Moscow, the horror movie “Orphan: First Kill” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A female serial killer in her 30s, who has a medical condition that makes her look like a child, escapes from a psychiatric facility in Estonia, steals a missing child’s identity, and pretends to be the long-lost daughter of a wealthy family in the United Sates.

Culture Audience: “Orphan: First Kill” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of 2009’s “Orphan” movie and any horror movie that puts more importance in staging murder scenes than in crafting a good story.

Rossif Sutherland and Julia Stiles in “Orphan: First Kill” (Photo by Steve Ackerman/Paramount Pictures)

“Orphan: First Kill” is a horror movie prequel whose very existence is a spoiler for 2009’s “Orphan.” In “Orphan,” the serial killer appears to be an orphaned girl but (spoiler alert), she’s really a woman in her 30s with a rare medical condition that makes her look like a child. “Orphan: First Kill” is a poorly conceived prequel that spoils all the fun for people who don’t know how 2009’s “Orphan” ends. And all the stupid plot holes in “Orphan: First Kill” spoil any fun in the movie’s new plot twist, which isn’t very clever.

“Orphan: First Kill” is directed by William Brent Bell, who has a history of directing awful horror movies, including 2016’s “The Boy,” 2020’s “Brahms: The Boy II” and 2021’s “Separation.” “Orphan: First Kill” (written by David Coggeshall) isn’t the worst of the bunch. But as a horror movie, this stale flick treats its audience as absolute idiots. And there are long stretches of “Orphan: First Kill” that are very boring.

People who don’t know about the surprise twist ending in “Orphan” will have it revealed almost immediately in “Orphan: First Kill,” which takes place in 2007—two years before the story in “Orphan.” The movie opens in February 2007, at the Saarne Institute, an in-patient psychiatric facility in Estonia. (“Orphan: First Kill” was actually filmed in Winnipeg, Canada.) The most notorious resident of the Saarne Institute is Leena Klammer (played by Isabelle Fuhrman), a violent and sadistic woman in her early 30s who has hypopituitarism, a rare hormonal disorder that stunts her physical growth, so that she appears to be a child who’s about 10 or 11 years old.

In “Orphan,” actress Furhman really was in that 10-to-11-year-old age range when she played the Leena character, who created an alias named Esther before she was adopted by an unsuspecting American family. Leena/Esther’s fate is shown at the end of “Orphan,” which is why this serial killer character got a prequel movie instead of a sequel movie. In “Orphan: First Kill,” Furhman’s real-life adult face is de-aged through visual effects and put on a child actress’ body. Kennedy Irwin and Sadie Lee are the actresses who had the roles of being the Leena body doubles.

The de-aging visual effects (which are adequate) in “Orphan: First Kill” are at least more convincing than the movie’s sloppily written screenplay. The rest of the movie’s visual effects look very cheap and tacky, especially in a scene where a blazing fire breaks out in a house, and the fire looks very phony. (This fire scene is briefly shown in the “Orphan: First Kill” trailer.) Except for the plot twist, almost everything in “Orphan: First Kill” is just like a lot of formulaic slasher movies.

At the Saarne Institute, an art therapy teacher named Anna Troyev (played by Gwendolyn Collins) arrives as a newly hired instructor for Leena. As soon as Anna gets there, the facility is on high emergency alert because Leena is nowhere to be found. Saarne Institute supervisor Dr. Novotny (played by David Lawrence Brown) is giving Anna a tour of the facility when this emergency happens.

Dr. Novotny explains to Anna: “Leena is our most dangerous patient. Your predecessor underestimated her and ignored protocol.” Viewers never really find out what happened to Anna’s predecessor, but it obviously wasn’t good. Later, Dr. Novotny describes Leena this way: “She’s an exceptional con artist.”

Anna eventually finds Leena in another room. Leena is taken away, but it isn’t long before Leena goes on a deadly rampage. And this is when the movie starts to get really moronic. Leena is supposedly the “most dangerous patient” at the institute. But she’s given a lot of free reign with the bare minimum of supervision, even after her temporary disappearance that caused a panic at the institute.

There’s a scene where Leena starts to seduce a security guard, who is alone in a room with Leena. What kind of incompetent psychiatric facility would have only one employee alone in a room with “most dangerous patient” Leena? What kind of incompetent training did this security guard have in not being warned that Leena is an “exceptional con artist”? This is what happens in an incompetently made horror movie like “Orphan: First Kill.”

What Leena does to this security guard should come as no surprise. And before Leena escapes from the facility, more than one person ends up dead at this institute, which barely did anything to protect its employees and patients from the institute’s “most dangerous patient.” There’s another adult female patient who sort of helps Leena escape, but don’t expect to find out anything about this accomplice.

You’d think it would make big international news that this very unusual and notorious killer (an adult who looks like a child) escaped from a psychiatric institution. But no. Not in this world of “Orphan: First Kill,” where it’s supposed to be 2007, but the lack of news coverage of this massacre is so unrealistic and behind-the-times, you’d think it was 1907, long before the Internet and television existed.

