Movie and TV Reviews

SXSW Film Festival Spotlight

Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil (Photo courtesy of OBB Media)
The Fallout (Photo by Kristen Correll)
Hysterical (Photo courtesy of FX)
Jakob’s Wife (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder)
Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free (Photo courtesy of Tom Petty Legacy, LLC/Warner Music Group)
Witch Hunt (Photo courtesy of Global Screen/Fearious)

Reviews for New Movies Released March 5 – April 16, 2021

The Affair (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
The Arbors (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)
Boogie (Photo by David Giesbrecht/Focus Features)
City of Lies (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)
Come True (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)
Coming 2 America (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Paramount Pictures/Amazon Prime Video)
The Courier (Photo by Liam Daniel/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)
Dark Web: Cicada 3301 (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)
The Devil Below (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
Enforcement (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)
Enhanced (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
Godzilla vs. Kong (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)
Gunda (Photo courtesy of Neon)
Long Weekend (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)
Martha: A Picture Story (Photo by Michael Latham)
My Salinger Year (Photo by Philippe Bosse/IFC Films)
Nina Wu (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)
Nobody (Photo by Allen Fraser/Universal Pictures)
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Photo courtesy of Super LTD)
Raya and the Last Dragon (Image courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios)
The Seventh Day (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
Six Minutes to Midnight (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run (Image courtesy of Paramount Animation)
Stray (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
The Stylist (Photo courtesy of Method Media/Sixx Tape Productions)
The Truffle Hunters (Photo by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw/Sony Pictures Classics)
Trust (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
Voyagers (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)
Wojnarowicz (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Photo courtesy of HBO Max/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Complete List of Reviews

