Movie and TV Reviews

Reviews for New Movies Released March 20 – April 2, 2020

Blow the Man Down (Photo by Jeong “JP” Park)
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Photo by HolLyn D’Lil)
Dosed (Photo courtesy of Mangurama)
Hooking Up (Courtesy of Saban Films)
Human Capital (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections (Photo courtesy of HBO)
The Rescue List (Photo courtesy of Collective Hunch)
Resistance (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)
Uncorked (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

Complete List of Reviews

2/1 — drama

2 Graves in the Desert — drama

17 Blocks — documentary

37 Seconds — drama

Aamis — drama

Advocate — documentary

After Class (formerly titled Safe Spaces) — comedy/drama

After Parkland — documentary

After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News — documentary

All I Can Say — documentary

Amazing Grace — documentary

American Woman — drama

And Then We Danced — drama

The Apollo — documentary

Ask for Jane — drama

The Assistant — drama

At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal — documentary

Bacurau — drama

Bad Boys for Life — action

Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art — documentary

Beanpole — drama

Beneath Us — horror

Big Time Adolescence — comedy/drama

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — action

Blessed Child — documentary

Blood on Her Name — drama

Bloodshot (2020) — sci-fi/action

Blow the Man Down — drama

Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island — horror

The Booksellers — documentary

The Boys (premiere episode) — drama

Brahms: The Boy II — horror

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists — documentary

Buffaloed — comedy

Burden — drama

Burning Cane — drama

The Burnt Orange Heresy — drama

The Call of the Wild (2020) — live-action/animation

Cane River — drama

Changing the Game — documentary

Circus of Books — documentary

Clementine — drama

Color Out of Space — sci-fi/horror

Come as You Are (2020)  — comedy

Come to Daddy — horror

The Cordillera of Dreams — documentary

Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words — documentary

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution — documentary

Crown Vic — drama

CRSHD — comedy

A Day in the Life of America — documentary

Days of Rage: The Rolling Stones’ Road to Altamont — documentary

Decade of Fire — documentary

Devil’s Pie – D’Angelo — documentary

Disappearance at Clifton Hill — drama

The Dog Doc — documentary

Dolittle — live-action/animation

Dosed — documentary

Downhill — comedy

Dreamland — drama

Emma (2020) — comedy/drama

The Etruscan Smile (also titled Rory’s Way) — drama

A Fall From Grace — drama

First Cow — drama

For They Know Not What They Do — documentary

Framing John DeLorean — documentary

Ganden: A Joyful Land — documentary

The Gasoline Thieves — drama

Gay Chorus Deep South — documentary

The Gentlemen — action

Get Gone — horror

Goldie — drama

Good Posture — comedy

Greed — comedy/drama

Gretel & Hansel — horror

The Grudge (2020) — horror

He Dreams of Giants — documentary

Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation — documentary

Holly Slept Over — comedy

Hooking Up — comedy

Hope Gap — drama

Horse Girl — sci-fi/drama

The Host (2020) — horror

House of Hummingbird — drama

Human Capital — drama

Human Nature (2020) — documentary

The Hunt — horror

I Am Human — documentary

I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story — drama

I Hate the Man in My Basement — drama

I Still Believe — drama

I Want My MTV — documentary

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me — documentary

Impractical Jokers: The Movie — comedy

Incitement — drama

Initials SG — drama

Inna De Yard: The Soul of Jamaica — documentary

The Invisible Man (2020) — horror

It Takes a Lunatic — documentary

Jay Myself — documentary

John Henry — action

Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections — documentary

Kill the Monsters — drama

The Kill Team (2019) — drama

The Kindness of Strangers — drama

The Last Full Measure — drama

Leftover Women — documentary

Les Misérables (2019) — drama

Like a Boss — comedy

Limerence — comedy

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice — documentary

The Lodge — horror

The Longest Wave — documentary

Los Últimos Frikis — documentary

Lost Bayou — drama

Lost Transmissions — drama

Low Tide — drama

Lucky Grandma — action

Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over — documentary

Mai Khoi & the Dissidents — documentary

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound— documentary

Martha: A Picture Story — documentary

Martin Margiela: In His Own Words — documentary

Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back — documentary

Miss Americana — documentary

My Boyfriend’s Meds —comedy

Mystify: Michael Hutchence — documentary

Never Rarely Sometimes Always — drama

Noah Land — drama

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin — documentary

Olympic Dreams — comedy/drama

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band — documentary

Only — sci-fi/drama

Onward — animation

Ordinary Love — drama

Otherhood — comedy

Other Music — documentary

Our Time Machine — documentary

Out of Blue — drama

A Patient Man — drama

The Photograph — drama

Picture Character — documentary

The Place of No Words — drama

Plucked — documentary

Plus One — comedy

Premature — drama

The Quiet One — documentary

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project — documentary

A Regular Woman — drama

The Rescue List — documentary

Resistance — drama

Rewind — documentary

The Rhythm Section — action

Ride Like a Girl — drama

Saint Frances — comedy/drama

Scheme Birds — documentary

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street — documentary

Seahorse — documentary

Seberg — drama

See Know Evil — documentary

See You Yesterday — sci-fi/drama

The Short History of the Long Road — drama

The Show’s the Thing: The Legendary Promoters of Rock — documentary

A Simple Wedding — comedy

Slay the Dragon — documentary

The Sonata — horror

Sonic the Hedgehog — live-action/animation

Sorry We Missed You — drama

Standing Up, Falling Down — comedy/drama

Stevenson Lost & Found — documentary

Stray Dolls — drama

Sublime — documentary

Swallow — drama

A Taste of Sky — documentary

The Thing About Harry  — comedy

This Is Personal — documentary

The Times of Bill Cunningham — documentary

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made  — comedy

To Kid or Not to Kid — documentary

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts — documentary

Troop Zero — comedy

The Turning (2020) — horror

Tyson — documentary

Unbelievable (premiere episode) — drama

Uncaged (also titled Prey) – horror

Uncorked — drama

Underwater — sci-fi/horror

Vas-y Coupe! — documentary

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations — documentary

Watson — documentary

The Way Back (2020) — drama

Weathering With You — animation

What Will Become of Us — documentary

What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali — documentary

The Whistlers — drama

Wig — documentary

A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem — documentary

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation — documentary

XY Chelsea — documentary

You Don’t Nomi — documentary

You Go to My Head — drama

Zombi Child — horror

Review: ‘Resistance,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer and Ed Harris

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg in “Resistance” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Resistance”

Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz 

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in World War II-era France, “Resistance” has a predominantly white cast of characters in a dramatic film inspired by the true story of a young Marcel Marceau and his involvement in the French Resistance movement against the Nazis.

Culture Clash: Marcel, whose artistic dreams are discouraged by his skeptical father, is at first reluctant to join the French Resistance, but he and others in the Resistance end up risking their lives in their fight against the Nazi regime.

Culture Audience: “Resistance” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in World War II stories or inspirational biographies told in a melodramatic way.

Clémence Poésy, Jesse Eisenberg and Bella Ramsey (second from right) in “Resistance” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

People who know about Marcel Marceau as one of the world’s most famous mime entertainers might or might know about his involvement in the French Resistance that saved thousands of Jewish people’s lives during the horrors of the World War II-era Holocaust. The emotionally riveting melodrama “Resistance” primarily tells the story of this part of Marceau’s life from 1938 to 1942 (when he was 25 to 29 years old), and his transformation from aspiring entertainer to war hero.

The movie (written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz) begins on November 9, 1935, in Nazi-controlled Munich, Germany. A Jewish mother and father (played by Aurélie Bancilhon and Edgar Ramírez) lovingly kiss their 14-year-old daughter before she goes to sleep for the night. But their lives are shattered when Nazis break into the home, kidnap the parents, and murder them in the street before the terrified daughter’s eyes. What happens to this girl is shown later in the story.

Meanwhile, the movie flashes forward to 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany, with U.S. General George Patton (played by Ed Harris) addressing a large group of American soldiers in a stadium. Patton says he’s going to tell them a story about “one of those unique human beings who makes your sacrifices and heroism completely worth it.”

It’s then that the story of Marceau begins in Strasbourg, France. It’s November 1938, when he was known by his birth name, Marcel Mangel. Marcel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) doing a mime impersonation of Charlie Chaplin on stage at a cabaret. No sooner does he get off the stage, he is pulled out into an alley by his disapproving father, Charles Mangel (played by Karl Markovics), an immigrant from Poland who thinks Marcel is wasting his time trying to be an artist. Charles wants Marcel to follow in his footsteps in the family’s butcher business, which Marcel does reluctantly as a “day job.”

Meanwhile, one of the butcher shop’s female customers has a daughter named Emma (played by Clémence Poésy), who Marcel asks about when she comes into the store. Marcel jokes that his father wants Marcel to marry Emma, but viewers can see from the Marcel’s demeanor when he sees Emma later that he doesn’t need any parental interference to be interested in her. They have the kind of back-and-forth “I’m trying to play it cool but deep down I’m attracted to you” banter that would-be couples have in movies when you know that there will be some romantic sparks between them later.

Emma and her sister Mila (played by Vica Kerekes) are part of the underground French Resistance movement that includes Marcel’s cousin Georges Loinger (played by Géza Röhrig), who was the head of the Jewish Boy Scouts during World War II. Georges, Emma, Mila and Marcel’s older brother Alain (Félix Moati) are all involved in helping rescue orphaned Jewish children and finding them a place to live.

Georges has asked Marcel to use his mime skills to entertain the children, but Marcell initially says no because he wants to use his free time to work on a play and his other artistic interest of painting. Marcel and Alain come from a  tight-knit Jewish family (their parents have a solid marriage), but Alain and Marcel have a strained relationship because Alain thinks that Marcel is too self-centered and arrogant.

And the movie shows that Alain is right. Even though Marcel is a mime on stage, he hates it when people call him “a clown.” As he tells his father haughtily, “I’m an actor!” Marcel also thinks that he’s too good to be a butcher and he’s destined for greatness as a famous and respected artist. No one can tell him otherwise.

But when a group of 123 orphans arrive in Strasbourg, and Marcel volunteers to borrow his father’s truck to transport them to an abandoned castle where the orphans will be staying, it sets in motion a life journey that at the time Marcel didn’t even know that he would be taking. In this group of orphans is a teenager named Elsbeth (played by Bella Ramsey), and she’s the same girl viewers saw in the beginning of the film. Elsbeth ends up bonding with Emma, who acts like a surrogate older sister to Elsbeth.

While at the castle, the frightened orphans are slowly put at ease by Marcel’s mime antics. It’s during these performances that Marcel realizes that he can use his art for something more important than his own career ambitions. However, Marcel still doesn’t want to give up his dreams of being an artist.

One day, while Charles watches his son Marcel working on a painting, he asks Marcel, “You dress like a clown. You paint a clown. Why do you do it?” Marcel replies, “Why do you go to the bathroom?” Charles answers, “Because my body gives me no choice.” Marcel tersely says before he walks out of the room, “There it is. That’s my answer.”

However, Marcel’s artistic dreams are put on hold when it becomes clear that the Nazis are getting closer to invading the region of France where he lives. Alain tells the others that they need to train the children to survive. And sure enough, the Nazis order the evacuation of the border towns in France. The Mangel family, like so many other Jewish families in the region, comply and think that they will eventually be allowed to go back to their homes. Tragically, they are mistaken.

It’s 1941. And while in France’s city of Limoges in Vichy, Marcel puts his  precise painting skills to good use and finds out he has a knack for forging passports, which he does for himself and several fellow Jewish refugees. It’s during this period of time that he changes his last name to Marceau, in order to hide his real Jewish surname.

Meanwhile, Marcel and Emma have gotten closer, while Alain and Mila have started their own romance. Along with Georges, they are all still heavily involved with helping orphans find a place to live. And it’s around this time that Alain and Marcel officially decide to join the Resistance. They tell their father, who is supportive.