However, the Internet does exist in this world of “Orphan: First Kill,” because after Leena escapes, she uses the Internet to look up reports and databases of missing children. It’s how she finds out about a missing American girl named Esther Albright from Darien, Connecticut. Esther disappeared four years earlier, and would be about 10 or 11 years old in 2007. Leena has a physical remblance to the 10- or 11-year-old girl who Esther would be if Esther is still alive. And so, Leena decides she’s going to steal Esther’s identity.

For reasons that are never explained in this dimwitted movie, Leena briefly ends up in Moscow. Don’t bother to get a explanation for how Leena was able to pass through the borders of another country as a criminal who’s wanted for murder. Somehow, viewers are supposed to believe that no one in Russia could’ve possibly heard the bizarre news that Estonia (a country that’s right next to Russia) has an escaped, serial killer woman who looks like an innocent girl.

Leena certainly doesn’t go into hiding, because she brazenly puts her Esther Albright fake identity plan into action. Soon after showing up in Moscow, she claims to be long-lost Esther. Leena is found by a Moscow cop while she’s sitting alone on a park swing at night. She concocts a story that she is Esther Albright, and she was kidnapped by a woman who brought her to Estonia. Leena makes up a vague lie that the woman who kidnapped her is now dead, but no one checks to verify this story, or even ask for the name of the woman. Leena/Esther can speak fluent English, but she has an Estonian accent.

And the next thing you know, the real Esther Albright’s family is contacted in the United States. Tricia Albright (played by Julia Stiles) and Allen Albright (played by Rossif Sutherland) are a wealthy married couple who are Esther’s parents. Allen and Tricia live in Darien with their 16-year-old son Gunnar Albright (played by Matthew Finlan), who is a star on his school’s fencing team. Tricia is the only one in the family to go to Moscow to identify the person who claims to be Esther.

Tricia brings “Esther” home to Darien. Allen and Gunnar have an awkward reunion with this person whom they don’t recognize as their long-lost family member. Gunnar is the most skeptical of the person in the home who is claiming to be his sister Esther. It’s a reminiscent of “Orphan,” where the older brother was also the family member who was the most suspicious about the person living as his sister in the family home.

During a session with child therapist Dr. Segar (played by Samantha Walkes), the doctor explains that Esther’s physical features could have changed over the past four years. It’s yet another plot hole: This evaluation about Esther’s physical appearance is coming from a psychiatrist, not a medical doctor of human biology.

And the real Esther’s physician and dentist are nowhere to be seen in this movie, because those doctors would be able to tell that this Esther is an imposter, based on medical and dental records. The plot twist somewhat explains why Tricia is unconcerned about taking Esther to get any physical check-ups, but it doesn’t explain why Allen is unconcerned about getting any medical professionals to do a physical evaluation of this “long-lost” child.

Esther’s education and where she’s going to school are also never discussed. And apparently, Esther had no friends before she disappeared, because they are never seen in the movie. No one else outside of the family claims to recognize her, which is a story that would easily fall apart under scrutiny from the media and law enforcement. But the movie ignores that logic.

Gunnar notices that the person claiming to be Esther has skills as an illustration artist that are on par with an adult’s skills. Before the real Esther disappeared, Gunnar remembers that she could only draw stick figures. However, these art skills are explained as Esther developing prodigy-level artist talent in the four years since she was gone.

This talent for art is how Leena/Esther eventually wins over Allen, who is also an illustration artist with a shared passion for painting. Allen thinks that Esther inherited her artistc talent from him. Allen is portrayed as a clueless parent in the worst way, blinded by the ego stroking that skilled con artist Leena gives him as innocent-looking Esther.

The re-appearance of Esther, which would make big news in any community in real life, is esentially ignored by the news media in “Orphan: First Kill.” It’s just a lazy way for “Orphan: First Kill” to prevent any logical plotline where reporters would be investigating this sudden re-appearance, thereby making it easier for Leena/Esther’s secret to be revealed. It’s the same preposterous portrayal of the media where “Orphan: First Kill” viewers are supposed to believe that the media in Estonia and nearby Russia couldn’t be bothered to give massive coverage of Leena’s escape from the Saarne Institute after she murdered people there.

Instead, the movie has some dull scenes where Esther is treated like a pesky freak by Gunnar. One night, Tricia and Allen are away from home at a gala event hosted by Tricia. Gunnar decides to throw a party at the house while the parents are gone. Gunnar rejects Esther’s attempts to hang out with Gunnar and his friends. And she tells him, “Go fuck yourself” in front of his pals. Apparently, the “Orphan: First Kill” filmmakers want viewers to think that this scene of a “child” cursing is supposed to be provocative, even though viewers already know she’s not really a child.

In a terribly written horror movie like “Orphan: First Kill,” the Saarne Institute’s pathetic mishandling of Leena’s confinement isn’t the only incompetency on full display. Apparently, the “Orphan: First Kill” filmmakers want viewers to also believe that when someone claiming to be a missing child suddenly appears, DNA tests are not done. It’s another irritating way that so much of the movie’s shoddy plot looks like the “Orphan: First Kill” filmmakers want viewers forget that this movie takes place in 2007, when DNA testing definitely existed.