1BR — horror

2/1 — drama

2 Graves in the Desert — drama

2 Hearts — drama

2 Minutes of Fame — comedy

5 Years Apart — comedy

9to5: The Story of a Movement — documentary

12 Hour Shift — horror

17 Blocks — documentary

37 Seconds — drama

76 Days — documentary

The 420 Movie (2020) — comedy

2040 — documentary

7500 — drama

Aamis — drama

Abe — drama

Advocate — documentary

The Affair (2021) (formerly titled The Glass Room) — drama

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

After Parkland — documentary

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

AKA Jane Roe — documentary

Algorithm: Bliss — sci-fi/horror

All Day and a Night — drama

All I Can Say — documentary

All In: The Fight for Democracy — documentary

All My Life — drama

All Roads to Pearla (formerly titled Sleeping in Plastic) — drama

Almost Love (also titled Sell By) — comedy/drama

Alone (2020) (starring Jules Willcox) — horror

Alone (2020) (starring Tyler Posey) — horror

Amazing Grace — documentary

An American Pickle — comedy

American Street Kid — documentary

American Woman (2020) — drama

Ammonite — drama

Amulet — horror

And Then We Danced — drama

Antebellum — horror

Anthony — drama

Apocalypse ’45 — documentary

The Apollo — documentary

The Arbors — sci-fi/horror

The Argument — comedy

Artemis Fowl — fantasy

The Artist’s Wife — drama

Ask for Jane — drama

Ask No Questions — documentary

The Assistant — drama

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

Athlete A — documentary

Attack of the Murder Hornets — documentary

Baby God — documentary

Babysplitters — comedy

Babyteeth — drama

Bacurau — drama

Bad Boys for Life — action

Bad Education (2020) — drama

Bad Therapy (formerly titled Judy Small) — comedy/drama

Banana Split — comedy

Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art — documentary

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar — comedy

Beanpole — drama

Beastie Boys Story — documentary

Becoming — documentary

Behind You — horror

Beneath Us — horror

Big Time Adolescence — comedy/drama

The Big Ugly — drama

Billie (2020) — documentary

Bill & Ted Face the Music — sci-fi/comedy

The Binge — comedy

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

Black Bear — drama

Blackbird (2020) — drama

Black Box (2020) — horror

Black Is King — musical

Black Magic for White Boys — comedy

Blessed Child — documentary

Blithe Spirit (2021) — comedy

Blood and Money — drama

Blood on Her Name — drama

Bloodshot (2020) — sci-fi/action

Bloody Hell — horror

Blow the Man Down — drama

Blue Story — drama

Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island — horror

Body Cam — horror

Boogie — drama

The Booksellers — documentary

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm — comedy

The Boys (first episode) — action

Brahms: The Boy II — horror

Breaking Fast — comedy

Breaking News in Yuba County — comedy

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists — documentary

The Broken Hearts Gallery — comedy

Brothers by Blood (formerly titled The Sound of Philadelphia) — drama

Browse — drama

Buffaloed — comedy

Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn — documentary

Burden (2020) — drama

Burning Cane — drama

Burn It All — drama

The Burnt Orange Heresy — drama

Cactus Jack — horror

Cagefighter — drama

Calendar Girl — documentary

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

A Call to Spy — drama

Call Your Mother — documentary

Cane River — drama

Capone — drama

Carmilla — drama

Castle in the Ground — drama

Centigrade — drama

Changing the Game — documentary

Chasing the Present — documentary

Chick Fight — comedy

Children of the Sea — animation

Chop Chop — horror

Circus of Books — documentary

City of Lies — drama

The Clearing (2020) — horror

Clementine — drama

The Climb (2020) — comedy/drama

Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun — documentary

Clover — drama

Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert — documentary

CODA — comedy/drama

Coded Bias (formerly titled Code for Bias) — documentary

Coffee & Kareem — comedy

Collective — documentary

Color Out of Space — sci-fi/horror

Come as You Are (2020)  — comedy

Come Play — horror

Come to Daddy — horror

Come True — sci-fi/drama

Coming 2 America — comedy

Console Wars — documentary

The Cordillera of Dreams — documentary

Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes — documentary

The Courier (2021) (formerly titled Ironbark) — drama

The Craft: Legacy — horror

Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words — documentary

Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine — documentary

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution — documentary

Crisis (2021) — drama

Critical Thinking — drama

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan — documentary

The Croods: A New Age — animation

Crown Vic — drama

CRSHD — comedy

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw — horror

Cut Throat City — drama

Da 5 Bloods — drama

Daddy Issues (2020) — comedy

Dads — documentary

Dangerous Lies — drama

Dara of Jasenovac — drama

The Dark Divide — drama

Dark Web: Cicada 3301 — action/comedy

Dave Not Coming Back — documentary

A Day in the Life of America — documentary

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

Days of the Whale — drama

A Deadly Legend — horror

Dear Santa — documentary

Decade of Fire — documentary

The Deeper You Dig — horror

The Delicacy — documentary

Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil — documentary

Denise Ho — Becoming the Song — documentary

Desolation Center — documentary

Desperados — comedy

The Devil Below (formerly titled Shookum Hills) — horror

Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge — horror

Devil’s Pie – D’Angelo — documentary

Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy — documentary

Disappearance at Clifton Hill — drama

Disclosure (2020) — documentary

Diving With Dolphins — documentary

The Dog Doc — documentary

Dolittle — live-action/animation

Dolphin Island — drama

Dolphin Reef — documentary

Do Not Reply — horror

Don’t Look Back (2020) (formerly titled Good Samaritan) — horror

The Doorman (2020) — action

Dosed — documentary

Downhill — comedy

Dreamland (2020) (starring Margot Robbie) — drama

Driven to Abstraction — documentary

Driveways — drama

Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America — documentary

Duty Free — documentary

Easy Does It — comedy

Elephant (2020) — documentary

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things — documentary

Embattled — drama

Emma (2020) — comedy/drama

The Emoji Story (formerly titled Picture Character) — documentary

End of Sentence — drama

Enforcement (formerly titled Shorta) — drama

Enhanced (2021) (also titled Mutant Outcasts) — sci-fi/action

Enola Holmes —drama

Entwined (2020) — horror

Epicentro — documentary

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

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga — comedy

Evil Eye (2020) — horror

Exit Plan — drama

Extraction (2020) — action

Falling (2021) — drama

A Fall From Grace — drama

The Fallout — drama

Farewell Amor — drama

Fatal Affair (2020) — drama

Fatale — drama

The Father (2021) — drama

Fatima (2020) — drama

Fatman — comedy

Fear of Rain — horror

The Fight (2020) — documentary

First Cow — drama

Flipped (2020) — comedy

Force of Nature (2020) — action

For They Know Not What They Do — documentary

The Forty-Year-Old Version — comedy

Four Kids and It — fantasy

Framing John DeLorean — documentary

Freaky — horror

French Exit — comedy/drama

Friendsgiving — comedy

From the Vine — comedy/drama

Game of Death (2020) — horror

Ganden: A Joyful Land — documentary

The Garden Left Behind — drama

The Gasoline Thieves — drama

Gay Chorus Deep South — documentary

The Gentlemen — action

Get Duked! (formerly titled Boyz in the Wood) — comedy

Get Gone — horror

The Ghost of Peter Sellers — documentary

A Girl From Mogadishu — drama

A Girl Missing — drama

A Glitch in the Matrix — documentary

Godzilla vs. Kong — action

The Go-Go’s — documentary

Goldie — drama

Good Posture — comedy

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind — documentary

Greed — comedy/drama

Greenland — sci-fi/action

Gretel & Hansel — horror

Greyhound — drama

The Grudge (2020) — horror

Guest of Honour — drama

Gunda — documentary

Half Brothers — comedy

The Half of It — comedy

Halloween Party (2020) — horror

Happiest Season — comedy

Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics — documentary

Haymaker (2021) — drama

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

He Dreams of Giants — documentary

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful — documentary

Herself — drama

The High Note — comedy/drama

His House — horror

Holly Slept Over — comedy

Honest Thief — action

Hooking Up (2020) — comedy

Hope Gap — drama

Horse Girl — sci-fi/drama

The Host (2020) — horror

Hosts — horror

House of Hummingbird — drama

How to Build a Girl — comedy

How to Fix a Primary — documentary

Human Capital — drama

Human Nature (2020) — documentary

The Hunt — horror

Hunter Hunter — horror

Hysterical (2021) — documentary

I Am Human — documentary

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

I Am Vengeance: Retaliation — action

If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story — documentary

I Hate New York — documentary

I Hate the Man in My Basement — drama

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me — documentary

Impractical Jokers: The Movie — comedy

I’m Thinking of Ending Things — drama

I’m Your Woman — drama

Incitement — drama

Infamous (2020) — drama

The Infiltrators — docudrama

The Informer (2020) — drama

Initials SG — drama

Inna De Yard: The Soul of Jamaica — documentary

Instaband — documentary

In the Footsteps of Elephant — documentary

The Invisible Man (2020) — horror

Iron Mask (formerly titled The Mystery of the Dragon Seal) — action

Irresistible (2020) — comedy

I Still Believe — drama

It Takes a Lunatic — documentary

I Used to Go Here — comedy/drama

I’ve Got Issues — comedy

I Want My MTV — documentary

I Will Make You Mine — drama

Jakob’s Wife — horror

Jay Myself — documentary

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey — musical

John Henry — action

John Lewis: Good Trouble — documentary

JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened? — documentary

Judas and the Black Messiah (formerly titled Jesus Was My Homeboy) — drama

Judy & Punch — drama

Jungleland (2020) — drama

Kajillionaire — comedy/drama

Kat and the Band — comedy

Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On! — documentary

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

Killer Therapy — horror

The Kill Team (2019) — drama

Kill the Monsters — drama

The Kindness of Strangers — drama

Kindred — drama

The King of Staten Island — comedy/drama

La Llorona — horror

Land (2021) — drama

The Last Full Measure — drama

The Last Vermeer — drama

The Lawyer — drama

Leftover Women — documentary

Les Misérables (2019) — drama

Let Him Go — drama

The Lie (2020) — drama

Life in a Day 2020 — documentary

Like a Boss — comedy

Limerence — comedy

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice — documentary

Lingua Franca — drama

Little Fish (2021) — sci-fi/drama

The Little Things (2021) — drama

The Lodge — horror

The Longest Wave — documentary

Long Weekend (2021) — sci-fi/drama

Lost Bayou — drama

Lost Girls — drama

Lost Transmissions — drama

Los Últimos Frikis — documentary

Love and Monsters — sci-fi/horror/action

The Lovebirds — comedy

Love Sarah — comedy/drama

Love Wedding Repeat — comedy

Low Tide — drama

Lucky Grandma — action

Luz: The Flower of Evil — horror

LX 2048 — sci-fi

Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over — documentary

Mai Khoi & the Dissidents — documentary

The Main Event (2020) — action

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound— documentary

Mallory (2021) — documentary

Mank — drama

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — drama

The Marksman (2021) — action

Martha: A Picture Story — documentary

Martin Margiela: In His Own Words — documentary

Mass (2021) — drama

Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back — documentary

The Mauritanian — drama

Mighty Ira — documentary

Mighty Oak — drama

Military Wives — comedy/drama

The Mimic (2021) — comedy

Minari — drama

The Mindfulness Movement — documentary

Misbehaviour — drama

Miss Americana — documentary

Miss Juneteenth — drama

MLK/FBI — documentary

Monster Hunter — sci-fi/action

Mortal — sci-fi/action

Most Dangerous Game — action

Most Wanted (formerly titled Target Number One) — drama

Mr. Soul! — documentary

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado — documentary

Mulan (2020) — action

Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story — documentary

Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story — documentary

My Boyfriend’s Meds — comedy

My Dad’s Christmas Date — comedy/drama

My Darling Vivian — documentary

My Salinger Year — drama

My Spy — comedy

Mystify: Michael Hutchence — documentary

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind — documentary

The Nest (2020) — drama

Never Rarely Sometimes Always — drama

Never Too Late (2020) — comedy

News of the World — drama

A Nice Girl Like You — comedy

The Night (2021) — horror

Night of the Kings — drama

Nina Wu — drama

Noah Land — drama

Nobody (2021) — action

Nocturne (2020) — horror

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin — documentary

Nomadland — drama

No Man’s Land (2021) — drama

No Small Matter — documentary

Notturno — documentary

The Old Guard — action

Olympia — documentary

Olympic Dreams — comedy/drama

Once Upon a River — drama

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band — documentary

One Hour Outcall — drama

One Night in Bangkok — drama

One Night in Miami… — drama

Only — sci-fi/drama

On the Record — documentary

On the Rocks (2020) — drama

On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries — documentary

Onward — animation

Open — drama

Ordinary Love — drama

Origin of the Species — documentary

Otherhood — comedy

The Other Lamb — drama

Other Music — documentary

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles — documentary

Our Friend (formerly titled The Friend) — drama

Our Time Machine — documentary

Out of Blue — drama

The Outpost — drama

Out Stealing Horses — drama

The Painter and the Thief — documentary

Palm Springs — comedy

Parallel (2020) — sci-fi/drama

Paranormal Prison — horror

Parkland Rising — documentary

A Patient Man — drama

The Personal History of David Copperfield — comedy/drama

The Photograph — drama

The Place of No Words — drama

The Planters — comedy

Plucked — documentary

Plus One (2019) — comedy

The Pollinators — documentary

Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys — documentary

Possessor Uncut — sci-fi/horror

Premature (2020) — drama

The Prey (2020) — action

The Price of Desire — drama

Project Power — sci-fi/action

Promising Young Woman — comedy/drama

Proxima — sci-fi/drama

P.S. Burn This Letter Please — documentary

Public Enemy Number One — documentary

PVT CHAT — drama

The Quiet One — documentary

Quo Vadis, Aida? — drama

The Racer — drama

Radioactive — drama

A Rainy Day in New York — comedy

Raising Buchanan — comedy

Raya and the Last Dragon — animation

Rebuilding Paradise — documentary

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project — documentary

Red Penguins — documentary

Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs — animation

A Regular Woman — drama

Relic — horror

The Rental (2020) — horror

Rent-A-Pal — horror

The Rescue List — documentary

Resistance (2020) — drama

Retaliation (formerly titled Romans) — drama

Rewind — documentary

The Rhythm Section — action

The Ride (2020) — drama

Ride Like a Girl — drama

The Right One — comedy

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It — documentary

River City Drumbeat — documentary

Roald Dahl’s The Witches — horror/fantasy

Robert the Bruce — drama

Run (2020) — drama

Runner — documentary

Run With the Hunted — drama

Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words — documentary

Safer at Home — drama

Saint Frances — comedy/drama

Saint Maud — horror

Save Yourselves! — sci-fi/horror/comedy

The Scheme (2020) — documentary

Scheme Birds — documentary

Scoob! — animation

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street — documentary

Screened Out — documentary

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth (formerly titled Seahorse) — documentary

Seberg — drama

The Secret: Dare to Dream — drama

A Secret Love — documentary

The Secrets We Keep — drama

See Know Evil — documentary

See You Yesterday — sci-fi/drama

Selah and the Spades — drama

Sergio (2020) — drama

The Seventh Day (2021) — horror

Shadows of Freedom — documentary

She Dies Tomorrow — drama

She’s in Portland — drama

Shine Your Eyes — drama

Shirley — drama

Shithouse — drama

Shortcut — horror

The Short History of the Long Road — drama

Showbiz Kids — documentary

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

Silk Road (2021) — drama

A Simple Wedding — comedy

The Sinners (2021) (formerly titled The Color Rose) — horror

Six Minutes to Midnight — drama

Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story — documentary

Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons — documentary

Skin Walker — horror

Skyman — sci-fi/drama

Slay the Dragon — documentary

Smiley Face Killers — horror

Sno Babies — drama

Somebody Up There Likes Me (2020) — documentary

Some Kind of Heaven — documentary

Sometimes Always Never — comedy/drama

The Sonata — horror

Songbird — sci-fi/drama

Sonic the Hedgehog — live-action/animation

Sorry We Missed You — drama

Soul — animation

Sound of Metal — drama

Spaceship Earth — documentary

Spell (2020) — horror

Spelling the Dream (formerly titled Breaking the Bee) — documentary

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run — live-action/animation

Spontaneous — sci-fi/horror/comedy

Sputnik — sci-fi/horror

Standing Up, Falling Down — comedy/drama

Stardust (2020) — drama

Starting at Zero — documentary

The State of Texas vs. Melissa — documentary

Stealing School — comedy/drama

Stevenson Lost & Found — documentary

Still Here (2020) — drama

The Story of Soaps — documentary

The Stranger (Quibi original) — drama

Stray (2021) — drama

Stray Dolls — drama

Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash — drama

The Stylist — horror

Sublime — documentary

Summerland — drama

The Sunlit Night — comedy/drama

Supernova (2021) — drama

The Surrogate — drama

Survive — drama

Swallow — drama

The Swerve — drama

The Swing of Things — comedy

Sylvie’s Love — drama

Synchronic — sci-fi/horror

Tape (2020) — drama

Tar — horror

A Taste of Sky — documentary

Ten Minutes to Midnight  — horror

Tesla  — drama

Then Came You (2020)  — comedy

They Call Me Dr. Miami — documentary

The Thing About Harry  — comedy

Think Like a Dog — comedy/drama

This Is Personal — documentary

This Is Stand-Up — documentary

A Thousand Cuts (2020) — documentary

A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy — documentary

Through the Night (2020) — documentary

Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison — comedy

Time (2020) — documentary

The Times of Bill Cunningham — documentary

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made  — comedy

To Kid or Not to Kid — documentary

The Tobacconist — drama

Tom and Jerry — live-action/animation

Tommaso — drama

Tom of Your Life — sci-fi/comedy

Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free — documentary

Totally Under Control — documentary

Trafficked: A Parent’s Worst Nightmare — drama

The Trial of the Chicago 7 — drama

The Trip to Greece — comedy

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts — documentary

Trolls World Tour — animation

Troop Zero — comedy

The True Adventures of Wolfboy — drama

The Truffle Hunters — documentary

Trust (2021) — drama

The Truth — drama

The Turning (2020) — horror

The Twentieth Century — comedy

Two of Us (2021) — drama

Tyson — documentary

Unbelievable (premiere episode) — drama

Uncaged (also titled Prey) – horror

Uncorked — drama

Underwater — sci-fi/horror

Unhinged (2020) — action

The United States vs. Billie Holiday — drama

Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music — documentary

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own — documentary

Valley Girl (2020) — musical

The Vanished (2020) (formerly titled Hour of Lead)— drama

The Vast of Night — sci-fi/drama

Vas-y Coupe! — documentary

The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee — comedy

The Vigil (2021) — horror

The Village in the Woods — horror

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations — documentary

Vivarium — sci-fi/drama

Voyagers — sci-fi/drama

Waiting for the Barbarians — drama

Wander Darkly — drama

The War With Grandpa — comedy

Watson — documentary

The Way Back (2020) — drama

We Are Freestyle Love Supreme — documentary

We Are Little Zombies — comedy/drama

We Are Many — documentary

We Are the Radical Monarchs — documentary

Weathering With You — animation

Welcome to Chechnya — documentary

What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali — documentary

What We Found — drama

What Will Become of Us — documentary

When the Streetlights Go On — drama

The Whistlers — drama

A White, White Day — drama

Widow of Silence — drama

Wig — documentary

Wild Mountain Thyme — drama

The Windermere Children — drama

Witch Hunt (2021) — horror

Wojnarowicz — documentary

The Wolf House — animation

The Wolf of Snow Hollow — horror

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

Wonder Woman 1984 — action

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation — documentary

Words on Bathroom Walls — drama

Work It — comedy/drama

The World to Come — drama

The Wretched — horror

A Writer’s Odyssey — fantasy/action

The Wrong Missy — comedy

XY Chelsea — documentary

Yellow Rose — drama

You Cannot Kill David Arquette — documentary

You Don’t Nomi — documentary

You Go to My Head — drama

You Should Have Left — horror

Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn — documentary

Zack Snyder’s Justice League — action

Zappa — documentary

Zombi Child — horror

Review: ‘Jakob’s Wife,’ starring Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden and Bonnie Aarons

April 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Barbara Crampton in “Jakob’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder)

“Jakob’s Wife”

Directed by Travis Stevens

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror flick “Jakob’s Wife” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and one Latino) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A minister’s housewife, who’s bored with her marriage, becomes a vampire. 

Culture Audience: “Jakob’s Wife” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that mix bloody gore with campy comedy.

Larry Fessenden in “Jakob’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder)

“Jakob’s Wife” is a memorable vampire flick that serves up a hilariously enjoyable blend of campy horror and gruesome chills, with a dash of female empowerment. The movie isn’t for people who hate the sight of blood. (It’s a vampire movie for adults. What do you expect?) But for people who can handle all the over-the-top gory mayhem in the story, then “Jakob’s Wife” might be your bloody cup of tea.

There are many predictable routes that a vampire movie can take. “Jakob’s Wife” takes some of those routes (for example, the title character’s transformation into a vampire follows the usual conventions of blood lust), but then the movie takes some unexpected and wacky detours. “Jakob’s Wife” director Travis Stevens, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Kathy Charles and Mark Steensland, revels in the movie’s low-budget aura and makes sure that viewers know that this movie is not taking itself seriously at all. “Jakob’s Wife” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The title character of “Jakob’s Wife” is Anne Fedder (played by Barbara Crampton), the dutiful spouse of a minister named Jakob Fedder (played by Larry Fessenden), her husband of about 30 years. Anne and Jakob, who do not have children, live in an unnamed small town in the United States. They are Christian, but their specific religion is not mentioned in the movie.

The movie’s opening scene takes place during a church service that Jakob is conducting. He tells the parishioners during his sermon that men should respect their wives because it’s a reflection of how husband feel about themselves. “He who loves his wife loves himself,” intones Jakob.

Jakob is not secretly a hypocrite who abuses his wife. He loves Anne and he treats her very well. Anne hasn’t fallen completely out of love with Jakob, but their marriage has become boring to her. It’s implied that their sexual intimacy has decreased significantly. Jakob is devoted to his work at the church, while Anne spends her days doing workout routines and gardening.

In the movie’s opening scene at the church service, one of the parishioners approaches Jakob and tells him, “It was a beautiful service.” Her name is Amelia (played by and she’s about 16 to 18 years old. Anne notices that Amelia’s mother Lucy, who is a regular churchgoer, is not with with Amelia.

Anne asks Amelia where her mother is, and Amelia says with some sadness and embarrassment that her mother couldn’t be there because Lucy started drinking again. Amelia adds, “I’m praying for her happiness.” Anne and Jakob express their sympathies.

While Amelia is walking home at night by herself, she’s startled to see some rats crawling around at her feet. She quickly walks away but not long after that, someone with vampire-type hands grans her from behind. It won’t be the last time that viewers see Amelia.

Not long afterward, Amelia is reported missing. Anne and Jakob have dinner at their house with Jakob’s brother Bob (played by Mark Kelly) and Bob’s wife Carol (played by Sarah Lind). The topic of Amelia’s disappearance comes up in the conversation.

Everyone except Anne seems to think that it’s likely that Amelia ran away. Anne is skeptical of that theory because she thinks Amelia was too close to her mother Lucy to suddenly abandon her. Of course, viewers who know that “Jakob’s Wife” is a vampire movie can easily predict what happened to Amelia.

Over this family dinner, the discussion also includes Anne’s involvement in a construction project that she thinks will be good for their town. She’s apparently part of the town’s Historical Society, which had to approve this project because it’s being built on historical land. The project will be an abandoned mill that is going to be turned into a retail space.

Anne comments that the Historical Society thinks the new retail space will provide tourism and jobs. Jakob is leery of the project because he doesn’t think that this anything commercial should be built on this historical land. But there’s probably another reason why Jakob is uneasy about this construction job.

It just so happens that the interior designer for the space is an ex-boyfriend of Anne’s named Tom Lewis (played by Robert Russler), and they haven’t seen each other in years. Jakob calls Tom an “old flame” of Anne’s, while she downplays the relationship that she had with Tom, by saying that they were “just kids” when she and Tom dated each other.

Anne and Tom have agreed to meet for dinner at a restaurant to discuss the construction project. Judging by the way Anne gets ready for the dinner, she wants to look very attractive for this meeting and she might have some unresolved has feelings for Tom. When Anne and Tom see each other again, they can’t help but notice they’ve still got chemistry with each other.

It soon becomes clear that Tom had a “bad boy” reputation when he dated Anne. She comments to him that he was “uncontrollable” in those days. Meanwhile, Tom says to Anne about how she’s changed since he last saw her.

“You a church mouse?” Tom declares with surprise. “What happened to the adventurous Anne who wanted to travel to exotic places?” Anne replies, “You make plans for things and then life happens. It was around the time that you left town that my mother died, and Jakob was there for me.”

Anne continues, “He offered me comfort—and so did the church. They were both steady when I needed support. Make no mistake—we have a food life. I’m happy.” Tom seems to accept that explanation.