As this is going on in France, viewers are then taken to Berlin, where Nazi lieutenant Klaus Barbie (played by Matthias Schweighöfer) is inflicting violence and terror on Jews and some of his fellow Nazis. (In one brutal scene, he viciously beats another Nazi in front of others because the man is gay.) The movie shows that this sadistic Nazi has a soft side when it comes to his family (he has a wife and baby daughter), which illustrates how several Nazis had the duality of being heartless murderers but also loving family men.

Before the end of the movie, Marcel and his group have a lot of harrowing, heartbreaking and life-threatening experiences. “Resistance” is not an easy film to watch if you’re extremely sensitive to seeing terrifying acts of murder and torture. It makes it all the more painful to watch because these are re-enactments of what millions of Jews and other people went through in real life.

And the movie also shows that the Nazis were not the only people to blame for the Holocaust. An untold number of non-Jewish people in Nazi-occupied countries betrayed their fellow Jewish citizens by giving up information about them for cash or other rewards. “Resistance” effectively shows how the culture of complicity allowed the Nazi reign of terror to thrive for as long as it did.

Although this is certainly an important story to be told, “Resistance” might have some people rolling their eyes at the melodramatic tactics used in telling the story. There’s a scene where one of the main characters goes missing and is found in a big city, just at the moment when this person is about to jump in front of train in a moment of suicidal despair and is rescued from committing that deadly act. This kind of too-good-to-be-true coincidence looks like it was fabricated just for the movie.

And in another part of the story that doesn’t make much sense, one of the characters is captured and tortured by a Nazi and then inexplicably allowed to leave. In reality, this person would’ve been killed, but it seems that this person’s life was spared in order to further the plot in another part of the movie. However, it’s one of the few parts of “Resistance” that doesn’t ring true. The rest of the film, which unabashedly tugs at people’s heartstrings, tells the story in a way that could have reasonably happened in real life.

“Resistance” director and Jonathan Jakubowicz and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz imbue the film with a sense of urgency in the war scenes and a sense of dramedy in the more light-hearted scenes. There are many sweeping shots at 360-degree angles that give the viewers a head-spinning overview of what usually is a pivotal scene in the story. But even with these artsy camera tricks, the movie doesn’t trivialize the dark side of this story.

As Marcel, Eisenberg gives a compelling performance, even if his real-life American accent occasionally slips out in the dialogue. He convincingly portrays Marcel as someone who evolves from thinking that nothing is more important to him than his art to realizing that there are other ways that artists can make an important difference in the world without giving up their passion for art. (Eisenberg’s mother was a clown in real life, so doing the mime scenes must have had special meaning for him.) “Resistance” is undoubtedly a story about how someone can triumph over tragedy, but it’s also a reminder that the horrors of the Holocaust must never happen again.

IFC Films released “Resistance” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Uncorked,’ starring Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance and Niecy Nash

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

“Uncorked”

Directed by Prentice Penny

Culture Representation: Tasking place in Memphis and Paris, the comedy-inflected drama “Uncorked” has a diverse cast of African Americans and white characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An African American man in his 20s is torn between wanting to become a master sommelier and his father’s wishes for him to take over the family’s barbecue restaurant business.

Culture Audience: “Uncorked” will appeal mostly to people who want to see a relatable drama about family relationships, as well as what it’s like to try to break into the competitive and elite world of master sommeliers.

Mamoudou Athie and Courtney B. Vance in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

“Uncorked” takes an authentic and sometimes humorous look at the journey a young man goes through in pursuing his dream to become a master sommelier, even though it conflicts with family obligations. In telling this unique story for the screen, writer/director Prentice Penny just happened to make the protagonist an African American. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t take the cliché route of making the movie about racism or about an underprivileged person of color who gets help from a “white savior.” Instead, the movie touches on universal themes of family tensions and self-doubt through the lens of African American middle-class culture.

The two conflicting worlds of central character Elijah (played by Mamoudou Athie) are made abundantly clear in the opening credits, which alternate between montages of people making barbecue and people making wine. Elijah, who appears to be in his mid-to-late-20s, is holding down two jobs in his hometown of Memphis: a sales clerk at a wine shop and a cook in his father’s casual barbecue restaurant. He’s a lot more passionate about his wine job, and he only works at his father’s place because he feels obligated to do it.

Elijah’s father Louis (played by Courtney B. Vance) inherited the barbecue place from his own father, and Louis expects to Elijah (his only son) to take over the restaurant someday. It’s truly a family business because Elijah’s mother Sylvia (played by Niecy Nash) also works there, as a waitress. Louis also has plans to open a second, more upscale barbecue restaurant in a “gentrified” neighborhood. Elijah’s close-knit family includes Elijah’s cousins, Elijah’s older sister Brenda (played by Kelly Jenrette), Brenda’s husband and their three kids,

However, Elijah’s passion is really for the wine business. It’s evident in how he lights up when talking about wine and recommending selections to customers at the wine shop. One customer in particular sparks more than just an interest in recommending wine. He meets a young woman named Tanya (played by Sasha Compère) when she comes into the store with a friend to get a bottle of wine for a party.

Tanya doesn’t know much about wine, but Elijah puts her at ease by asking her if she likes hip-hop. She says yes. In helping her make her choice, he explains that chardonnay is like the Jay-Z of wine, pino grigio is like the Kanye West of wine and riesling is like the Drake of wine. (She ends up getting riesling wine.)

It’s no surprise that Tanya comes back to the store on another day and takes Elijah’s suggestion to join the store’s wine club, which is how she gives Elijah her contact information. They begin dating each other soon afterward. (Their first date is at a roller-skating rink.)

Tanya encourages Elijah to pursue his dream to become a master sommelier—a title that, as of this writing, only 269 people in the world have ever held, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers. Elijah’s boss at the wine store, Raylan Jackson (played by Matthew Glave), also encourages Elijah and says he will put in a recommendation for Elijah if he ever wants to go to sommelier school. Raylan is a master sommelier, and Elijah looks wistfully at the sommelier diploma that Raylan has.

Meanwhile, there’s increasing tension between Elijah and his father Louis. When Louis tries to get Elijah to do things that will prepare Elijah to take over the barbecue business, Elijah makes excuses by saying he has other plans, usually related to his wine job. Over a large family dinner, Elijah mentions that he’s thinking about going to sommelier school. Louis then makes a snide comment to Elijah by expressing doubt that Elijah will follow through on that goal. He reminds Elijah that he’s had other career goals (including being a DJ) that Elijah eventually abandoned.

Elijah’s mother Sylvia, who’s completely supportive of Elijah, later scolds Louis in private for embarrassing Elijah in front of the family. The back-and-forth banter and conversations between Louis and Sylvia are some of the funniest parts of the movie. Their dialogue rings true for a longtime married couple.

What also rings true is the way that the movie shows that when it comes to pursuing a dream, sometimes people can get in their own way, through self-doubt and making excuses. Tanya essentially tells Elijah that’s what he’ll be doing if he doesn’t take a chance and apply to sommelier school. It’s the extra encouragement he needs to take the entrance exam. And he gets into the school—but not without a major sacrifice. The only way he can pay for the tuition is to use all of his savings.

Even though Elijah tells Louis he can still work at the barbecue restaurant while he attends school, both father and son know that Elijah is now on a path that will change their relationship forever. Elijah is a talented student and a quick learner. But it’s one thing to graduate from sommelier school. It’s quite another thing to pass the extremely difficult test to become a master sommelier. (Based on the small percentage of master sommeliers in the world, most people who take the test don’t pass.)

While attending sommelier school, Elijah meets the three other people who end up in his study group: neurotic and obnoxious Richie (played by Gil Ozeri); cocky and intelligent Eric (played by Matt McGorry), who’s nicknamed Harvard because he went to Harvard University; and sensible and sarcastic Leann (played by Meera Rohit Kumbhani). Another challenge comes when Elijah’s sommelier class goes on a trip to Paris that he can’t really afford. 

Will Elijah get to go to Paris? Will he pass the master sommelier test? And how is his relationship with his father affected by these sommelier ambitions? Those questions are answered in the movie, which has a few twists and turns along the way.

“Uncorked” is the first feature film by writer/director Penny, who’s a former writer/director for the HBO comedy series “Insecure,” starring Issa Rae. The movie is an admirable debut that shows Penny has a knack for entertaining writing and making the right choices in editing and casting. (All the actors adeptly handle the movies comedic elements as well as the overall drama.)

To its great credit, “Uncorked” doesn’t get bogged down in stereotypical tropes of an African American trying to break into a predominantly white industry. There are no racist villains in the story, nor does Elijah have a negative attitude about the extremely small percentage of African Americans who end up being sommeliers. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t water down the African American culture that’s shown in the movie. (The soundtrack is hip-hop and there’s plenty of realistic dialogue in the film.)

As the central character Elijah, Athie carries the movie with a significant deal of charm and empathy. He makes great use of facial expressions to convincingly portray the inner conflicts of someone who wants to please his father and yet be his own man. The father-son relationship is complicated, but there’s also enough respect between the two of them that they don’t deal with conflicts by having obscenity-filled shouting matches, which are over-used negative stereotypes in movies about African American families. “Uncorked” is ultimately about more than just pursuing a dream. It’s also about understanding that in order to stay true to yourself, you have to know you really are in the first place.

Netflix premiered “Uncorked” on March 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections,’ starring Harri Hursti, Sue Halper, James Lankford, Jake Stauffer, Jeff Moss, Sandy Clark and Philip Stark

March 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Harri Hursti and Maggie MacAlpine in “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections”

Directed by Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale

Culture Representation: This politically oriented documentary, which examines the effects of cyber hacking on U.S. elections, interviews a predominantly white group of people, including cybersecurity experts, government officials, journalists, university professors and hackers.

Culture Clash: Almost everyone interviewed in the documentary says that there is widespread denial or suppression of information about hacking and other manipulation of voting machines in the U.S. election system.

Culture Audience: This documentary will appeal mostly to people who want to know more about how voting in the U.S. works behind the scenes, even if what’s uncovered might be disturbing.

Voting booths in “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

When people vote in elections, are their votes really safe from hacking or other illegal manipulation? Absolutely not, say the experts and other officials interviewed in the chilling documentary “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections.” The movie’s directors Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale focus on U.S. elections that have taken place since 2016. “Kill Chain” sounds the alarm that sinister forces that are inside and outside the U.S. are working to manipulate elections that are happening in 2020 and beyond.

Ardizzone and Michaels directed another HBO documentary that covered a similar topic—2006’s “Hacking Democracy,” which featured election security expert Harri Hursti (a native of Finland) showing how easy it was to hack into a voting machine. Hursti is prominently featured in “Kill Chain,” to the point where he could’ve almost been the film’s narrator. He’s definitely the star of the movie, since the filmmakers follow him going to various U.S. states to investigate the current state of voting machines used in U.S. elections and probable cases of voting fraud in recent elections.

Because voting methods in the U.S. are usually determined by counties within a state, there are vastly different voting machines that are used across the United States. Most voting machines, even if they use paper, still rely on computers for scanning. In addition, many voting places use computerized machines not just for ballots but also to verify identification and residential addresses of voters. Because the trend in newer voting machines is to become more computerized (including machines that turn votes into barcodes), several people in the “Kill Chain” documentary say these computer revamps will leave these machines more vulnerable to being hacked.

The “Kill Chain” documentary gets its name from the “divide and conquer” concept of how one entity can conquer another through a chain of events. As Hursti explains in the documentary, it’s a five step-process: (1) Reconnaissance, which is gathering information about the enemy’s landscape); (2) Identify, which is seeing who the targets are; (3) Weaponize; (4) Paralyze; and (5) Attack. When voting systems are manipulated and hacked, it means that the attacker is in the “weaponize” phase.