There’s a half-hearted attempt to verify Esther’s identity through fingerprints, when a police investigator named Detective Donnan (played by Hiro Kanagawa) is the only cop with enough common sense to want to check Esther’s fingerprints. But when Leena/Esther finds out that Detective Donnan (who investigated the real Esther’s disapperance) is suspicious about her real identity, you can easily guess what happens to Detective Donnan. In fact, all of the murders that happen in “Orphan: First Kill” are too easy to predict, which makes everything just a witless retread of “Bad Seed”-ripoff movies.

The plot twist in “Orphan: First Kill” is revealed about halfway through the movie. And it’s a plot twist that’s ripped from tabloid headlines regarding a theory about who caused a real-life, very famous unsolved murder. But in order to believe this plot twist and for certain people to get away with the charade, you’d also have to believe no one in the world would question why Esther’s identity wasn’t verified through DNA, fingerprints and dental records. It’s a plot hole that’s too big for this mindless movie to overcome.

The cast members of “Orphan: First Kill” don’t do much to elevate the ludicrous material that they’ve been given. It’s obvious that the filmmakers are relying heavily on nostalgia for the 2009 “Orphan” movie to get an audience for “Orphan: First Kill.” By the end of “Orphan: First Kill,” there’s nowhere else to go with any prequel stories for Leena/Esther, unless filmmakers want to continue the laughably bad concept that this adult serial killer disguised as a child is able to fly under the radar of the news media and law enforcement after all the massacres she’s committed.

Paramount Pictures released “Orphan: First Kill” in select U.S. cinemas, on Paramount+ and on digital on August 19, 2022. The movie is set for release on Blu-ray and DVD on October 18, 2022.

Review: ‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,’ starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson

June 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (Photo by Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”

Directed by Michael Chaves

Culture Representation: Taking place in Connecticut and Massachusetts in 1981, the horror sequel “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Hispanics) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A husband and a wife, who are well-known demonologists/paranormal investigators, get involved in a murder case to try to prove that the defendant was possessed by an evil spirit when he committed the murder. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of people who are fans of “The Conjuring” franchise, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” will appeal to people who are interested in horror movies that blend the supernatural with real-life legal drama.

Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Vince Pisani, Sarah Catherine Hook and Patrick Wilson in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

How much people might enjoy “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” will depend on how much they can tolerate “The Conjuring” universe taking a “Law & Order”-like turn in this particular sequel. That’s because demonologist/paranormal investigator spouses Ed Warren (played by Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Wilson (played by Vera Farmiga) go beyond the typical haunted house/exorcism storylines of previous “The Conjuring” movies and get involved in a murder case to the point where the Warrens are investigating crime scenes like detectives and giving legal advice like attorneys.

It has the potential to make “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” a convoluted mess. But somehow, it all works out to be a satisfying horror thriller that makes up for its predictability with good performances, some terrifying visual effects and overall suspenseful pacing. The movie also has some unexpected touches of humor and romance that take some of the edge off this grim and gruesome story.

Directed by Michael Chaves and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (also known as “The Conjuring 3”) is inspired by a true story from the case files of the real-life Ed and Lorraine Warren. The case was about Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who stabbed his 40-year-old landlord to death in Brookfield, Connecticut, in 1981, when Johnson was 19 years old. Johnson admitted to the stabbing but pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

His defense? The devil made him do it. Johnson claimed that during the stabbing, he had been possessed by the devil, which entered his body a few months before, during an exorcism of an 11-year-old boy named David Glatzel, who happened to be the younger brother of Arne’s girlfriend Debbie Glatzel. It was the first known U.S. murder case where demonic possession was used as a defense argument.

In real life, the Warrens got involved in the case because they were at this exorcism that was the catalyst for this tragic turn of events. And the Warrens ended up testifying on behalf of Johnson. (The trial doesn’t happen until toward the end of the movie.)

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” begins with an effectively horrifying re-enactment of the exorcism of David Glatzel (played by Julian Hilliard), which takes place in the movie at the Glatzel home on July 18, 1981. In the movie, David is 8 years old, not 11. Ed and Lorraine Warren are at the exorcism, along with Arne (played by Ruairi O’Connor) and Arne’s live-in girlfriend Debbie (played by Sarah Catherine Hook), who have a very loyal and loving relationship.

Arne and Debbie are both in their late teens and live in another house in Brookfield. Also at the exorcism are David and Debbie’s father Carl Glatzel (played by Paul Wilson); David and Debbie’s mother Judy Glatzel (played by Charlene Amoia); and the Warrens’ videographer/assistant Drew Thomas (played by Shannon Kook), who is filming this exorcism.

When the movie begins, it’s implied that the exorcism has been going on for hours, with David showing ebbs and flows in his demonic possession. At one point, David has reached such a state of exhaustion that Arne takes David up to David’s bedroom to tuck the boy into bed. Arne is depicted as a mild-mannered and polite person.