But on another day, when Anne and Tom are at the abandoned mill where the new construction will take place, it’s revealed that this was also a place where Anne and Tom had romantic trysts when they were dating each other. Tom brings it up and Anne says she hasn’t forgotten. It should come as no surprise that Anne and Tom start kissing each other.

What happens next at this abandoned mill leads to Anne becoming a vampire. Will Anne have an extramarital affair with Tom? Will Jakob find out that she’s a vampire? And how will Anne satisfy her cravings for blood? All of those questions are answered in the movie.

Anne finds out early during her turning into a vampire that animal blood won’t work for her. There’s a comical scene of her going to the butcher section of a grocery store and asking the butcher (played by Skeeta Jenkins) if she could just buy the blood from the meat. When she gets home and drinks the blood like someone would drink wine or martinis, she discovers that the animal blood actually makes her sick. And yes, there’s a nauseating scene where she vomits up blood like a garden hose on full blast.

People who watch “Jakob’s Wife” should know that the movie is very enthusiastic about showing a lot of blood and bile gushing from bodies of humans and animals. This isn’t the type of vampire movie where a vampire gives neck bites with the minimum amount of blood drainage. No, in “Jakob’s Wife,” the people who get bitten by a vampire have enough blood spewing out of them to fill buckets.

The movie gets chillingly creative in a scene where Anne visits her dentist Dr. Meda (played by Monica L. Henry) for a routine checkup. The doctor notices that Anne has new teeth (that look like baby fangs) growing inside her back teeth. And when an automatic teeth-cleaning device is put on Anne’s mouth, it leads to one of the more horrifying yet intentionally hilarious scenes in the movie.

There’s a lot of crude dialogue that’s also meant to comedic. It’s enough to say that Anne isn’t the only vampire in the story. During an attack by one of the other vampires, this bloodsucker growls to the intended victim: “I’m going to tongue fuck a hole in your head until I puke blood!”

And later, a bratty neighborhood girl (played by Armani Desirae), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, sees Anne acting suspiciously in Anne’s front yard. The girl refuses to leave because she says she wants to learn a new curse word. Anne tells the girl, “Fuck off!” And the girl replies, “I already know that one!” It’s an example of some of the off-the-wall humor in the movie.

Early on in the movie, Jakob scolds two teenagers who are smoking a joint on the hood of his car that’s parked outside the church. One of the teens, whose name is Oscar (played by Omar Salazar) angrily talks back to Jakob, while Oscar’s female friend Eli (Angelie Simone, also known as Angelie Denizard) tries to calm him down and de-escalate the situation. Jakob ends up confiscating the marijuana joint, which shows up later in one of the movie’s comedic scenes.

Where there’s a vampire plague, there’s also a vampire leader. And in “Jakob’s Wife,” that leader is called The Master (played by Bonnie Aarons), who looks like an androgynous Nosferatu type of vampire. The way this creature looks isn’t fully revealed until a certain point in the movie. The Master keeps appearing near Anne and Jakob’s house and ends up having a big moment in the movie that’s one of the highlights of the film.

The cast members of “Jakob’s Wife” lean into their roles with gusto. All of the characters are well-cast, and Crampton’s performance sets the right level of tongue-in-cheek tone (or bite-in-neck tone, as it were) that makes the movie so entertaining to watch. (Crampton is one of the movie’s producers.) And even when there are some horror movie tropes, such as take-charge Sheriff Mike Hess (played Jay DeVon Johnson) and his bumbling Deputy Colton (played by C.M. Punk), there’s enough satire for viewers to know that everyone is in on the joke.

What also makes “Jakob’s Wife” better than the average horror film is that the movie’s characters aren’t complete stereotypes. Jakob isn’t as dull and uptight as people might think he is on first impression. Anne doesn’t become an evil vampire, because she’s someone who is struggles with having to adjust to this drastic change in her life.

The movie’s musical score by Tara Busch doesn’t conform to the expected norms of a horror movie that’s about a middle-aged woman who becomes a vampire. Normally, a movie like this would have the usual Gothic scary music or have soundtrack cues using songs that were popular during this middle-aged woman’s youth. Instead, “Jakob’s wife” is heavy with interludes of modern electronica music that sounds spooky at the same time. It’s almost as if to conjure up images that this minister’s wife could end up at an underground dance club now that she’s a vampire. It should come as no surprise that Anne’s lusty side is awakened, as she takes full control of her sexuality during her metamorphosis.

Underneath all the blood spatter and violent mayhem, “Jakob’s Wife” also has a message of finding one’s identity in the strangest of circumstances. Is it bizarre that a woman finally figures out how to be a strong and independent person only after she becomes a vampire? This movie doesn’t seem to think it’s so far-fetched, and in fact celebrates this transformation. And if the new Anne could change the title of the movie, she’d change it from “Jakob’s Wife” to “Anne the Vampire Warrior.”

RLJE Films and Shudder released “Jakob’s Wife” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on April 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Six Minutes to Midnight,’ starring Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench

April 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench in “Six Minutes to Midnight” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Six Minutes to Midnight”

Directed by Andy Goddard

Culture Representation: Taking place in England in 1939, the spy drama “Six Minutes to Midnight” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and various government officials.

Culture Clash: On the brink of World War II, a German British spy poses as an English teacher at a boarding school in England for daughters of powerful German Nazis.

Culture Audience: “Six Minutes to Midnight” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories about spies who target Nazis, but the movie ineptly bungles what are supposed to be the most suspenseful parts of the story.

Carla Juri and Judi Dench in “Six Minutes to Midnight” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench star in a movie about a spy who infiltrates a boarding school for Nazi teenage girls. What could possibly go wrong? In the case of the woefully misguided “Six Minutes to Midnight”: Everything. The story’s “mystery villain” is revealed about halfway through the film, and the rest of the story consists of far-fetched chase scenes and shootouts.

The only realistic thing about “Six Minutes to Midnight” is that the story was inspired by the real-life Augusta-Victoria College, a prestigious independent boarding school for mostly teenage girls in the coastal town of Bexhill-on-Seas, England, which is Izzard’s hometown. Augusta-Victoria College existed from 1932 to 1939, and it enrolled German female students ranging in ages from 16 to 21. It was a school intended to foster good will between British and German cultures. The school’s students weren’t just any students though: They were the daughters of high-ranking Nazis.

According to the “Six Minutes to Midnight” production notes, Izzard was so intrigued by the history of Augusta-Victoria College, it inspired Izzard to want to do a movie about it. Andrew Goddard directed “Six Minutes to Midnight” from a screenplay that he wrote with Izzard and Celyn Jones. Izzard is also one of the producers of “Six Minutes to Midnight,” which comes across as a bit of a vanity project where Izzard wants to be a spy character who’s an action star, without the suave flair and dazzling stunts of James Bond.

Fair enough, but it’s unfortunate that Izzard was a major creator for this clumsily constructed movie. “Six Minutes to Midnight” also shamefully glosses over the horrors of Nazi evil and is instead more concerned with whether or not Augusta-Victoria College’s lonely spinster headmistress will be separated from her students, as war appears inevitable between Great Britain and Nazi Germany. By the end of the movie, viewers will learn almost next to nothing about Izzard’s Thomas Miller character, except that he sure likes to use the beach a lot as a hiding place.

“Six Minutes to Midnight,” which takes place over a period of less than a month, begins on August 15, 1939, in Bexhill-on-Sea. A middle-aged man who goes by the name of Wheatley (played by Nigel Lindsay) is in a classroom, as he frantically looks for something that’s in a hidden space behind one of the room’s book shelves. He takes out a small box and is visibly upset when he finds out that what he’s looking for isn’t there.

Viewers find out a short time later that this classroom is at Augusta-Victoria College, which is sprawled out on a large property near the beach. As a distraught Wheatley quickly rides off on a bicycle, he is being watched through an upper-room window by the school’s headmistress/principal Miss Rocholl (played by Dench), who’s got that hard-nosed “Don’t try to mess with me” look that Dench has for most of the characters she tends to play. Wheatley goes to a phone booth, where he makes a panicky phone call to an unidentified man.

“It’s missing!” Wheatley shouts. “Don’t you understand? They’ve taken it!” The man on the other line can be heard saying something about duty. Wheatley responds, “They know they’re being watched! I can’t go back!”

So now that it’s been established that Wheatley has been caught spying on Augusta-Victoria College, it’s kind of a no-brainer to figure out who sent him there. The person on the other line was guilt-tripping Wheatley about “duty.” And that just screams “service to the government.”

The fact that Wheatley is a government spy isn’t the mystery. The mystery is what happened to Wheatley, who is shown sitting at a table on a pier’s wooden deck after making his upsetting phone call. And then, the next thing you know, all that’s seen is that Wheatley is missing from the deck and his bowler hat is flying off in the wind. Did he disappear? Is he dead? Did he give his two weeks’ notice? Does anyone care?

Izzard’s Thomas Miller character comes into the picture soon afterward, when he interviews at Augusta-Victoria College, as a replacement for Wheatley. The school found Wheatley and Thomas through the same employment agency. Thomas is greeted in a friendly and upbeat manner by schoolteacher Ilse Keller (played by Carla Juri), who is Miss Rocholl’s trusted right-hand person.

What’s somewhat laughable about this badly made film is that even though there are only 20 students currently at this school, Ilse and Miss Rocholl are the only faculty members seen at Augusta-Victoria College. Where are the other employees? There isn’t even a janitor or caretaker in sight for this sizeable property.

Augusta-Victoria College is portrayed in the movie as a high-level finishing school for girls (they practice things such as poise and balance by walking with books on their heads), but there no servants shown on the premises of this boarding school. After all, how can these Hitler youth practice a bigoted Nazi sense of superiority without “lowly” staffers to boss around? The main indication that the students are in a cult-like environment is when Ilse frequently takes the students to the nearby beach, where the students stand in military-like formations and move when she commands them to, like good little Stepford Nazis.

Thomas predictably gets hired at the school, so he’s technically the third faculty member shown in the movie. However, he doesn’t become a permanent staffer, because Miss Rocholl tells Thomas when she hires him that she wants to test him out on a trial basis first. In other words, he’s a temporary employee. This job interview takes place on August 21, 1939, which is six days after Wheatley has disappeared. By the time that the end of the story happens on September 3, 1939, Thomas will be long gone from his employment at Augusta-Victoria College.

In his job interview with Miss Rocholl, she is stern and judgmental. She asks Thomas about his personal life and finds out that he’s a bachelor with no children . When she asks him, “What sort of Englishman would accept a post teaching Herr Hitler’s legal German girls?” Thomas tells her that his father is German. And it’s convenient that he’s bilingual because Thomas has been hired as the school’s English teacher.

Miss Rocholl admits to Thomas that the school needed to hire someone on short notice because Thomas’ predecessor turned out to be “unreliable.” She adds, “My girls need order. Next week, we present them to the Anglo-German fellowship.” Thomas doesn’t bother to ask her what happened to his predecessor, because he already knows that Wheatley has disappeared. Thomas and the rest of the school will eventually find out what happened to Wheatley.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” has some filler and predictable scenes that always seem to be in movies where one of the main locations is a school for teenagers. There’s the stereotypical “mean girl”/queen bee student, whose name is Astrid (played Maria Dragus). And there’s the socially awkward outcast student, whose name is Gretel (played by Tijan Marei). The rest of the students are written with indistinguishable personalities. And most of the students do not have any speaking lines in the movie.

Astrid and Gretel are written as such extreme opposites that their characters are almost caricatures. Astrid is the outgoing popular student who excels in athletics and academics. Gretel is the shy misfit who’s smart but she doesn’t know how to swim, which is the main physical sport that the students have at the school. Gretel often spends time by herself while the other students participate in athletic and social activities.

Astrid is the type of person who will smile in someone’s face and then make insulting remarks behind that person’s back. That’s what she does to Thomas on his first day on the job at Augusta-Victoria College. Astrid is the first student to welcome him in the class, but later on, Thomas overhears Astrid telling another student with a smirk that Thomas wouldn’t be considered “man enough” for the Fuhrer, in other words, Adolf Hitler.

Meanwhile, Thomas establishes a bit of a rapport with bashful and sensitive Gretel, because he can relate to feeling like an outsider in this stuffy and elitist environment. He notices that Gretel is frequently shunned by her classmates, so he occasionally gives her little pep talks. But Thomas’ interactions with the students are not shown very much because he’s got an ulterior motive for being at this school. It isn’t long before Thomas is snooping around because he was sent to Augusta-Victoria College to find out what happened to Wheatley.

The movie makes subtle and not-so-subtle references to Augusta-Victoria College being a school that taught Nazi propaganda. Thomas finds an Augusta-Victoria College school crest embroidered on a patch, which has a lion flanked by the United Kingdom flag on one side and a Nazi swastika on the other. (This movie uses the real-life Augusta-Victoria College crest.)

One day, Thomas walks by a classroom and sees Miss Rocholl and the students listening to a Hitler speech on the radio. To his surprise, Miss Rocholl joins the students in a Nazi salute while they chant “Sieg Heil!” At that moment, Miss Rocholl and Thomas make eye contact, and she can sense his disgust.

Later, in a private meeting between Miss Rocholl and Thomas, she tries to justify her apparent allegiance to the Nazis. Miss Rocholl has this to say about joining in on the “Sieg Heil” chant: “It means ‘Hail Victory.’ That’s all … Why should we criticize a country that strives to be great?”

