Review: ‘Project Power,’ starring Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Rodrigo Santoro, Colson Baker, Amy Landecker and Courtney B. Vance

August 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “Project Power” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

“Project Power”

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the action thriller “Project Power” features a racially diverse cast (African American, white and Latino) representing the middle-class and the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash:  An underground drug called Power, which has the ability to give people superpowers for five minutes each time the drug is ingested, is at the center of a power struggle between criminals, cops, a man on a revenge mission and the teenage rebel enlisted to help him.

Culture Audience: “Project Power” will appeal mostly to people who like “race against time” stories that have sci-fi elements, numerous fight scenes and gory visual effects.

Dominique Fishback in “Project Power” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

How do you get a superpower? In fictional stories, there are so many ways. And in the world of the action thriller “Project Power,” getting a superpower means swallowing a capsule pill called Power that can have one of two results: give someone a superpower for five minutes or immediately kill the person who ingests it. And in the world of “Project Power,” people are each born with a superpower that they won’t know they have until they take the Power pill that will unleash the power. When the pill kills someone instantly, it’s usually a bloody and gruesome death, such as someone’s body self-exploding.

Is it worth the risk to take the Power pill? That’s a dilemma that characters in this movie, which is set in New Orleans, constantly have to face when they have access to Power. Of course, this is the type of drug that’s not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so the underground/illegal status of the pill makes it even more valuable, especially to criminals. It’s why in the beginning of the movie, New Orleans is pretty much under siege by criminals who are taking the drug to commit and get away with violent crimes.

It’s during this chaos that three people’s lives collide: Frank (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cop who’s secretly ingesting Power to fight criminals; Robin (played by Dominique Fishback), a feisty teenager who’s been selling Power; and Art (played by Jamie Foxx), a military veteran who likes to call himself “The Major” who’s out for revenge. (The reason for Art’s vendetta is revealed in the movie.)

Frank knows Robin because she’s the one who sells Frank his Power pills. To ensure her loyalty, he also buys her a motorcycle for her birthday. Frank’s superpower is that he’s bulletproof and can can heal quickly from any injuries.

Frank is involved in a big chase scene with a robber, and it becomes almost impossible for Frank not to hide that he’s taken a Power pill, based on the superhuman way that he was able to be immune to deadly bullets. It might only be a matter of time before Frank’s boss Captain Craine (played by Courtney B. Vance) notices that Frank has superhuman abilities on the job.

Meanwhile, Art rolls into the area from Tampa, Florida, because he’s on a revenge mission. He has to do some investigating into who is responsible for a crime that he’s avenging. He knows that the people he’s looking for are involved in dealing the Power drug. Art stops by the apartment of a lowlife named Newt (played by Colson Baker), who takes a Power pill when he figures out that Art is looking for him and there’s going to be a big fight. This showdown between Art and Newt kicks off a series of high-octane action scenes that involve a lot of mayhem, blood and destruction.

Art and Robin “cross paths” when Art kidnaps her and basically forces her to help him on his mission to find the crime lord responsible for overseeing the illegal sales of Power in the area. Why? Because Robin is a local drug dealer of Power, and Art figures that she can be easily pressured into giving up information that will lead to the higher-ups on the drug-dealing hierarchy.

When she finds out the reason why Art is hell-bent on revenge, Robin becomes more sympathetic to him and a willing ally. But Frank is after Art because he’s convinced that Art is one of the bad guys. And so, Robin is somewhat caught in the middle, and she has to decide which person she can trust more.

The two chief villains of the story are Biggie (played by Rodrigo Santoro), who’s a typical scumbag type who inevitably takes someone hostage in the movie, and Gardner (played by Amy Landecker), the type of boss who walks around in power suits and gets other people to do the dirty work. There’s nothing inherently scary or memorable about these two generic villains.

“Project Power” (directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) is the type of movie where the characters are constantly chasing after or at the mercy of something that can “get into the wrong hands.” The main reason why people will want to see “Project Power” is to see what type of superpowers that characters will get to when they take the pill. The movie is essentially a showcase for these visual effects and chase scenes.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see an African American teenage girl have a prominent role in an action flick, when this type of role usually goes to male actors. On the other hand, “Project Power” (written by Mattson Tomlin) falls back on some over-used and negative stereotypes that African American teens in urban areas are criminals, because Robin is basically a drug dealer.

And the movie has this other tired cliché about African Americans: This teenage drug dealer is also an aspiring rapper. If this role had gone to someone who isn’t African American, it’s doubtful that the character would be a drug dealer/wannabe rapper. There’s a scene in the movie where Robin does a freestyle insult rap to a teacher who tries to discipline her.

The movie also has Robin as another African American negative stereotype: She’s the product of a financially deprived, broken home: She lives with her single mother Irene (played by Andrea Ward-Hammond), who’s struggling with an unnamed illness, and Robin has to be her caretaker. Andrea has no idea that her daughter is a drug dealer, even though it’s obvious that Robin’s minimum-wage, part-time job at a fast-food joint isn’t the reason why Robin has enough cash on her to help with the household bills.

All of these negative stereotypes would be extremely annoying if not for the fact that there is some redemption for Robin, and “Project Power” doesn’t spend a lot of time on these lazy and unimaginative clichés. What saves this movie from being a mindless set of action sequences is that Foxx and Gordon-Levitt have a push-and-pull rapport that is very entertaining to watch. Fishback also has some moments where she’s a scene-stealer.

“Project Power” also has some not-so-subtle messaging about how power (or the idea of having power) can be so addicting that people will stop at nothing to get it, even if it means risking death. There are some scenes where superpowers that are only supposed to last five minutes seem to go longer than five minutes. But most people watching this movie aren’t going to sit there and nitpick by keeping track of the length of time that the superpowers are really in effect. They just want to a lot of thrilling action scenes and at least one “freak creature” that hasn’t been seen before in a movie.

Netflix premiered “Project Power” on August 14, 2020.

Review: ‘Work It,’ starring Sabrina Carpenter, Liza Koshy, Keiynan Lonsdale and Jordan Fisher

August 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Neil Robles, Bianca Asilo, Tyler Hutchings, Liza Koshy, Jordan Fisher, Sabrina Carpenter, Nathaniel Scarlette and Indiana Mehta in “Work It” (Photo by Brendan Adam-Zwelling/Netflix)

“Work It” 

Directed by Laura Terruso

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramedy film “Work It” has a racially diverse cast (white, African American and Asian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  A high-school senior, who’s an overachiever but a clumsy dancer, wants to win a group dance contest in order to impress a college admissions officer, so she recruits a group of misfits to train as dancers and dethrone the reigning champs.

Culture Audience: “Work It” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic movies about students involved in dance contests.

Pictured in front row: Kalliane Bremault, Keiynan Lonsdale and Briana Andrade-Jones in “Work It” (Photo by Brendan Adam-Zwelling/Netflix)

Imagine a movie that takes almost every stereotypical plot in a teen movie and piles it on top of more clichés until it becomes a mindless mush of forgettable unoriginality. The result is the “Work It,” a dramedy that’s so derivative that even the movie’s title is recycled and bland. Directed by Laura Terruso and written by Alison Peck, “Work It” follows every formula of a teen dance movie to the point where people can predict what can happen even without seeing a second of this film. What saves “Work It” from being completely awful is much of the eye-catching choreography and the comedic talents of some of the cast members.

Here some of the high-school movie tropes in “Work it” that check a lot cliché boxes: Is there a nerdy protagonist who wants to transform into becoming more popular? Check. In “Work It,” she’s overachiever Quinn Ackerman (played by Sabrina Carpenter), a senior at the fictional Woodbright High School, which is located in an unnamed U.S. city. Quinn is consumed with her goal to get into Duke University, her late father’s alma mater.

Is there a big upcoming contest that will be a test of her popularity? Check. It’s the annual Work It dance competition, and Woodbright’s elite dance team the Thunderbirds are the reigning champs. Is there a sassy best friend who provides most of the comic relief? Check. She’s Jasmine “Jas” Hale (played by Liza Koshy), who is one of the best dancers on the Thunderbirds team.

Is there a villain? Check. The very arrogant captain of the Thunderbirds is Isaiah “Julliard” Pembroke (played Keiynan Lonsdale), who insists that people call him Julliard, because he’s convinced that he has what it takes to be admitted to this prestigious performing-arts college. Is there a love interest for the protagonist? Check. And is there a group of misfits who will band together with the protagonist to help her achieve her popularity goal? Check.

At the beginning of “Work it,” the conflict between Quinn and Julliard starts when Quinn, who has been a volunteer lightboard operator for the Thunderbirds, accidentally spills coffee on the lightboard during a Thunderbirds rehearsal. The accident results in a big electrical malfunction that singes the hair of one of the Thunderbirds named Brit Turner (played by Kalliane Bremault), who is one of Julliard’s fawning sidekicks.

Julliard storms into the studio control area with Brit and his other main sycophant Trinity (played by Briana Andrade-Jones), and rudely scolds Quinn about the mishap: “It is my responsibility to lead the team to a fourth consecutive victory!” Quinn makes a profuse apology and promises that the accident won’t happen again. But Julliard is not having it.

“Brit’s hair was singed,” he huffs imperiously. “She probably has to get bangs now, and she doesn’t have the face for it.” Julliard then haughtily fires Quinn by telling her, “You are banished from this room!”

Quinn’s feelings are hurt by the dismissal, but she has something bigger to worry about: her upcoming in-person interview with an admission officer at Duke University. Quinn, who narrates this film, explains in a voiceover that she’s fixated on attending Duke because her father was a Duke alum, and Quinn has happy memories of going to Duke football games and alumni events. Quinn says of Duke: “It feels like home—if you had a less than 6% acceptance rate.”

Quinn’s supportive mother Maria Ackerman (played by Naomi Snieckus) is equally enthusiastic about Quinn attending Duke. Maria and Quinn share a tendency to be worried, neurotic and over-prepared. They are both nervous wrecks by the time that Maria drives Quinn to Duke for Quinn’s interview.

At the interview, Quinn lists her qualifications for why she’s an ideal candidate for Duke: She’s a national Merit Scholar with a 4.0 GPA. She’s the student government treasurer at her high school. For extracurricular activities, she’s president of the school’s AV Club; she volunteers at a nursing home three days a week; and she plays the cello.

The Duke admissions officer Veronica Ramirez (played by Michelle Buteau) makes it clear to Quinn that she’s bored and unimpressed because other applicants have the same qualifications. Ms. Ramirez tells Quinn that they’re looking for risk-takers who are passionate about something, so Quinn blurts out that she really likes the Thunderbirds, who are the reigning champs of the Work It competition.

Ms. Ramirez comments that she loves the Work It competition, and she assumes that Quinn is part of the Thunderbirds dance team. Quinn doesn’t correct her and tell her the truth: That she’s not a dancer and she’s not even part of the Thunderbirds anymore as their lightboard operator.

But then, Quinn soon regrets this deliberate misleading, because Ms. Ramirez then excitedly tells Quinn that she’ll be at the Work It competition this year and that she looks forward to seeing Quinn there. The Work It contest happens before Quinn will find out if she got accepted into Duke, so she leaves the interview silently panicking over how she’s going to be able to get out of this big lie with the one person who can make or break her admission into Duke.

After thinking about writing an apology email confessing her lie, Quinn changes her mind and comes up with a desperate plan: She’ll learn how to dance in the few weeks left before the qualifying stage of the contest, audition for the Thunderbirds, and then get into the Work It competition as part of the Thunderbirds dance team. Quinn begs a reluctant Jas to be her dance teacher, by reminding Jas that Quinn has helped her with her academics, and it’s time to return the favor.

The big problem, of course, is that Quinn is an uncoordinated klutz. Quinn also wants to dancer/choreographer Jake Taylor (played by Jordan Fisher), who’s a few years older than she is, to coach her. Jake was expected to make it big as a dancer after a won a major dance contest, but his dance career was cut short after he got an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, and he disappeared from the professional dance scene.

Of course, Quinn tracks him down, and finds out that he’s been making a living teaching elementary-school-aged kids how to dance. Jake still has a lot of talent, but the injury has shaken his confidence in becoming a professional dancer again. Quinn shows up unannounced at one of his classes and tells him that she wants him to teach her how to dance and she won’t take no for an anwer. He’s annoyed and amused by Quinn’s persistence and basically tells her to go away. But since he’s Quinn’s obvious love interest, this won’t be the last we see of Jake in this story.

Quinn’s audition for the Thunderbirds goes as badly as you think it does. Julliard gets a big laugh over Quinn’s humiliation, especially when she begs him to join the team. He sarcastically suggests that maybe Quinn should start her own dance team. And you just know she does.

Quinn’s first recruit is Jas, who’s reluctant at first to quit the Thunderbirds. But Julliard treats everyone on the Thunderbirds team like crap, so it isn’t long before Jas is all-in for Quinn’s team. Quinn can’t think of an official name, so she calls the team TBD—as in, to be determined.

And this is where the misfits come in: One by one, Quinn convinces other unlikely students at the school to join her team. Raven (played by Bianca Asilo) is a pessimistic Goth girl who likes to dance to heavy-metal songs for videos that she puts on social media. Chris Royo (played by Neil Robles) is a social outcast on his soccer team, but he has good rhythm. Quinn appeals to Chris’ ego by telling him that he’ll be more appreciated on her dance team than on the soccer team.