Arne tells David, “You’re one brave kid. I was a little runt growing up, so I know what it’s like to be picked on, but that was nothing compared to what you’re going through.” David says, “I don’t feel very brave.” Arne replies, “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. It means you’re scared, but you’re hanging in there. I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”

David then says, “Arne when are you going to ask my sister to marry you?” Arne replies with a slightly embarrassed tone, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Despite this friendly banter, there’s a lingering sense of danger in the air. Arne looks outside David’s bedroom window and sees that a priest has arrived by taxi.

The priest is Father Gordon (played by Steve Coulter), who will be the official exorcist for David. Whatever evil spirits are around seem to know that a clergy person is there, because all hell breaks loose soon after the arrival of Father Gordon. David starts attacking like a demon child, beginning with stabbing his father in the leg. He goes through various contortions. And the inside of the house begins to look like a full-force tornado with swirling gusts of evil.

During this chaos, possessed David attacks Ed, who is knocked down on the ground. Arne sees that the demon won’t leave David’s body, so Arne grabs the possessed child and shouts at the demon: “Leave him alone and take me!” And not long after that, David calms down, but Arne won’t be the same. And neither will Ed, because he’s had a heart attack during this exorcism.

It’s a powerful way to begin the movie, which grabs viewers’ attention from this opening sequence and keeps this heightened level of tension throughout the film. David seems to be “cured,” but Arne starts having nightmarish visions. There’s a sinister-looking woman (played by Eugenie Bondurant) who keeps appearing in the visions, with a clear intent to harm Arne. For example, the first time that she attacks Arne, she starts to strangle him, but he’s able to stop it when he comes out of his trance.

At first, Arne doesn’t tell anyone about his visions because he doesn’t want people to think that he’s crazy. But then, things happen to the point where he can no longer keep it a secret that strange things have been happening to him. It’s eventually revealed in the movie who this evil-looking woman is and her ultimate malicious intent.

Ed’s heart attack lands him in a hospital emergency room. He’s eventually released, but he has to use a wheelchair for a good deal of the story. Over time (this movie takes place over a six-month period, from May to November 1981), Ed doesn’t need the wheelchair anymore, but he has to use a cane. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” includes a flashback to May 1981, when the Glatzels moved into the home that appears to be where the family first encountered the demon, which attacked David in a memorable scene involving a water bed.

Meanwhile, Arne and Debbie are trying to get their lives back to normal. Arne works for a tree service company, and Debbie works for Brookfield Boarding Kennels, a pet service company that’s located inside a two-story house. Debbie and Arne live in the house rent-free as part of her job. It’s a house that’s filled with barking dogs kept in cages when they’re inside.

In a conversation that takes place after the exorcism, Arne suggests to Debbie that they move away from Brookfield. He also drops hints that they should eventually get married. Debbie seems reluctant to move away from Brookfield because she and Arne can’t really afford to move yet and she doesn’t want to live too far away from her family. However, she tells Arne that she’ll think about it.

The owner of Brookfield Boarding Kennels is a creepy drunk named Bruno Salz (played by Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has an underpaid Debbie doing most of the work. She’s very responsible and caring in her job, where she’s essentially the manager and bookkeeper for the business. And that’s another reason why Debbie doesn’t really want to move: She’s afraid that the dogs won’t be taken care of very well if flaky Bruno is left in charge of the kennel.

Bruno has been pestering Arne to repair Bruno’s broken stereo in the house’s living room. And one day, when the stereo is repaired, Bruno decides to crank up the music and have an impromptu party with Debbie, Arne and plenty of alcohol. Bruno plays Blondie’s “Call Me” full blast on the stereo and starts dancing with an uncomfortable-looking Debbie. (“Call Me” will be featured in another part of the movie too.)

Suddenly, Arne seems to be losing touch with reality. And this is where he’s supposed to be possessed by the demon. There’s an almost psychedelic nightmare that’s depicted on screen. And by the end, it’s revealed that Bruno was stabbed to death by Arne. (The stabbing is never shown on screen.) The murder in the movie takes place in September 1981, but in real life, the murder happened on February 16, 1981. It was the first murder in Brookfield’s history.

In a daze, Arne walks down a deserted road, with blood on his hands and clothes. A police officer (played by Chris Greene) in a patrol car stops to ask Arne what’s going on. And that’s when Arne says, “I think I hurt someone.” Arne is arrested for Bruno’s murder. And guess who’s coming back to Brookfield to investigate?

Fans of mystery solving will appreciate the added storyline of Ed and Lorraine Warren doing a lot of detective-like investigating, as the Warrens dig deep to find out the origins of this evil spirit that seems to have taken possession of Arne. In the movie, the demon isn’t inside of Arne all of the time. Arne is placed in the psychiatric ward in the local jail, and he’s a fairly passive prisoner most of the time. But there are moments when the demon comes back to haunt and possibly harm Arne.