Miss Rocholl then tries to appeal to Thomas’ empathetic side by telling him: “These girls are my life. They give me hope. And that’s why I join in when they say, ‘Hail Victory.'” In another part of the story, Miss Rocholl also says to Thomas that she wants to keep the girls as sheltered as possible from the outside world. Can you say “Nazi brainwashing school?”

And if it isn’t made clear enough that Augusta-Victoria College is a training ground for Hitler’s Nazi youth, there’s another scene where Thomas (who lurks quite a bit in the school hallways) walks by a classroom and sees Ilse pivoting a discussion with the students into an anti-Semitic lecture. Ilse starts off talking about how it’s hard to tell from appearances if someone is good or evil. Then she asks the students for examples of how to spot the differences between animals of the same species. And then she turns it into a discussion about how to find out the differences between Jews and Gentiles. The movie stops short of showing her going into details about how to identify Jewish people.

And what about Thomas’ spy mission? There are the predictable scenes of him hiding in places to eavesdrop on conversations. And don’t forget the formulaic scene of Thomas rifling through desk drawers and secretly photographing certain documents with a miniature camera that’s the same size as a modern-day flash drive.

The title of “Six Minutes to Midnight” comes from Thomas using the code 1154 (as in, 11:54 p.m.) to identify himself when he calls into spy headquarters. Technically, if he were using government time codes to signify “six minutes to midnight.” he should have used the digits 2354. But that’s the least of this movie’s problems with logic.

There’s also a fairly ludicrous scene of Thomas having a tension-filled meeting with his supervisor Colonel Smith (played David Schofield) at, of all places, a live comedy show. Let’s see: You’re an undercover spy who’s supposed to be having a secret conversation with your boss about a clandestine mission. And you think the best place to have this confidential conversation is in the audience of a show where you have to raise your voice in order to be heard because someone’s performing on stage while you’re talking. And you’re surrounded by people who could hear what you’re talking about in a theater that’s fairly dark, so you don’t really know who could be eavesdropping. Somewhere, James Bond is laughing.

The very talented Jim Broadbent is in the cast of “Six Minutes to Midnight,” but he’s barely in the movie. His scenes last for less than 10 minutes, thereby squandering Broadbent’s talent. It’s another reason why “Six Minutes to Midnight” is foolish and annoying. Broadbent portrays a friendly man named Charlie, the owner of a private bus service called Charlie Bus Hire. It’s a small business that seems to have only one bus, and Charlie is the driver.

Thomas and Charlie cross paths a few times in the movie when Thomas needs a bus ride to wherever he needs to go. The government didn’t provide a car for Thomas while he was undercover for this assignment, presumably to make his teacher impersonation more believable. A low-paid teacher wasn’t supposed to be able to afford a car in those days.

Charlie is the type of small role that should have gone to a lesser renowned actor. An actor of Broadbent’s caliber should have been showcased more in this movie. It’s disappointing to see Broadbent, who is capable of better and more substantial work, in such a poorly written role that reduces him to some wisecracking jokes that don’t land well at all.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” really falls off the rails when Thomas goes on the run after being accused of a murder he didn’t commit. One of the characters ends up getting shot in front of Thomas one rainy night. Viewers get to see who the shooter is, but Thomas doesn’t see the killer because it was raining so hard and he was in a car when it happened.

After the murder, the shooter ran away and dropped the gun, with the intent to frame Thomas for the murder. And sure enough, Thomas ran out of the car and picked up the gun, right at the same moment that a police officer arrived to see Thomas with blood on his clothes and holding the murder weapon. What a coincidence.

James D’Arcy has the role of Captain Drey, the law enforcement officer who’s in charge of investigating the murder. Captain Drey doesn’t believe Thomas’ proclamations of innocence. Thomas and Captain Drey have the expected personality clashes. And you easily can predict how this murder is going to affect Thomas’ ability to stay undercover as a spy.

Izzard seems to be trying earnestly to be an action hero, but it’s just not believable in the context of how ridiculously many of the scenes are staged. The shootout scenes lack credibility because “Six Minutes to Midnight” is one of those movies where people spend more time talking while they’re aiming their guns than actually shooting their targets. And get used to aerial shots of Izzard running away on a beach, because there’s plenty of that repetition in the movie.

As for Dench and Juri, they’ve played the same types of characters in other movies before: Dench as the no-nonsense taskmaster, Juri as the helpful assistant/sidekick. The acting from the cast members isn’t terrible, but there’s nothing extraordinary or noteworthy about it either. The character of Thomas is very hollow and uninteresting. It’s kind of mind-boggling that Izzard (one of the screenplay co-writers) couldn’t come up with a better character for this starring role.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” director/co-writer Goddard puts some effort into making the scenes try to look artistic. The big showdown at the end of the movie takes place on a beach at night. Some flare guns are used in this scene, to visually stunning results. But those are just superficial effects. The actual confrontation with weapons in this scene ends up being very dull and anti-climactic.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” has an almost flippant and dismissive attitude about the disturbing genocide and other mayhem caused by Nazis. The movie only wants to address the Nazis’ destruction in vague, abstract terms. The characters in the movie don’t really talk about why the United Kingdom is headed toward war with Nazi Germany. Instead, it becomes all about whether or not Thomas can prove his innocence in the murder case and what’s going to happen to the Augusta-Victoria College students.

This movie didn’t have to be a history lesson, but it’s very off-putting that all these characters in “Six Minutes to Midnight” who work for the British government won’t even acknowledge the suffering of the people who are the targets of Nazi hate. It might have been the filmmakers’ way of showing how people were in denial or willing to enable Nazi atrocities. But it’s a weak excuse when most of the main characters in the story are not ignorant citizens and they know exactly why Great Britain is going to war with Nazi Germany.

Simply put: “Six Minutes to Midnight” gives a much higher priority in trying to make viewers care about the comfort and well-being of Nazi youth and their British teachers than it does in trying to make viewers care about the people whose lives were destroyed by Nazis. It’s a completely tone-deaf movie that couldn’t even deliver a suspenseful mystery story. And in the end, “Six Minutes to Midnight” is a time-wasting film where the main characters don’t seem to have any emotional growth because they’re all so emotionally barren from the start.

Review: ‘Voyagers,’ starring Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, Fionn Whitehead and Colin Farrell

April 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lily-Rose Depp and Tye Sheridan in “Voyagers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Voyagers”

Directed by Neil Burger

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in a spaceship from Earth, the sci-fi drama “Voyagers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) who portray American scientists and crew members involved in exploring a new planet where human beings can possibly live.

Culture Clash: A power struggle erupts among the crew members, and it turns deadly.

Culture Audience: “Voyagers” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching derivative sci-fi movies that borrow heavily from dystopian young-adult novels with “survival of the fittest” themes.

Quintessa Swindell, Reda Elazouar, Fionn Whitehead, Archie Madekwe and Lou Llobel in “Voyagers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Voyagers” is a disappointing space travel movie that’s the equivalent of being stuck on a pointless road trip with bickering 20-somethings from a bad soap opera. “Voyagers” is not an adventure story about exploring a new planet. The movie is really about a group of young people isolated on a spaceship in a bland ripoff of “Lord of the Flies.” The cast members’ overall serviceable performances can’t quite save “Voyagers” from the movie’s annoying “bait and switch” in its story, which has too many plot holes and not enough originality for it to be a truly enjoyable film.

Written and directed by Neil Burger, “Voyagers” begins with a captioned intro that explains why this space voyage is taking place: “As the Earth grows hotter, and drought and disease ravage the population, scientists look for a new planet—one that can support human life. In 2063, they find it. The human voyage to the planet will take 86 years.” Although the movie never says which government is spearheading this voyage, viewers can assume it’s the United States because all of the people involved have American accents.

Leading this experimental voyage is a scientist named Richard (played by Colin Farrell), who tells people in a meeting that the plan is to have 30 qualified crew members—all who were born and bred to live on a spaceship. These crew members (who were born from artificial insemination) will have a pre-determined number of children and grandchildren during this 86-year journey in outer space. During this time, these voyagers and their descendants are supposed to learn enough about this new planet to return to Earth and bring back this knowledge so that other humans from Earth can possibly start relocating to this new planet.

From the start, there are some major problems with the story. Richard is the only person who’s shown interacting with and educating the children who were selected to be born and and bred for this program. He has been involved in raising them since birth. The movie should have had more scientists and government officials involved in this training. Just because “Voyagers” is a low-budget independent film is no excuse for this lack of credibility. If you can afford Colin Farrell to be in your movie, you can afford to hire some more cast members to portray the people training the children.

The children, who are in the same age group, are first seen as 4-year-olds in a sterile spaceship simulation environment where they are solving puzzles on computers. Richard interacts with them while wearing a hazmat suit. He is kind and patient with the kids, who have deliberately been raised indoors their entire life. The reason for always keeping the children indoors is because if the kids knew what it was like to be outdoors on Earth, it could have negative effects on their mental health if they knew what they were missing on Earth.

There’s a scene early in the movie that completely contradicts what happens later in the story. During a teaching session, all of the kids are happy to see Richard when he enters the room. Most of the kids run up to him and hug him, and he hugs them back. But later in the story, when the children begin the voyage when they’re 24 years old, they act as if they’ve never expressed public displays of affection before. It doesn’t ring true at all, but it’s the basis for a huge turning point in the movie.

Richard, who is a bachelor with no kids of his own, has grown attached to these children. He’s so attached that he wants to go with them on this voyage. His supervisor Marianne Sancar (played by Veronica Falcón) is very reluctant to allow it. However, Richard tells her that he really won’t miss living on Earth at all. And the next thing you know, Richard is the only adult over the age of 30 who’s with the crew members who were bred for this voyage. Once Richard and the crew members live on the spaceship, he no longer has to wear a hazmat suit when he’s around them.

Here’s another problematic part of the story: No government would realistically allow a bunch of 24-year-olds who don’t have any life experience outside of a spaceship environment to be on their own to explore a new planet. It’s what would have happened if Richard had not insisted on going on this voyage too. Any scientific exploration like this one would require people who would know what it’s like to live on Earth (indoors and outdoors), to make informed decisions on whether or not a new planet could be inhabitable by human beings whose biology was wired to live on Earth through centuries of evolution. It’s basic science for any scientific exploration to have that comparison point.

The “bait” part of “Voyagers” starts off misleading viewers into thinking that these young people, who’ve been trained specifically to explore this new planet, will get to do this exploring in the movie. But no, here comes the “switch” part of the movie: “Voyagers” has absolutely zero screen time of these so-called explorers doing any exploring. It’s not really spoiler information to reveal this fact about “Voyagers.” It’s a fair warning to viewers that this so-called “new planet” is never seen in the movie. Instead, “Voyagers” is essentially a predictable and often-dull soap opera on a spaceship.

Out of the 30 young people who are the crew members, three are the main focus of the story. It’s telegraphed early on that these three are the main characters, in a scene with the future voyagers as 4-year-olds. They are the only three characters Richard is shown tucking into bed and calling them by their names when he says good night to them.

The three main characters at 24 years old are:

  • Christopher (played by Tye Sheridan), who is even-tempered and analytical.
  • Sela (played by Lily-Rose Depp), who is the group’s assertive and intelligent chief medical officer.
  • Zac (played by Fionn Whitehead), who is the group’s rebellious chief surveillance officer.

And because “Voyagers” is really a soap opera in space, you know what that means: love triangle. There are some other crew members whose personalities are given some notable screen time. They include:

  • Kai (played by Archie Madekwe), a mischief maker who likes breaking the rules.
  • Julie (played by Quintessa Swindell), a flirtatious engineer who has a mutual attraction to Kai.
  • Peter (played by Viveik Kalra), who becomes a rival to Kai for Julie’s affections.
  • Phoebe (played by Chanté Adams), who is the group member most likely to stick to the rules and protocol.
  • Edward (played by Isaac Hempstead Wright), a nerdy control room officer who’s the most “book smart” one in the group.
  • Anda (played by Madison Hu), a level-headed type who is good at negotiating.

All of the crew members except Richard are given a blue liquid called (unimaginatively) The Blue as part of their dining routine. Christopher finds out through some computer hacking that The Blue is really a drug that dulls human senses. It contains a toxin called T56j, which makes people docile and eliminates sexual desire and other sensual urges.

Zac is with Christopher when this information is discovered. Christopher then confronts Richard about it. Richard admits that The Blue is a medication that was given to the crew members to make them less likely to rebel or get distracted.

It’s also explained in the movie that the outer-space program doesn’t want the crew members to conceive children naturally. All conceptions are supposed to be by artificial insemination. It’s been pre-determined how many children and grandchildren each voyager will have, in order to prevent over-population.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t sit too well with Christopher and Zac to find out that their lives have been strictly controlled and manipulated by being given The Blue drug without their knowledge and consent. They decide to stop taking The Blue. And eventually, Christopher and Zac tell some other crew members that The Blue is really a drug to keep them complacent. And, of course, the word gets out to everyone else, and they also stop drinking The Blue.

Remember that scene of the cute and cuddly kids running up to Richard and hugging him? Well, the filmmakers of “Voyagers” want people to forget that scene, because (plot hole alert) they want viewers to think that these kids have now grown up to be people who don’t know what it’s like to express affection. It’s unclear how long the voyagers were taking The Blue, but it doesn’t matter because it’s not a drug that causes amnesia where they would forget childhood memories.