DJ Tapes (played by Nathaniel Scarlette) is a dancer who seems to be straight out of the ‘80s, with a boombox and hip-hop breakdancing style. Robby G. (Tyler Hutchins) is a tall, thin dorky type whose claim to fame is he was once seen doing a back flip. Quinn tracks him down at a karate dojo. Priya Singh (played by Indiana Mehta) is a sarcastic roller skater, who has a knack for twirling, so she’s enlisted for the dance team too.

“Work It” has the expected montages of Quinn and the rest of her motley crew being terrible dancers (except for Jas), with the expected clumsy falls and uncoordinated moves, with Quinn being the driving force for them not to give up. There’s also a running joke in the film that Jas has a crush on a hunky guy named Charlie (played by Drew Ray Tanner), who works as a salesman in a mattress store. And so, there are multiple scenes of Jas engaging in all sorts of hijinks (including asking Charlie to “spoon” with her on a bed mattress), in order to get his attention.

Koshy is one of the few bright spots in this dreadfully predictable film. Even though she and the other cast members have a lot of cringeworthy dialogue, Koshy’s comedic timing and facial expressions show that she has real knack for bringing a humorous flair that can elevate some horrible screenwriting. She’s a bit of a scene stealer. Lonsdale also looks like he’s having funny playing a flamboyant villain, even if the role at times veers too much into some stereotypical tropes that male dancers have catty, effeminate qualities.

Carpenter is just fine in her role as Quinn, the story’s heroine, although she’s played the “good girl” many times before on screen, so it’s not much of an acting stretch for her. As for Fisher, he is charming enough in his role, but his Jake character is written as kind of a blank slate, with no sense of who his family or friends are.

The chemistry and dancing between Carpenter and Fisher are fairly tame (this movie is no “Dirty Dancing”), as is most of the film’s humor. However, there is one scene where a male dancer’s erection is played for cheap laughs. The target audience for this movie is obviously kids in the age range of 12 to 17, so the erection scene is this movie’s way of being “edgy” for this type of audience.

Most of this movie’s attempts at humor fall flat and have very cheesy lines. For example, when Quinn and her dance team decide to go to the nursing home where she volunteers, so that they can practice in front of a live audience, the only person who’s in the audience is a nursing home resident, who ends up dying during the performance. Priya says as the man’s corpse is being taken away in an ambulance: “I’m pretty sure the key to a live audience is keeping them alive.”

The movie’s dancing and choreography are very “So You Think You Can Dance.” There are some eye-catching moments, but nothing that will make “Work It” a classic dance film. The movie’s soundtrack is also a predictable collection of pop tunes, including Dua Lipa’s “Break My Heart,” Normani’s “Motivation,” Ciara’s “Thinkin Bout You,” Meghan Trainor’s “Treat Myself” and Zara Larsson’s “WOW.”

All the energy put into the dance numbers still can’t erase the fact that “Work It” is hopelessly lazy when it comes to the generic way that the story is told. The only steps that this vapid movie seems concerned with are those that move from story cliché to story cliché.

Netflix premiered “Work It” on August 7, 2020.

Review: ‘Shine Your Eyes,’ starring OC Ukeje, Indira Nascimento, Paulo André, Ike Barry and Chukwudi Iwuji

August 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ike Barry and OC Ukeje in “Shine Your Eyes” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Shine Your Eyes”

Directed by Matias Mariani

English, Portuguese, Igbo, Hungarian and Chinese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Brazil and briefly in Nigeria, the drama “Shine You Eyes” has a predominantly African cast (and some Brazilians and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Nigerian man travels to Brazil to find his missing older brother, and he discovers some unsettling clues about his brother’s disappearance while experiencing culture shock and language barriers in Brazil.

Culture Audience: “Shine Your Eyes” will appeal primarily to people who like mysteries and psychological dramas with international characters.

OC Ukeje in “Shine Your Eyes” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

On the surface, “Shine Your Eyes” could be seen as an intriguing drama about a man looking for his missing brother. But beneath the surface are richly layered themes about sibling rivalry and family responsibilities, as well lines that can be blurred between being superstitious, being scientifically brilliant and being mentally ill. Directed by Matias Mariani, “Shine Your Eyes” moves along at a mostly languid pace that can be disarming in keeping people guessing on where the story is going, because what happens in the last 20 minutes of the film is like a jolt meant to shake up any predictable notion of how this movie will end.

The beginning of the movie opens in Nsukka, Nigeria, in 1988. Two brothers (played by Eresto Lusala and Ivo Daniel Nduaya Madu), who are close to each other in age (about 6 or 7 years old) are in a bedroom together. One brother talks about what it would be like if his own mouth was where his mind should be, and he commands his brother to imagine it. “This is the face of your Chi,” he tells his brother.

The movie then fast-forwards to São Paulo, Brazil, in 2019. A Nigerian musician named Amadi Igbomaeze (played by OC Ukeje) has just arrived in the city. Amadi goes to the Galeria Presidente shopping mall, where he his greeted by his uncle Chefe Ogboh (played by Ike Barry), who has a beauty supply store/salon in the mall.

Amadi isn’t in Brazil for a just a casual family visit. He’s on a mission to find his older brother Ikenna (played by Chukwudi Iwuji), who has disappeared. Ikenna has a fiancée in Nigeria who hasn’t heard from Ikenna for more than a year. Ikenna has seemed to have vanished into thin air, so Amadi is determined to find out what happened.

Throughout the movie, Amadi plays voice mail messages from his mother, who is never seen in the movie. However, the messages make it clear that Ikenna is considered the “favorite” child and the “star” of the family. It seems that Amadi has always felt as if he’s been in the shadow of his older brother, which brings some complications to the family dynamics and Amadi’s own emotions, since Amadi is now taken on an “alpha male” role of trying to find Ikenna.

Most of “Shine Your Eyes” follows Amadi’s deliberate step-by-step investigation, which leads to unexpected twists and turns . He’s worried, but not frantic. And while Amadi searches for his brother in various parts of São Paulo, he experiences some culture shock and language barriers (he speaks English, but not Portuguese) that could hinder his investigation.

Based on the last email communication that Ikenna sent to Amadi, Ikenna has recently started a new job as head professor of qualitative statistics at Covenant University in São Paulo. Amadi goes to the university website and sees Ikenna’s name, photo and title listed, along with other faculty members, such as the university’s provost and faculty overseer Miro Kuzko (played by Paulo André). But when Amadi goes to the address that Ikenna gave as his work address, Amadi finds out that it’s not a university but a public planning office.

The biggest clues to Ikenna’s disappearance are on the laptop computer that Ikenna left behind for repairs at a public computer cafe. Amadi happened to be using the same cafe when he noticed the computer behind the clerk’s counter, in a stack of other computers waiting to be repaired. Ikenna’s laptop computer has unique and distinctive stickers on it.

The clerk tells Amadi that the person who owned the computer left it there for repairs and never picked it up, so Amadi pays for the repairs and begins looking at everything he can on the computer. Somehow, Amadi has figured out the password to the computer, and he finds a treasure trove of email, photos and videos that lead him down various paths in the story. Amadi discovers that Ikenna has been leading a secret double life in Brazil, including fabricating stories about his background and using the alias Charlie.

Amadi also finds out that Ikenna had been dating one of the beauty salon employees named Emilia Nascimento (played by Indira Nascimento), who believes that Ikenna deliberately left and doesn’t want to be found. Because she thinks that Ikenna abandoned her and because Amadi looks a lot like his brother and has sibling rivalry issues with him, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what will happen with Amadi and Emilia.

“Shine Your Eyes” takes its time to uncover the different layers to the story, which shows different slices of life in Nigerian Igbo culture and Brazilian culture. “Shine Your Eyes” screenplay is credited to six people (director/producer Mariani,  Chika Anadu, Francine Barbosa, Júlia Murat, Maíra Bühler and Roberto Winter), but it doesn’t appear to have suffered from “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome. The middle of the film drags a bit, but the movie has some interesting subtexts that explore the contrasts of superstition and science, and how mental health might play a role in how people perceive themselves and others.

All of the actors in the cast do a perfectly fine job with their roles. Leonardo Bittencourt’s striking cinematography puts a lot of emphasis on high-rise buildings or tall heights in São Paulo. These camera angles give viewers a sense of Amadi’s culture shock of being in a big city like São Paulo that has numerous skyscrapers. Ultimately, the greatest strength of “Shine Your Eyes” is in how the movie goes beyond a typical “missing person” story and effectively conveys that people who try to run away from their families are often trying to run away from themselves.

Netflix premiered “Shine Your Eyes” on July 29, 2020.

Review: ‘Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado,’ starring Walter Mercado

July 8, 2020

by Carla Hay

Walter Mercado in “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” 

Directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Puerto Rico and Miami, the documentary “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” interviews a predominantly Latino group group of people about famous astrologer Walter Mercado, including Mercado, his relatives, colleagues and fans.

Culture Clash: Mercado, who died in 2019, experienced homophobia and devastating lawsuits in his life.

Culture Audience: Aside from the obvious target audience of Mercado’s fans, “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” will appeal primarily to people who like documentaries about larger-than-life personalities.

A photo of Walter Mercado in the 1980s in “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Famous astrologer Walter Mercado had a public persona of being effusive and upbeat in his long life (he died in 2019, at the age of 87), and that’s also the emotional tone of the documentary “Much Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.” This biographical film, which has Mercado’s participation, definitely takes a “fan” perspective, without going overboard on being sycophantic worship, but also without any probing investigations either.

Directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, “Much Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” doesn’t uncover much about Mercado that hasn’t already been reported elsewhere. However, the documentary is a fascinating look into the last months of his life, when he came out of seclusion after a decade out of the public spotlight.

Mercado is an icon to Latinos, but he also became world-famous in other cultures, thanks to his TV shows and psychic hotlines that gave him an international empire worth millions in the 1980s and 1990s. He dressed like Liberace and had a hairstyle like Joan Rivers, but his uplifting way of entertaining and motivational speaking was all his own.

Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on March 9, 1932 (that would make him a Pisces in Western astrology), Walter Mercado Salinas was one of three children of José María Mercado and Aída Salinas, who was a native of Spain. Mercado grew up in a rural area of Puerto Rico. And, as he says in the documentary, he knew he was “different” from an early age.

“I was a dreamer,” Mercado remembers. He also tells a story about how when he was a child, he helped heal a wounded bird and then began to have a reputation as a child prodigy who was a spiritual guru. He says that people came from all over Puerto Rico to visit him, and he was given the name “Walter of the Miracles.”

It’s unknown if all of that is really true or perhaps exaggerated, since this documentary’s filmmakers didn’t seem to make any attempt to verify Mercado’s stories about his childhood. However, several of Mercado’s nieces are interviewed in the documentary: Ivonne Benet Mercado, Betty Benet Mercado, Dannette Benet Mercado, Bibi Benet Mercado, Carmen Mercado and Charita Mercado. Not surprisingly, they all praise their uncle Walter, but none of the nieces really comments on what their parents told them about how Walter was in his childhood.

Walter, who describes himself as a mama’s boy, says that his mother was overprotective but very loving and supportive of her unique son. He remembers that his mother liked to tell him: “To be different is a gift.” At the University of Puerto Rico, he studied pedagogy, psychology and pharmacy, but he ended up having a career as an entertainer, first as a dancer and actor and later as a TV personality/astrologer.

Walter had been making a living doing stage plays and TV appearances (including lots of telenovelas) when he made a guest appearance on Elín Ortíz’s Telemundo show in 1969. Walter was on the show to promote his starring role in the stage play “Triptico Del Amor, Del Dolor y De La Muerte.” During a segment, Walter ad-libbed some horoscopes, and the response from the TV audience was so immediate and positive, that he ended up getting his own astrology show on Telemundo called “Walter, the Stars and You.”

He later starred in the TV series “Walter y Las Estrellas” (which is Spanish for “Walter and the Stars”) and had his own radio show that was syndicated around the world. His radio and TV empire eventually expanded to psychic hotlines, which had their peak popularity in the 1980s and 1990s.

Walter describes his type of horoscope predictions as a combination of astrology and various religious philosophies: “I realize that all religions have a point of convergence. I call it interfaith religion.”

Guillermo “Bill” Bakula, who was Walter’s manager during the height of Walter’s career, comments in the documentary about his role in Walter’s life: “I was the coach for one single purpose: Walter’s message to get out to as many people as possible.”

However, the documentary makes it clear that greed eventually became the driving force behind Bakula’s motivations. Through his company Bart Enterprises International, Bakula had Walter sign over the rights to the Walter Mercado name, as well as past, present and future rights to Walter’s work, in perpetuity. Walter claims that he was duped into signing the contract.

Walter severed ties with Bakula and Bart Enterprises in 2006, the last year that Walter starred in a TV series. The lawsuits and countersuits weren’t resolved until 2012. The final outcome of the lawsuits was covered in the media and is mentioned in the documentary, but won’t be revealed in this review, in case people want to see the documentary to find out what happened. Two days after the lawsuits were resolved, Walter had a heart attack.

Walter’s former publicist Jody Vialy explains what went wrong in the relationship between Walter and former manager Bakula: “Walter was not about business … Walter expected good things and ran into a world of trouble that he never saw coming.”

Vialy adds, “Bill almost became like a son to him … I do believe that Bill broke his heart. I do believe that in the beginning, Bill was his angel. And towards the end, Bill was his devil.”