In the movie, the Warrens are depicted as being the ones to convince Arne’s defense attorney Meryl (played by Ashley LeConte Campbell) to use demonic possession as a defense argument for Arne. It’s an unprecedented legal strategy that Meryl is convinced won’t work, until Ed and Lorraine show the attorney what they found in their demonologist research over the years. Debbie and the rest of the Glatzel family fully believe that Arne was possessed when he killed Bruno, so the Glatzels are supportive of Arne before and during the trial.

The Warrens take it upon themselves to help gather evidence for this case, but they also want to see if they can get rid of this demonic spirit that they believe exists. The Warrens’ investigation leads them to Danvers, Massachusetts, where they find out how the mysterious case of two teenage girls who were best friends is somehow connected to Arne’s case.

The teenagers are named Katie Lincoln (played by Andrea Andrade) and Jessica Louise Strong (played by Ingrid Bisu), who went missing in May 1981. Katie was found murdered, while Jessica is still missing. The Warrens also track down a former priest whose last name is Kastner (played by John Noble), who might have some answers about this particular demon.

Along the way, Ed and Lorraine also get help from a jail priest named Father Newman (played by Vince Pisani) and a police detective in Danvers named Sergeant Clay (played by Keith Arthur Bolden), who is skeptical at first about helping the Warrens. But then, things happen that change Sergeant Clay’s mind. The movie has a few far-fetched things in the story, such as Sergeant Clay being willing to share his case files with Ed and Lorraine, when in reality that’s a serious breach of police protocol.

And some of the horror scenes are over-the-top with visual effects happening in a very “only in a movie” way, instead of depicting what the real exorcisms probably looked like. The amount of body contortions alone would break bones and put someone in a hospital. But elaborate scare spectacles are what people who watch horror movies like this expect to see.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” delivers in a way that’s effectively chilling but not as disturbing as 1973’s “The Exorcist,” the gold standard for exorcism movies. However, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is a vast improvement over director Chaves’ feature-film directorial debut: the bland 2019 horror flick “The Curse of La Llorona.” Because of Arne’s murder trial, there’s a lot more at stake than the usual attempts to rid a person or a house of an evil spirit.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is also helped by a suitably convincing production design (by Jennifer Spence), which involves a lot of dusty, dark and unsettling places. And it’s easy to see why the movie changed the seasonal time period to the late summer/early autumn, instead of winter, because cinematographer Michael Burgess effectively uses a lot of autumn-like brown and gold for the exterior shots to contrast with the black and gray of the biggest horror scenes in the film. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” would have looked like a very different movie if it took place in the winter.

Viewers will also see little bit more backstory to Ed and Lorraine’s relationship. In brief romantic flashback scenes, it’s shown how the couple met: Thirty years prior, when Ed and Lorraine were both 17 years old, Lorraine (played by Megan Ashley Brown) went with some friends to a movie theater, where Ed (played by Mitchell Hoog) was working as an usher. It was attraction at first sight, and they began dating shortly afterward.

The movie doesn’t have these scenes as filler. Lorraine is reminiscing about this courtship because of Ed’s near-death scare with his heart attack. It’s caused her to reflect on their longtime relationship. And it’s made the couple appreciate their marriage and partnership even more.

But the movie also has a few touches of comic relief, by showing some of the personal dynamics between this longtime married couple. There are some subtle references to the gender roles that were and still are expected of couples who work together. In “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” Lorraine has to take charge of much of the literal physical legwork in the investigation because of Ed’s recovery from his heart attack.

In a scene where Ed and Lorraine want to investigate a cellar in the Glatzel house, Ed (who is using a cane) realistically won’t be able to crawl around in the cellar. However, Ed tells Lorraine, who tends to dress like a prim and proper schoolteacher: “Honey, let me handle it. You’re going to ruin your dress if you go in there … Be careful.” With an “I can handle it” expression on her face, Lorraine calmly says, “Just hold my purse,” as she hands her purse to Ed. It’s a very realistic and hilarious moment that says it all about how women are often underestimated by men.

The film also shows Ed’s frustration at not being able to physically move around in the way that he’s been used to for all of his life. His anxiety isn’t portrayed in a heavy-handed way, but it’s a nod to the lifestyle adjustments that people who’ve been able-bodied have to go through when they find themselves disabled, even if it’s a temporary disabled condition. Ed does some griping about it, but not in a way that’s too self-pitying.

In a scene where Ed and Lorraine leave a courthouse after a preliminary hearing for Arne, observant viewers will notice that Ed needs to be carried in his wheelchair down the courtroom steps. It’s because the story takes place nine years before the Americans With Disabilities Act made it federal law in 1990 for buildings to provide reasonable access for disabled people. Nowadays, a courtroom building with outdoor steps, such as the building depicted in the movie, is also supposed to have ramps for people who use wheelchairs or walkers.

Since the first “The Conjuring” movie was released in 2013, Farmiga and Wilson have settled into these roles with a charming familiarity. Lorraine is the more level-headed and articulate one in this couple, while Ed (and his East Coast dialect slang) is the more approachable and down-to-earth spouse. Farmiga and Wilson are believable as a couple with a very deep love and respect for each other.