There’s a scene on the spaceship where Christopher sees Richard and Sela talking, and Richard has his hand affectionately on Sela’s shoulder, like a father would for a daughter. Christopher gets a little freaked out and acts as if Richard is one step away from being a sexual predator because Christopher can’t believe that someone is actually touching Sela. It’s all just sloppy and contradictory screenwriting.

Keep in mind, these voyagers are the same people who, when they were children, were jumping up and hugging Richard and letting him tuck them into bed. It’s quite an unrealistic stretch that Christopher, now in his 20s, would suddenly act like he’s never seen Richard touch Sela in a fatherly way before, when Richard was essentially the only father these kids had ever known. By the way, this movie never shows the young voyagers being curious about who their biological parents are, even though Christopher mentions in a conversation that they’ve inherited physical and personality traits from their unknown parents.

After certain characters in “Voyagers” stop taking The Blue, the movie makes a big deal of showing them acting out their inhibitions. For Zac, that means a touch can’t just be a touch. When he touches Sela’s face affectionately, it quickly turns into fondling her breasts without consent. Zac and Christopher suddenly get the urge to wrestle each other a lot. And there are multiple scenes of the crew members running playfully through hallways, as if they’ve never done it before in their lives.

Through a series of circumstances, the voyagers also learn about violence. And the rest of the movie plays out as predictably as you think it would. Christopher and Zac go from being friends to being bitter enemies. And in true “Lord of the Flies” fashion, people take sides, and there’s a battle over who’s going to be in power.

And what about the mission to explore this new planet? That gets lost in the arguing and fights that take up almost all of the last third of the movie. And there’s some nonsense about a possible alien that’s invaded the ship, which is a fear that Zac uses to manipulate people to do what he wants.

While all of this childish drama is going on, no one seems to be operating the spaceship. It must be on auto-pilot, just like this formulaic, substandard sci-fi flick is on auto-pilot for almost its entire duration. Out of all the actors portraying the young voyagers, Whitehead seems to be the one having the most fun (probably because he’s playing a villain role), and he smirks it up to the hilt.

Unfortunately, the scenes in the movie where the voyagers have been taking The Blue drug require them to talk in almost-robotic monotones. And so, there are long stretches of “Voyagers” that are quite boring because the actors are supposed to be portraying “numb” people. Richard is the only character on the spaceship who maintains a strong sense of lucid humanity, but the power structure ends up changing on the spaceship, so Richard isn’t in the movie as much as some viewers might think he would be.

The cinematography and visual effects for “Voyagers” aren’t terrible but they’re not outstanding either. The movie’s production design for the spaceship isn’t entirely convincing. The interior rooms often just look like a shiny, sterile cafeteria, office building, or lounge space. There aren’t many exterior scenes in the movie because the voyagers spend more time quarreling or goofing off inside than actually working outside.

You know that “Voyagers” is a terrible sci-fi movie because it cares so little about this mission to explore a new planet. Not once do any of the voyagers talk about any hopes or fears that they have about what they might find on this new planet. You’d think that people who were raised to be these pioneering explorers would be curious. But no, not in this movie. “Voyagers,” just like the space mission in the movie, was badly conceived from the start and should have been aborted.

Lionsgate released “Voyagers” in U.S. cinemas on April 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Gunda,’ a documentary about farm life from the perspectives of animals

April 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Gunda and one of her piglets in “Gunda” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Gunda”

Directed by Victor Kosakovsky

Culture Representation: Taking place on a farm in an unnamed Norwegian city, the documentary film “Gunda” focuses on a sow (female pig) named Gunda, her piglets, a flock of chickens and a herd of cows.

Culture Clash: Farm life can be precarious for animals that are bred as meat for humans.

Culture Audience: “Gunda” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a minimalist animal documentary, with no voiceover narration, captions or music.

Two of Gunda’s piglets in “Gunda” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Neither brilliant nor mindless, the documentary film “Gunda” is a minimalist chronicle of animal life on a Norwegian farm in an unnamed city, from the perspectives of some of the animals. The movie was filmed in black and white, so it looks artsier than it really is. “Gunda is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like animal documentaries.

Directed by Victor Kosakovsky, “Gunda” stands out from most other animal documentaries because it has no voiceover narration, captions or music. Therefore, whatever viewers get out of the movie will be exactly what’s shown on screen, not because the filmmakers are interpreting or explaining the animals’ actions. Any humans who are briefly shown in the documentary (to transport animals) do not speak in the movie.

A female pig named Gunda gets most of the screen time because it shows her from the moment she gives birth to a litter of about 11 pigs. (The documentary’s other animals don’t have names in the movie.) The first scene in the movie is of Gunda giving birth to this litter. Not long after she gives birth, Gunda accidentally steps on one of the piglets, which screams out in pain but is unharmed.

In addition to the pigs, the movie shows two cows and some chickens, with particular focus on a one-legged chicken. An example of a scene involving the chickens is when a chicken tentatively steps out of a cage, where it was confined with other chickens. There are closeups of the chicken’s feet as it steps on the grass. A visually striking scene with the cows is when at least 25 cows run outside of a barn, and this gallop is shown in slow-motion. The cows are also shown outside while it’s raining.

Viewers of “Gunda,” which was filmed for less than a year, get to see the piglets grow older. There are multiple scenes of Gunda nursing them. There’s a scene where the piglets go in an open field to play and rough house with each other. And there’s the inevitable scene of Gunda wallowing and resting in mud.

Because this movie takes place on a farm, not an animal sanctuary, these animals are being raised for one main reason: as meat for humans. One of the exceptions is an elderly female cow that’s shown in the documentary. Because there are no humans talking in the movie, it’s never explained why this female cow was lucky enough to survive and wasn’t killed for meat.

“Gunda” director Kosakovsky was inspired to make the film because of an experience he had in his childhood. He describes it in his director’s statement in the “Gunda” production notes: “Growing up I was very much a city kid, but at the age of 4, I spent a few months in a village in the countryside, where I met my best friend Vasya. He was much younger than me—just a few weeks old when we met—but over time he became my dearest friend and the times we spent together are some of the most cherished memories from my childhood. One day, when we were still young, Vasya was killed and served as pork cutlets for a New Year’s Eve dinner. I was devastated and immediately became (probably) the first vegetarian kid in the Soviet Union.”

It should be noted that Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is a well-known vegan and animal rights activist, is an executive producer of “Gunda.” Is the movie a vegetarian/vegan propaganda film? No, because it doesn’t preach about how these animals should be treated. It just shows a “slice of life” view of what it was like for these particular animals on this particular farm.

In that sense, “Gunda” is like any other documentary about farm animals that will give people more thought about animals that are killed for human consumption. Almost every up-close documentary about animals will show that animals have emotions and form family bonds with each other. It’s not revelatory to anyone who’s seen a lot of animal documentaries or has experienced living with domesticated animals.

“Gunda” is at its best when it shows the relationship that Gunda has with her piglets. The cinematography brings an intimacy to how this relationship evolves as the piglets become more independent. The ending of the movie is not surprising, but it will still tug at people’s heartstrings.

If “Gunda” could be described in terms of independent cinema, it’s the type of movie that’s like a mumblecore documentary for farm animals. There’s no specific, exciting narrative, because viewers are basically watching farm animals live their lives. It’s the type of movie best appreciated if viewers have no distractions and can see the movie on the largest screen possible. It’s hard to imagine “Gunda” holding people’s interest for very long if they watch the movie on a phone.

“Gunda” also isn’t recommended for people who get irritated by constant sounds of pigs grunting and squealing. It’s sounds obvious that you’ll hear these noises when watching this movie, but without any music to drown out the animal sounds or to manipulate emotions, the sounds of pig grunts and squeals become even more pronounced. People will either tolerate it or be turned off by it.

As a technical feat, “Gunda” isn’t very mindblowing, but it gets the job done in all the right places. This is a movie that might bore people who prefer animal documentaries that were filmed in exotic and difficult-to-film locations. But for people who want an intimate look at the common ground between the emotions in animals and humans, “Gunda” offers an immersive experience that requires patience to watch the entire movie.

Neon released “Gunda” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The movie goes into wider release on April 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Enhanced’ (2021), starring Alanna Bale, George Tchortov, Chris Mark and Adrian Holmes

April 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alanna Bale in “Enhanced” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Enhanced” (2021)

Directed by James Mark

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian city, the sci-fi action film “Enhanced” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and Africans) portraying mutants and humans.

Culture Clash: An elite military squad is tasked with rounding up and imprisoning mutants who have deadly powers, while a “super mutant” is looking for more mutants to absorb their energy so he can take over the world.

Culture Audience: “Enhanced″ will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching derivative and forgettable sci-fi movies.

Patrick Sabongui, George Tchortov and Eric Hicks in “Enhanced” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The filmmakers of “Enhanced” should have titled this movie “Flimsy X-Men Ripoff” if they wanted more truth in advertising. It’s a formulaic and mindless flick about mutants being hunted by humans. The visual effects are weak, most of the acting is mediocre-to-terrible, and the action scenes are just filler as one scene clumsily lumbers to the next.

Directed by James Mark, “Enhanced” has almost no suspense because it’s obvious which characters will survive in this “humans versus mutants” war that is going on in an unnamed city in Canada. How do viewers know who’s going to survive until the end of the movie? Time and time again, there are two characters in the movie who could easily be killed when they’re cornered by the “enemy,” but these two characters inexplicably are allowed to get away. It’s all so that movie can drag along to its very predictable conclusion.

“Enhanced” (which has the title “Mutant Outcasts” in Germany) was written by “Enhanced” director Mark, Matthew Nayman and Peter Van Horne. And having three writers for this lackluster and unimaginative screenplay just makes “Enhanced” look worse, because three minds were clearly not better than one in this case. There’s almost nothing that’s original in this movie, which recycles ideas from other, much-better movies about persecuted mutants. By the way, the humans in this movie have a very bland name for the mutants: The mutants are called “subjects.”

“Enhanced” begins with an elite military squad hunting down a mutant named Joseph or Joe (played by Patrick Sabongui), who works as a janitor in an office building. Leading this squad into action is George Shepherd (played by George Tchortov), who is the type of generic “alpha male” who’s supposed to be the story’s hero. George’s closest sidekick in the squad is Scott Cromwell (played by Eric Hicks), who is more laid-back than “take charge” George. Scott, George and some other members of the squad ambush Joseph while he’s doing some janitorial work when the office is closed for the night.

This is the type of bad dialogue in the film. George tells Joseph that they know his real name isn’t Joseph, and that Joseph’s number is 78-934BRAVO. Apparently, he’s escaped from a secret prison that the government has for mutants. Joseph, or whatever his name really is, shouts to the squad: “I’m not going back there! I haven’t hurt anyone!”

Joseph’s eyes turn a glowing blue (it’s how the movie shows the mutants unleashing their powers) and replies in desperation, “You don’t understand! They did this to me!” George says, “Joseph, this is your last chance.” Joseph answers, “No, this is your last chance!”

Joseph runs away and ends up using his mutant powers to burst onto the rooftop of the building. But the squad is right behind him, and Joseph is cornered and captured. He’s taken back to the secret prison, which is is shown later on to be just a space with several glass-enclosed rooms. It looks more like a modern office building than a prison.

Usually in movies like this, the mutants would be held captive so that the government can do secret research on them. But no, not in this dimwitted movie. These mutants are just being held captive until the government can figure out what to do with them. Taxpayer money down the drain.

Meanwhile, there’s a mutant named Anna (played by Alanna Bale) in her late teens or early 20s who ends up being one of the hunted. She works as a mechanic in an auto body shop owned by her boss Danny (played by Jeffrey R. Smith), who doesn’t know that she’s a mutant. For example, he doesn’t notice when Anna uses her mutant superpowers to do things like unscrew major auto parts with her bare hands when it would take tools and a lot of human strength to do it.

Danny is targeted for extortion by some local thugs, who gang up and assault him one day at the auto shop while Anna is there too. You know what happens next. Anna uses her mutant superpowers to kill the thugs, but it’s not enough to protect Danny, who has been shot during this brawl. Anna makes a phone call for emergency help. As Danny lies seriously injured on the floor, he asks Anna, “What are you?” She doesn’t give an answer because she’s already out the door as a fugitive on her bicycle.

During her time on the run, Anna meets a guy named Eli (played by Michael Joseph Delaney), who’s a stereotypical nerdy researcher who always seems to be in movies like this one. The researcher fulfills the role of explaining all the “secrets” that they’ve uncovered in their research. When Eli first meets Anna, he already knows that she’s a mutant. However, Anna doesn’t trust Eli at first because she think he’s another human who wants her to be locked up.

Eli has found out that there’s a “super mutant” on the loose who’s been killing other mutants to absorb their energy. This “super mutant” can sense other mutants’ presence and track them down like he’s got some inner mutant GPS system or psychic ability or some other nonsense that’s explained in the movie. And guess who finds out about the secret prison filled with mutants?

This “super mutant” has the very unremarkable name of David (played by Chris Mark), and he’s an extremely dull villain with no personality. Glaring into the camera doesn’t count as having a personality. Chris Mark’s performance as David is so lifeless that you almost wonder if he thought he was playing a zombie, not a mutant. The actor shouldn’t get all the blame because the director didn’t cast this movie very well and should have given better direction to the cast members.