Throughout the movie, Russia is repeatedly mentioned as the country that’s most likely to hack a voting system—and not just in the U.S., but in other countries, particularly in Europe. However, “Kill Chain” also makes it clear that voting fraud can easily be perpetrated by Americans in U.S. elections, from the highest federal levels to the smallest local governments.

Hursti says in the beginning of the film: “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. This is our common problem, owned by everyone living in the United States. And we have to solve it in order to preserve our way of life, our society, the rule of law, and our right to self-govern.”

He adds, “The key element to restore the votes is a removable medium,” such as flash drives or hard drives, which most voting machines have. Once those drives are removable on a voting machine, says Hursti: “Every step of the way, it’s vulnerable to attack.”

The movie shows that there are certain signs that indicate a voting site has probably been hacked: Numerous people at the site have problems with their ballots being processed. Another red flag is when voters arrive at the site, they are detained or turned away because the computer system at the site shows inaccuracies in the voters’ names or registration addresses. And these problems usually result in long lines of people waiting for several hours to cast a vote, going well beyond an acceptable wait time for casting a ballot. These long lines cause numerous people to either leave or not get a chance to vote before the polling site closes.

“When you prevent people from casting a ballot, you’ve hacked an election,” comments Sue Halper, an author and contributor to The New Yorker. Michael Daniel, who was a White House cybersecurity coordinator from 2012 to 2020, says that a voter registration database is the part of a computerized election system that is the most vulnerable to hacking.

The “Kill Chain” documentary uses the contentious 2018 election of Georgia’s governor as an example of an election that showed signs of being hacked and other voter fraud. For starters, Republican candidate Brian Kemp had a conflict of interest because in 2018, when he was Georgia secretary of state, he moved Georgia’s Center of Election Systems (CES) to his office, where he oversaw CES. Kemp’s Democrat opponent Stacey Abrams and her supporters repeatedly called for Kemp to recuse himself from overseeing the election, due to this conflict of interest. But the protests were to no avail, because Kemp stayed in the position that gave him the power to oversee the voting process of his own election.

Then, on election day (November 6, 2018), there were widespread reports of voting machine “malfunctions” and long lines in districts of Georgia that were heavily populated with people of color and/or registered Democrats. In addition, even before election day, there were reports of thousands of voter registrations being purged from computer systems and thousands of voter registrations not being processed in time for the election, mostly in areas of Georgia where there is a high percentage of people of color and/or registered Democrats.

The voting results were so close that it took 10 days and a recount for the official tally to be announced. Kemp ended up winning by 1.4% more votes than Abrams. The political group Fair Fight Action, which is backed by Abrams, then sued the Georgia board of elections in November 2018, and included allegations of voter suppression in the complaint. As of this writing, the lawsuit has not been resolved.

As a result of these numerous claims that the election was tainted by voter fraud and problematic AccuVote machines, Georgia stopped using AccuVote machines. However, the documentary mentions that Georgia is now using Dominion’s barcode voting machines (which make the votes impossible to count by human eyes), thereby making the vote counting more computerized and more susceptible to hacking. It cost Georgia about $106 million to switch to these new voting machines, according to the documentary.

“Kill Chain” shows Hursti on that 2018 election day in Gwinnett County, Georgia, at one of the voting sites experiencing machine “malfunctions” and extremely long lines. (Many people were waiting up to five to seven hours to vote, according to news reports.) At the voting site, Hursti speaks to Gwinnett County Democratic Party chair Gabe Okoye, who expresses complete surprise when Hursti tells him that the county is using the same type of voting machine that Hursti was able to hack into in 2006.

In a separate post-election trip to Georgia, Hursti meets with Marilyn Marks of the the Georgia-based grassroots organization Coalition of Good Governance, who was working at a voting site in Clarke County on that 2018 election day. She noticed that out of the seven machines used on that day at a heavily Democratic precinct, one machine was churning out ballots that were overwhelmingly showing votes cast for Republicans. The voting site’s exact voting results were public information.

For this trip to Georgia, Hursti invited Professor Philip Stark, who works in the statistics department at the University of California at Berkeley, and Stark’s assistant Dr. Kellie Ottobani, to run the statistics to find out the odds of that voting machine’s results being accurate at that polling site on that day. They found that there was less than a one-in-a-million chance that this outlier machine gave accurate results, based on the number of registered Democrats and Republicans who could vote at that voting site on that particular election day.

So with all this real and potential hacking going on, what’s being done about it? According to the people interviewed documentary, the companies in the business of making the machines want to do nothing. (The filmmakers note in the documentary that several of these companies were asked to participate in the film, but declined.) Some of the biggest suppliers of voting machines and/or software are companies such as Dominion Voting Systems, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), VR Systems and AccuVote.

Jake Stauffer, director of operations at cybersecurity firm Coherent Cyber, tells a story about how his company started a testing plan for voting machines, and the plan was approved by the state of California. Coherent Cyber used the testing plan on Dominion and ES&S voting machines and found “multiple vulnerabilities” (his words) that would allow hackers to change an election or shut the system down. But when those vulnerabilities were pointed out to Dominion and ES&S, both companies shut down the investigation and said that Coherent Cyber’s services were no longer needed.

Stauffer says, “How can a vendor sell a voting system with this many vulnerabilities? I can’t find a straight answer.” Jack Braun, who was the Department of Homeland Security White House Liaison from 2009 to 2011, agrees that companies that manufacture and sell voting machines and voting software cannot be counted on to take responsibility for hacking problems, since these companies usually deny that the problems exists. Braun says that these companies are the opposite of transparent when it comes to reporting security breaches with their machines or software.

What are politicians or other government officials doing about this problem? U.S. Senators such as James Lankford (a Republican from Virginia), Amy Klobuchar (a Democrat from Minnesota) and Mark Warner (a Democrat from Indiana) are among the co-sponsors of a bill called the Secure Elections Act, which gives the Department of Homeland Security the primary responsibility within the federal government for sharing information about cybersecurity hacking and vulnerabilities with federal entities and election agencies. “Kill Chain” notes that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (a Republican) has repeatedly blocked this bill.

Lankford, Klobuchar, Warner and U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (a Democrat from Oregon) are all interviewed in the documentary. Warner says the the U.S. should’ve seen warning signs that Russia would interfere in U.S. elections because back in 2011, Russia’s deputy defense minister Gen. Valery Gerasimov publicly made statements saying that Russia might not be able to compete with Western countries when it comes to military weapons, but Russia could compete when it comes to “cyberwars, disinformation and sowing dissension.”

Ion Sancho, who was supervisor of elections in Leon County, Florida, from 1988 to 2016, gives his own Russian hacking story in the documentary. In an interview with Hursti, Sancho says that sometime in 2016, he and other election supervisors were summoned by the FBI into a top-secret meeting, where on a conference call, the FBI issued a warning that a foreign power had penetrated an election vendor in Florida.

Sancho says, “It didn’t take us long to figure that they were talking about GIU, Russia’s military intelligence service, and the vendor was a Tallahassee vendor (VR Systems), which did all the programming for the majority of the counties in the state of Florida.” (The documentary also notes that VR Systems also supplies voting machines and services to the states of New York, California, Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois and North Carolina.) Sancho goes on to say that Reality Winner—the former National Security Agency intelligence contractor who went to prison for leaking NSA documents that showed Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—is a “heroine” for leaking the documents.

In order to illustrate how widespread the denial is over hacking of the voting system, the documentary shows a video montage of several government officials—including former FBI director James Comey and Election Assistance Commission chairman Thomas Hicks—giving Senate testimony saying some version of, “The voting system is not connected to the Internet,” as a way of denying that the system could be hacked. But then, after the video montage is played, Hursti shows several examples of exactly how voting machines are connected to the Internet and can be hacked.

In one example, Hursti and his business partner Maggie MacAlpine go to an Ohio business called eCycle Solutions that sells recycled products from a warehouse and on eBay. Hursti and MacAlpine buy some outdated voting machines called the AccuVote TSx, which is a type of voting machine that’s still being used in several U.S. counties. Hursti takes the computers and shows them to Professor J. Alex Halderman from the University of Michigan’s school of computer science and engineering, and they do an on-camera demonstration of how the computers need the Internet to process the information and can be hacked.

An even more dramatic demonstration of how voting machines are very easy to hack comes about midway through the documentary, when Hursti goes to Def Con (the annual computer-hacker convention in Las Vegas) and invites attendees into a room filled with different types of voting machines that are currently used in U.S. elections. With help from hacker Jeff Moss, also known as the Dark Tangent (who co-founded the hacker conventions Def Con and  Black Hat), Hursti tells the Def Con hackers that they have free reign to hack into the voting machines and show how it can be done. (The documentary notes that the companies whose machines were used were invited to this demonstration too, but they all declined to attend.) The Def Con “hackathon” test of the voting machines showed that all of the machines in the test were “effectively breached,” according to the documentary.

Douglas Lute, the U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from 2013 to 2017, comments: “We need to shift the mentality away from the Internet being secure and no one is able to tamper with the American election system to the reality that has been demonstrated in 2016.”

One of the most memorable parts of the documentary is toward the end, which features an interview with a hacker in India who uses the alias Cyber Zeist. He does the interview while wearing a disguise and in entirely dark shadows so his face can’t be seen. However, his voice doesn’t seem to be altered.

Cyber Zeist gives a disturbing account of how he was able to hack into the elections computer system for the state of Alaska, and that he could’ve made a fortune (“millions”) from what he was able to find. “I could’ve made any changes to the system,” he brags. Cyber Zeist claims he just “looked around” and didn’t steal information, but Hursti believes that Cyber Zeist dropped enough hints in the interview to admit that a tool was deployed during the hacking session, and that Cyber Zeist might activate this tool later.

The documentary shows Hursti in Alaska meeting with former Anchorage Daily News reporter Nathaniel Herz, who plays excerpts of an audio recording of an interview that he did with former Alaska Elections director Josie Bahnke, who had the position from 2013 to 2018. In the interview, Bahnke says that during her tenure, the Alaska Elections website was hacked by Russians and an IP address from India, but that “there was no breach” because she claims that nothing was altered or stolen. The documentary doesn’t prove that Cyber Zeist was involved in hacking Alaska Elections, and lets viewers draw their own conclusions over how credible this mystery hacker is.

Although “Kill Chain” certainly delivers on presenting several points of view on cyber hacking of elections, what’s missing from the documentary are investigations on what can really be done to combat the problem. The documentary instead wastes some time showing Hursti going back to his hometown in Finland and visiting with his mother. He and his mother look through old photo albums and scrap books together. The only reason this hometown footage seems to be in the documentary is to show the audience that Hursti was a child prodigy in computer science. Instead of this filler and unnecessary footage, the documentary should have shown something more substantial, such as a look into what any grassroots organizations or coalitions are in the U.S. are doing to have voting systems that are the least likely to be hacked, since decisions about voting machines are made on the local level.

The closest the documentary offers to possible solutions is when it shows comments from some of the interviewees (such as statistics professor Stark), who believe that the best voting system to have is a voting system that can leave a paper trail where people can count paper ballot votes by hand, in case there are any disputes. Even though making voting machines more computerized is supposed to make the process easier, the more computerized these machines become, the more likely the election system can be hacked.

After watching this documentary, many people will probably feel the same way that University of Pennsylvania security researcher Sandy Clark feels, when she says: “I feel like we’re in terrible danger of losing what it means to be a democracy. If elections can be altered in a way that’s undetectable, how does one trust the results of their election? Democracy functions on trust. Without that trust, things descend into chaos and anarchy. Those of us who know how vulnerable the systems are in the elections are terribly afraid right now.”

HBO will premiere “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” on March 26, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,’ starring Jim LeBrecht, Judith Heumann, Denise Sherer Jacobson, Corbett O’Toole, Dennis Billups, HolLynn D’Lil and Evan White

March 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Judith “Judy” Heumann in “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” (Photo by HolLynn D’Lil)

“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution”

Directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht

Culture Representation: This documentary, which interviews mostly white people and a few African Americans, takes a look at how several key members of the U.S. civil-rights movement for disabled people spent their youth having positive experiences at Camp Jened, an upstate New York activities camp for disabled people.