In the documentary, Bakula has this to say about what happened: “I’ve never regretted anything in my life.” His arrogant and dismissive tone don’t make him look sympathetic at all. And, with pain and heartbreak still etched on his face, Walter describes the falling out with Bakula and subsequent lawsuits as “a nightmare.”

Bakula comments on Walter: “He never says anything negative. That’s probably the key ingredient to his success and his ability to communicate.” And true to that positive nature, Walter doesn’t have anything bad to say in this documentary about anyone who might have hurt him. All he will say in the documentary is: “I’ve had very, very difficult problems. I suffered a lot. I lost a lot.”

Some of the interviewees in the documentary hint that Walter’s people-pleasing ways made him too nice—almost to a fault. Univision’s “Primer Impacto” creator Maria Lopez Alvarez comments: “I don’t ever remember hearing Walter say no. He’s not that type of personality. Inside, he’s a little boy that wants to be loved and respected.”

And this documentary shows that Walter got an abundance of love and respect in return, since he gets no criticism or unflattering stories in this film. Some of the praise he gets is a little over-the-top: LGBTQ activist Karlo Karlo calls Walter a “superhero,” while singer Nydia Caro calls Walter a “warrior.” But considering that Walter was so nice—not just for the cameras, but in real life—it’s not surprising that he was so beloved and people only have good things to say about him.

“Mucho Mucho Amor” (which gets its title from Walter’s signature signoff) also prominently features Walter’s longtime personal assistant Willie Acosta, who is definitely the person who is closest to Walter. Acosta is sassy, funny and a joy to watch when he and Walter are together. It’s kind of sad to think about how lost Acosta must feel now that Walter is gone, but this documentary shows how vibrant Walter was and how special his relationship was with Acosta.

The documentary also mentions but doesn’t pry too much into Walter’s sexuality and love life, which he always avoided talking about in public. Because of his flamboyant and androgynous physical appearance, Walter (who never married and did not have children) was widely presumed to be somewhere on the “not heterosexual” spectrum. However, he never publicly confirmed or denied his sexual orientation. Some people have speculated that he was not “queer” but asexual.

When asked about his love life, Walter says coyly in the documentary: “I have sex with life.” If Walter had any past lovers, they have never gone public. As for Acosta, he says in the documentary that he knows that people assume that he’s Walter’s lover, but Acosta insists that he and Walter have a strictly platonic relationship that’s “like family.” Walter’s nieces don’t have much insight, except to say that they don’t really know the full truth of Walter’s love life because that’s the way he wanted it.

Regardless of what his true sexuality was, LGBTQ activist Karlo says that Mercado was a role model for queer people: “Growing up as a queer boy and watching Walter Mercado gave me hope … He broke barriers. It goes beyond coming out.”

Mercado’s flamboyant persona was parodied by many comedians (including Eugenio Derbez, who’s interviewed in the documentary), and many of those imitations were homophobic and hurt his feelings, say his confidants. “He was embraced and ‘othered’ at the same time,” Mireya Lacio, a self-described “witch” who’s a Walter Mercado fan, says of those parodies. But because Walter never declared his sexuality in a public manner, he wasn’t fully shunned by the Latino community, especially during the years when the Catholic Church had more restrictive policies about homosexuality than it does now.

As for his plastic surgery, Walter is also vague and coy, saying that he’s had “a little arrangement” and that he’s had “Botox, like Nicole Kidman.” He admits that looking glamorous and youthful has been an obsession for him, which is why he jokes, “I’m just like Dorian Gray.” (It’s no surprise then that Walter has a portrait of “Dorian Gray” author Oscar Wilde in his home, like one would display a portrait of a family member.)

The documentary, which has several interviews of Walter in his home, also has Walter giving a grand tour of his extensive wardrobe and memorabilia collection. Acosta opens up the kitchen cupboards to show all the vitamins that Walter takes. Walter also explains that his background as a dancer has helped him keep active and fit.

One of the highlights of the documentary is when Lin-Manuel Miranda goes with his father Luis Miranda to meet Walter. The mutual admiration between these two celebrities is very sweet and endearing to watch. And their meeting shows how someone as famous as Lin-Manuel Miranda can get star-struck.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s been a Walter Mercado fan since childhood, is shown commenting at the beginning of the documentary: “Growing up with Walter Mercado, I remember thinking how dramatic he was, how fabulous he was. I can’t think of an English-language astrologer who could command the attention of millions of households … I think he’s this positive force.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include radio producer Tony Hernandez; TV host Mauricio Zeilic; Wilma Torres (Walter’s secretary); Carlos Velazquez (Walter’s former attorney); and actor/influencer/fan Curly Velasquez.

And to demonstrate how Walter has permeated into pop culture, the documentary interviews Matt Kascher, owner of Stephen’s Deli in Hialeah, Florida, where the stalls in the ladies’ room are decorated with Walter Mercado images. Kascher says that sometimes male customers have to  be stopped from going into the ladies room because the men want to see the Walter Mercado decorations. Bobby Gilardi, the beverage director for Ariete Hospitality Group in Miami, says that they’ve crated a Walter Mercado drink that has a “smoky, floral note.”

The documentary culminates with Walter attending the 2019 opening of HistoryMiami Museum’s retrospective exhibit tribute to him. It’s a testament to his far-reaching popularity that a diverse group of fans attended the event. His entrance is every bit the over-the-top spectacle that you would expect it to be.

“Mucho Mucho Amor” might not have any surprises for longtime fans of Walter Mercado. And for people who know very little or nothing about him before seeing this film will come away with an appreciation for what kind of entertainer he was, in this day and age when nasty celebrity feuds on social media have become too common. The documentary is a true reflection of its subject, by accomplishing the intended goal of making people feel uplifted and entertained.

Netflix premiered “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” on July 8, 2020.

Review: ‘Desperados,’ starring Nasim Pedrad, Lamorne Morris, Anna Camp, Sarah Burns, Robbie Amell and Heather Graham

July 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sarah Burns, Nasim Pedrad and Anna Camp in “Desperados” (Photo by Cate Cameron/Netflix)

“Desperados”

Directed by LP

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and Mexico, the romantic comedy “Desperados” features a racially diverse cast (white, African American, Latino) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A desperate-to-married woman is convinced her new boyfriend will break up with her after sending him a hateful email over a misunderstanding, so she enlists two of her female friends to go with her to Mexico, where he’s on vacation, in order to delete the email before he sees it.

Culture Audience: “Desperados” will appeal primarily to people who like predictable and often unrealistic romantic comedies.

Nasim Pedrad and Lamorne Morris  in “Desperados” (Photo by Cate Cameron/Netflix)

As long as the messy and very fake reality TV franchise “The Bachelor” continues to attract millions of viewers, there will always be a big-enough audience for messy and very fake romantic comedies like “Desperados.” This movie is as formulaic and predictable as you might expect. But worst of all, “Desperados” wants to pretend that it’s feminist and edgy, when it’s really not. “Desperados”—directed by LP (the work alias for Lauren Palmigiano) and written by Ellen Rapaport—might have all the appearances of a contemporary film. But at its core, the film’s message about how women should act and how women should be rewarded when looking for love is as old-fashioned as a Doris Day movie.

In “Desperados,” the central character is Wesley “Wes” Darya (played by Nasim Pedrad), a divorced, childless woman in her late 30s who’s living in Los Angeles and experiencing an early mid-life crisis. After ditching a career in corporate finance, Wes has decided to become a high-school guidance counselor. She’s been struggling to find a job (mostly because she ruins her interviews by being a vulgar motormouth), and she’s having a hard time paying her bills. Things have gotten so bad for Wes that when she gets an occasional babysitting job from a friend, she steals food from the family’s refrigerator.

Wes’ love life isn’t going so well either, since she isn’t seeing anyone special, and her recent dates have been duds. Wes also has a serious case of social-media envy, since she’s obsessed with comparing her life to the seemingly wonderful lives of her friends and other peers. Wes is also starting to feel her biological clock ticking, since she’s contemplating freezing her eggs when she has the money to do that procedure.

Wes’ two best friends—Brooke Barnes (played by Anna Camp) and Kaylie Mills (played by Sarah Burns)—are the same age as Wes. Brooke and her husband have a baby son together. Kaylie and her husband have been unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child. Wes envies Brooke and Kaylie, just because Brooke and Kaylie are married and don’t seem to have any money problems.

One day, while Wes and Kaylie are over at Brooke’s place, Wes begins complaining about her life. They advise her that it’s not healthy to compare her life to other people’s lives on social media, because people always hide their problems. Brooke tells Wes that marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, while Kaylie says that infertility can put a big strain on a relationship where two people desperately want to have a child. But Wes doesn’t want to hear about how her two best friends feel about their marriages. In Wes’ mind, she’s gotten the rawest deal out of the three of them, because she has no man, no job and no children.

Something that sets Wes over the edge while she wallows in self-pity is hearing that her ex-husband Erik has gotten engaged. Wes finds out when Erik leaves her a voicemail message to tell her the news. And by the way, as Erik says in his message, he and his fiancée are featured in a romantic photo spread in the latest issue of Brides magazine. Of course, Wes rushes to a magazine stand to look at the article, and her jealousy goes into overdrive when she finds out that Erik’s fiancée is younger, prettier and more accomplished than Wes is.

Wes is even more desperate to find a new man, now that she knows her ex-husband is getting married. Wes goes on a blind date that was set up by a mutual friend. The friend (whose name is Tad and who’s never seen in the movie) has set Wes up with a widower named Sean McGuire (played by Lamorne Morris), who texts and calls her in a friendly conversation before the date. (Jason Mitchell was originally cast in the Sean McGuire role, before he was fired in 2019 over a #MeToo scandal on the Showtime series “The Chi,” and he lost other jobs as a result.) Sean and Wes agree that if their blind date goes badly for either of them, they should use the code word “no” to end the date right there, with no hard feelings.

Wes’ date with Sean at a casual restaurant starts off pretty well—until she starts blabbering about how all of her friends have great jobs and great relationships and that her ex-husband is getting married. At this point in her life, Wes is old enough to know that sounding like a whiny and jealous shrew is not the way to make a good impression on a first date. But she’s so self-absorbed that she doesn’t realize that she’s turning off Sean, until he tells her the code word “no.”

At first, Wes doesn’t understand that Sean wants to end the date. But when she finally realizes that he’s done with the date and wants to leave, she rips into him about how hard her life is and how hard it is to find a good man in Los Angeles. Okay, well, that rant is just going to confirm that he made the right decision to end the date. Sean is a gentleman, and he lets Wes leave in a huff.

As an angry Wes storms out of the restaurant, she trips on one of the steps and falls flat on her face. And lo and behold, she’s helped up by a handsome stranger named Jared Sterling (played by Robbie Amell), who invites her over to his place that night. And when Wes gets a look at Jared’s home, it’s obvious that Jared is doing very well financially.

Wes is flustered, partly because Jared seems like her dream man, but also because her fall outside the restaurant has left her a little dazed. She half-jokingly tells Jared that her brain might not be working correctly because of the fall. And he responds by telling her that it’s okay, because he doesn’t want her to think too hard—as in, he doesn’t want her to be too smart for him. This demeaning comment would be a red flag to any self-respecting person, but Wes is too dazzled by Jared’s good looks and apparent wealth to notice that he wants a dumb, submissive girlfriend who’ll go along with whatever he wants.

Wes makes the same mistake that many women do in banal romantic comedies like this one: She pretends to be someone she’s not in order to “get the guy.” Wes pretends to like the same things that Jared does, which is shown in a montage that’s kind of cringeworthy and not very funny. Wes and Jared eventually become lovers, and the first time they have sex together, she’s already imagining them married with children.

Shortly after they’ve started sleeping together, Jared suddenly “ghosts” Wes. And, of course, after she calls and texts and still doesn’t hear from Jared, she assumes that this is his way of breaking up with her. Once again, Wes goes on a “poor me” diatribe about her love life when she’s hanging out with Brooke and Kaylie. In a drunken rage, Wes decides to send a hateful email to Jared from her laptop, by calling him all kinds of names and even mentioning his dead father as a way to hurt Jared. Brooke and Kaylie get caught up in it too, and they help Wes write some other things in the hate mail.

Wes has been stealing Wi-Fi service from a neighbor, so sending the email takes longer than expected. While Brooke and Kaylie oversee the laptop to send the email, Wes gets a phone call and takes the call in another room. The caller is Jared, who is calling from a hospital in Mexico. It turns out he’s been in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he got into a terrible car accident and was in a coma for several days.

When she realizes that this is the reason why she didn’t hear from Jared, Wes frantically tries to stop Brooke and Kaylie from sending the email before it’s too late. But, of course, it is too late. The email was already sent.

Wes is terrified that Jared will read the email and break up with her. She rejects the idea of sending a follow-up apology email, because she doesn’t want Jared to get any hint that she’s a psycho you-know-what. And so, because Jared mentioned that because of the car accident, all of his belongings (including his phone) are still at his hotel in Cabo San Lucas, Wes comes up with the extremely dumb idea of going to Mexico to find Jared’s cell phone, hack into it, and delete the email before he can see it. Jared is expected to be discharged from the hospital in a few days, so of course there’s a “race against time” to find his phone.

Brooke, who is the most cautious and level-headed of the three friends, thinks it’s a bad idea. Kaylie, who’s the type of friend who believes that a Mexican shaman can help her become fertile, thinks it’s a great idea. Ultimately, Brooke is convinced to go on the trip because she thinks it’s good excuse to go on a vacation to Mexico.