The rest of the cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, but the characters that are new to “The Conjuring” franchise for this movie were clearly written as only for this movie. The character of Arne is a little on the generic side, but O’Connor does an admirable job of conveying Arne’s inner turmoil. Bondurant’s role as the mystery woman who’s been plaguing Arne definitely brings a menacing aura to the movie, but she hardly says anything, so her presence is literally more muted than it needs to be.

Make no mistake: Ed and Lorraine Warren are the main characters for viewers to be the most invested in emotionally. In “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” Lorraine’s psychic abilities are a major part of the story. People might have mixed feelings about how these psychic visions are depicted in the movie and how much of this real-life case was embellished into a Hollywood version.

But just like the rest of the story, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” isn’t about trying to explain a lot of things that can’t be explained by scientific facts. Whether or not viewers believe that demonic spirits exist, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” succeeds in providing plenty of memorable horror that makes it a worthy part of “The Conjuring” universe.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on June 4, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on May 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Uprooting Addiction,’ starring Dr. Gabor Maté, Hope Payson, Daryl McGraw, Rob Funkauser, Kaytlin Coon, Mark Jenkins and Chuck Bascetta

May 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kaytlin Coon (center) and Pete Volkmann (far right) in “Uprooting Addiction” (Photo courtesy of First Run Features)

“Uprooting Addiction”

Directed by Tory Estern Jadow

Culture Representation: Taking place in Connecticut and New York state, the documentary “Uprooting Addiciton” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) discussing how childhood traumas are linked to addictions, specifically drug and alcohol addictions.

Culture Clash: The addiction experts and people in addiction recovery say that addiction treatments are not effective unless these addicts in recovery addresses these traumas.

Culture Audience: “Uprooting Addiction” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries that address addiction issues, but this documentary doesn’t reveal anything new and it’s too unfocused to leave much of an impact.

Mark Jenkins (third from left) and Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Center workers in “Uprooting Addiction” (Photo courtesy of First Run Features)

Even though it has good intentions, the documentary “Uprooting Addiction” takes a simple concept (treating substance addiction requires confronting childhood trauma) and squanders it by veering off-subject too many times. The movie is a little too limited in its scope, because it’s advertised as a documentary about the drug addicition epidemic in the U.S., but “Uprooting Addiction” only covers programs in Connecticut and New York state. “Uprooting Addiction” is only 64 minutes long, but viewers will learn more about addiction and recovery by watching any episode of “Intervention.” (The epilogue and end credits of “Uprooting Addiction” have a song from Darlingside called “Hold Your Head Up High,” which is the type of folksy acoustic guitar music with a male singer that’s very similar to The Davenports song “Five Steps,” which can be heard during the epiologue and end credits for “Intervention.”)

Directed by Tory Estern Jadow, “Uprooting Addiction” has the expected mix of interviews with licensed addiction experts and people in recovery. Some of the experts are also recovering addicts. Unfortunately, there’s nothing new that is said about addiction that hasn’t already been said in a docuseries such as “Intervention” or in other documentary films about people who get treatment for drug addiction.

“Uprooting Addiction” begins with Dr. Gabor Maté, a well-known addiction specialist, making this comment: “All addictions are rooted in trauma. I didn’t say that all traumatized persons will be addicted. But all addicted people are traumatized, whether they realize it or not.” You know what’s coming next: Footage of people in group therapy and in individual interviews telling their sob stories from their childhood.

And that’s expected, because it’s part of this movie’s theme: Addicts can’t fully recover unless they confront and treat any past trauma they’ve experienced in their lives. That trauma almost always goes all the way back to their childhoods. The problem with “Uprooting Addiction” is that it gets distracted from this theme and has footage that really didn’t need to be in the documentary if better editing choices were made.

For example, one of the people interviewed is Mark Jenkins, the founder of the Connecticut non-profit group Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Coaltion. Jenkins, who says he’s a recovering addict, describes his job this way: “It is my obligation to reduce the amount of harm [addicts] cause themselves and the community as the result of illicit drug use.” The documentary shows Jenkins and some of the coalition workers putting together Naloxone kits that include narcan (which counteracts the effects of narcotics) and candy.

Later, in the documentary, Jenkins says of Connecticut: “We’re in a state rich in services. But connecting people to those services?” His voice then trails off. This is where the documentary should have actually shown how Jenkins and other people in their group try to connect people with these services. Instead, all viewers get is footage of him and some people sitting at a table and stuffing plastic bags for Naloxone kits. The documentary doesn’t even show where these kits ended up.

A pharmacist named Joe Petricone of Torrington, Connecticut-based Petricone Pharmacy (which has been in his family for generations) says in a documentary interview: “We’re trying hard to get [narcan] into as many hands as possible.” What hands and how? The filmmakers of this documentary couldn’t grasp the concept of “show, don’t tell.”

There’s a lot of people in the documentary talking about what they do for community outreach in fighting addiction, but not enough footage showing them actually doing what they say they do, with real people who need the help. There’s a lot of talk in this documentary about how childhood trauma can lead to addiction. And yet, not once does this documentary show anyone reaching out to at-risk children to try to prevent them from becoming future addicts.