Culture Clash: People in the documentary talk about fighting against discrimination and for their civil rights.

Culture Audience: “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” will appeal primarily to viewers who want to see a compelling story about an often-ignored civil-rights movement that happened in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s.

Denise Sherer Jacobson and Jim LeBrecht in “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” (Photo by courtesy of Netflix)

The title of “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” is somewhat misleading because the movie is more about the “revolution” than it is about the “camp.” The movie itself is an inspiring but unevenly edited documentary. “Crip Camp” tells the story of how an upstate New York camp (Camp Jened) for disabled youth ended up being a life-changing formative center for several people who went on to become activists in the 1970s and 1980s civil-rights movement for disabled people.

It’s understandable if viewers think that most of the movie is about Camp Jened. It’s not. The story of the camp takes up just the first third of the film. The documentary is narrated by Jim LeBrecht, a Camp Jened alum who co-directed “Crip Camp” with Nicole Newnham. Camp Jened (originally located in Hunter, New York, near the Catskill Mountains) had its first incarnation from 1951 to 1977. What “Crip Camp” doesn’t mention is that Camp Jened re-opened in Rock Hill, New York, and remained in operation from 1980 to 2009. The camp went out of business both times because of financial problems.

LeBrecht, who is a paraplegic because he was born with spina bifida, shares fond memories of the first incarnation of Camp Jened. And so do other former Camp Jened alumni who were either attendees or counselors in the early 1970s, when LeBrecht attended the camp. He first went there in 1971, when he was 15 years old. He says Camp Jened is where he got his first girlfriend, and it was also a place where many of the teenage attendees also had their first sexual experiences, since they were away from their frequently over-protective homes for the first time.

There’s an uneven tone to the film because the Camp Jened part of the movie starts off like an autobiography, but then the latter two-thirds of the movie switch gears, and the film becomes a historical account of the civil-rights movement for disabled people. LeBrecht describes that when he was growing up in New York state, “I wanted to be a part of life, but I didn’t see anyone like me.” When he heard there was a youth camp for disabled people, and the camp was run by hippie types who would probably let the teenagers “smoke dope” with them, Lebrecht says that he thought at the time, “Sign me up!”

LeBrecht says in the documentary that his experience at Camp Jened was the first time in his life that he didn’t feel like an outsider. The disabled attendees were a racially diverse group that included people like LeBrecht who went to schools with able-bodied people, while there were others who were home-schooled or who lived most of the year in institutions.

The camp counselors, also racially diverse, sometimes didn’t have experience with disabled people, but they made up for that lack of experience with compassion and enthusiasm for the job. Two of the former counselors interviewed in the film include Lionel Je’Woodyard and Joe O’Connor, who describes being terrified at first by being around so many disabled people, but he was literally pushed forward by another counselor to get right in the crowd and help as much as he could.

LeBrecht describes how when he first arrived at the camp, he had recently had bladder surgery so he wouldn’t have to wear diapers anymore, but he was self-conscious about having to use a urine drainage bag and he didn’t really want anyone at the camp to find out about it. But his fears subsided when he realized that there were many people at the camp who had much more difficult medical conditions than he had.

The camp part of the documentary has a lot of archival footage (mostly black-and-white) of people at Camp Jened in the early 1970s, including the late Larry Allison, who was the director of Camp Jened at the time. LeBrecht was an aspiring filmmaker even back then, because he’s heard operating the camera and asking interview questions. Some of the other archival footage came from People’s Video Theater, an alternative journalism group.

In the interviews, it’s clear that the teenagers and other young people at the camp have the same interests as any young people would of any era: dating, acceptance and having fun. The only differences are the physical and mental challenges they have and the restrictions placed upon them because of these challenges. Several of the young people who were interviewed talk about feeling frustrated by over-protective parents or by people who underestimate their abilities.

Ann Cupolo Freeman, who was one of the disabled members of the camp in the 1970s, remembers that at the time, it was being like a “Woodstock for disabled people.” Denise Sherer Jacobson, who was also a teenager who went to Camp Jened in the early 1970s, remembers the camp this way: “It was so funky, but it was a utopia.” And funky it was. Some of the archival footage shows how the camp had to be temporarily quarantined because of an outbreak of crabs.

Sherer Jacobson, who has cerebral palsy, says that even among the disabled, there are prejudices and a hierarchy: People with polio are considered at “the top” and people with cerebral palsy are considered at “the bottom.” But her experiences at Camp Jened were ultimately positive: It’s where she met her husband, Paul Jacobson (who also has cerebral palsy and is interviewed in the movie), and they are still married to this day. Sherer Jacobson also talks about how one of her first sexual experiences as a young woman led her to get her master’s degree in human sexuality, partly because she wanted to break untrue stereotypes that people with disabilities are lesser human beings when it comes to sex.

Archival footage at the camp also includes a very outspoken Steve Hoffman, a disabled person who ended up becoming a transvestite. One scene of him in the film shows him later in his adult life doing a striptease in drag to the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” classic song “Sweet Transvestite.” Another alum of Camp Jened in the archival footage is Corbett O’Toole, who became a writer/activist.

But perhaps the most high-profile alum of Camp Jened is Judith “Judy” Heumann, who went on to become a pioneering leader in the civil rights-movement for disabled people. In 1970, she founded the civil-rights group Disabled in Action. Even in the archival footage that shows her as a camp counselor, Heumann’s “take charge” demeanor is evident when she plans meals for the attendees. In a current interview for the documentary, she looks back on her time at Camp Jened as being important to her because she wanted to make an effort to “be inclusive” to everyone. She also remembers Camp Jened as “being more free and open than what I was experiencing in my day-to-day life at home.”

Heumann is the thread that ties the final two-thirds of the movie together, as the documentary then follows her tireless efforts to push civil rights for disabled people into federal laws, starting with the Rehabilitation Act of 1972, which would make it against federal law for federally funded groups and individuals to discriminate against disabled people. President Richard Nixon initially vetoed the act because he said it would be too expensive for places to revamp buildings to make them more accommodating to the disabled.

But Heumann organized protests that got media attention, including a group of wheelchair users who blocked Madison Avenue in New York City. She also led outreaches to the Vietnam veterans whose war injuries left them disabled. Because of these protests and political pressure, Nixon eventually signed the Rehabilitation Act into law in 1973.

However, this law only covered federally funded groups and individuals, not those operating on the state/local level or privately funded groups and individuals. The fight continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s for laws that would protect disabled people on all levels. Geraldo Rivera’s award-winning 1972 TV news exposé “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace,” which was about the horrific conditions of Willowbrook State School (an institution in New York for special-needs children) is mentioned in “Crip Camp” as being an important milestone in raising public awareness about civil rights for disabled people.

By the mid-1970s, Heumann and several other Camp Jened alumni (including O’Toole and the Jacobson spouses) had moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, which (along with New York City) became another important hub for the U.S. civil-rights movement for disabled people. While in San Francisco, Heumann and a group activists did a nearly month-long sit-in-protest in 1977 because Joe Califano (who was then the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare) refused to sign off on specific reinforcements of section 504 of the Rehabilitation law. The sit-in protests occurred in San Francisco, as well as Califano’s office in Washington, D.C., and even outside of his home in the Washington area.

Dennis Billups is one of the disabled people who was involved in these protests. In an interview for “Crip Camp,” he and fellow protester O’Toole remember that their allies were a wide range of people who cared about civil-rights causes, including the Black Panthers, gay-rights groups, then-U.S. Representative George Miller and journalists such as HolLyn D’Lil and Evan White. (The latter two are interviewed in the documentary.)

O’Toole says that Black Panther member Brad Lomax told her in explaining why the Black Panthers helped with things such as donating food for the protesters: “You’re here to make the world a better place, and so are we.” The results of the 504 protests laid the groundwork several years later for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1990.

LaBrecht was in high school and college during much of these protests (he wasn’t part of the 504 sit-ins), so his perspective mostly takes a back seat to the focus on Heumann that’s in the middle of the movie. However, in the last third of the documentary, he talks about how, after he graduated from the University of California at San Diego, he too moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and became part of an activist community involved in civil rights for disabled people. He also reached his goal of becoming a sound designer in the entertainment industry (there’s late 1970s archival footage of him on the job at Berkeley Repertory Theatre), even if he never did end up in his ultimate dream job: doing sound engineering for the Grateful Dead.

At the end of the film, there’s a mini-reunion of Crip Camp alumni from LeBrecht’s era, at the site where Camp Jened originally was.(The camp was bulldozed years ago. At the time the reunion was filmed for the documentary, the former camp site was under construction and there isn’t much to see.

Along with LeBrecht, other people at the reunion included Sherer Jacobson and former Camp Jened counselor Je’Woodyard. The documentary has a great juxtaposition of archival early 1970s footage of a young Je’Woodyard playfully pushing Sherer Jacobson in her wheelchair, shown with footage of what they looked like at the reunion decades later at the former camp site.

Heumann went on to become assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services during President Bill Clinton’s tenure. She was also a special advisor for international disability rights for President Barack Obama for most of his presidency. It’s probably why Barack and Michelle Obama are among the executive producers of “Crip Camp,” the second movie that the Obamas executive produced under their Netflix deal. (The first movie was the Oscar-winning 2019 documentary “American Factory.”)

Although the camp footage is certainly interesting and sometimes emotionally moving, directors Newnham and LeBrecht should have kept the film focused on the civil-rights part of the story. Because the camp footage takes up one-third of the film, it just makes “Crip Camp” look like it didn’t know if it wanted to be an autobiographical nostalgia piece from Lebrecht’s perspective or a more objective chronicle of the civil-rights movement with Heumann as the star. And this film is very nostalgic, since most of the soundtrack consists of 1960s and 1970s songs from artists such as the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young.

There’s a “split personality” to “Crip Camp,” but it doesn’t get too much in the way of the film’s important overall message: Even though there’s been progress in civil rights for disabled people, there’s a still a lot more progress that needs to be made in giving disabled people the same opportunities, access and respect that are automatically given to able-bodied people. (Think about how many employers don’t hire disabled people who are qualified for jobs because the employers don’t want disabled people to represent their companies.) Sherer Jacobson said it best in the documentary: “You can pass a law, but until you change society’s attitudes, the law won’t mean much.”

Netflix premiered “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” on March 25, 2020.

Review: ‘Human Capital,’ starring Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei, Peter Sarsgaard, Maya Hawke, Alex Wolff and Fred Hechinger

March 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liev Schreiber in “Human Capital” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Human Capital”

Directed by Marc Meyers

Culture Representation: Taking place in upstate New York, the dramatic film “Human Capital” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and the upper-class.

Culture Clash: A hit-and-run car accident and financial pressures affect the lives of two families from different socioeconomic classes.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful dramas and who won’t mind that the story is told in a non-chronological manner.

Alex Wolff and Maya Hawke in “Human Capital” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The tightly wound dramatic film “Human Capital” shows what happens when desperate people do desperate things and how they deal with the ethical dilemmas they face in the process. Based on Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel “Human Capital” (which was adapted into the 2014 Italian film “Il Capitale Umano”), this American movie version begins with the incident that is at the center of the turmoil in the movie, which takes place in an unnamed suburb in upstate New York.

While riding his bicycle home from work one night, a restaurant waiter is suddenly stuck by a speeding Jeep Wrangler in a hit-and-run-accident. The Jeep Wrangler briefly stops and the unseen driver does not get out of the car before speeding off. Observant viewers can immediately notice some clues (including the make and model of the car), but even then it’s best not to assume that these clues are proof of who the perpetrator really is.