And so, off the three friends go with no real plan to find and hack into Jared’s phone, except for Wes’ vague notion that they can walk around the resort where he’s staying and keep calling his phone, in the hope that they’ll hear his ringtone somewhere in this big resort. Never mind that they have no idea what room he’s staying at in the resort. (Hotels don’t give out that information for privacy reasons.)

You know exactly how this movie is going to end as soon as (surprise, surprise) Wes sees that Sean is staying at the exact same resort too. Before the inevitable happens, there are some repetitive pedophilia jokes involving an adolescent boy named Nolan Ryan Phillippe (played by Toby Grey), who’s about 12 or 13 years old, and staying with his protective mother Debbie (played by Jessica Chaffin) at the resort. Nolan develops a crush on Wes, who (through a series of slapstick circumstances to get to Jared’s room) ends up in the same room as Nolan wearing nothing but a towel, and Debbie catches Wes with her precious little boy.

It doesn’t help that Debbie’s horrified first impression of Wes was when Wes arrived at the resort, and Wes’ vibrator accidentally dropped out of her purse in front of Nolan. Of course, Nolan picked up the vibrator and asked his mother what kind of toy it is. This type of vibrator joke has been done before in so many other movies (such as in 2019’s “Good Boys”) that it’s an example of how unoriginal and uninspired “Desperados” is in when it comes to sight gags.

Heather Graham has a small role in the movie as Angel de la Paz, the “healer” whom Kaylie has hired to give her guidance about her fertility issues. The way this scene ends is very predictable, considering that Angel makes it obvious with her touchy-feely ways that she’s more interested in spending time with Brooke than she is with Kaylie. And the resort’s native Mexican workers Ramon (played by Rodrigo Franco) and Quintano (played by Izzy Diaz) are vaguely written characters that are treated as gullible idiots by the self-centered Wes when she needs to con or trick them into doing something for her.

Although Pedrad is a charismatic comedian in other projects, she’s saddled with playing a loathsome, less-than-smart character in “Desperados.” The derivative screenwriting is difficult to overcome for any actors looking to do something unique with their roles in this movie. Morris’ Sean character is literally the straight man to Wes’ insufferable antics, and he doesn’t have much to do, except to play the “nice guy,” who’s a lot more patient with Wes than he should be. (Pedrad and Morris played love interests in the sitcom “New Girl,” so at least they look comfortable working together.) The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles, with no particular standouts.

The main character in a romantic comedy doesn’t have to be “likable,” but audiences should expect the character to be believable. The reason why Wes (and most of this movie) is a big emotional fraud is because she tries to act like she’s an independent woman who can think and do things for herself, when the whole story revolves around her thinking that her life will be “ruined,” based on one angry email that she wrote to a boyfriend. This is how teenagers feel, not women in their 30s who are supposed to be emotionally mature.

In fact, almost everything that Wes does is based on what she wants other people to think about her, not what will actually make her happy. Later in the film, Sean does a big favor for Wes that causes a significant change in her life, but she couldn’t even accomplish that change on her own. The essential message of “Desperados” is that Wes needs a man to “rescue” her. It’s a very outdated mindset for a movie that tries to pass itself off as “modern” or “feminist.”

“Desperados” throws in a lot of cursing and raunchy humor to make it look like it isn’t mawkish and sentimental. But in the end, this often-dull movie is just as sappy and unrealistic as the trite romantic comedies that are on the Hallmark Channel.

Netflix premiered “Desperados” on July 3, 2020

Review: ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,’ starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

Culture Representation: Taking place in Iceland and Scotland, the musical comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has a predominantly white cast (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An Icelandic male/female pop-music duo called Fire Saga aspire to on the annual Eurovision Song Contest, but they come up against naysayers in their home country as well as competitors from other countries.

Culture Audience: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, as well as to people who like good-natured satires of fame seekers and hokey TV talent contests.

Dan Stevens in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is an entertaining parody of the famous annual Eurovision Song Contest that feels retro and contemporary at the same time. The contest, which began in 1956 and is televised in numerous countries, has singers (usually performing pop music) competing from different countries around the world, as a sort of an Olympics for aspiring music stars. Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams portray the earnest but naïve Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, a musical duo from Iceland who perform under the stage name Fire Saga. Ferrell, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Andrew Steele, is one of the producers of this comedy. And it’s one of Ferrell’s best movies in years.

Although “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (directed by David Dobkin) takes place in the present day, a lot of the musical sensibilities and costumes seem to be stuck in a previous decade, especially the 1980s or 1990s. The movie’s running joke, although not explicitly stated, is that certain parts of Europe are “behind the times” in pop music, because these countries rarely produce groundbreaking pop superstars on a worldwide level. Therefore, the performers who represent these countries at Eurovision are often ridiculed by Eurovision haters for looking and sounding outdated.

The trailer for “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” already shows that Fire Saga made it to the contest. Therefore, the first third of this 123-minute movie has no suspense, since it’s all about the obstacles that Fire Saga encounters in the quest to make it to Eurovision. Iceland has never had a Eurovision winner, so that immediately makes Fire Saga the ultimate underdog act.

The movie begins in Húsavík, Iceland, on April 6, 1974, when a pre-teen Lars (played by Alfie Melia), his stern widower father Erick (played by Pierce Brosnan) and other members of the family are watching Eurovision in the living room. The Swedish pop group ABBA is performing “Waterloo,” and Lars is transfixed. (ABBA won Eurovision that year and has remained Eurovision’s most famous winning act.)

As Lars dances along to ABBA performing on TV, he announces to his family that someday, he’s going to be a contestant on Eurovision. Several people scoff at the idea, including Erick, who says he’d rather be dead than to have his son sing and dance on Eurovision. Well, you know what that means.

About 45 years later, Lars is still living with his father, who makes a living as a fisherman, while Lars has a job giving parking tickets. Lars and his musical partner Sigrit (who is a music teacher) are longtime friends. They are singers and multi-instrumentalists, but they’ve been floundering in the dead-end local music scene. Fire Saga’s music “career” consists of rehearsing in the basement of Erick’s house and performing at a small local bar.

A running joke in the movie is that the patrons of this bar don’t want to hear any Fire Saga original songs (such as the trash-tastic “Volcano Man”) and would rather hear Fire Saga perform a very childish, nonsensical tune called “Jaja Ding Dong.” The audience is so fanatical about “Jaja Ding Dong” that they will often demand that Fire Saga perform it more than once in a single set. Is it any wonder that Lars and Sigrit think Eurovision will be their ticket out of this backwards town?

Erick isn’t the only one who thinks Lars is a loser and that it’s a delusional lost cause for Fire Saga to be on Eurovision. Sigrit’s single mother Helka (played by Elin Petersdottir) vehemently disapproves of Sigrit chasing this dream and tells Sigrit that she’s wasting her time with Lars. Although it’s not shown in the movie, it’s mentioned that Sigrit used to be mute as a child, until she met Lars and he helped her find her voice through music. And Lars and Sigrit have been friends ever since.

But now that they’re adults, Sigrit wants to be more than friends with Lars, because she’s secretly in love with him. Lars has the maturity level of a teenager (like most characters Farrell tends to play), so Lars is completely oblivious to Sigrit’s true feelings for him. As if to make the point that Lars and Sigrit don’t exude sexual chemistry with each other, throughout the movie, people who meet Lars and Sigrit for the first time mistakenly assume that Lars and Sigrit are brother and sister. Later in the story, when Sigrit and Lars almost kiss romantically, he stops it from happening because he says they can’t ruin their work relationship with a romance, and they have to stay focused on winning Eurovision.

But getting to Eurovision won’t be so easy. First, Fire Saga has to win the Icelandic Song Contest. Neils Brongus (played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), the president of Icelandic Public Television, leads a committee in charge of deciding who will be contestants in the Icelandic Song Contest. And he already has a favorite to win: Katiana Lindsdottir (played by Demi Lovato), from Kefalvik, a ready-made pop star with a powerful singing voice.

Neils tells his assembled team after watching Katiana’s audition video: “Without being dramatic, I think it might be the best audition tape we ever had in the history of the Icelandic Song Contest.”  (In the movie, Lovato sings the original song “In the Mirror.”) Compared to Katiana, Fire Saga looks like a bad joke.

Meanwhile, Victor Karlsson (played by Mikael Persbrandt), governor of Central Bank of Iceland, is worried about a contestant from Iceland winning Eurovision, which has a tradition of the winning contestant’s country hosting the contest in the following year. Victor fears that Iceland doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who would come to Iceland for Eurovision. And  he thinks that all those visitors during a short period of time could bankrupt Iceland.

Therefore, Victor is not enthusiastic about Katiana or anyone from Iceland winning Eurovision. When Victor expresses his concerns to Neils and the team at Icelandic Public Television, the rest of the group immediately shoots down Victor’s pessimistic prediction, because they think Eurovision coming to Iceland would be great for the Icelandic economy.

Lars’ dream of wining Eurovision becomes even more desperate when he finds himself homeless. His father Erick is having serious financial problems and has a choice to sell his house or sell his boat. Since Erick needs his boat for his fisherman income, he decides to sell the house.

Meanwhile, Sigrit has a quirk that Lars finds a little irritating: She believes in elves and thinks that elves can grant wishes. A recurring joke in the movie is that she visits a group of tiny houses built for elves and offers food and other gifts to the unseen creatures, as a way to entice them to grant her wishes. Two of her biggest wishes are to win Eurovision and to get together with Lars and start a family with him.

Through a series of unpredictable events, Fire Saga ends up representing Iceland at Eurovision, which is being held in Edinburgh, Scotland. How the usually hapless Fire Saga got to Eurovision wasn’t necessarily because Fire Saga was voted the best act, so Iceland’s support is lukewarm at best. Still, Iceland has given Fire Saga enough support that the country has hired a creative team to help Fire Saga win with Fire Saga’s chosen song “Double Trouble.”

The artistic director of this creative team is the very fussy and flamboyant Kevin Swain (played by Jamie Demetriou, in a scene-stealing performance), who sometimes clashes with the creative vision that Lars and Sigrit have for Fire Saga. During Eurovision rehearsals, Lars and Sirgit also meet another flamboyant character: Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov (played by Dan Stevens), a singer who flaunts his wealth and gives the impression that he will sleep with anyone to get them to do what he wants. Alexander’s Eurovision song is called “Lion of Love,” and his bombastic performance of the song includes a homoerotic choreography with male backup dancers wearing skintight gold lamé pants.

Alexander (whose frosted 1980s hairdo is reminiscent of George Michael in his Wham! days) immediately sets his sights on Sigrit to target as a sexual conquest. Meanwhile, Lars attracts the amorous attention of Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (played by Melissanthi Mahut), a singer who’s like a cross between Ariana Grande and Cher. Not surprisingly, some jealousy situations ensue.

In between all of the backstage drama and hilariously tacky performances, the movie has a standout musical ensemble number that takes place at a contestant party thrown by Alexander. In this scene, numerous contestants (including Lars, Sigrit, Alexander and Mita) do an extravagant medley of Cher’s “Believe,” Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” ABBA’s “Waterloo” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

Savan Kotecha, the musical director for this movie, assembled the team that wrote the film’s original songs that were deliberately kitschy. His background in writing and producing hits for real-life pop stars serves this movie very well. Among the hits that Kotecha co-written and co-produced include The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Grande’s “God Is a Woman,” One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and Lovato’s “Confident.” The musical score by Atli Örvarsson complements the pop tunes without being overbearing.

The movie’s Eurovision performance scenes, which includes footage from real Eurovision arena shows, are among the comedic highlights of the film. Just when you think an act couldn’t get campier or more pompous, another one comes along to surpass it. Graham Norton (portraying himself) adds an element of satirical realism with his cameo as the sardonic TV commentator for Eurovision.

For “Eurovision Song Contest,” McAdams and Ferrell have reunited with their “Wedding Crashers” director Dobkin, whose previous experience as a music-video director is an asset for this musical movie. As for the singing in the movie, Lovato and Mahut are professional singers in real life, so they did their own vocals. Adams’ vocals were either her own or a combination of McAdams and those of Swedish singer Molly Sandé. Alexander’s operatic singing vocals were provided by Erik Mjönes.

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has plenty of lowbrow jokes that are actually laugh-out-loud funny. For example, there are several penis jokes and jokes about naked men in the movie. The jokes are crude but not offensive. In one scene, Lars comments: “I think of my penis like a Volvo—solid, sturdy, dependable, but not going to turn any heads.” Comedy is all about delivery, and Ferrell delivers the line in such a good natured, self-deprecating way, that it will make people laugh.

The movie doesn’t just poke fun at tacky aspiring pop stars from Europe. Americans are also the butt of many jokes in the film. During the course of the movie, Lars and Sigrit keep encountering the same group of college-age American tourists. Lars makes it known that he dislikes Americans, by taunting the tourists with the worst “ugly American” stereotypes. His insults aren’t too far off from how many non-Americans perceive Americans.

Make no mistake: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is by no means an Oscar-worthy movie. (Ferrell has never starred in that type of movie anyway.) But it is a cut above some of the stinkers that Ferrell has been headlining in recent years. At its heart, “Eurovision Song Contest” has a sentimentality to it that just might win people over in the way that Fire Saga earnestly tries to charm audiences—not by being the most talented but by being their unapologetically corny selves.

Netflix premiered “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” on June 26, 2020.