In another part of the documentary, Pete Volkmann, the police chief of Chatham, New York, is interviewed about how the city’s police department handles addiction in the community. Volkmann, who identifies himself as a recovering alcoholic, says the opioid epidemic is Chatham’s biggest problem. He also says that if drug addicts walk into the police station and ask for help, they are immediately treated as sick people, not criminals, and the best effort is made to get them into rehab as soon as possible.

Volkmann also says that he co-founded a Community Angels program of volunteers to help the police department with this responsibility. The volunteers interact with the addicts, who might be leery of dealing with cops, because the volunteers take away what Volkmann calls the “stigma” of being around cops. It’s a very rosy picture of how a police department treats a city’s drug problem.

But then, the documentary does something tacky and questionable by having Volkmann re-enact what it would be like if an addict walked into his office. The re-enactmant has a young man called “Joe” knock on Volkmann’s door, as if anyone can walk into this police chief’s office. The “addict” (who could be real addict or an actor; the documentary doesn’t say) sits down and talks to Volkmann, as if it’s just a friendly neighbor chat.

Kaytlin Coon, who’s identified in the documentary as a recovering addict and one of the city’s Angel volunteers, then simulates talking to this visitor. It’s all very stiff and awkward-looking. This is a documentary, not an acting workshop. And this re-enactment cheapens the movie’s message. Instead of re-eacting this scenario, the filmmakers should have shown a real scenario.

In fact, there’s hardly anything in the documentary that shows any real outreach to addicts who are still in the throes of addiction. Staged-looking group therapy meetings with self-identified “sober” people don’t count, because these are people who’ve already gotten help for their addictions. The documentary includes footage of an International Overdose Awareness Vigil in Torrington, Connecticut. But these types of vigils are more about being memorials to dead addicts and platforms to give speechs, rather than being community outreach events so addicts can get the help that they need.

A recovering addict named Daryl McGraw visits a halfway house/sober living place for men called Friendship House in New London, Connecticut. McGraw, who calls Friendship House his “brainchild,” is shown briefly (about two minutes) giving a friendly pep talk to some of the residents, including a new resident named Benji. The documentary never shows or mentions what happened to any of these residents after McGraw’s visit.

A recovering addict/alcoholic named Chuck Bascetta, who is a recovery sports specialist, is shown briefly interviewing another recovering addict at Community Mental Health Affiliates in New Britain, Connecticut. The interview footage is only about 30 seconds. And it’s not even an in-depth interview because all the questions have “yes” or “no” answers. The addict, who appears to be in his late 50s/early 60s, nods and says “yes” whenever Bascetta asks leading questions about if the addict has been able to stay clean and sober.

Any observant viewer can see that the addict, who is shifty-eyed and looks zonked out on something, isn’t entirely convincing in his claim that he’s clean and sober. And really, unless a drug test is done on the spot, addicts can’t really prove their sobriety when they’re in these counseling sessions. Drug tests aren’t even completely fool-proof, since the test results can be manipulated if someone else’s urine is used.

Maria Coutant Skinner, who is the executive director of the McCall Center for Behavioral Health (a rehab center in Torrington, Connecticut), says in an interview that she co-founded the Lichtfield County Opiate Task Force. But once again, the documentary just shows some people talking in a group, not going out in the community and actually doing the necessary work that a task force is supposed to do. As far as this documentary is concerned, you just mainly need to show people talking in meetings if you’re doing a documentary about treating drug addiction, even though any reasonable person knows that treating drug addiction is more than just talking about it.

Trauma and addiction specialist Hope Payson, who’s also a recovering addict, explains the need to address past trauma in addiction recovery: “If we understand the underlying reasons why someone would seek out dangerous substances to begin with, then we have a possible solution.” Payson mentions that her trauma includes having a brother who died from drug addiction.

The documentary then uses archival footage of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris giving a 2014 TEDMED talk in San Francisco. In the talk, Burke Harris explains the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente. It’s briefly mentioned that 17,000 people participated in the ACE Study “over time,” but the time period is not identified in the documentary. The purpose of the ACE Study is to determine if childhood abuse, neglect and trauma are directly linked to later-life outcomes such as addiction.

This ACE Study is the basis of a group therapy session, led by Payson, that’s shown in the documentary. An illustration of a tree is displayed in the room. At the roots of the tree, the group participants stick pieces of adhesive paper with words describing any childhood trauma they experienced and how it made them feel.

The ACE Study identifies 10 types of childhood trauma that are considered the roots of addiction:

  • emotional/mental abuse
  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • lack of emotional support from family members
  • physical neglect
  • a household member addicted to drugs or alcohol
  • a household member with mental illness
  • a household member who’s been incarcerated
  • parental divorce/separation
  • domestic violence against a parent/guardian

These 10 types of childhood trauma determine a person’s ACE Score. Each type of trauma is given a “1” score if someone experienced that trauma before reaching the age of 18. Those who endorse the ACE Study believe that the higher the ACE score, the more likely someone will become an addict. In the documentary, this unsourced statistic is shown: “Individuals with an ACE score of 4 or more are 10 times more likely to become IV drug users than someone with a score of zero.”