Meanwhile, George clashes with his supervisor Captain Williams (played by Adrian Holmes) over something, so George ends up going “rogue.” It’s not a spoiler to reveal this information, because how else would it explain why George and Anna work together when they inevitably cross each other’s paths? And let’s not forget about Eli, who has to play the role of the “computer/technology expert” so that someone can conveniently tap into secret computer networks when needed.

Bale gives the best performance in the cast, but that’s not saying much when her Anna character, just like everyone else in the movie, is as two-dimensional as a cartoon character. Don’t expect any of this movie’s characters to have interesting stories about their lives. And the fight scenes aren’t very impressive when you consider that certain people could be easily killed during certain fights, but they aren’t killed because the movie obviously wants these characters to survive.

Mutant villain David has the ability to regenerate when he’s wounded, but the movie isn’t consistent in showing this ability in some of David’s fight scenes. This movie is called “Enhanced” because the mutants have enhanced physical powers. But the movie is so woefully lacking in originality that the quality of the movie is diminished to being creatively bankrupt.

Vertical Entertainment released “Enhanced” in the U.S. on digital and VOD on March 26, 2021. The movie was released in Brazil in 2019.

Review: ‘Mallory’ (2021), starring Dianne Grossman and Seth Grossman

April 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

A family photo of Dianne Grossman, Seth Grossman and Mallory Grossman in “Mallory” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Mallory” (2021)

Directed by Ash Patiño

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Jersey, the documentary film “Mallory” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) discussing the life and legacy of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, who committed suicide in 2017, after being bullied some students at her school.

Culture Clash: Mallory’s parents (Dianne and Seth Grossman) have sued the school district for not doing more to stop the bullying, while the bullying students were not punished.

Culture Audience: “Mallory″ will appeal primarily to people want to learn more about what to do to help with protection from and prevention of childhood bullying and suicide.

Dianne Grossman In “Mallory” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The documentary film “Mallory” should be essential viewing for anyone who cares about helping prevent bullying that can lead to suicides. It’s not an easy film to watch for people who are triggered by these issues. And the documentary doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers. But “Mallory” is a raw and very personal look at how one family experienced tragedy from these issues and is doing their best to that heal through educating people on what to do before it’s too late.

Directed by Ash Patiño, “Mallory” tells the story of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, who committed suicide on June 14, 2017, by hanging herself in her bedroom closet at her home in Rockaway Township, New Jersey. Her suicide came after several months of Mallory experiencing vicious bullying at school. She wasn’t getting physically assaulted. She was being verbally harassed and cyberbullied by some female students at her school. And on at least one occasion, one of the bullies told Mallory that she should kill herself.

On the surface, Mallory seemed to have an idyllic childhood. Her parents Dianne Grossman and Seth Grossman were happily married. They lived with Mallory and their older daughter Carlee in a comfortable, upper-middle-class home in a safe neighborhood. Carlee is not interviewed in the documentary, but she is seen in footage at events for Mallory’s Army, the non-profit anti-bullying organization that Dianne and Seth Grossman founded in 2018, in Mallory’s honor. Mallory excelled in gymnastics. And for a time, Mallory was also a cheerleader.

Several people who knew Mallory—including family members, schoolmates, teachers and other kids’ parents—describe her in the documentary as a happy-go-lucky, compassionate child who always knew how to make other people smile. Mallory’s mother Dianne also says, “Mallory connected with nature.” The documentary includes several clips of Mallory in home videos where she appears to be a well-adjusted, happy kid.

Sounds perfect, right? Well, perfect isn’t reality. As Mallory’s parents say in the documentary, Mallory seemed to be a happy child to many people. But the happiness was often a façade that hid her inner turmoil, especially in the last several months of her life.

Mallory had a best friend named Bianca Marchese, who is interviewed in the documentary. Bianca and her mother Katee Petro speak highly of Mallory and share a lot of fond memories of her. Some of the home video clips include Bianca and Mallory goofing off together. And yet, Mallory would often complain to her mother that she had “no friends” at Copeland Middle School, where she had transferred in the new school year.

Why was Mallory being targeted by these bullies? (Mallory’s alleged bullies and their parents are not interviewed for the documentary.) Dianne says she believes that the bullies were jealous of Mallory because they perceived her to be a privileged rich girl even though the Grossman family isn’t wealthy. Mallory was also bullied over her gymnastics accomplishments, and the harassment got so bad that Mallory quit her gymnastics team.

Bullying doesn’t just come in the form of insulting people or assaulting them. It can also come in the form of making people feel like an outcast by refusing to let them sit next to you and excluding them from social gatherings where they should be included. It happened to Mallory a lot at school, according to what she told her parents. Students and teachers at the school witnessed Mallory being mistreated in this way, according to several people in the documentary. And still, nothing was done to help Mallory by anyone at her school.

It’s one thing to have social cliques. It’s another thing to cruelly go out of your way to let everyone know why someone is being excluded from a group, to gang up on someone to maintain the exclusion, and to pressure other people to exclude that person too. Some people handle bullying better than others. For those who are mentally or emotionally fragile, it can be too much and can lead to self-harm.

Dianne comments in the documentary about the deep emotional pain that Mallory hid from her family. On the day of the suicide, “All she said was, ‘Hey, I had a bad day. When are you coming home?’ The sadness must’ve been overwhelming.” Seth adds of Mallory’s tragically short life: “We’re definitely lucky we got 12 years … There was a special uniqueness about her, from when she was a year old.”

In some parts of the documentary, Seth and Dianne are interviewed in Mallory’s room. And in one heartbreaking scene, they describe the day that Mallory died. Seth found her non-responsive in the closet. Dianne was in New York City with Carlee that day to see the Broadway show “Waitress,” but they rushed home when they heard that Mallory had hurt herself. It wasn’t until Dianne and Carlee saw the emergency medics and police at their house that they knew how bad it was.

In the months before Mallory’s death, Dianne and Seth Grossman repeatedly brought their concerns about the bullying to school officials and to the parents of the bullies. And the Grossmans say that nothing was done by the school or the parents. Dianne and Seth also say that although they noticed Mallory was sometimes sad about the way she was treated in school, they had no idea that she could be suicidal.

And that’s why the Grossmans filed a lawsuit against the Rockaway Township Board of Education, Rockaway Township and employees of Copeland Middle School, who are all accused of failing to protect Mallory from the excessive bullying. The Grossmans have received a lot of national media attention for this lawsuit, which has not yet been resolved, as of this writing. Any of the defendants who publicly responded have denied the allegations, but they are not interviewed in this documentary.

After the lawsuit was filed, Greg McGann resigned as Rockaway Township school district superintendent. The documentary includes commentary from a teacher (and obvious friend of the Grossman family) named Karin Kasper, who was not an employee of Copeland Middle School. However, she has this opinion of what happened in how the school handled the bullying of Mallory: “The school made it look like it was Mallory’s fault. There’s a huge amount of victim blaming going on in how they treated her.”

Since Mallory’s death, Dianne has made speaking appearances at many schools to educate people about bullying and suicide prevention. The documentary includes some emotionally powerful clips of her speaking at schools and sharing her personal story about what happened to Mallory. Dianne sums up one of the main messages that she wants to get across in her speaking engagements and with her Mallory’s Army work: “If this can happen to Mallory Grossman, it can happen to any one of our kids.” After one of these speaking appearances, Dianne comments in a documentary interview that the students who tend to cry the most at her speaking appearances are the bullies and the students who are being bullied.

The documentary also includes footage of several Mallory’s Army charity events, including a 5K running marathon, a hockey game, and a motorcycle ride. There’s also footage of student workshops where students act out scenarios of how they can prevent bullying and how to protect other students who are being bullied. It’s repeated several times in the documentary that bullying realistically won’t go away, but schools, parents and students need to be held more accountable in how bullying is handled.

Several people are interviewed in this film, but the documentary isn’t too overstuffed with talking heads. The interviewees include Dianne Grossman’s sister Angela Piazza; Diane Grossman’s mother Teresa Toella, and family friends Heather Gallagher and Meredith Lutz, whose son David Lutz was a friend of Mallory’s who says that he if had been able to see the bullying himself at the school, he would have tried to protect her.

Also interviewed are North Star gymnastic coaches Melissa Jones and Christian Campitiello, who have high praise for Mallory; Grossman family attorneys Diane Sammons and Bruce Nagel, who are partners at Nagel Rice Law Firm; licensed professional counselor Emily Ryzuk; Mallory’s Army member Jenn Stillwell; Inez Barbiero of Core Growth Strategies, which helps small businesses; and Teresa Reuter and Todd Schobel, co-directors of anti-bullying for STOPit Solutions, a Holmdel, New Jersey-based tech group aimed at stopping cyberbullying. There are some people (children and adults) interviewed who have experienced childhood bullying, including Daniel Mendoza, Keisha Johnson and Briana Beuselinck.

The Grossmans don’t just want change in the Rockaway school system through their lawsuit. They also want legislative change that can better protect school children from being bullied, even if they’re not in the Rockaway school system. Because the public educational system in the U.S. is controlled by individual states, the Grossmans are starting with their home state of New Jersey.

The documentary shows Dianne meeting with New Jersey state senator Joe Pennacchio of District 26 to talk about passing a New Jersey law to hold the state’s schools and parents of bullies more accountable for bullying that takes place in these schools. In the meeting, Pennacchio expresses his support for a possible bill proposal that parents of bullies have to go to court if their children who are accused of bullying. As of this writing, nothing has been changed in New Jersey laws about bullying in New Jersey schools since Mallory’s death.

The “Mallory” documentary has some minor post-production flaws that don’t take away from the movie’s overall message. Some of the editing in “Mallory” could have been fine-tuned better. And the sound mixing is very uneven at times. However, most people who watch this documentary would agree that the movie is very effective in its intention and that watching this film is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

Gravitas Ventures released “Mallory” digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.

Review: ‘Dark Web: Cicada 3301,’ starring Jack Kesy, Conor Leslie and Alan Ritchson

April 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ron Funches, Conor Leslie and Jack Kesy in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301”

Directed by Alan Ritchson

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed North American city, the action comedy film “Dark Web: Cicada 3301″ features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and a few Asians) representing the middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A bartender who’s a secret computer hacker uncovers a Dark Web secret society of rich criminals called Cicada 3301 and is pressured by law enforcement to infiltrate this secret society.

Culture Audience: “Dark Web: Cicada 3301″ will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a painfully unfunny film that struggles to find anything resembling a coherent plot.

Alan Ritchson, Andreas Apergis and Jack Kesy in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Just like the title of this movie, the action comedy film “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is vapid and badly conceived. It tries desperately to be a wacky caper film, but the movie’s convoluted plot is filled with cheesy comedy that includes a homophobic fixation on depicting gay male sexuality as something to shamefully ridicule. Almost all of the characters in this movie are unappealing. Good luck to anyone who wastes time watching this incoherent drivel until the very end. Even the movie’s mid-credits scene looks like a throwaway.

Directed by Alan Ritchson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joshua Montcalm, “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” has a misguided concept that can be described as “Mr. Robot” meets “National Treasure” meets an “Austin Powers” movie. The protagonist of “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a computer hacker who’s a loner, but he goes on a treasure hunt as a wisecracking spy for the government. It’s even more cringeworthy than it sounds. At 105 minutes, “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” feels like much longer, as viewers have to watch a lot of nonsense, and most of it still won’t make much sense by the end of the movie.

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” takes place in an unnamed North American city. The movie was filmed in Canada and has a mixture of American and Canadian actors, but nothing in the movie looks specific to the U.S. or Canada. The name of the federal agency that the law enforcement people work for is also left out of the movie. There’s a lot of things in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” that are purposely vague, mostly due to terrible screenwriting and direction.

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” opens with a scene of Connor Black (played by Jack Kesy) in a castle, pointing a gun at someone in a study room, uploading something on a computer in the room, and then destroying the computer. Connor then climbs out the window and over a wall. Suddenly, there’s an explosion that hurls Connor backward. It’s a scene that the movie circles back to later on, to explain how Connor got into this situation.

As the movie shows Connor falling in slow motion, he’s heard commenting in a voiceover: “Believe it or not, I’m falling through the sky like an apple over Newton’s head. Things have been a little fuzzy ever since.” It’s one of the many examples of how tonally off-kilter this movie is. “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a mindless action flick, but it also makes these pseudo-intellectual references where people have to know that Isaac Newton is being referenced in this bizarre attempt at a joke.

Throughout the movie, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers of “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” couldn’t seem to make up their minds about what type of audience they want for this movie: Is it the people who like the complex and edgy hacker drama of “Mr. Robot”? Is it the people who like artifact-finding adventures like “National Treasure”? Or is it the people who like deliberately zany spy comedies like “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”?

There is some overlap in these audiences, but not much. And the result is that “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a tonal mess. Connor Black is written as a strange amalgamation of all three male protagonists in “Mr. Robot,” “National Treasure” and “Austin Powers.” It’s no wonder that Connor is as annoying and confused as he is throughout the movie.

Early on in the movie, it’s shown that Connor is now a prisoner who is testifying on his behalf at a judge’s hearing. The “adventure” scenes of the movie are really supposed to be what happened that led up to Connor being arrested. This movie is so badly made that this scene doesn’t look like it was filmed in a courtroom. It looks like it was filmed in a library or a university meeting room with three tables placed in the room.