Review: ‘Athlete A,’ starring Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher, Steve Berta, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Jennifer Sey

June 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maggie Nichols in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Athlete A”

Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

Culture Representation: The documentary “Athlete A” interviews an all-white group of people to discuss how officials and survivors handled the crimes of convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, the disgraced former doctor who worked for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.

Culture Clash: The documentary examines how Nassar’s crimes were actively covered up by officials and how a team of Indianapolis Star investigative reporters exposed the Nassar scandal in 2016.

Culture Audience: “Athlete A” will appeal primarily to people who like true-crime documentaries, but the movie doesn’t uncover anything new and leaves out some important details.

Rachael Denhollander in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

There will be inevitable comparisons of Netflix’s 2020 documentary film “Athlete A” (directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk) and HBO’s 2019 documentary film “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” (directed by Erin Lee Carr), because both documentaries essentially cover the same topic. Neither film uncovers anything new about the 2016 scandal that exposed Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of female patients while he worked as a doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. “Athlete A” takes a different angle from “At the Heart of Gold” by giving more of a spotlight to the Indianapolis Star newspaper team that broke the story.

“Athlete A” gets its title from the alias that was given to gymnast Maggie Nichols when she filed a formal complaint with USA Gymnastics in 2015 to report that Nassar had sexually abused her numerous times, in the guise of administering “medical examinations.” Nichols’ complaint was one of several that USA Gymnastics actively covered up and did not report to police. Michigan State University also did the same thing when it received numerous sexual-abuse complaints about Nassar, whose known abuse spanned more than 20 years.

Maggie Nichols is among the survivors of Nassar’s abuse who are interviewed in “Athlete A,” which also interviews former gymnasts Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard and Jamie Dantzscher, who are also survivors of Nassar’s abuse. “Athlete A,” which focuses more on how the scandal went public, has a much smaller number of people interviewed, compared to “At the Heart of Gold,” which has a broader look at the aftermath of the scandal. And ultimately, taking a much narrower view might be why “Athlete A” provides a less complete picture than “At the Heart of Gold.”

The Nassar scandal exposed the culture of cover-ups, abuse, silence and intimidation that many female gymnasts (who are usually underage when the abuse starts) have had to endure in their quest for athletic glory. Several media outlets and documentaries have already done in-depth investigations and reported their findings of the Nassar scandal, but the Indianapolis Star was the first to break the story.

“Athlete A” gives a lot of screen time to the Indianapolis Star team members who broke the story: investigations editor Steve Berta and investigative reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans. They all give a step-by-step replay of how they uncovered how deep the scandal was and how far back the cover-ups were, as more and more women started coming forward to the Indianapolis Star with their Nassar horror stories.

Berta says of the culture of female gymnastics: “What the culture was like was new to me, and we were sort of plunged into it.” Kwiatkowski explains that the Indianapolis Star (which is nicknamed the Indy Star) somewhat stumbled onto the Nassar story when the newspaper was investigating a broader story on why people don’t report sexual abuse in schools.

The Indianapolis Star got a tip to look into USA Gymnastics, and that led the reporters down the path to find out about Nassar’s sex crimes and what officials did to cover up the complaints against him. (Nassar has now been stripped of his medical license. In 2017 and 2018, he received numerous prison sentences that will ensure that he will die in prison.)

Curiously, “Athlete A” paints an incomplete picture by focusing mostly on USA Gymnastics as the chief perpetrator of the cover-ups, and the documentary largely ignores Michigan State University’s similar cover-ups of Nassar’s crimes. Several officials from USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University have since been fired or have resigned because of the Nassar scandal. Many of these disgraced officials are facing criminal and/or civil cases because of their involvement in the scandal.

As many people who are familiar with the scandal already know, USA Gymnastics had a policy to not report a sexual-abuse claim to the police unless the alleged victim, the alleged victim’s parents and/or an eyewitness signed the complaint. Most of the accusers were underage children, so this policy goes against most U.S. state laws that require companies and organizations to report complaints of underage sexual abuse to police.

Nassar certainly wasn’t the only one to be accused, and when his sex crimes were exposed, the media also uncovered that over a period of 10 years, USA Gymnastics had received sexual-abuse complaints against approximately 54 coaches (most of the crimes were against underage girls), but those complaints were never reported to police. USA Gymnastics often transferred many of those coaches to other locations.

Steven Penny Jr., who was president/CEO of USA Gymnastics from 2005 to 2017, is portrayed in “Athlete A” as the king of the Nassar cover-ups. The documentary includes some brief commentary about him, including people who say that Penny abused his power and that his marketing background caused him to give more priority to image and sponsorship deals for USA Gymnastics instead of the safety and well-being of the athletes.

Berta says, “They [USA Gymnastics] were so busy trying to sell that brand that they didn’t have time for these girls.” The documentary also includes archival news footage of Penny’s pathetic appearance in a 2018 U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, when he invoked the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in his refusal to answer any questions.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols, the parents of Maggie Nichols, say in “Athlete A” interviews that they had trusted Penny when he told them that USA Gymnastics would be handling Maggie’s sexual-abuse complaints against Nassar. The Nicholas parents say that when Sarah Jantzi, Maggie’s coach at the time, first reported the abuse to USA Gymnastics in 2015, the company ordered the Nichols parents and Jantzi not to go to the police and were told that the matter was going to be handled internally by USA Gymnastics.

A human-resources consultant hired by USA Gymnastics interviewed Maggie, but when her parents followed up to find out the status of the investigation, they were stonewalled by USA Gymnastics and told that they couldn’t reveal any details because it was an ongoing investigation. Meanwhile, Nassar continued to be a USA Gymnastics doctor, and several gymnasts later testified that he abused them before, during and after the 2016 Olympics.

Maggie Nichols eventually went public in 2018 about how Nassar abused her. But her experience is strikingly similar to others who survived his abuse. (Nassar is believed to have sexually abused at least 500 female patients.) All of his survivors, and even people who weren’t abused by Nassar, say that he easily fooled people into thinking he was the “nice guy” in a sea of gymnastic coaches and officials who were tough and openly abusive to athletes.

If people are wondering why all these parents of underage kids didn’t take it upon themselves go to the police after finding out about the abuse, it’s explained in “Athlete A” (and other documentaries/news reports about the Nassar scandal) that USA Gymnastics had the power to decide who would be selected to go to the Olympics. These parents naïvely trusted that USA Gymnastics would do the right thing in handling the abuse complaints, but there was also fear of upsetting Penny and other people at the top who could make or break their daughters’ Olympic dreams.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols believe that Maggie was blackballed from being on the Olympic team because she was a “whistleblower.” Maggie was a bronze medalist at the 2014 USA Gymnastics National Championships and a silver medalist at the 2015 USA Gymnastics National Championships. She was considered a top contender to be chosen for the USA Gymnastics women’s team for the 2016 Olympics.

Despite a having a knee injury at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, Maggie performed well, but didn’t make the Olympic team, while some Nationals team alternates were chosen instead. Gina Nichols and John Nichols say in the documentary that they saw signs that USA Gymnastics had blackballed them because the organization treated them differently after Maggie’s abuse was reported to USA Gymnastics, but the complaint against Nassar hadn’t been made public yet.

After the abuse was reported, Gina Nichols and John Nichols say that at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, they didn’t have reserved seats and there weren’t TV cameras following them, as there normally would have been for all the other USA Gymnastics televised events where star gymnast Maggie previously participated. The Nichols parents don’t come right out and accuse anyone specific for causing this blatant snubbing, but it’s obvious that they believe several people’s claims that Penny demanded it. The good news is that Maggie went on to achieve gymnastic championships in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, while she was a student at the University of Oklahoma.

“Athlete A” includes archival video footage of Denhollander being interviewed in 2016 by the Indianapolis Star when she came forward to expose Nassar, 16 years after he abused her. She says at one point: “I wish I had dealt with it 16 years ago. I don’t think I could’ve dealt with it, but I can now.”

The documentary also shows the toll that this abuse took on the survivors, many of whom were ridiculed and not believed when they first came forward. Denhollander, who looks painfully thin in her 2016 interview with the Indianapolis Star, says that she had trouble eating because of all the stress. Dantzscher, who was on the USA Olympics team in 2000, says that gymnastics was her “first love,” but she tearfully admits that it took her years to be proud to be an Olympian because Nassar abused her at the Olympics and she associated the Olympics with the shame of the abuse.

“Athlete A” also delves into the history of women’s gymnastics to explain how it went from being a sport that had mostly regular-sized adult women prior to the 1960s but it eventually changed into a sport dominated by underage girls, and a height of 5’4″ was considered “tall” for female gymnasts. This “little girl” aesthetic for female gymnasts coincided with the rise of Romanian gymnastic coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi, a husband-and-wife duo whose Karolyi Ranch training facility in Texas was where Nassar committed a lot of his sexual abuse.

Beginning with Russian gold-medalist gymnast Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympics and especially with Romanian gold-medalist gymnast Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Olympics, the trend moved in the direction of underage, very petite girls being pushed to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics. Comăneci was only 14 when she became a gold medalist at the 1976 Olympics. Her victory made her coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi highly in demand to train female gymnasts.

In 1981, the Károlyis defected to the United States with their choreographer Geza Poszar, who is interviewed in “Athlete A.” The Károlyis also went on to coach Olympic gold-medalists gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug. “Athlete A” spends a little too much time going off-topic by rehashing the Olympic victories of Comăneci, Retton and Strug. These gymnasts had nothing to do with Nassar.

Poszar says that the Károlyis’ method of working with gymnasts was “total control over the girls.” He says that Károlyis (and coaches just like them) often abuse the gymnasts verbally, emotionally and physically. It was common for the gymnasts to be slapped and be told that they were fat animals, says Poszar. That type of abuse was “acceptable” in his native Romania, he says, and it apparently was acceptable in the United States too.

Károlyi Ranch, a training facility near Hunstville, Texas, closed in 2018. The Károlyis are no longer USA Gymnastics coaches (Béla retired in 1997, while Márta retired in 2016), and they have both been sued for being part of the Nassar cover-up. “Athlete A” includes a clip from a videotaped deposition of Márta Károlyi admitting that she knew about complaints of Nassar’s abuse that was happening at the ranch.

People familiar with Károlyi Ranch describe it as an oppressive, isolated compound where parents weren’t allowed to visit, gymnasts were forbidden to call people outside the ranch (where cell-phone reception was difficult anyway), and people were punished for reporting abuse. The Károlyis, just like everyone else accused of covering up for Nassar, are not interviewed in “Athlete A.”

Giving her perspective on coaching techniques is former U.S. Nationals Team gymnast is Jennifer Sey, author of the 2008 memoir: “Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams.” Sey, who competed as a gymnast in the 1970s and 1980s, says that coaching methods for female gymnasts haven’t changed much over the years: “You could be as cruel as you needed to be to get what you needed out of your athletes.”

Sey adds, “The line between tough coaching and abuse gets blurred.” She and other people in the documentary (including Dantzscher) mention something that’s commonly known in the gymnastics world: Gymnasts are often forced to compete with serious injuries, including fractured or broken bones. As an example, “Athlete A” shows Strug’s 1996 Olympic victory, which happened despite her severely injuring her ankle during the last stretch of the Olympic match.

Tracee Talavera, who was on the USA Women’s Gymnastics team at the 1984 Olympics, says she remembers how the Olympic gymnasts from Eastern Europe always looked scared and they never looked happy. Mike Jacki, who was president of USA Gymnastics from 1983 to 1994, adds his perspective, by saying that the popularity of Mary Lou Retton and more American female gymnasts starting to win at the Olympics, was the start of USA Gymnastics becoming a bigger business.

“Athlete A” clearly discusses Olympic gymnasts from the 1970s and 1980s, as a way to put into context the culture of abuse that enabled Nassar. But this detour into the history of female gymnastics ultimately takes up too much time in the documentary, which should have kept its focus on the Nassar cases.

And for a documentary about the investigation of a sexual abuser who had hundreds of victims, “Athlete A” has a surprising scarcity of interviews from people in the fields of law and law enforcement. Only one personal attorney is interviewed: John Manly, who is Dantzcher’s lawyer. From law enforcement, Michigan State University Police detective lieutenant Andrea Munford and Michigan state assistant attorney Angela Povilaitis are interviewed, and they describe their involvements in the Nassar case. (Again, nothing new is revealed here.)

“Athlete A” also includes the expected news archival footage of the survivor impact statements that were read during Nassar’s 2018 sentencing hearings, after he pleaded guilty to numerous charges. Denhollander and Dantzscher were among the survivors who read their statements while a shamed Nassar sat in the courtroom. Maggie Nichols did not attend these hearings, but her mother Gina read Maggie’s statement in court. “Athlete A” does not have interviews with Nassar’s most famous survivors, including Olympic gold-medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney.

Former USA Gymnastics president/CEO Penny was arrested in 2018 on charges of  evidence tampering. His criminal case is pending, as of this writing. Video footage of his arrest is included in “Athlete A.”

But in an apparent myopic zeal to make Penny look like the top evil overlord of covering up for Nassar, “Athlete A” oversimplifies and overlooks the fact that a cover-up of this magnitude and length wasn’t just orchestrated by mainly one person. “Athlete A” fails to mention two of the toxic enablers who were given some scrutiny in “At the Heart of Gold”: John Geddert (former USA Gymnastics coach) and Kathie Klages (former Michigan State University gymnastics coach). Geddert is under criminal investigation, as of this writing. In February 2020, Klages was convicted of two counts (one felony and one misdemeanor) of lying to police.