The mystery unfolds in layers, as the three acts in the story are each told from the perspective of three of the main characters: financially desperate real-estate broker Drew Hagel (played by Liev Schreiber), rich housewife Carrie Manning (played by Marisa Tomei) and high-school student Shannon Dark (played by Maya Hakwe), who is Drew’s daughter from his first marriage. (Shannon took her mother’s maiden name after her parents got divorced.) All of them are or will be connected to the hit-and-run accident in some way.

Drew’s perspective is told first. He’s first seen on screen with Shannon, as he drives her to the home of her new boyfriend Jamie Manning (played by Fred Hechinger), who is the son of a wealthy hedge-fund mogul named Quint Manning (played by Peter Sarsgaard). While Drew marvels at the Manning family’s large estate, Shannon acts like she’s not impressed by the family’s wealth and she looks like she just hopes that her father doesn’t embarrass her when he drops her off at the home.

Drew first meets Quint’s wife Carrie. In the space of a few minutes, Drew tells Carrie that he owns his own real-estate company, he and his first wife (Shannon’s mother) did not have friendly divorce, and he’s now married to a woman whom Drew calls “his trophy wife.” These are indications that Drew wants to give the impression that he’s a rich and successful businessman.

As Drew is getting ready to leave, he meets Quint, when Quint asks Drew to join him in a game of doubles tennis on the mansion’s tennis court. After the game, Drew asks Quint if he’s taking any more investors in his hedge fund WNV. Quint tells Drew that the only new investors he’ll accept are family and friends. But since they’ve gotten along so well in their short time together, Quint tells Drew that the minimum investment is $300,000.

Drew can get the money, but only through borrowing via home equity at a fairly high interest rate. Drew discusses the matter with his business manager Andy (played by James Waterston), who advises him against the deal. It’s a risky move because Drew’s real-estate business (he’s the only employee) hasn’t been doing well, but he’s too embarrassed to admit his financial problems to anyone other than Andy. Drew seems determined to impress Quint, with the hopes of making a profit from the investment, so Drew ignores Andy’s advice and goes through with the investment deal by doing something illegal.

Drew doesn’t tell his current wife Ronnie (played by Betty Gabriel) about this deal. But she’s got news for him: After having multiple miscarriages in the past, she’s now pregnant with twins. Ronnie is a therapist, but her salary wouldn’t be enough to cover the financial losses if Drew’s investment turns out to be a bad decision. Needless to say, the impending birth of the children puts even more financial pressure on Drew.

Meanwhile, the movie’s second act focuses on the perspective of Quint’s wife Carrie. Viewers find out that she’s interested in buying a run-down performing-arts theater in the area and turning it into a cultural center for movie screenings, stage performances and other events. But first, she needs her husband Quint’s money, and she convinces him to buy the theater for their nonprofit foundation.

One of the people on the foundation board is a professor (played by Paul Sparks), who recognizes Carrie as a former actress who used to do horror movies. When he’s alone with Carrie, he flirts with her and confesses that he’s a fan of her work. He also mentions that if the theater needs an artistic director, he’d like to be considered for the position.

During a lunch appointment with him, Carrie confesses that her marriage has had some problems, including Quint having “three affairs in 20 years.” When the professor asks Carrie if she’s ever cheated on Quint, her response is that she’s thought about it many times, but never actually did it. When Quint finds out about the lunch, he tells Carrie about a decision he made about the theater. You can see where this is headed, so it comes no surprise at what happens next.

The third and final act of the story is told from Shannon’s perspective. Viewers find out that she’s a lot more angst-ridden than she first appeared in the other parts of the story. She’s desperate for love and attention outside of her family, but hides that desperation behind a façade of appearing emotionally distant and insolent. While visiting her stepmother Ronnie at Ronnie’s job, Shannon is in the waiting area and meets another teenager named Ian, who is one Ronnie’s patients. They exchange some sarcastic banter, but it’s obvious that they’re attracted to one another.

There’s too much spoiler information to talk about what happens during other parts of the movie, but it’s enough to say that there are several flashbacks that revolve around what happened the night of a gala event where Jamie’s elite private school gave a prestigious award to one of its students. Seated at the same table at the event were Quint, Carrie, Jamie, Quint’s obnoxious lawyer Godeep (played by Aasif Mandvi), Godeep’s wife (played by Christiane Seidel), Shannon, Ronnie and Drew.

The American version of “Human Capital” (directed by  Marc Meyers) is not as stylishly filmed as director Paolo Virzì’s Italian version. While the Italian version had a sleek, minimalistic look to its production design and cinematography, the American version opts for a grittier, more cluttered look. The American version of the movie is a straightforward mystery thriller, while the Italian version seemed to have more to say about the dark sides of ambitious social climbing.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Oren Moverman (2009’s “The Messenger”) does a capable job with the American version of the “Human Capital” screenplay, which certainly ramps up the “whodunit” tension throughout the film. However, the film’s middle section that’s shown from Carrie’s perspective really doesn’t add much to the story, compared to the beginning and ending to the film.

One character in particular has a backstory that is mentioned but never seen in the movie. It would have been interesting to explore more of this person’s history. However, enough of this person’s background is revealed to explain why this person does an extreme act toward the end of the film. All of the actors do a very good job with their roles, but Hawke’s Shannon character is probably the hardest one to pull off because her character is the least predictable.

For people who want to know who committed the hit-and-run, the movie does end up showing the entire set of circumstances that led up to the hit-and-run, who was responsible, and what happened afterward. However, the American version of “Human Capital” doesn’t fully address some of the illegal acts that certain characters committed in the movie that might or might nor be related to the hit-and-run crime. In other words, some loose ends are tied up, but not all.

Vertical Entertainment released “Human Capital” on DirecTV on February 20, 2020, and on VOD on March 20, 2020.

Review: ‘The Rescue List,’ starring Stephen Kwame Addo, Peter Samuel, Edem Akpalu and Teye Adi

March 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Stephen Kwame Addo in “The Rescue List” (Photo courtesy of Collective Hunch)

“The Rescue List”

Directed by Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink

Culture Representation: Taking place in the area around Ghana’s Lake Volta and featuring an all-African cast, the documentary “The Rescue List” follows a grass-roots group of child-welfare advocates and children they’ve rescued from modern-day slavery.

Culture Clash: The group faces opposition from the slave masters and has an overwhelming task of rescuing thousands of child slaves in the area, as well as rehabilitating them.

Culture Audience: This compelling movie will appeal primarily to people who have an interest in issues about human rights and social justice, but the disturbing subject matter might make it difficult for some people to watch.

Twi, Fante, Ewe, Ga, Ada and Efutu with subtitles

Peter Samuel (front row center) and Edem Akpalu (front row, far right) in “The Rescue List” (Photo courtesy of Collective Hunch)

Slavery and human trafficking are tragically still happening in the everyday lives of an untold number of people around the world. The emotionally raw but ultimately inspiring documentary “The Rescue List” takes an unwavering, up-close look at a grassroots group in Ghana called Challenging Heights that runs a children’s shelter, rescues children from slavery, rehabilitates them, educates them, and then places the kids into homes that pledge to keep the children safe.

Challenging Heights, which is not funded by the government, includes rescue-group leader Stephen Kwame Addo, who used to be a child slave until he escaped, found a safe place to live, and got an education. Challenging Heights also includes social workers Bernice Jaama Akromah and Peter Kwesi Smyth, who help the kids recover from their trauma with therapy. The children who leave the shelter for permanent homes get follow-up monitoring for two years by the group’s social workers.

According to some sobering history and statistics presented in the film: “In 1965, foreign mining companies built a hydroelectric dam on Ghana’s Volta River, creating the largest man-made lake on Earth. Traffickers began to pay families facing extreme poverty to send their children to the lake for short-term work. But the children often disappear. There are now an estimated 20,000 children enslaved to fishermen in remote regions of Lake Volta.”

In addition to suffering abuse, children who’ve become fishermen’s slaves often get trapped with fishing nets and die. And, of course, many of these children are prevented from going to school because they spend most of their waking hours doing slave work.

“The Rescue List” focuses on three of the boys who’ve been rescued: Peter Samuel, who was 17 at the time the documentary was filmed; Edem Akpalu, who was 12 during filming of the movie; and Teye Adi, Peter’s best friend who was 14. At the beginning of the movie, Peter and Edem have already been in the shelter (their rescues are not part of the movie), while Teye’s rescue is shown in the documentary.

In addition to being a rescuer, Addo (who goes by his middle name Kwame) is a de facto private investigator. He and his team spend an untold number of hours finding the necessary information to put on their “rescue list,” which includes the names and locations of suspected slave masters and the children who are enslaved. Addo describes his mission to rescue child slaves as “a calling.”

The movie shows Addo scouring Lake Volta for children to rescue, and it’s clear why he is often successful at his mission: He approaches children who appear to be fisherman slaves with a calm and friendly demeanor that allows them to trust him in a short period of time. Because many of the children are brainwashed into thinking that rescuers will harm them, he immediately assures them that he’s taking them to a safe place where they won’t have to spend long hours fishing anymore. Most are happy to be rescued, but one boy in the film is terrified, and tries to swim away when Addo approaches him and offers him an escape from his life of misery. (The boy eventually goes with Addo and his team.)

Peter and Edem have a story that is common with these children who are sold into slavery. Their mothers were the ones who let them be trafficked, and their slave masters often abuse and starve the kids to do what they want. Peter is a friendly kid but his rescuers notice that he’s distressed because being rescued meant that he had to leave his best friend Teye behind. Peter feels guilty about it and asks the group to rescue Teye.

Meanwhile, Edem, who is shy and insecure, is dealing with the trauma of losing his best friend Steven in a drowning accident. In therapy sessions, Edem describes Steven as someone who supervised him and was a protector who never abused him. During an especially poignant scene, two of the social workers take Edem to the beach and tell him to say a prayer and talk to Steven. Edem’s soul-baring prayer might bring tears to some people’s eyes.

The rescue of Teye is tense, but not violent. It resembles the negotiation of a hostage release. As Teye leaves with Addo, a woman shouts from a nearby house, “My investment is lost!” Teye’s reunion with Peter is one of the most heart-warming moments of the film.

But even after they’ve been rescued, the children still experience a lot of anxiety, because many face an uncertain future, especially if no family members claim them. Peter and Edem do have family members (including their mothers) who come to visit them in the shelters and want to take them home. The movie doesn’t judge Peter’s and Edem’s mothers for essentially selling their children into slavery.

But “The Rescue List” does show the very real emotional damage that these decisions caused, as now the mothers and children are virtual strangers. It’s clear from the guilty and tearful reactions of the mothers that coming home for these boys will not be an easy emotional journey. Although it’s never openly discussed in the documentary, they will all have to come to terms with what whatever they feel about forgiveness and emotional healing. Peter is old enough to decide if he wants to live with his mother or with a village elder who has offered to raise Peter. The documentary shows his decision.

Not all of this documentary is depressing. The shelter’s children (who are almost all boys) are shown to be well-adjusted to their surroundings. And they have a camaraderie that’s evident when they play soccer or when they gather in recreation room to watch TV or a movie. (One of the movies they watch with fascination is “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” the 1980 South African comedy about how the discovery of Coca-Cola bottle set off a chain of events for an African tribe.)

“The Rescue List” directors Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink take an observational yet empathetic approach to their subjects by allowing them to tell their stories without the annoying interference of voiceovers or talking heads. Although it’s certainly a relief that these children have been rescued, the movie doesn’t least viewers forget that not everyone is that fortunate and there will always be a need for groups like Challenging Heights.

PBS premiered “The Rescue List” on its “POV” series and on POV.org on March 23, 2020.

Review: ‘Dosed,’ starring Adrianne, Mark Howard, Trevor Millar, Garyth Moxey, Mark Haden and Geoff Acres

March 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mark Howard (right) with Adrianne in “Dosed” (Photo courtesy of Mangurama)

“Dosed”

Directed by Tyler Chandler

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Vancouver, the documentary “Dosed” advocates for the use of plant-based psychedelics to treat hardcore drug addiction and mental-health issues, with an emphasis on white people from the middle and upper classes.