The problem with this statistic, because it’s unsourced, is that viewers have no idea what group of people were tested, how many were tested, and for how long, in order to come to this conclusion. In fact, all of the statistics in the documentary are unsourced, which lowers this documentary’s credibility. A lot of this documentary looks very amateurish in all aspects of production and post-production. The cinematography has some shaky camera work and random zooms in and out, as if someone is still fiddling around with the camera and figuring out how to use it.

And the editing is muddled with unnecessary and off-topic distractions. There’s a segment where McGraw, who’s an ex-con, is shown giving a speech to a group of people affiliated with the Bridgeport, Connecticut-based non-profit group Bridge House, which counsels adults with mental illnesses. In the speech, McGraw talks about a job interview experience he had after he got out of prison. It’s an interesting anecdote, but it doesn’t really belong in this documentary. If this documentary was about life after prison, then this segment would have worked better.

Coon is shown interviewed with her mother Donna, who talks about her bipolar son Jordan, who died of a drug overdose. Donna says, “He was a a sweet kid. He self-medicated … I feel guilty because I used to think life would be so much easier without him. It’s not.”

It’s a tragic family story, but it offers no reflection on what the family learned from this experience that could help other families going through the same things. Coon talks about how Jordan used to physically abuse her when they were kids, but that’s about the extent of what she reveals of any past trauma from her childhood.

Other recovering addicts interviewed in the documentary include Rob Funkhauser, an opioid addict who says that he was sexually abused as a child and had an alcoholic mother and an emotionally abusive father. Kelvin Young, an ex-con, talks about his childhood feeling like an inadequate misfit in a strict and religious household, where he says that his parents paid more attention to his older brothers who had more achievements.

McGraw, whose father abandoned the family, says that he witnessed and experienced a lot of violence inside and outside his single-parent household. Bascetta, who was the eighth of 10 kids in his family, says that his childhood was chaotic, and he experienced sexual abuse. Ryan Bailey, a recovering heroin addict, describes his childhood as bouncing around from relative to relative and having a mentally ill, drug-addicted mother who made him feel unloved because she gave him up to be raised by other people.

Epilogues at the end of “Uprooting Addiction” mention the ACE scores and therapy used by the documentary’s featured recovering addicts. On a scale of 1 to 10, Coon’s ACE score was 3; Bascetta and Funkhauser scored 4 on their ACE scores; Young and McGraw scored 5; and Bailey scored 9. All of the addicts have a recovery process that includes some type of group therapy.

The documentary mentions Eye Movement Desensitizaton and Reprocessing (EDMR) therapy, which uses eye movements to overcome trauma and anxiety. Bascetta is a big advocate of EDMR therapy, which he credits with getting rid of his cravings for drugs. Unfortunately for this documentary, the EDMR therapy is one of many examples of things that people talk about but the documentary doesn’t show. It wouldn’t have been that hard for the documentary to show actual EDMR therapy sessions and have willing volunteers track and report how the therapy worked for them.

“Uprooting Addiction” gives minimal mention of America’s racial disparities on which addicts get access to the best treatment and are less likely to be sentenced to prison for drug posesssion. That mention is literally reduced to a soundbite. Jenkins comments on the opioid epidemic: “This didn’t become an epidemic until white people started dying.”

A good documentary would have further explored those issues, but “Uprooting Addiction” doesn’t. However, observant viewers will notice that the two African American addicts from the group sessions who are interviewed (Young and McGraw) both spent time in prison, which they talk about in the documentary. Meanwhile, Funkhauser (who is white) practically brags that he never had a problem getting doctors to write any illegal prescriptions for him, as long has he looked like a businessman. The white drug addicts in the documentary do not talk about being in prison, because they give the impression they never went to prison as a result of their drug addiction.

The filmmakers obviously never bothered to ask Young and McGraw to comment on how their race might have affected how their drug addiction was treated by “the system.” While Chatham Police Chief Volkmann talks about being a police chief who’s willing to help drug addicts go to rehab instead of prison, what the “Uprooting Addiction” documentary doesn’t mention is that Chatham has a population that is 90% white, according to Data USA. Talk to any police chief in a U.S. city with a population that’s more than 30% black or Latino, and it’s highly unlkely that the police chiefs would be so accommodating and friendly to drug addicts in those cities. The statistics for drug arrests in those cities say a lot.

And that’s one of the biggest flaws of “Uprooting Addiction.” It’s a very superficial documentary that barely scratches the surface of the real problems of treating drug addiction. Talking about your childhood in group therapy sessions is one thing. But that doesn’t help all the addicts who can’t even get access to rehab or therapy in the first place, because they’re not in the right income bracket or because they’re a certain race and therefore are more likely to be incarcerated for having a drug addiction. And because “Uprooting Addiction” limits its focus to just two states to talk about a nationwide epidemic, this myopia is just one of many of this film’s credbility problems.

First Run Features released “Uprooting Addiction” on digital and VOD on April 6, 2021.

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