There have been other people who’ve been accused of actively covering up for Nassar’s crimes, including former Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon, who resigned in 2018. In 2019, Simon was charged with lying to the police, but in May 2020, those charges were dismissed. In 2018, Scott Blackmun resigned as CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. That same year, Alan Ashley was fired as U.S. Olympic Committee chief of sport performance over his involvement in the Nassar scandal. Simon, Blackmun and Ashley are not mentioned in “Athlete A” or in “At the Heart of Gold.”

“Athlete A'” does mention Rhonda Faehn, who was a USA Gymnastics vice president at the time that Maggie Nichols filed her complaint against Nassar, but Faehn did not go to police with the complaint. In yet another example of omitting information, “Athlete A” never mentions what happened to Faehn: She testified against Nassar in 2018 in grand-jury proceedings, then she was hired by the University of Michigan in 2019 (and then fired after one day, due to public backlash), and later that year, Faehn was given a temporary job as an international team coach at Waverley Gymnastics Centre in Australia.

“Athlete A” certainly has good intentions to put the spotlight on the serious issue of abuse, as it pertains to American female gymnasts. However, the documentary ultimately just recycles information that other people already reported. The documentary’s interviews are compelling, but the filmmakers’ lack of original investigative reporting and omission of crucial details are ultimately a letdown for this important subject matter.

Netflix premiere “Athlete A” on May 24, 2020.

Review: ‘Disclosure,’ starring Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono, Lilly Wachowski, Jen Richards, Yance Ford, Candis Cayne and Mj Rodriguez

June 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Laverne Cox in “Disclosure” (Photo by Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix)

“Disclosure” (2020) 

Directed by Sam Feder

Culture Representation: The documentary “Disclosure” has a racially diverse group of entertainers and activists (white, black, Asian and Latino) discussing how transgender people are depicted in movies and television.

Culture Clash: The documentary examines damaging bigotry that leads to confusion, hatred and untrue or misleading stereotyping of transgender people.

Culture Audience: “Disclosure” will appeal mainly to people who care about the rights of transgender people, but the documentary is also worth viewing for people who need to be more educated on why movies and television have a major impact in how transgender people are treated by society.

Chaz Bono in “Disclosure” (Photo by Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix)

When the documentary “Disclosure” (directed by Sam Feder) premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, it was subtitled “Trans Lives on Screen.” That subtitle was removed when the film made its way to Netflix. And it’s too bad the movie no longer has this subtitle, since this description needed to be displayed loud and proud to announce the documentary’s subject matter. By stripping the documentary of its original subtitle, “Disclosure” just sounds like a generically vague movie, based on the title.

Title changes are usually made by the movie’s distributor for marketing reasons, in order to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. Perhaps whoever decided on this title change thought that having the word “trans” in any part of the documentary’s title would scare off potential viewers. If that was the main reason for dropping the subtitle “Trans Lives on Screen,” then it’s an ironic choice, since the entire movie is about de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying what it means to be a transgender person, as it relates to how trans people are portrayed in movies and on television.

“Disclosure” does a very good job overall of covering these issues by giving the entire narrative to trans people. Everyone interviewed in the documentary is a transgender entertainer and/or trans activist. (“Disclosure” director Feder is also transgender.) People interviewed in the movie include Laverne Cox, Angelica Ross, Brian Michael Smith, Yance Ford, Zeke Smith, Lilly Wachowski, Mj Rodriguez, Michael D. Cohen, Chaz Bono, Jamie Clayton, Alexandra Billings, Jen Richards, Tiq Milan, Nick Adams, Tre’Vell Anderson, Trace Lysette, Rain Valdez, Zackary Drucker, Marquis Vilson, Chase Strangio, Sandra Caldwell, Candis Cayne, Susan Stryker, Alexandra Grey, Jazzmun, Ser Anzoategui, Elliot Fletcher, Bianca Leigh, Leo Sheng, Mickey R. Mahoney and Hailie Sahar.

However, the documentary (which has a traditional format that blends interviews with archival footage) doesn’t do an adequate job of explaining variances along the gender spectrum. There are many people in society who get confused between being transgender and doing drag. It’s a confusion that the documentary further muddles by bringing up examples of drag impersonations in movies and television and putting them in the same category as transgender representation. Some of the documentary’s examples include Dustin Hoffman in 1982’s “Tootsie” and Robin Williams in 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire,” as well as female personas created by male comedians Milton Berle, Flip Wilson and Jamie Foxx on comedy TV series.

Here is what “Disclosure” should have done from the beginning before going into the flashy montages of film and TV clips: Educate people on the different identities in the gender spectrum.

The documentary assumes that people watching the film already know what “cisgender” means. The definition of “cisgender” is when someone identifies as the biological gender assigned at birth. The majority of people in the world are cisgender and use the pronouns “he/him” if they identify as male and “she/her” if they identify as female. Most cisgender people are heterosexual (attracted to the opposite sex), while other cisgender people identify as “queer” (attracted to the same sex, both sexes or any gender) or “asexual” (not interested in any sex at all). It depends on the individual.

Transgender people are people who identify as the opposite of their biological gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender people have their own unique journeys on how and when they decide to present themselves as the gender they are. Many transgender people, for various reasons (usually pressures from society or family members), are forced to present themselves as the gender that is opposite of who they are.

Transgender people all over the world are fighting for the rights to be gendered correctly and to openly live their lives as the gender with which they identify, without being discriminated against for it. A transgender woman should have the pronouns “she/her” and a transgender man should have the pronouns “he/him.” Just like with cisgender people, sexuality for transgender people depends on an individual: Transgender people can be sexually attracted to any, all or no people on the gender spectrum.

Transgender people are often misidentified as doing drag. And that is a common misconception that the documentary really should have pointed out better. Drag is dressing up as the opposite sex. For transgender people, their gender identity isn’t “doing drag,” like a costume someone can put on and take off when they choose. The documentary really missed an opportunity to clarify between “doing drag” and “being transgender.”

Likewise, people can get confused over what “trans” means when there are transsexuals and transvestites. Transsexuals are transgender people who undergo gender confirmation surgery. Transvestites are cisgender people who dress up as the opposite sex. Transvestites are a subculture of drag culture, because transvestites are usually people who identify as straight or bisexual. None of that is explained in the documentary.

Also not mentioned in the documentary: There are some people who identify as “gender-fluid” and present themselves as male and female, depending on the situation. When gender-fluid people present as male, they want their pronouns to be “he/him,” and when they present as female, they want their pronouns to be “she/her.” Gender-fluid people are not to be confused with nonbinary people, who don’t identify as any gender and use the pronouns “they” and “them.”

Maybe the “Disclosure” filmmakers thought all of this information would be confusing to viewers. But a lot of people in the world don’t know that there is a gender difference between RuPaul (a cisgender gay man who does drag as a woman) and Laverne Cox (a transgender woman). A movie like “Disclosure” could have done a better job of educating people who are ignorant of these differences, instead of assuming that everyone who watches the film already knows what the differences are.

That being said, “Disclosure” has an impressive compilation of film/TV clips and personal stories from transgender entertainers who talk about how images on screen influenced (for better or worse) how they felt about themselves as transgender people. “Disclosure” also responsibly acknowledges the additional prejudice that transgender people can face from other members of the LGBTQ community.

There are also disproportionate levels of racism and sexism that transgender women of color experience, compared to cisgender queer white people. (Most hate crimes against transgender people are crimes against transgender women of color.) And because white transgender people get more representation on screen than transgender people of color, it causes limited stereotyping that can stifle the careers of transgender people of color. Actress/producer Valdez (who is of Filipino heritage and was raised in Guam) says in the documentary she’s spent her entire career trying to convince people that she can do roles other than the Asian “M. Butterfly” stereotype.

“Disclosure” offers a fairly comprehensive historical account of how transgender lives have been depicted in movies and television. The documentary includes examples of movies all the way back to the silent-film era. Two silent films released in 1914 are singled out in particular: director D.W. Griffith’s “Judith of Bethulia” and director Sidney Drew’s “A Florida Enchantment.”

But this is where “doing drag” and “being transgender” can get confused, since both films don’t really specify if the characters are really transgender or if the characters are cisgender people doing drag. For the first half of 20th century, the terminology just didn’t exist to make the distinction between the two types of identities.

Adding to the confusion is that many films from the silent-film era had shameful and degrading portrayals of women and people of color, with white men acting in those roles because white men were the ones usually allowed to get those roles in the first place. The practice of male actors dressing up as women goes back centuries before film was even invented, when women were not allowed to be actors.

Movies allowed roles for women, but early silent films still had a lot of men portraying women, simply because there weren’t enough women who were allowed to be actors. That doesn’t necessarily mean those characters were written as transgender or queer. It’s something that “Disclosure” should have put into better historical context.

However, actress/activist Cox (who is one of the executive producers of “Disclosure”) makes this noteworthy comment: “I think it’s fascinating that some of the earliest moving images were cross-dressed images. When you watch, it feels very much like womanhood is silly and is to be mocked.”

Oscar-nominated “Strong Island” director Ford says that he’s not surprised that movies from early filmmakers such as Griffith presented anyone who wasn’t a straight white male in a demeaning manner. Ford comments that he’s glad he didn’t go to film school because he would have walked out if they showed him Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan film “Birth of a Nation,” which is often taught in films schools as one of the most influential movies of the silent-film era. “The Matrix” filmmaker Lilly Wachowski puts it bluntly when she says of Griffith: “You racist piece of shit.”

Transgender representation in films obviously became more pronounced in the latter half of the 20th century, when transgender identities and gender confirmation surgeries became more openly discussed in society. Some of the films mentioned as being influential for transgender representation include 1992’s “The Crying Game,” 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club” and 2015’s “The Danish Girl,” which were all nominees or winners of Academy Awards. For documentary films, 1990’s “Paris Is Burning” is praised as one of the most influential of all time for transgender representation.

However, even some of those films had problematic issues, according to some of the “Disclosure” interviewees. “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Danish Girl” all had cisgender actors portraying transgender people. Transgender activists have been advocating for filmmakers and TV showrunners to hire transgender people for transgender roles. “Dallas Buyers Club” (which was based on a true story) also got some criticism in “Disclosure” because some people think that Jared Leto’s fictional Rayon character (a transgender female) was written for the movie to make the straight male protagonist of the story, Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), look like the “heterosexual savior.”

In the “The Crying Game,” when transgender female character Dil (played by Jaye Davidson, who is transgender in real life) revealed that she has a penis, it caused her straight male love interest Fergus (played by Stephen Rea) to vomit. “Disclosure” criticizes films that resort to this negative and often unrealistic vomiting reaction whenever a cisgender person finds out that someone is transgender. The 1994 comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” starring Jim Carrey, is cited as an example of this derogatory stereotyping.

The 1975 bank robbery film “Dog Day Afternoon,” starring Al Pacino, is mentioned as a mixed bag for transgender representation. This dramatic movie is based on a true story of a man who held a bank hostage in New York City so that he could get the money to pay for gender confirmation surgery for his transgender female lover. The documentary points out that in real life, the transgender lover definitely presented herself as a woman in the way she looked, acted and dressed. But in the movie, the transgender lover was played by a very cisgender male-looking Chris Sarandon, who wasn’t even dressed as a woman in the movie.

Many people in “Disclosure” point to the Buffalo Bill character from the 1991 Oscar-winning film “The Silence of the Lambs” as an even more distasteful and offensive representation of a transgender person. The Buffalo Bill character is named as the embodiment of the worst negative stereotypes that movies have in portraying transgender women as homicidal people who act as vultures to femininity and hate cisgender women. It’s part of a shameful legacy of many transgender people being written in movies and TV shows as either criminals or tragic figures with medical problems. It’s also why so many transgender characters end up dying in these movies and TV shows.

But once again, “Disclosure” confuses “transgender” with “drag” when it goes off on a tangent to have people discuss movies like 1982’s “Victoria/Victoria,” 1983’s “Yentl” and  1985’s “Just One of the Guys”— each film had the main character doing drag, not being transgender. Although it’s interesting that some of the interviewees in this documentary were influenced by these films, the cross-dressing characters in those movies were cisgender, not transgender. As the saying goes about not causing confusion: “Don’t get it twisted.”

Many of the interviewees say that the TV industry has been more progressive than the movie industry, when it comes to representing transgender people, but there is still room for improvement. Christine Jorgensen (the first widely known transgender American woman to have a gender confirmation operation) is considered a pioneer for transgender representation in the U.S. media, since her transgender journey was a big story in TV news in the 1950s, and she was a frequent guest on TV talk shows and news programs for years afterward.

And the LGBTQ activism of transgender women Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson that began in the 1960s—although not as frequently covered on TV as the activism of their white cisgender male counterparts—is mentioned as highly important and underrated. Some of the interviewees in “Disclosure” say that bigotry within the LGBTQ community has a lot to do with why transgender activists are often held back and overlooked in their own community.

The Emmy-winning FX drama series “Pose” (about New York City’s drag/trans ballroom culture in the late ’80s/early ’90s) is cited by many people as the gold standard of all transgender TV shows, in terms of accurate representation. But “Pose” (which debuted in 2018) is an anomaly, since it’s the first and so far only scripted TV series to have a transgender-majority cast. “Pose” co-star Rodriguez says that the show has had a tremendous positive impact in how people view the transgender community.