At the “defense” table is Connor, who is in a prisoner’s uniform, with his hands and feet cuffed in chains. And he doesn’t have a lawyer with him. Sitting at the “prosecution” table are five men: two attorneys (the one who speaks is played by Joe Bostick) representing the prosecution, as well as the three government agents who offered $5 million to Connor to find a darknet secret society called Cicada 3301. The government agents are leader Mike Croft (played by Al Sapienza), Agent Carver (played by “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” director Ritchson) and Agent Sullivan (played by Andreas Apergis), who all have contempt for Connor.

Sitting at the third table that faces the other two tables is a panel of three judges: Judge Mary Collins (played by Victoria Snow), who does most of the talking; Judge Walters (played by Rothaford Gray); and Judge Bates (played by Marvin Karon). The judges ask Connor to tell his side of the story, which leads to the flashback scenes in the movie. During his “testimony” Connor is very rude to the agents, and he often gets up from the table in a disruptive manner. Connor and the agents also frequently interrupt each other.

Connor sometimes distorts the details in his “testimony,” by telling lies that Agent Carver is a closeted and horny gay man who’s attracted to Connor. For example, there’s a “fantasy” scene from Connor’s imagination where Agent Carter sexually licks Connor on the face. And in another “fantasy” scene, Agent Carter has a dildo strapped on his head after being in an “orgy room” with another man.

Telling these fabrications is Connor’s way of trying to humiliate Agent Carver, who gets upset every time Connor creates a false story about Agent Carter trying to seduce Connor and other men. These fantasies are depicted in the movie for laughs, but it’s not funny to use real or perceived homosexuality as a way to shame someone. “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” over-relies on these co-called “gay jokes” to the point where viewers have to wonder what kind of bigoted hangups these filmmakers have about gay men.

Connor is portrayed as a stereotypical arrogant jerk whom the filmmakers want to audiences to think is what you’re supposed to be if you’re a wisecracking, “no filter” action hero. He’s a bachelor in his early 30s who lives alone and works as a bartender. But he’s also a computer whiz who has a photographic memory. And when the government recruits a reluctant Connor to be a spy, he suddenly has combat skills that aren’t really explained in the movie.

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” uses an an annoying visual technique of showing numbers and images on screen, to depict how Connor’s photographic memory works in his brain. The movie never explains why Connor is a bartender instead of working in a computer-related job. Maybe it’s to set up this clumsy plot development in the beginning of the story where Connor starts looking for Cicada 3301. He’s enlisted to be a government spy when government officials find out that he’s close to discovering Cicada 3301, and they want Connor to lead the government to this secret society.

Twenty-nine days before he’s shown falling out from a castle ledge, Connor is at the restaurant/bar where he works. He sees a rude customer give Connor’s waitress co-worker Lori (played by Linnea Currie-Roberts) a measly 50 cents as a tip for serving about three or four people. Before the customer leaves with his dinner companions, Connor steps in and confronts the customer about the insulting tip.

The customer, whose name is William J. Edwards III (played by Benjamin Sutherland), is unapologetic and angrily flicks a lit cigarette at Connor. This triggers Connor to a childhood memory of his abusive father (played by Patrick Garrow) flicking a lit cigarette at him. The movie has more of these flashback memories of Connor’s troubled relationship with his father. (Tomaso Sanelli portrays Connor as a child.) Connor responds to the cigarette-throwing, stingy customer by getting into a fist fight with him.

Later, when he’s at home in his dingy apartment and nursing his bruised knuckles, Connor decides to get revenge on William, the customer he fought with in the bar. Connor remembers William’s full name and goes on his desktop computer to log on to the Dark Web. Connor hacks into William’s Bitcoin and credit card accounts to mess up his credit, and he sends a computer virus to William’s email.

While surfing the Dark Web, Connor stumbles onto mysterious files from an entity calling itself Cicada 3301 that promises a huge treasure worth a fortune, for people who can crack Cicada 3301’s puzzle codes and clues that will lead to the treasure. The group’s logo is a cicada. And it’s implied that whatever “treasure” is being offered is illegal.

Connor is intrigued, but his first attempt at solving a Cicada 3301 puzzle results in him getting a message from Cicada 3301 telling him that he failed the test because he’s not smart enough. This insult causes Connor to get so angry that he smashes a beer bottle, but some of the beer spills onto the computer tower and short-circuits the hard drive. Connor is now more determined than ever to find out who’s behind Cicada 3301 and how to get some of the promised treasure.

Connor needs the money because he’s very close to being evicted from his apartment. Connor has already been served an eviction notice. His deaf landlord Mr. Costa (played by Anselmo DeSousa) threatens to change the apartment’s locks if Connor doesn’t come up with the money. Connor promises that he will have the money by the next day, but even the landlord know that’s a lie.

Connor seems to be fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), because he understands everything that Mr. Costa is saying just through hand signs. (The words hover over Mr. Costa’s head instead of appearing on screen as regular captions.) It’s never explained how or why Connor as ASL communication skills, just like it’s never explained why Connor works in a low-paying bartender job, even though he has advanced-level computer information technology skills.

Because the story in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is so jumbled, it throws in a precocious, foul-mouthed kid, and then makes this character disappear for no good reason. She’s a 10-year-old named Sophia (played by Alyssa Cheatham), who lives in the same apartment building as Connor. Sophia is first seen in the movie cursing out Connor for being late with his rent. It’s mentioned later in the movie that Sophia has a single mother (played by Quancetia Hamilton), who spends long hours working away from home. Therefore, Sophie and Connor hang out together a lot, with Connor as Sophia’s unofficial babysitter.

Connor seems to be aware of how odd it might look for a man his age to be spending so much time with a girl who’s not a family member. And so, when he and Sophia go to the library to do some research, there are some moronic jokes made about pedophilia. Connor doesn’t have the money to fix his computer, so he has to use Sophia’s computer or a computer at the library.

While at the library, he meets a sarcastic and pretty library assistant in her 20s named Gwen (played by Conor Leslie), who predictably ends up helping him with this Cicada 3301 hunt. Gwen becomes Connor’s more level-headed sidekick/accomplice. Gwen and Connor have the type of sexual-tension banter that indicates he’s very attracted to her.

But Gwen plays guessing games with Connor about her sexuality. In one scene, Gwen tells Connor that she’s a lesbian. In another scene, Gwen kisses Connor in a romantic way. In another scene, she tells him that she “goes both ways.” In other words, she’s bisexual or queer.

“Cicada 3301” is annoyingly preoccupied with portraying queerness as something to be ridiculed or used as a a homophobic punchline. The third member of this “National Treasure” wannabe trio is Connor’s best friend Avi (played by Ron Funches), who needs a lot of convincing to go on this Cicada 3301 treasure hunt. Avi is used later in the story as sexual bait to flirt with a museum front-desk attendant who’s openly gay, so that Connor and Gwen can sneak into the museum’s book archives while Avi serves as a distraction. All the stereotypical over-the-top gay male mannerisms are used in this scene, such as high-pitched squeals and hand fluttering.

Avi is a college professor of art history who becomes Connor’s reluctant recruit to help solve Cicada 3301’s puzzles, which require extensive knowledge of art history. Avi, who likes to wear bow ties and blazers, is the type of eccentric whose idea of fun is to play chess with old men in a park. Funches portrays Avi as someone with flamboyance and of vague sexuality, although Avi seems to be initially attracted to Gwen. Toward the end of the movie, Avi gets a female love interest named Shauna (played by Jess Salgueiro), whose presence is almost like an afterthought, as if to let viewers know that Avi really isn’t gay.

Avi likes to make cupcakes, and the movie depicts Avi’s interest in cupcakes as “effeminate.” Avi also has the role of the high-maintenance “scaredy cat”/worrier of this Cicada 3301-hunting trio. It’s just another reason for Avi to have more diva-like posturing in the movie, to try to make him the frequent butt of the movie’s not-very-funny jokes.

A lot of the movie consists of Connor, Gwen and Avi gathering clues and solving puzzles. There’s some gibberish about William Blake art and clues that suggest that Cicada 3301 is an Illumniati-type of group. In one preposterous scene, Cicada 3301 has rigged an entire set of street lights to blink out a message in Morse code. Connor conveniently knows Morse Code, so he deciphers the message.

And Connor has some visions that often don’t make any sense. In one of these visions, his 10-year-old neighbor Sophia is seen being taken out of her home on a gurney, with a sheet over her body, as if she’s dead. Her mother is shown wailing next to the gurney. Sophia is never seen in the movie again, nor is it ever explained why Connor had that vision. That gives you an idea how sloppy this movie’s screenplay is.

Connor, Gwen and Avi go through some more shenanigans that eventually lead them to a castle, where Cicada 3301 is having an orgy party that’s trying to go for an “Eyes Wide Shut” masquerade vibe. It goes without saying that there are people in this movie who wear animal masks—and not because it’s Halloween. There’s someone at the party named Phillip Dubois (played by Kris Holden-Ried), whose purpose in the movie is exactly what you think it is. And there are a few twists toward the end of the film that aren’t very clever and aren’t much of a surprise.

The cast members’ performances, which are mediocre, aren’t the main problem in this shoddily made film. The screenplay and direction are the weakest links. At one point in the movie, Gwen says to Connor: “Are you always this grating? It’s like living sandpaper, man!” Ironically, that’s a perfect description for “Dark Web: Cicada 3301.”

Lionsgate released “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” on digital and VOD on March 12, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on March 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Stealing School,’ starring Celine Tsai and Jonathan Keltz

April 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Celine Tsai and Jonathan Keltz in “Stealing School” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Stealing School”  

Directed by Li Dong

Some language in Chinese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian city, the comedy/drama “Stealing School” features a racially diverse cast (white, Asian and black) representing people connected in some way to the well-known (but fictional) Dupont University.

Culture Clash: At the university, a white teaching assistant/Ph.D. student faces off with an Asian undergraduate accused of plagiarism in a tribunal hearing, which will determine if the student will be allowed to graduate or not.

Culture Audience: “Stealing School” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dark satires of how social justice issues have an effect on how universities want to be perceived.

A scene from “Stealing School.” Pictured from left to right, facing the camera: Celine Tsai, Mpho Koaho, Kayleigh Shikanai, Jonathan Keltz and Matthew Edison. Pictured from left to right, with backs toward the camera: Jonathan Malen, Michelle Monteith and Darrin Baker. (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The astutely written “Stealing School” takes an incisive look what can happen when race, class, gender and political correctness collide in a Canadian university that wants to project an image of being progressive and inclusive. The true nature of the movie, just like some of the characters in the story, won’t always match a first impression. “Stealing School” appears to be a straightforward drama, but it’s really a dark satire about the lengths that people will go to to keep up appearances. The story (which takes place at the fictional Dupont University in an unnamed Canadian city) unfolds in layers. Viewers will be kept in riveted suspense to see if the whole truth will eventually be revealed in an investigation over a student accused of committing plagiarism.

Written and directed by Li Dong, “Stealing School” centers on an academic tribunal to determine if Dupont undergraduate student April Chen (played by Celine Tsai) will be able to pass her political science class. April is a computer science major who is a week away from graduating from Dupont. The reason for the tribunal is because April has been accused of plagiarism in an important political science assignment. The political science class is one of the liberal-arts classes that April is required to take in order to graduate. If the three-person judging panel at the tribunal decides that April is guilty of plagiarism, she’ll fail the class and won’t be able to graduate.

The class’ ambitious teaching assistant Keith Ward (played by Jonathan Keltz), who is a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s political science department, brought the suspected plagiarism to the attention of the university and filed the formal complaint against April. Keith is also the one who has appointed himself the lead person to present the case against April. He’s taking this responsibility as seriously as a prosecutor in a criminal trial. Meanwhile, April has vehemently declared that she is not guilty and she’s going to vigorously defend herself.

Sitting next to Keith during the tribunal is his reluctant supervisor Professor Alan Thornton (played by Matthew Edison), who doesn’t really want to be there. Professor Thornton is annoyed with Keith because Keith went behind Professor Thornton’s back to file the complaint against April. Professor Thornton went along and signed off on the complaint because he didn’t want to look ignorant about what was going on with April’s assignment, which Professor Thornton had tasked Keith to look over and grade.

At the tribunal, April has someone on her side who definitely wants to be there. Sitting next to her at is undergraduate student Micah Shaw (played by Mpho Koaho), who is a volunteer in the student advocacy department. Micah has aspirations to go to law school. And based on what he says in the movie’s conversations, he’s more inclined to become a defense attorney than to work for plaintiffs. Just like Keith, Micah has the type of personality where he wants to be the one to stand up in front of a room and take the lead in presenting a case.

The three people on the judging panel who will decide April’s fate are Josh Bertier (played by Jonathan Malen), an undergraduate student in the computer science department; recently hired Dupont University bureaucrat Deborah Lewis (played by Michelle Monteith), whose title is academic integrity officer; and Professor Richard Gould (played by Darrin Baker) from the political science department. Because the tribunal is being held so close to the end of the academic school year, the three panelists are a little restless and want to get these proceedings over with as soon as possible. It also doesn’t help that the air conditioner in the room doesn’t seem to be working on this sweltering day.

Bit by bit, several things are revealed about all of the people in this tension-filled room. Many of the people have personal agendas that affect the way that they act and what they say in public and private. For example (and this isn’t spoiler information), Professor Gould and Professor Thornton have known each other since they attended the same grad school together. But they have a distant relationship because Professor Gould suspects that Professor Thornton wrote an insulting letter to university officials about Professor Gould to urge the university not to give tenure to Professor Gould. Whoever wrote the letter failed in the attempt to smear Professor Gould, because he ended up getting tenure.