Culture Clash: This entire movie portrays pharmaceutical medicines as the enemy and psychedelics as the best solution to certain people’s addictions and mental illnesses.

Culture Audience: “Dosed” won’t change the minds of people who already believe the agenda that this movie is pushing, but for other people who need to hear both sides of an issue in order to make an informed decision, “Dosed” falls irresponsibly short.

Adrianne in “Dosed” (Photo courtesy of Mangurama)

“Dosed” is the type of one-sided agenda documentary that needs to be viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism and common sense. It’s clear that the filmmakers (including director Tyler Chandler) are not objective in the least and have no background in journalism, since they’ve deliberately chosen not to present different sides of a very serious issue that can severely affect people’s health. The filmmakers’ agenda is to make people believe that using plant-based psychedelics (such as Iboga and Ibogaine) is the “best” and “safest” way to treat drug addictions and mental illnesses, such as clinical depression.

As “proof,” the documentary follows just one person who goes through this “treatment”: a Vancouver woman in her 30s named Adrianne (her last name is not mentioned in the film), a longtime friend of Chandler who says in the film that she has a long history (more than 20 years) of drug addiction (heroin, cocaine, prescription drugs, you name it). Adrianne also has psychological issues, such as clinical depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Because Adrianne frequently has suicidal thoughts, Chandler decided to make a documentary about her desperate attempt to get help for her serious medical problems by showing what happens when Adrianne uses a great deal of the psychedelic drug Iboga.

At least Chandler admitted this “I’m filming a movie about my friend” bias upfront in the beginning of the film, but it does not help the movie’s credibility when people see how irresponsibly so many things are handled in this documentary. You don’t have to have a medical background to see there’s almost nothing science-based about the “conclusions” that the so-called psychedelic “experts” in this documentary make about Adrianne’s medical condition when they “treat” her, so it’s no surprise that she ends up in the emergency room. At least the filmmakers were honest enough to not edit out Adrianne’s disastrous trip to the ER, because it shows how this medical emergency was absolutely avoidable and due in large part to the bungling of the so-called psychedelic “experts” who were involved in her “therapy.”

Most of the so-called “experts” who are interviewed in the documentary do not seem to have any legitimate medical/scientific university degrees. One of the few exceptions is clinical psychologist Rosalind Watts, who does psychedelic research at Imperial College in London, England, and who is not involved in Adrianne’s “treatment.” Watts talks about how using psychedelics can be a tool (not a crutch) in treating depression, but she emphasizes that psychedelic usage is not for everyone, and it requires a lot more work and practice in therapy for people to overcome problems like drug addiction and mental illnesses. She also doesn’t claim, like most of the non-medical people in this movie do, that taking illegal psychedelic drugs will help keep drug addicts sober, because any fool can see that taking illegal psychedelics is not being “sober.”

Two of the people interviewed in “Dosed” are Mark Haden, who’s identified as a “psychedelic researcher” from Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Canada, and Mark Howard, one of the people with a dubious background who was involved in Adrianne’s psychedelic usage. (Howard was present during Adrianne’s psychedelic “therapy session” that ended with her trip to the ER.)

Also interviewed in the documentary are Liberty Roots Therapy founder Trevor Millar, who’s identified as an “opioid addiction expert”; Inner Realms Center founder Garyth Moxey, who’s identified as a “psychedelics provider”; and MAPS founder Rick Doblin, who’s identified as a “psychedelic researcher.” Most of the “experts” in the documentary are people with no medical licenses but who have started businesses to administer “psychedelic therapy,” when in reality they’re just glorified drug pushers. We’ll get to that issue in a moment.

Adrianne says in the documentary about her drug use: “I’m always on something, whether it’s prescribed by a doctor or prescribed by a drug dealer.” Based on the long list of drug prescriptions that Adrianne says she’s had over the years (including Zoloft, Lithium and Wellbutrin), in addition to her ongoing use of heroin and methadone, it’s incredibly infuriating that anyone would think she would be an ideal subject to experiment on like a human guinea pig. She has so many drugs in her system that so many things could go wrong. And the ER trip is proof that things went terribly wrong. Adrianne is lucky that she survived that health crisis.

Adrianne willingly participated in these experiments, but considering that she was not mentally or physically well for most of the documentary, her state of mind has to be called into question. And just as importantly, there’s no mention in the documentary that she ever told her doctor(s) that she was undergoing this psychedelic “treatment” (it’s implied that she kept it a secret from any doctors she has), which put her health further at risk. But hey, why worry about serious health dangers like that when you’ve got a documentary to make?

That isn’t the only secret that Adrianne keeps. For most of the documentary, she claims she’s only using heroin “occasionally” (whatever that means) and that the only drug she’s using daily is methadone. But one of the reasons why she ended up in the emergency room is because she lied and was actually still using heroin heavily during her “psychedelic therapy,” which is a type of “treatment” that is only supposed to be done when people don’t have serious drugs like heroin in their system. It’s only after she’s taken to the emergency room that she admits to lying about still using heroin on a regular basis.

Adrianne shouldn’t get all the blame, because she landed in the ER because of incompetence by the people who didn’t give her any medical tests before they allowed her to take psychedelic drugs. People who are truly experienced in treating drug addicts know that junkies often tell lies about their drug use. That’s why people who are in legitimate drug treatment get drug tested before any further drugs are put into their system.

But there is no sign of Adrianne getting drug tested before the psychedelic experiments are eagerly administered to her by the people who call themselves “experts” from this non-medical organization called Iboga Soul. One of the Iboga Soul people is identified as “registered nurse” Patrick Fishley, who apparently has no qualms about being seen on camera as someone involved in illegal drug activity, which is a serious violation of a nursing license.

Apparently, the people from Iboga Soul and anyone else who encouraged Adrianne to use illegal psychedelic drugs just took Adrianne’s word for it that she wasn’t doing heroin. And the result was she ended up in the emergency room. In one very telling scene, Iboga Soul manager Geoff Acres has a shocked and terrified look on his face when he finds out that Adrianne had to be taken to the emergency room after she got “dosed” with one of Iboga Soul’s “treatments.” It’s the kind of look where he seems to be thinking, “I hope she doesn’t die and I hope we don’t get sued.”

Not surprisingly, the movie shows Adrianne sending text messages to members of Iboga Soul to go to her home and find her drug stash to get rid of it. And the documentary does show them confiscating the drugs on camera. For the cameras, they make it look like getting rid of the drugs is all about Adrianne’s health. But let’s be real: It’s also about making sure the police don’t find any of her illegal drugs in case they show up at Adrianne’s home, which can happen after a drug addict is taken to the emergency room and tests positive for illegal drugs in their system.

One of the documentary’s many flaws is that it’s so aggressive about pushing its agenda that it doesn’t honestly investigate the things that have gone wrong with this type of psychedelic use. Yes, there could be people who might benefit from using psychedelics, but how many more (or less) people go through the same “treatment,” and it has terrible effects that make their health worse? The “Dosed” filmmakers never attempt to answer this question or try to get the other side of the story from people who’ve had bad experiences from seeking this type of “treatment.” However, the movie goes out of its way to present the pharmaceutical industry as being largely responsible for people’s bad experiences in seeking health treatment. It’s obvious that the “Dosed” filmmakers only want to present a psychedelic usage story with a “happy ending.”

When Adrianne describes some of the nauseating physical side effects that she’s experiencing after taking the psychedelics, “Dosed” director Chandler can be heard asking her off camera something like, “But you still feel pretty good, right? You aren’t depressed anymore, right?” At another point in the movie, she legitimately snaps at him when she tells him that he doesn’t understand addiction. In making this movie, Chandler seems to want to think that this type of “treatment” is a straight line to wellness, when in fact there are some terrifying zig zags that can go south very quickly.

And the disclaimer that the documentary has about how psychedelics like Iboga should be administered under medical supervision is almost laughable, when “Dosed” and other documentaries just like it show that the people making money off of running these “psychedelic therapy sessions” almost always do not have the medical qualifications to administer these psychedelic drugs and monitor their effects. Some of the “psychedelic therapists” might have good intentions to help people get better, but it seems like making money is the real intention. The push to make these treatments legal has a lot to do with people wanting to get rich off of it.

You don’t have to look any further than who’s being targeted for these psychedelic treatments: white people from the middle and upper classes. Time and time again, in documentaries like “Dosed” and “From Shock to Awe” and “Psyched Out,” the participants (the so-called “healers” and the patients) are not a diverse group of people from different races and socioeconomic backgrounds, but they’re almost exclusively white people who can not only afford to buy these drugs but they brazenly put themselves in documentary films that show them (and their real names) as actively participating in illegal drug activity.

If you consider that most people who use drugs in the U.S. and Canada are white (and the numerous documentaries on drug addicts in America prove it), but most people in jail for using drugs are not white and are usually poor, it shows how much of a racial and social divide there is, in terms of who’s most likely to end up in prison for being involved in illegal drugs and who isn’t. Of course, the “Dosed” filmmakers completely ignore this major problem because they wouldn’t have a movie if certain people didn’t feel comfortable flaunting their illegal drug activity and dressing it up as if they’re better than the people who go to jail for also selling or possessing illegal drugs. Adrianne certainly fits that “privileged” profile, since she’s seen taking illegal drugs on camera and she mentions that her divorced mother has paid for Adrianne’s multiple trips to rehab.

This entire movie has a “privileged blind spot” by failing to point out the obvious: If this “psychedelic movement” really cared about helping all drug addicts and all people with mental-health issues (since these problems affect people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds), it wouldn’t be targeting white people from the upper and middle classes to pay for these “services,” so there’s obviously a biased financial agenda behind this movement.

Ironically, the psychedelics that are being used in this agenda to target white North Americans have been used for centuries in predominantly non-white countries. Iboga and Ibocaine are made from a plant root in found in Africa, in countries like Gabon, and have been used in tribal psychedelic rituals. Mexican mushrooms are also a popular drug that’s being pushed in this psychedelic movement.

The members of the all-white Iboga Soul “psychedelic therapy group” even dress up in African clothing and use the same elements of African psychedelic rituals (tribal horns and incense paper torches) during their “therapy sessions,” which give a whole new meaning to “cultural appropriation.” If any people of color in the U.S. or Canada ever did this kind of illegal drug activity so openly in a documentary, see how fast they would be arrested.

Whether they call themselves “psychedelic administrators,” “psychedelic therapists” or “psychedelic providers,” if they’re encouraging people to use illegal drugs that could have dangerous consequences, they’re really just illegal drug pushers, but they do their drug deals in middle-class and upper-class homes, instead of stereotypical street corners. At one point in the film, Adrianne says something that is very true: Most people think drug addicts are the type of dirty, homeless junkies that you might see in crime-infested areas, when most drug addicts are actually functioning addicts who have jobs and aren’t poor.

“Dosed” also doesn’t properly address the differences in the health-care systems in Canada and the U.S., which have an effect on how drug addicts can get treatment in each nation. Canada has universal health care and usually has much lower costs for prescription drugs than the U.S does. A drug addict like Adrianne, who lives in Canada, doesn’t have to worry about paying for a trip to a hospital emergency room and she won’t get kicked out of a hospital because she can’t afford to pay the bill. As someone who has Canadian health insurance, she doesn’t have to worry about not being able to afford prescriptions because she doesn’t have the right insurance or because she no insurance. It’s yet another “blind spot” that this movie has that shows how unprofessionally this serious topic is handled by the filmmakers.

And even if “psychedelic therapy” became legal in the U.S., which is what a lot of its advocates are pushing for, it’s clear that it will probably be available only to the people who are privileged enough to afford it. That’s why it’s not being marketed to “everyone,” but only to certain people who fit a certain demographic.