Janet Mock, who is a “Pose” writer/director, is not interviewed in “Disclosure,” but she’s mentioned as an important trailblazer for transgender people who work behind the scenes in television. In 2019, Mock signed an exclusive first-look deal with Netflix to be the showrunner of TV programs, becoming the first transgender person to get this type of TV deal. “Disclosure” includes some archival clips of TV interviews that Mock has done.

Other TV shows that are mentioned as having positive representations of transgender people are Netflix’s 2013-2019 dramedy series “Orange Is the New Black” (which had Cox as one of its cast members); Amazon Prime Video’s 2014-2019 comedy series “Transparent”;  and the TLC reality show “I Am Jazz,” starring transgender female Jazz Jennings, who was 14 when the show premiered in 2015.

ABC’s 2007-2009 primetime TV soap opera “Dirty Sexy Money” had Cayne as the first openly transgender character in a U.S. primetime TV series, but she says that this milestone was marred when the decision was made to lower her voice octave in the show’s audio, to make her sound more “masculine.” Cayne says she was horrified when she saw the show’s premiere and found out that her voice was changed without her permission.

The documentary also points out that writers and producers are capable of evolving and improving representation of transgender people. “Pose” co-creator Ryan Murphy (an openly gay man) was also a showrunner of FX’s 2003-2009 drama series “Nip/Tuck,” which had a disturbing episode in 2004 that featured lead character Christian Troy (played by Julian McMahon) raping a transgender woman named Ava Moore (played by cisgender actress Famke Janssen) and finding out during the sexual assault that Ava is a post-operational transgender woman. In “Disclosure,” Cox gets emotional and teary-eyed when she remembers what it felt like to watch that “Nip/Tuck” rape episode.

The reason why Ava got the operation is also problematic: She previously lived life as a gay man, but got the operation to become a woman so that she could to try to get the love of a heterosexual man who wasn’t in love with her. It’s unlikely that Murphy would put that type of transgender storyline in any of his shows today.

“Disclosure” briefly mentions Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show “I Am Cait” and her coming-out journey on the reality show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” But the documentary also mentions that within the transgender community, Jenner is a controversial figure because she is an outspoken conservative Republican who supports political candidates who are against civil rights for the LGBTQ community.

TV talk shows are mentioned as being very important in showing transgender people on television. A transgender man named Reno, who was a guest on “The Jerry Springer Show” in 1998, is named as someone who was influential in particular to black transgender men, according to actor Vilson. “To see this image [of a black transgender man] on TV was really empowering,” Vilson says. “The Jerry Springer Show” was notorious for people revealing controversial “secrets” to their lovers, in the hopes of causing a fight on TV. On the show, Reno revealed to his girlfriend at the time that his true identity is being a transgender man.

Speaking of controversy, “Disclosure” seems to want distance itself from scandal-ridden actors who portrayed transgender people on screen. “Disclosure” doesn’t mention any of the sexual harassment allegations against award-winning “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor (a cisgender man who played a transgender woman on the show), who was accused of sexually harassing women who worked on the show. Tambor denied the allegations but left the show in 2017.

Transgender actress Lysette (one of Tambor’s accusers, who guest-starred on the show) and “Transparent” co-star Billings (who is also transgender) are interviewed in the documentary but don’t mention the allegations. Either they talked about the scandal and it was cut out from the film or they didn’t talk about it all all. We might never know.

Also not mentioned at all in the documentary: the 2005 dramatic feature film “Transamerica,” starring Felicity Huffman as a transgender woman. Huffman (a cisgender actress) got an Oscar nomination for her role in “Transamerica,” but the “Disclosure” filmmakers probably don’t want people to be reminded that Huffman is part of transgender film history, because Huffman became a convicted felon in 2019, after she pleaded guilty in the college admissions scandal.

And speaking of transgender women on screen, “Disclosure” also mentions that there is disproportionately more representation of transgender women in American movies and TV than there are of transgender men, even though the number of transgender women and transgender men in the United States are about the same. Unfortunately, most of these transgender female roles in movies and TV are portraying sex workers, murder victims, sexual-assault victims or people going through some kind of medical drama. Transgender actor Smith has this theory: “I think we don’t see as much representation of trans men as trans women because people don’t think of trans men as sensational.”

The documentary points out that people’s attitudes toward trans people have a lot to do with traditional stereotyping of masculinity and femininity. Anything that challenges those stereotypes is often laughed at or despised. In 2011, transgender man Bono (whose famous mother is Cher) was the first transgender contestant on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” In “Disclosure,” he talks about how most people were accepting of him on the show, but there was still considerable backlash that he experienced from bigots.

Showtime’s 2004-2009 drama series “The L Word” was the first American primetime TV series to have a transgender male character as part of the show’s cast. The character Max Sweeney (played by nonbinary actor Daniela Sea) started out as a “butch” lesbian but then transitioned to living life as a transgender man. Max’s coming-out journey on the show highlighted the prejudices that cisgender people (straight and queer) can have toward transgender people, as Max found that some of his lesbian friends had a hard time accepting his identity as a transgender man.

Some people in “Disclosure” say that the lesbian team of writers and producers of “The L Word” did a disservice to the transgender community because the Max character was portrayed as confused, and the female characters’ bigotry against Max was acceptable. Transgender people say that if a transgender writer or producer had been part of the show at the time, Max would probably have been written as transgender from the start, since most transgender people are not confused about their identity but are often forced to hide it because of pressures from society.

“Disclosure” also mentions how gender roles and race can intersect when it comes to black men in comedy. Cox points out that many black male comedians dress up as women to emasculate themselves in a society that often demonizes the masculinity of black men. “Putting a black man in a dress, in some people’s minds, takes away the threat,” says Cox.

Although Cox says that the Geraldine character from “The Flip Wilson Show” had a big impact on her, as one of the first cross-dressing characters that she saw on TV, it’s an example of confusing “doing drag” with “being transgender.” A better example of an influential black transgender TV character mentioned by Cox is the Edie Stokes character on CBS’s 1975-1985 comedy series “The Jeffersons,” played by Veronica Redd (a cisgender actress) in a guest-starring role in 1978. Edie was a character who actually lived life as a transgender woman instead of just playing dress-up.

“Disclosure” also points out that transgender people are often at risk of being ridiculed in being represented on screen. Actress/writer Leigh says, “As a trans person, you have the most sensitive radar to tell if you’re laughing with us or laughing at us.” Media maker/writer Milan adds, “If I’m not laughing, is it a joke?”

Actress/writer Richards (who is known for her roles on the TV series “Better Things” and “Mrs. Fletcher”) says: “There is a one-word solution to almost all problems in trans media—’more.’ We just need more [representation].” But as many people point out in “Disclosure,” more representation should also mean better representation. And that should also include educating people better about what it means to be transgender, so that being transgender is not easily confused with people dressing up in drag.

Netflix premiered “Disclosure” on June 19, 2020.

Review: ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman and Mélanie Thierry

June 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors in “Da 5 Bloods” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Da 5 Bloods”

Directed by Spike Lee

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Vietnam, the drama “Da 5 Bloods” has a racially diverse cast (African American, Asian and white) portraying the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Four African American men who are Vietnam War veterans return to Vietnam with one of the men’s sons to find a hidden stash of gold bars, and they confront issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), loyalty, greed and the cultural wounds left by the war.

Culture Audience: “Da 5 Bloods” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about friendships bound by trauma, but sensitive viewers might be disturbed by the film’s significant level of bloody violence.

Johnny Trí Nguyên, Clarke Peters and Delroy Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

Spike Lee’s sprawling epic drama “Da 5 Bloods” takes viewers on a thrilling, heartbreaking and absorbing ride that will reel you in, shake you up, and leave you feeling uplifted and solemn at the same time by the end of the movie. Simply put: “Da 5 Bloods” is one of writer/director Lee’s best films of the 21st century. Delroy Lindo gives a masterful performance that will stay with people long after watching “Da 5 Bloods.”

The plot to “Da 5 Bloods” is pretty simple, but there are many complexities that weave the story together. It’s the type of movie that people might feel compelled to see more than once to revisit all the story’s layers. The movie clocks in at 155 minutes (or two hours and 35 minutes), but every minute is worth it.

In “Da 5 Bloods,” four African American men who were Army buddies in the Vietnam War return to Vietnam to find the hidden treasure they left behind back in 1971—a safe filled with gold bars that they were entrusted to deliver on behalf of the U.S. government but the pals decided to keep the gold for themselves. The safe got lost in a plane crash and a mudslide, but there’s a chance that they could find the gold again.

The four men are Paul (played by Lindo), a politically conservative curmudgeon who’s suffering from PTSD and refuses to get treatment for it; Otis (played by Clarke Peters), a friendly medic who has a possible addiction to Oxycontin pills; Melvin (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a fun-loving jokester who’s married but has an eye for other women; and Eddie (played by Norm Lewis), a well-to-do businessman who’s made his money through several car dealerships.

All four men are haunted by the Vietnam War death of their squad leader Stormin’ Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman, who appears in the movie’s flashback scenes), who was the fifth member of their group and the one who inspired them the most. The five men called themselves Da 5 Bloods. The surviving members all say that they have dreams about Stormin’ Norman, who died a hero in the plane crash. The four surviving members of the group are hoping to find the remains of Stormin’ Norman, so that he can get a proper burial.

Soon after they arrive at their hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s clear that Paul is the most emotionally volatile one of the group. He makes racist and dismissive comments about the local Vietnamese people, and he has a quick temper. While having dinner at the hotel, a boy with one leg wanders in and goes over to their table to beg for money. Paul tries to shoo the boy away, but Otis compassionately gives $20 to the boy.

Paul, who is a unabashed supporter of Donald Trump, gripes: “It’s time we got those freeloading immigrants off of our backs and build that wall.” Otis, Eddie and Melvin don’t like Trump at all, but their political differences with Paul don’t drive a wedge between the four friends. Paul likes to wears a red Make America Great Again baseball cap (which was the Trump campaign’s signature apparel item for the 2016 U.S. presidential election), and that cap is used as a metaphor in different parts of the story.

After the four friends spend the night partying at a nightclub and drinking at a bar, Paul goes back to his hotel room to find a surprise: His son David (played by Jonathan Majors), an African American studies teacher, has unexpectedly shown up, and Paul is furious about it. Paul makes it clear that not only does he not want David there, but he also doesn’t want David in his life at all.

“You ain’t been nothing but an anchor around my neck since the day you were born,” Paul cruelly tells David. Why does Paul dislike David so much? That answer is revealed later in the movie. Majors gives an outstanding performance as David, who is desperate for his father’s love but is trying to hold on to his masculine dignity in seeking his dad’s love and approval.

Even though Paul doesn’t seem to want anything to do with his son, David isn’t going to leave. David tells Paul that he found out about the treasure hunt and that he wants to help. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that for David, this trip isn’t about finding the gold. It’s about trying to connect with his father, who goes out of his way to express his animosity toward David. This stressful father-son relationship is truly one of the most compelling aspects of “Da 5 Bloods,” and it will leave many viewers in tears during certain scenes.

Meanwhile, Otis has taken on the role of a surrogate father figure to David, as well as the group’s peacemaker when conflicts inevitably happen. Otis is also the one who leads the planning of the treasure hunt, since he has figured out the coordinates of where the plane might be, based on satellite photos.

Otis has enlisted the help of an ex-lover named Tiên (played by Lê Y Lan), a former prostitute who now works in international exports. Tiên has assisted Otis in arranging a meeting with one of her contacts: a shady businessman named Desroche (played by Jean Reno), who promises that he can give the treasure hunters a way to convert the gold to American funds without them getting caught. In exchange, Desroche will get a percentage of the money as his fee.

It’s a deal that has to be made on trust, because none of Da 5 Bloods knows Desroche personally, since he was recommended by Tiên. Paul is the most suspicious of Desroche, because he thinks it’s possible that Desroche will try to double-cross them and steal the money for himself. Paul also tells Otis that he doesn’t really trust Tiên either. During an argument with Otis, Paul also accuses Otis of the possibility that Otis and Tiên are secretly in cahoots with each other to steal the money.

And what about that gold treasure? A flashback scene shows when Da 5 Bloods decided to keep the gold, Stormin’ Norman made a pledge to donate the money to the Black Liberation movement: “We repossess this gold for every black boot that never made it home, for every brother and sister stolen from mother Africa to Jamestown, Virginia, way back in 1619.”

“Da 5 Bloods” makes an unusual and bold artistic move for the flashback scenes. Instead of having younger actors portraying the young Paul, Otis, Melvin and Eddie, the movie keeps the same actors for these roles in which they have to portray the characters as their younger selves. There are also no visual effects that de-age the actors in the flashback scenes. By not changing the physical age of the actors in the flashback scenes, it actually creates the sense that although they have physically aged when they remember this time in their lives, there’s a part of them that is still mentally trapped in their Vietnam War days.

But in the present day, the surviving members of the group have mixed feelings about that pledge. Paul is the one who unapologetically says that he wants to keep his share of the money for himself, while Eddie still wants to hold true to the promise that they made with Stormin’ Norman to donate the money toward causes that empower African Americans. The dilemma of greed versus philanthropy causes major friction with the characters during different parts of the story. If people want to read more into it, the gold and what to do with it are metaphors for the conflicting ideals of capitalism and socialism.

Before their big trip to the jungle, the five men spend some time in a restaurant/bar. While there, David meets a French woman named Hedy Bouvier (played by Mélanie Thierry), who works for nonprofit organization called Love Against Mines and Bombs (LAMB). As part of her job, she looks for old land mines and detonates them. Two of her co-workers—an American named Scott (played by Paul Walter Hauser) and a Finnish man named Seppo (played by Jasper Pääkkönen)—are also in the bar.

David and Hedy are immediately attracted to each other and they begin flirting and talking about their lives. Hedy says that she and Seppo “occasionally use each other for sex,” but she makes it clear that she’s single and available. And so is David.

For the treasure hunters’ trip to the jungle, they have a local guide named Vinh Tran (played by Johnny Trí Nguyên), who is easygoing and knowledgeable, but  Vinh isn’t told the real reason for the trip. During a boat ride, a middle-aged Vietnamese man tries to sell Paul a live chickens and refuses to take no for answer. Paul gets so angry that he begins yelling and threatening the man, who accuses Paul of killing his parents because African American men in Vietnam are assumed to be American military men.

The accusation triggers Paul into an emotional meltdown, where his PTSD is on full display. It’s during this breakdown that he confesses that his dreams about Stormin’ Norman are really nightmares. There are several scenes in “Da 5 Bloods” that are disturbing close-ups of Paul’s mental deterioration. And his relationship with estranged son David also takes viewers on an emotional roller coaster.

One of the striking technical aspects of “Da 5 Bloods” is how the flashback scenes are filmed by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. The scenes are shot as if they’re news film from the late 1960s/early 1970s, with 16mm and 4:3 aspect ratio. When the movie switches back to the present day, the scenes are in 2:40 aspect ratio before they go to the jungle. And for the scenes in the jungle, the film is in a 1:85 aspect ratio, to portray an environment which is wide open to the possibilities of the unknown.

It wouldn’t be a Spike Lee film without social commentary as part of the story. Lee and Kevin Willmott (who both won adapted screenplay Oscars for “BlacKkKlansman”) wrote “Da 5 Bloods” screenplay with Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. The movie has plenty to say about race relations, colonialism and civil rights, not just in the United States but also in Vietnam.

“Da 5 Bloods” also makes blistering observations about how the Vietnam War was the first American war fought with a fully racially integrated military, which meant that more African Americans were on the front lines to die, compared to previous American wars. And although Vietnam War veterans of all races experienced divisive and painful reactions when they returned home, African American veterans had the added burden of racism in trying to adjust back to civilian society.

Throughout the film, there are snippets of African American history lessons to put much of the movie’s story in context. The beginning of the film opens with a montage of archival footage of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Bobby Seale talking about the Vietnam War and/or the American government. And there’s mention of war hero Milton Olive III (who died in 1965 at the age of 18),  the first African American man to be award the Medal of Honor for the Vietnam War.

Lee’s best movies are known for their memorable soundtracks. “Da 5 Bloods” is no exception. Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 album “What’s Going On” is prominently featured. And so is the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” which seems to be a staple in movies that have themes of African American empowerment, just like the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” seems to be in a lot of mobster movies. Music composer Terence Blanchard, a longtime collaborator of Lee’s, once again does a great score that enhances the essence of each scene.

“Da 5 Bloods” also includes striking and often brutal archival photos and videos to show the horrors and controversies of the Vietnam War, such as the American protests against the war; combat footage; and disturbing photos of people being murdered and children’s bloody corpses. The last half of the film, which primarily takes place in the jungle, is especially gruesome with gun shootouts and other bloody mayhem.

However, whatever violence is in the film is a manifestation of the emotional horrors the characters feel in trying to face personal demons. That psychological turmoil is the biggest gut-punch in “Da 5 Bloods.” People can try to avoid bullets and bombs, but they can’t run away from themselves.

Netflix premiered “Da 5 Bloods” on June 12, 2020.

Review: ‘Spelling the Dream,’ starring Akash Vikoti, Shourav Dasari, Ashrita Gandhari, Tejas Muthusamy, Fareed Zakaria and Sanjay Gupta

June 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bharat Gandhari, Ashrita Gandhari and Mutha Gandhari in “Spelling the Dream” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Spelling the Dream”

Directed by Sam Rega

Culture Representation: Taking place in various cities in the U.S. and India, the documentary “Spelling the Dream” interviews mostly Indians and Indian Americans and some white Americans about why contestants of Indian descent have excelled at the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee and other U.S. spelling contest.

Culture Clash: Indian-heritage winners of these spelling bees sometimes face racist backlash from people who think white people should be winning these contests.

Culture Audience: “Spelling the Dream” will appeal to people who like inspiring documentaries that show the power of hard work, loving family support and the thirst for knowledge.

Shourav Dasari (center) in “Spelling the Dream” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

If you’ve ever wondered why so many children of Indian heritage excel in U.S. spelling bees, even though people of Indian heritage are only 1% of the U.S. population, the documentary “Spelling the Dream” explains it all in an entertaining and informative way. Adeptly directed by Sam Rega, “Spelling the Dream” is more than a behind-the-scenes look at these spelling bees and some of the contestants. The film also has a lot to say about how the work ethic that goes into preparing for these contests is a reflection of how several Indian immigrant families feel about their cultural pride and the American Dream.

“Spelling the Dream” (formerly titled “Breaking the Bee”) opens with some statistics about Indian-heritage winners of the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, which launched in 1925 and is held in Washington, D.C. The vast majority of the winners since 1999 have been of Indian heritage, including consecutive Indian-heritage winners from 2008 to 2018. In the year 2019, there was a rare eight-way tie: seven of the eight winners were of Indian heritage, while the other winner was white.

Although most of the Scripps spelling bee winners have been U.S. residents, contestants who live outside the U.S. are allowed to enter the contest if they’ve won a qualifying regional spelling bee. As for the age limit, contestants must be no older than 14 on August 31 in the year before the contest, and they can’t be past the eighth grade by February 1 in the year of the competition. The Scripps spelling bee is usually held every May, but the event was cancelled in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The only other years that the Scripps spelling bee was previously cancelled were in 1943, 1944 and 1945, because of World War II.

“Spelling the Dream” interviews some previous Scripps National Spelling Bee winners (Indian and white), as well as spelling bee officials and several Indian Americans in the media and academia. The documentary also follows four kids in the quest to be the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion of 2017:

  • Akash Vikoti, a precocious and extroverted 6-year-old from Rockville, Maryland, who began spelling at the age of 2.
  • Ashrita Gandhari, a pragmatic and overachieving 10-year-old from South Andover, Maryland, who began spelling at the age of 5.
  • Shourav Dasari, a confident and analytical 14-year-old from Pearland, Texas, who’s been spelling since the age of 7.
  • Tejas Muthusamy, a sensitive and curious 14-year-old from Glen Allen, Virginia, who’s been spelling since the age of 7.

All of these contestants come from two-parent households with parents who immigrated to the U.S. from India. All of the parents, as well some of the kids’ siblings and extended family members, are interviewed in the documentary. The extended family members who are India say that even though they live far away, they’re still heavily involved in helping train these kids to become spelling bee champs. This family culture of having several relatives as part of the educational process (instead of leaving the work to schoolteachers or paid tutors) seems to make a big difference in the final results, according to several experts interviewed for the documentary.

CNN host Fareed Zakaria says, “One of the myths that people have about Indian Americans and their success is that it’s somehow genetic and even ethnic.” He believes that the high percentage of U.S. spelling bee champs are of Indian heritage because the winners “are drawn from Indians who are very adventurous, who decided to take advantage of the relaxation of the immigration rules of 1965.”

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, signed into federal law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, abolished the National Origins Formula, which allowed immigrants into the United States based on their national origin. Instead, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 aimed to approve immigration based on merit, thereby opening up more immigration to non-white people from other countries.

This merit-based policy “stopped the relatively racist quotas on who could emigrate from where in other parts of the world,” says Amherst College sociologist/author Pawan Dhingra. The result was that highly educated Indian people were approved for immigration to the United States. Hari Kondabolu, an Indian American comedian, adds: “They picked the people who were the most educated who add a very clear monetary value and serve a very clear purpose for America and its economy.”

Although it’s not mentioned in the documentary, Indian immigrants also benefited from the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. This movement began the legal dismantling of racial segregation in public schools and other aspects of American life, where racial segregation usually put Indians in the same category as black people. Desegregation increased the possibility of people of color and white people having the same access to education. Therefore, descendants of Indian immigrants in the 1960s and beyond had the ability to get better educations in the U.S. than Indians (and other people of color) could get in the U.S. before the 1960s.

“Spelling the Dream” also mentions that the upward mobility of Indians in the U.S. was considerably boosted by the tech boom that began in the 1980s. And several of the documentary’s pundits also point to the fact that it’s common for Indians to be multilingual. Indian immigrants in the U.S. usually have the benefit of already knowing English before they arrive in America, because the United Kingdom’s colonization of India made learning the English language an ingrained part of the Indian educational system. All of these factors have converged to create a Indian culture where spelling bees are a source of ethnic pride, because Indians do so well in these contests.

Dr. Balu Natarajan, who was the first Indian American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1985, is a perfect example. In the documentary, he says his immigrant parents came to the U.S. for opportunities. And in his family, “there was an emphasis on language.” Natarajan also says that he “didn’t recognize the magnitude” of being the first Indian American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, until “decades later … While I never pretended it was a big deal, other people informed me that it was a big deal to them.”

Srinivas Ayyagari, who a third-place Scripps National Spelling Bee contestant in 1992 and 1994, remembers that contestants of Indian heritage were still a minority in the spelling bee in the years that he competed. What happened to significantly increase the participation of Indian-heritage contestants? A few things, according to the documentary.

Scripps National Spelling Bee executive director Paige Kimble (who was the spelling bee’s champ in 1981) says the biggest game changer for the event was when ESPN began televising the contest in 1994. The spelling bee then had an international audience who could see it on TV, which motivated more people from Indian communities to enter the contest when they saw how many Indian-heritage contestants were ranking high or winning in the spelling bee.

The other significant factor is that a cottage industry sprang up for spelling bees that specifically cater to contestants of Indian heritage. South Asian Spelling Bee and North South Foundation Spelling Bee are named as the two most prominent. Northwestern University anthropologist/author Shalini Shankar comments that these two spelling bees are part of the “minor-league circuit,” but that “you see these kids hone their craft to a level that you didn’t otherwise see before that.”

However, several former and aspiring Scripps National Spelling Bee champs interviewed say that there’s no shortcut to success. By the time contestants reach the level of being in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, they’ve trained for years. And it’s almost always under the guidance of their parents, who devote hundreds of hours to educating and supporting their children in this process.

Several of the people interviewed liken the Scripps National Spelling Bee to being the Olympics for Indian people. In a world where other ethnicities tend to dominate most other contests, Indians have found a source of ethnic and cultural pride in a contest where Indians have excelled for the past several years. It’s why so many Indian families are willing to go through the sacrifices to give their kids the competitive edge.

Of the four contestants profiled in “Spelling the Dream,” Shourav Dasari and his parents have the most elaborate training method. Bharat Dasari (Shourav’s father) shows how they compiled a massive spreadsheet of words from the dictionary, with cross-references, definitions and language origins. The documentary filmed Shourav in his last eligible year to be a Scripps National Spelling Bee contestant, which is why Bharat said he felt comfortable enough to show their “trade secret.”

Many Indian families have more than one child per family who’s involved in spelling bees. Sibling rivalry is briefly mentioned in an interview Shourav’s sister Shoba, who is two years older than he is. She says that although she and Shourav started out as equals in spelling talent, he eventually surpassed her. The general consensus from the siblings of the “spelling stars” in each family is that the parents and the “star” sibling make a difference in whether or not the overshadowed sibling feels included or left out. Siblings who feel included are less likely to be jealous.

The parents interviewed in the documentary deny being pushy stage parents. They say that although they got their children involved in spelling bees from an early age, the children only continue if they really want to and genuinely enjoy it. Several of the parents are shown telling their contestant kids that they will be proud of them no matter how far they go in the competition, and they’ve clearly taught them how to handle defeat with grace. And all of the contestants who were profiled in this documentary have other extracurricular interests, such as playing tennis, dancing or playing piano.

Racism is also discussed in the film, which includes screen shots of several social-media comments expressing hatred and resentment that so many winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee are of Indian heritage. Even though most of the winners are American citizens, there are racists who still want to say that these winners are not really American.

Shankar says that American pride is “still coded in whiteness,” and that non-white Americans still have to deal with racist and incorrect perceptions that they’re not “real” Americans simply because of the color of their skin. However, the documentary doesn’t really explore deeper how any racism affects these contestants on an individual level. But the overall end results speak for themselves: Indian-heritage contestants continue to thrive in spelling bees.

The 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary “Spellbound” (which followed eight contestants in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee) is mentioned as a beloved movie that inspired many past and present contestants and their families. And, of course, much like “Spellbound,” a great deal of “Spelling the Dream” consists of footage showing how the profiled contestants go from winning their regional contests to how they fared in their journeys to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The intriguing and often suspenseful scenes of the contestants on stage (shown in quick montages) are among the highlights of the film.

Other talking heads interviewed in “Spelling the Dream” include ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi; Scripps National Spelling Bee 1991 winner Nupur Lala; Hexco Academic co-founder Valerie Browning; and Jacques Bailly, the Scripps National Spelling Bee champ of 1981 who is now the event’s pronouncer. Although getting to the big leagues of the Scripps National Spelling Bee is a very competitive and grueling process, Bailly says that for most of the contestants, they find out during the process that it can be less about the competition and more about “a celebration of learning.”

Netflix premiered “Spelling the Dream” on June 3, 2020.