The documentary also has a “holier than thou” attitude toward the pharmaceutical industry. Adrianne and other drug addicts like her can certainly make a case for how they’ve been over-prescribed prescription drugs. But at the end of the day, pharmaceutical companies and the “psychedelic providers” are drug pushers with the same agenda: get as many people as possible to buy your drugs on a regular basis, even if the side effects might damage some people’s health. It’s very hypocritical to pretend otherwise. At least you need a legitimate license to be a pharmacist, whereas the people who sell these “doses” of illegal psychedelics, under the guise of medical treatment, are not regulated at all.

The one time a drug test is shown briefly on camera is after Adrianne’s ER crisis. The test kit with negative results is quickly flashed on camera, and viewers are told that those are Adrianne’s test results. But for people who aren’t naïve enough to believe everything they see in a biased documentary, a couple of things are noticeable: We never actually see Adrianne take the test. And if she did take that drug test, how do we know she didn’t use someone else’s urine? (It’s a common way for drug addicts to fake their drug tests.) Given all the lies that Adrianne tells in this documentary, her statements should be taken with a huge grain of salt. If the filmmakers wanted to choose a “human guinea pig” for this documentary who would be credible and sympathetic, they picked the wrong person.

It should come as no surprise that at the end of the movie, Adrianne professes to be “sober” for a year, but then she also says she still uses illegal psychedelics on a regular basis. How is that being “sober”? But considering that Adrianne exposed herself in this documentary as a chronic and convincing liar who lied about all the heroin she was doing, it’s understandable if people watching this documentary question if she’s telling the truth about how “sober” she really is, thereby undermining the point that “Dosed” is trying to make.

Ironically, “psychedelic therapist” Howard says something before Adrianne’s ER medical crisis when commenting on the agenda that this movie is trying to push: “When people start getting ideas off of documentaries, that’s when things get dangerous. It is dangerous. We have seen enough to know that.”

Mangurama released “Dosed” on digital and VOD on March 20, 2020. From March 20 to April 2, 2020, 10% from every purchase of the film will be donated and matched by Facebook for a total of 20% towards coronavirus disaster relief (CDC Foundation, UN Foundation, and the World Health Organization).  

 

Review: ‘Hooking Up,’ starring Brittany Snow and Sam Richardson

March 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sam Richardson and Brittany Snow in “Hooking Up” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Hooking Up”

Directed by Nico Raineau

Culture Representation: Set in Atlanta, Dallas and various other U.S. cities, the sex comedy “Hooking Up” has a diverse cast of characters (white, African American and Asian) who represent the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man and a woman who are almost complete opposites find themselves going on a personal and sexual journey with each other.

Culture Audience: “Hooking Up” will appeal primarily to viewers who like low-concept, slightly off-kilter raunchy comedies with questionable humor.

Sam Richardson and Anna Akana in “Hooking Up “(Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

In an attempt to set itself apart from other sex comedies, “Hooking Up” has some bizarre plot elements that actually lower the quality of this already lowbrow movie. It isn’t until the last third of the film that the movie gets better. But by then, it’s too little too late.

“Hooking Up” is the feature-film debut of Nico Raineau, who co-wrote the movie’s uneven screenplay with Lauren Schacher. It begins, as many sex comedies do, with people having sex. In this case, the sex scene is with a nymphomaniac in her 30s named Darla Beane (played by Brittany Snow), who’s doing the deed very loudly with an older guy named Charlie (played by Rob Moran). The two of them are in Atlanta and are going at it in an empty elementary school classroom, of all places. And it’s clear from their encounter that Darla is a very bossy and selfish lover.

As Darla abruptly gets up and leaves the classroom, she accidentally bumps into 30-year-old nice guy Bailey Brighton (played by Sam Richardson) in the hallway. He asks her what she was doing in the classroom, and she sarcastically replies that she was there for a parent-teacher conference. Is Darla a parent or a teacher? Neither. She’s a sex addict and she’s at the school for an after-hours group therapy meeting with Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA).

It’s her first SLAA meeting, and Darla isn’t thrilled to be there at all, because she’s only there under a court order. What did she do to get in trouble? It’s not really made clear, but it’s hinted at later in the movie. As Darla angrily tells a member of the group, she doesn’t belong there because she’s not an addict.

Just when Darla has made it abundantly clear that she’s not interested in making friends in the group, in walks the group leader: It’s Charlie, the guy she had sex with moments before. Darla and Charlie both look surprised to see each other, but viewers shouldn’t be. After all, how many group therapy sessions are taking place after hours at the same time in this school?

It turns out, there’s another group-therapy session taking place in another area of the school. It’s for a group of cancer survivors. And Bailey is one of them. He has testicular cancer, and it’s resulted in the removal of his left testicle. Bailey’s group already knows that he’s had this procedure.

And unfortunately, viewers know about it too because Bailey’s genital area is constantly used for ongoing crude jokes in the movie. This type of humor (especially for people who’ve had body parts removed because of cancer) is bound to make some people uncomfortable and possibly offended because the jokes really aren’t that clever or funny.

Soon after viewers see Darla and Bailey in their respective group therapy sessions, we see what Darla and Bailey do for a living. Darla works as a sex columnist for a local women’s lifestyle magazine called ATL Style. And viewers see that Darla isn’t just rude and abrasive at therapy sessions she doesn’t want to go to—she’s rude and abrasive all the time.

Bailey works in a lowly position at a gym. In a FaceTime chat that Bailey has with his loving but overbearing parents—Ron Brighton (played by Bryan Pitts) and Cindy Brighton (played by Vivica A. Fox)—viewers see that Bailey’s father is a successful gym owner who is expanding his business in their hometown of Dallas.

The movie goes to great lengths to show how opposite Darla and Bailey are. While Darla openly watches porn on her work computer, Bailey is moping around at his job because he’s nursing a broken heart over his recent breakup with his high-school sweetheart Elizabeth “Liz” Cartwright (played by Anna Akana), whom he still stalks on Instagram. Later in the movie, Bailey reveals that he moved to Atlanta because Liz moved there too.

Bailey is so stuck on Liz that he calls her and asks her out on a date, even though they’ve broken up. It’s in this scene that viewers find out that Liz was the one who dumped Bailey. She tells him that their breakup is for the best and that he should move on and meet new people, because that’s what she’s doing. Later, she stops by the gym to give Bailey a box of his belongings that he hadn’t bothered to pick up after their breakup. It’s clear from their interactions that Bailey’s life revolved around Liz, and now he feels lost without her.

And then, Darla and Bailey each gets bad news. Darla gets fired because her boss Tanya (played by Jordana Brewster) thinks that the quality of Darla’s work has gone downhill. Tanya is also tired of putting up with Darla’s shenanigans, which included Tanya having to settle a sexual-harassment lawsuit that was brought against Darla, who has a habit of hooking up with co-workers.

Darla also had sex with a male intern in an empty conference room and recorded the encounter on video. Bizarrely, the video is played on the TV screen in Tanya’s office while Darla gets fired. It’s meant to be a funny part of the movie, but it’s downright creepy to have a boss watch a sex video of an employee while the employee is sitting right in front of the boss. Darla begs Tanya not to fire her (Darla shouts, “I’m the Oprah of orgasms!”), but Tanya is unmoved.

Meanwhile, during a visit to his doctor, Bailey finds out that the testicular cancer that he thought was in remission has now returned with a vengeance. A lump in his right testicle shows that his right testicle will have to be removed too. Feeling anxious and depressed, Bailey shows up unannounced at a restaurant where Liz is (he knows she’s there at that moment because she did an Instagram Story about it) and finds her at a table that’s set for two people. Viewers can see from the items that are on the table that she’s there with a date (who stepped away for a few moments), but a distressed Bailey doesn’t see these visual clues and plops down at the seat opposite from Liz, drinks from a nearby wine glass,  and says he needs to tell her something important.

Liz is visibly annoyed and starts to lecture Bailey about how he needs to move on with his life. She also lets it slip that she’s going back to their hometown of Dallas for her mother’s retirement party. Before Bailey can tell her about the bad news about his medical condition, Liz’s date shows up and that’s the end of the conversation.

At another SLAA meeting with Darla and the rest of the group, they’re each given a map of the U.S. where, as a therapy exercise, they have to mark places on the map where they’ve had sex. It’s another weird element to this movie that doesn’t make sense, but it’s used as a basis for the plot. At this SLAA meeting, Bailey suddenly shows up very drunk and blurts out to the entire group that his right testicle is going to be removed because of the cancer. Eventually, Bailey makes his way to his cancer therapy session. The only purpose of this “drunken outburst” scene is to set up the “coincidence” that happens when Bailey and Darla see each other later and she already knows about his testicular cancer.

The map gives Darla the idea to take a road trip, relive her sexual encounters at as many places where she’s had sex before, and write about it. She contacts her ex-boss Tanya to pitch the idea for the story. After some persistent begging, Tanya reluctantly agrees that Darla can blog about her experiences for the magazine’s website, but she won’t be paid for it. Darla eagerly agrees, which shows you how desperate she is.

While at a bar, Darla and Bailey see each other and strike up a conversation. Darla already knows about Bailey’s recent troubles, but she doesn’t tell Bailey what’s going on in her life. All she’ll say is that she’s a writer, but she doesn’t mention that she writes about sex and that she’s recently been fired from her job. Even though Bailey works at a gym, his dream job is to be an illustrator artist, but he tells Darla that his parents discouraged him from having this dream because it’s very difficult for artists to make a solid income. (Bailey’s artwork in the movie is very much like what one would see in a comic strip.)

When Bailey sees Darla’s map, he asks her what it’s for, and she tells him. She also mentions that she wants to recreate her sexual experiences on a road trip and invites Bailey to go with her on the trip. Bailey is very reluctant at first, but then says he’ll go on the trip with Darla, on the condition that they make a stop in Dallas at some point during the trip. And so begins the road trip that takes up about 60% of the movie.

Even though Darla and Bailey had a “meet cute” moment when they first met in the school hallway, it’s important for viewers to know in advance that “Hooking Up” isn’t much of a romantic comedy because there’s very little romance in the movie. Darla and Bailey, who end up being “no strings attached” sex partners on the trip, aren’t really friends for most of the story, and they’re definitely not falling in love with each other.

In fact, Bailey is still hung up on Liz and is posting photos of himself and Darla together on his social media, in the hope that Liz will see the pictures and get jealous. He wants to go to Dallas to show off Darla to Liz. Meanwhile, Darla is using Bailey by blogging about their sexcapades, including details about what it’s like having a one-testicled man as a sex partner. The movie wants viewers to believe that for most of the trip, Bailey and Darla don’t know about each other’s online/Internet activities.

On the trip, Bailey finds out that Darla has a thing for having sex in places (public and private) where she might get caught. (It probably also explains why she ended up being in court-ordered sex-addiction therapy.) But the movie takes Darla’s sex re-enactment quest to a weird tangent when more than once in the story, Darla and Bailey break into someone’s private home to have sex.

Up until this point, Bailey is so straight-laced that when Darla asks him how many sex partners he’s had in his life, he confesses to Darla that he’s only had sex with two people: his ex-girlfriend Liz and Darla. Meanwhile, Darla (who says she’s had sex with 169 people and counting) responds when she find out that Bailey has had sex with only two people in his life: “That’s the most terrifying thing I ever heard, other than ‘Smell this rag’ and ‘I think I love you.'” That’s what passes for a joke in this movie.

But once Darla and Bailey start breaking into people’s houses, it’s when the movie will probably start to alienate viewers because the break-ins are just so bizarre and unrelatable. Even if the house is empty, what if someone who lives there comes home? What if a neighbor sees them and calls the police? Darla is not that much of a prize (she’s a very troubled and angry woman) and there’s nothing for Bailey to gain by risking a possible arrest for breaking-and-entering or trespassing.

Even though it’s believable that Bailey would start to loosen up around Darla, it’s a bit of an unrealistic stretch that he would gleefully start sneaking into people’s houses just to have sex with her. But that’s what happens, and it doesn’t ring true that he would go through such an extreme transformation in such a short period of time. (And he’s not intoxicated when he makes these decisions.)

It’s during one of these break-ins that the movie takes a very dark turn when Darla confesses a secret about the previous sexual encounter she had in the house. It’s the first time that viewers see that Darla has a heart, because she actually cries with guilt over a tragedy that happened because of what she thought was a meaningless escapade. But then, after that emotionally raw scene, the movie goes back to its silly, slapstick-ish tone. It’s like trying to throw in a scene that wants to be Meryl Streep in an Adam Sandler comedy.

As the two main characters, Snow and Richardson don’t have much chemistry together, although Richardson has better comic timing than Snow. But then again, they’re playing two mismatched people who start off in a very awkward situation, which continues for the vast majority of the movie. Some of the best acting in the movie is not from the two lead actors but from supporting actors Akana (as Bailey’s ex-girlfriend Liz) and Amy Pietz, who plays Darla’s mother Betty in scenes that somewhat explain why Darla turned out to be such a hard-edged nympho. The screenplay is what’s most problematic about this movie, because some of the dialogue and situations in “Hooking Up” are just plain dumb and cringeworthy.

“Hooking Up” has a somewhat predictable ending, but it’s not as predictable as people might think it is. The first two-thirds of the film are pretty awful, and the last third is actually watchable, but it can’t quite make up for the movie’s beginning and middle. It’s like trying to use air refreshener to cover up the stink that comes from something rotting in the room.

Saban Films released “Hooking Up” on digital and VOD on March 20, 2020.

Review: ‘After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News,’ starring James Alefantis, Jerome Corsi, Kara Swisher, Jack Burkman, Paul Pape, Keith Alexander and Elizabeth Williamson

March 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Infowars founder Alex Jones in “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News”

Directed by Andrew Rossi

Culture Representation: This politically oriented documentary, which examines the effects of “fake news” in the United States, interviews a predominantly white group of people, including mainstream media journalists, government officials, university professors, right-wing conspiracy theorists and victims of “fake news” stories.

Culture Clash: While the documentary mentions that false news reports can come from anywhere, the movie focuses primarily on “fake news'” spread by right-wing, anti-establishment conspiracy theorists, and the movie shows how this “fake news” affects the targeted people and journalists.

Culture Audience: This documentary will appeal mostly to people who are comfortable with mainstream media outlets as their main source of news, since these outlets are portrayed in the movie as the best watchdogs for “fake news.”

Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis in “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

What is “fake news”? It depends on who you ask. In the documentary “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News,” what’s defined as “fake news” are false reports and lies that go viral and reach the mainstream. The movie, directed by Andrew Rossi, takes particular aim at right-wing conspiracy theorists as the purveyors of fake news that do the most damage. The documentary takes the position that mainstream media outlets, although flawed, are the still the best ways to combat fake news since they have the resources to fact-check stories. Meanwhile, the conspiracy theorists firmly believe that mainstream media outlets are the enemies and the real spreaders of fake news.

Tabloids have been publishing fake news for decades, but a more recent type of fake news has arisen through people in the general public using social media to spread their messages. “After Truth” takes an even narrower scope of this new type of fake news, by zooming in on politically motivated “fake news” stories (instead of tabloid staples such as celebrity gossip) that have occurred in the U.S. since 2015.

Why the year 2015? According to  Georgetown University disinformation expert Molly McKew, who’s interviewed in “After Truth,” the summer of 2015 was the start of this current “fake news” era. And most of the experts interviewed think that it’s not a coincidence that this era started soon after Donald Trump began his campaign to become president of the United States. Although the documentary focuses mostly on Americans involved in the war of spreading and debunking fake news, there is some mention of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“After Truth” puts a spotlight on some of the biggest “fake news” scandals in recent years, starting with the hysteria created in the summer of 2015 from Jade Helm 15, an eight-week military exercise in Bastrop County, Texas. The exercise was intended to train military personnel on what do in wartime, including re-enactments. Somehow, false stories began spreading on the Internet that the military was really there to detain people who were known to speak out against then-President Barack Obama, and that the military was really there to enforce “martial law.”

The documentary shows angry citizens at a crowded town hall meeting expressing disbelief and fear when a military official at the meeting assured them that the stories were fake and that no one was going to be arrested for their political beliefs. Paul Pape, a judge in Bastrop County, was one of the people who had to deal with the flood of backlash from misinformed people who were panicking over the military presence. In the documentary, Pape made it clear in saying what he learned from the experience: “Social media is the devil.”

Perhaps the most extreme case that’s spotlighted in the documentary is Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that began in 2016 about Comet Ping Pong, a family-oriented pizza parlor/ping-pong facility in Washington, D.C., that’s frequented by many people who work in politics. One of the customers was John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff and chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

After several of Podesta’s personal email messages were hacked and leaked on WikiLeaks, the email showed that he was a customer of Comet Ping Pong. Conspiracy theorists (the documentary names Infowars founder Alex Jones as a chief culprit) took the information in the email and twisted into the Pizzagate theory that Comet was a secret meeting place for a pedophile ring. Podesta, Clinton and billionaire George Soros (a high-profile supporter of Clinton and other liberal Democrats) were all named by the Pizzagate conspiracy theorists as being perverted participants in the ring.

In December 2016, one of the conspiracy theorists (a then-28-year-old armed gunman) was so agitated by this belief that he drove about 350 miles from North Carolina, burst into Comet Ping Pong, and started shooting. Luckily, no one was injured or killed, thanks to employees who quickly evacuated customers from danger. The gunman was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison in 2017. In 2019, another man, also identified as another right-wing conspiracy theorist, tried to set fire to Comet Ping Pong. He was also arrested.

In the documentary, Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis (who says the Pizzagate theories are all lies) and some of his employees give emotionally compelling accounts of the terror they felt the day of the shootout and the underlying threat of violence that they still feel, since they know that Comet Ping Pong is still a target for conspiracy theorists’ hatred. Alefantis says that he and Comet Ping Pong associates frequently get death threats and hate mail.

Alefantis, who is openly gay and has a LGBTQ-inclusive policy for customers and employees, also believes that homophobia is probably fueling some of the violent threats against his business. And he also talks about how he thought about closing the business many times, but because of the loyal support of his customers and employees, he’s vowed not to cave in to the bullying and death threats. “It’s a simple recipe,” he says of why Comet Ping Pong is still in business. “Family, community, truth. That’s why we’re here.”

“After Truth” also interviews several right-wing conspiracy theorists to show that they seem to care more about money and fame than reporting facts. They include political operative Jerome Corsi (who’s described in the documentary as the godfather of the current “fake news” era), Republican lobbyist Jack Burkman, Derrick Broze of the Conscience Resistance Network, and Jason Goodman of Crowdsource the Truth. None of them has a background in journalism—and they’re proud of it. As Goodman says in the documentary, “Whatever you think is journalism, I think of as fucked up.”

Burkman freely admits that fake news is “a political weapon,” yet he and others just like him don’t think they bear any responsibility for firing the weapon. “Yeah, there are terrible, negative consequences, but so what?” He adds with a smirk, “Let the people judge, despite the dangers. There is no reality, only perception.”

In the midst of the documentary’s very heavy subject matter comes some comic relief about how fake news can be bungled. Toward the end of the film, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at a debacle that was spearheaded by Burkman and fellow right-wing conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl. In October 2019, the two men claimed that a woman had come forward with a sexual-assault accusation against United States Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller, who at the time was heading the investigation into Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Burkman and Wohl promised that they and the woman would be at a press conference to give more details.

Although Burkman and Wohl went through with the press conference, the “mystery woman” never came forward. The press conference and the alleged sexual-assault claim were largely exposed as hoaxes. The documentary shows how, even after being confronted by angry and skeptical reporters, Burkman and Wohl tried to talk their way out of their inconsistent and contradictory statements. And after the press conference, Wohl seemed mostly concerned about whether or not they were “trending” on social media.

That “fake news” fiasco fortunately did not end in violence. But the effects of fake news on threatening people’s safety, as well as how it often crosses the line into hate speech, have led to growing backlash against conspiracy theorists. The documentary mentions that people like Infowars founder Jones (who’s now been banned from all major social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) have no qualms about spreading false/questionable information about others, but are very thin-skinned if they think the same thing is being done to them. There’s footage of Jones, after he lost much of his income due to being banned by these social-media platforms, angrily confronting CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy and accusing CNN of spreading lies about him.

“After Truth” doesn’t let all mainstream media off the hook. Many of the people interviewed in this documentary say that social-media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are corporate enablers of fake news and only try to stop to fake news when there’s widespread public backlash or a government investigation. Smaller social-media platforms such as Reddit and 4Chan are also mentioned as places that spread a lot of fake news and thrive on it. However, Facebook is singled out in the documentary as the worst corporate enabler of fake news.

Recode co-founder Kara Swisher says of Facebook’s relationship with fake news: “They created the platform where it gets spread and then they’re like, ‘Oh, what can we do?’ They hide behind the First Amendment, and they are not the government. They can make choices. They just don’t want to.”

Although many conspiracy theorists and spreaders of fake news who’ve been kicked off mainstream social media say that they are being “censored,” the documentary points out, for people who are ignorant about censorship, that censorship is when the government, not a business, stops or prevents free speech.

Also covered in “After Truth” is the conspiracy theory (which has been widely debunked) that Clinton had something to do with the 2016 murder of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee employee. Police have reported the case as a murder that happened during an attempted robbery. Seth Rich’s older brother Aaron is interviewed in the documentary to reveal how much damage (death threats and other harassment) that conspiracy theorists have caused to his family.

And although the documentary shows extreme right-wingers as being the worst offenders in spreading fake news, the movie gives just one example of a liberal who freely admitted to spreading fake news to get a Democrat elected in the 2017 contentious and controversial race for U.S. Senator in Alabama. The opponents were Roy Moore (a conservative Republican) and Doug Jones (a liberal Democrat). LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman said he created fake accounts on social media, pretending to be right-wing supporters of Moore, so that they would alienate moderate Republicans and spur the moderates to vote for Jones. (Jones won the election.)

Hoffman says he has no regrets about spreading fake news: “I felt empowered to give Republicans a taste of their own medicine.” However, Jones (who’s interviewed in the documentary) expresses disgust that anyone used fake news to help his campaign, and he condemns these tactics. Jones says, “Two wrongs don’t make a right. That’s crazy.”

There are several journalists (all from mainstream media) who are interviewed in the documentary, including CNN’s Darcy; BuzzFeed media editor Craig Silverman; Washington Post reporter Keith Alexander; and The New York Times reporters Adam Goldman and Elizabeth Williamson. University professors interviewed include Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Yokai Benkler of Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center, who has this to say about fake news: “It’s very clear what you have is a propagandist effort trying to achieve a result.”

On the one hand, this documentary does an excellent job of showing the real and very human collateral damage that can result in “fake news.” On the other hand, in its zeal in singling out conspiracy theorists as the worst of the worst, “After Truth” could have been a little more balanced in showing that mainstream media outlets can report false stories too.

The executive producers of “After Truth” include CNN’s Brian Stelter, and so that’s perhaps why the documentary turns a blind eye to all the political “fake news” that mainstream media outlets like CNN and The New York Times have ended up having to retract or correct since 2015. However, the difference between these mainstream media outlets and the conspiracy theorists is that when mainstream media outlets have been exposed as reporting false information, they usually admit their mistakes and make the necessary corrections or retractions. Conspiracy theorists almost never correct or retract statements that have been proven to be false, even if they’ve been sued over these false statements.

Whether people are politically liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, the main takeaway from “After Truth” is that in this digital technology age where it’s easier than ever before for people to have false online identities, manipulate photos and videos, and create “fake news,” it’s up to news audiences to be more pro-active in finding out the truth instead of believing stories at face value.

HBO premiered “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” on March 19, 2020.