During a break in the tribunal proceedings, Professor Gould (who is normally mild-mannered) angrily confronts Professor Thornton in the hallway about that letter. All of his pent-up anger comes out, but Professor Thornton denies that he wrote the letter. Is Professor Gould being paranoid? Or is he correct in assuming that Professor Thornton wrote the letter? And how will this grudge affect Professor Gould’s decision in April’s case?

Meanwhile, during certain breaks in the proceedings, April (who comes from a Chinese immigrant family) talks to her mother (voiced by Celest Chong) on the phone because her mother keeps calling in excitement over April’s graduation. It’s revealed that 12 people in April’s family will be traveling to the university for her graduation. April has a very promising future. She’s a computer science whiz who created a publishing platform that was bought by a company called Snakeskin. And she already has a job lined up at an unnamed Silicon Valley company.

A series of flashbacks tell more of the story. These flashbacks go as far back as two years before the tribunal and as recently as three days before the tribunal. Private conversations with some of the characters reveal some of their conscious and unconscious biases. For example, Josh (the computer science student on the tribunal judging panel) tells someone that there’s no shortage of Asian people in the computer science department, with his tone of voice suggesting that by “no shortage,” he really means “too many.” Josh also tells the same person that April is a “unicorn” because not she’s a good-looking woman who works in computer science.

In another flashback, academic integrity officer Deborah is seen in her first day on the job having a nervous and awkward conversation with her immediate supervisor Irene McDonnell (played by Adrienne Wilson), who is the assistant vice president of academic operations. Irene invites Deborah to an upcoming dinner that will be attended by potential donors. It’s implied but not said out loud that these potential donors are from non-Western countries.

Irene tells Deborah that American universities aren’t as welcoming of non-Westerners are Canadian universities are. “We’re better than that,” Irene says haughtily of what she thinks is American universities’ bigotry. Irene also tells Debora that it’s important that the potential donors get the impression that Dupont is welcoming to people from non-Western countries.

Several witnesses are called during the tribunal, which takes place in one day. The witnesses include April’s roommate Kelly Nakashima (played by Kayleigh Shikanai); computer science professor Tim Mistry (played by Sugith Varughese); April’s writing coach Mark Lin (played by Andy Yu); and professional essay writer Elisha Sinclair (played by Clare McConnell), who freely admits that students pay her to write their school assignments. They all provide some level of comic relief when they say things that the judging panel doesn’t expect.

“Stealing School” has some sly commentary on the perceived value of a college degree. When university official Deborah asks essay writer-for-hire Elisha at the end of Elisha’s testimony: “Why do you help students cheat? Is it because you need the money?” Elisha has this snappy response: “No, we’re both shilling overpriced pieces of paper to kids too. Yours just happens to say ‘diploma’ at the top.”

One of the flashbacks reveals that a Dupont student named Russ Kasdan (played by Vas Saranga), a journalist for the university’s student newspaper, has heard about this confidential tribunal. Russ has been snooping around to try to get information about the tribunal for a potentially damaging exposé article that he plans to write for the newspaper. Someone in that tribunal ends up leaking valuable information to Russ, and this leak might or might not affect the outcome of the panel’s decision. In addition, there’s a room in the building with a ventilator where conversations can be heard from the nearby restrooms, unbeknownst to the people in the restrooms. And yes, there are are some interesting eavesdropping scenes in this movie.

“Stealing School” has some subtle and not-so-subtle depictions of power dynamics that have to do with race and gender. When Micah advises April to not testify on her own behalf and that he will speak for her, April angrily responds: “Can you please stop coddling me? I’m not a victim. I’m simply innocent.” It’s left open to interpretation if Micah would be that patronizing if April were a man.

Likewise, Adam is aggressive in his “prosecution” of April. He openly expresses hostility toward April and appears to resent that she has a cushy job lined up while he’s a low-paid grad student whose employment future is less certain. There are times when Adam acts like he thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. It’s left open to interpretation if Adam feels emboldened in acting like an “angry white man” because he knows it’s more socially accepted than if a woman or person of color acted in the same combative and arrogant way that he does.

Although all the characters in the movie play some role in the outcome of the tribunal, the biggest power struggle is between April and Adam. Their showdown is fascinating to watch because it’s clear that this battle is more than about who wins or who loses. It’s also about how they each feel that the outcome is a reflection of how the university treats students like them. Therefore, their racial and gender identities can’t help but be part of the equation in how April and Adam feel that they will be judged.

Because the showdown between these two students is essentially the heart of the story’s conflict, much of “Stealing School” relies on Tsai’s and Keltz’s performances to keep viewers interested. Keltz’s acting at times can be a little too over-the-top, but not excessive enough to ruin the movie. Tsai has the more interesting role and performance, which she handles capably, because April goes through a wider range of emotions than Adam does.

The supporting actors all have performances that range from good to mediocre. The movie’s original screenplay and wise editing choices elevate this movie, whose flashbacks could have made it a messy film if handled incorrectly. “Stealing School” writer/director Dong and cinematographer Jack Yan Chen also bring the right balance between a “bird’s eye”/observant view in some of the scenes that are in public and the “voyeur”/intimate view for the scenes that are in private. Overall, “Stealing School” is an impressive feature-film debut from Dong.

Up to a certain point in the movie, viewers will be kept guessing if April is guilty of what’s she’s been accused of doing. Although she’s the one being judged, “Stealing School” is really a clever and somewhat snarky indictment of academic institutions and how “political correctness” can be used as a weapon to cut both ways. And the movie sends a message that first impressions aren’t always the correct impressions.

Vertical Entertainment released “Stealing School” on U.S. digital and VOD platforms on February 26, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom in 2020.

Review: ‘The Seventh Day’ (2021), starring Guy Pearce, Vadhir Derbez and Stephen Lang

April 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Vadhir Derbez, Guy Pearce and Brady Jenness in “The Seventh Day” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Seventh Day”

Directed by Justin P. Lange

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans and briefly in Baltimore, the horror film “The Seventh Day” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos, Asians and African Americans) representing Catholic clergy and middle-class citizens.

Culture Clash: Two Catholic priests who hunt demons try to perform an exorcism on a 12-year-old boy who’s accused of murdering his parents and 16-year-old sister. 

Culture Audience: “The Seventh Day” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching dull and mindless horror movies about exorcisms.

Guy Pearce in “The Seventh Day” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

An exorcism patient who’s strapped to a bed probably has more fun than anyone who watches this tedious train wreck of a horror film until the movie’s very ludicrous end. “The Seventh Day” (written and directed by Justin P. Lange) also has an awkward mix of experienced, more talented actors with less-experienced, less-talented actors whose lack of talent further lowers the quality of this already substandard movie. It’s the type of forgettable horror flick that’s heavy on gore but unbearably light on an interesting, well-crafted story.

“The Seventh Day” begins with a flashback to Baltimore on October 8, 1995. A middle-aged priest named Father Louis (played by Keith David) is getting ready to travel somewhere with a priest in his 20s named Father Peter Costello (played by Chris Galust), who is Father Louis’ protégé. The two priests are going to an exorcism in Baltimore on the same day that Pope John Paul II was visiting the city. (The movie includes archival footage of this visit.)

Father Louis says in a voiceover: “It chose today of all days. The Holy Father, a mere stone’s throw away. I suspect that’s no coincidence.” What is the “it” that this priest is talking about? The demon that these priests are hunting, course.

Father Louis then tells Father Peter: “I fear that this one will be different from the others. This one seems to have a purpose.” Too bad this movie doesn’t seem to have a purpose except to badly recycle ideas from other exorcism movies.

And then Father Peter says, “Soon, Peter. I promise. I have complete faith in you.” This is the type of simplistic dialogue that’s littered throughout the movie. Viewers of this dreck will soon lose faith that it will get any better.

Father Louis and Father Peter are overseeing the exorcism of a boy named Nicholas “Nicky” Miller (played by Tristan Riggs), who’s about 12 or 13, with Nicky’s parents (played by Heath Freeman and Hannah Alline) also in attendance. Nicky is strapped to a bed. Because Father Louis is training Father Peter to be an exorcism master, Father Peter is leading this particular exorcism session.

As Father Louis says the Lord’s Prayer, the lights in the room start to flicker. And then little Nicky starts to talk like a man trying to sound like a demon. A possessed Nicky blurts out this insult to Father Peter: “You look lost, you dumb animal! You should find yourself a new shepherd!” Is this demon supposed to be terrifying or is this demon trying out someone’s rejected lines in a stand-up comedy insult act?

It might be bad comedy, not horror, because Nicky then shouts, “Smile like you’ve never done before!” His face (through some cheesy visual effects) then contorts into a bloody grin that would make “It” evil clown villain Pennywise laugh at the absurdity of it all.

All hell then breaks loose. The crucifix necklace around Mrs. Miller’s neck is snatched away by an unseen force quicker than a drag queen can snatch a wig. The crucifix is thrown across the room, right into the jugular veins of Father Louis’ neck. This injury then causes Father Louis to bleed to death, right there in the room, in the time it would take for Pennywise to let out one of his famous giggles. That was quick.

But that’s not all. Nicky’s skin on his arms starts to burn until his whole body bursts into flames. It’s one of the more gruesome scenes in the movie. Meanwhile, the Pope is visiting “a mere stone’s throw away” in Baltimore, and no one in the room bothers to ask, “Where’s the Pope when you need him?”

“The Seventh Day” then fast-forwards to the present day in New Orleans. Father Peter (played by Guy Pearce) is now a jaded, middle-aged clergyman. He’s in a meeting with an unnamed archbishop (played by Stephen Lang), who wants Father Peter to train a young priest named Father Daniel Garcia (played by Vadhir Derbez) to become a master exorcist. Father Daniel is called into the room, not knowing that he’s about to become an exorcist protégé.

As the archbishop explains to Father Daniel, they are part of a small secret society of Catholic clergy who still provide training on how to perform exorcisms. According to the archbishop, the Vatican adopted a negative attitude toward exorcism and stopped teaching exorcism rites. And now, only a “handful, no more than a dozen” Catholic clergy secretly train for and perform exorcisms.

The archbishop tells Father Daniel, “You need to know that Father Peter trained with the very best. And I feel, in my heart, that I’m putting you into the right hands.” The archbishop describes the late Father Louis as the “most revered” exorcist in this secret society. The archbishop, who knows about the botched exorcism that killed Father Louis, conveniently doesn’t tell Father Daniel about this messy tragedy.

The archbishop might feel that he’s putting Father Daniel in the right hands, but Father Peter isn’t as open to the idea of taking on this new trainee. At first, Father Peter is cold and condescending to Father Daniel and treats him more like an altar boy who’s supposed to do errands. At one point in the meeting, Father Peter orders Father Daniel to go across the street to get Father Peter some coffee.

And so begins Father Peter and Father Daniel’s training session, where they travel by car together in search of some pesky demons to expel. It has all the makings of a formulaic movie about a cynical and gruff older cop who’s assigned to mentor/train a naïve and eager-to-please younger cop—except that Father Peter and Father Daniel have crucifixes, not guns, as their weapons.

One of the first things that Father Peter tells Father Daniel is that he doesn’t like wearing a formal clergy uniform because it can intimidate some of the people with whom they interact. Father Peter’s preferred fashion style makes him look more like an angst-filled, scruffy liberal-arts college professor, with a well-worn plaid blazer and a chain-smoking habit as part of that image. It takes a little while for Father Daniel to loosen up in his wardrobe choices, but he eventually starts to wear more casual clothing when he’s with Father Peter, except when they want to use their priesthood to get certain privileges.

As they spend more time together, Father Peter warms up to Father Daniel and opens up a little bit more to Father Daniel about his past. He tells Father Daniel about the horrific exorcism of Nicky Miller and that Nicky burst into flames and died. Father Peter says that he’s still haunted by this tragedy. Meanwhile, Father Daniel won’t tell Father Peter much about himself. When Father Peter asks Father Daniel why he wants to become an exorcist, Father Daniel doesn’t really give an answer.

Before Father Peter and Father Daniel find out about the big exorcism that they have to do in this story, there’s a nonsensical scene of the two priests encountering a demon at a run-down area where homeless people live. They stop in the area, since Father Peter seems to know a homeless charity worker named Helen (played by Robin Bartlett), who is there to distribute some food.

Upon arrival, the two priests see a homeless man named George (played by Acoryé White) chanting out loud while standing over a cylinder garbage can whose contents have been lit on fire. As Father Peter and Father Daniel get closer to the man, Father Daniel brings out a rosary and prays. George reacts as if Father Daniel is the crazy one.

Suddenly, Helen cries out in pain and a wind-like explosion happens that knocks everyone out except for someone who’s become possessed by a demon. (Take a wild guess if it’s George or Helen.) The two priests manage to exorcise the demon in the most mundane and predictable way possible. There’s really nothing terrifying about this scene. Besides, there’s another exorcism in the movie that’s supposed to be scarier but it’s even more ridiculous.

Charlie Giroux (played by Brady Jenness) is a 12-year-old boy who’s going on trial for the murder of his parents and 16-year-old sister. For now, he’s being kept in solitary confinement in a juvenile detention center. And so, Father Peter and Father Daniel naturally want to find out if this boy is possessed by the devil.

They use their status as priests to visit Charlie at the detention center. However, Father Peter thinks Father Daniel should learn how to do these interviews on his own, so Father Peter usually waits outside while Father Daniel talks to Charlie. Thus begins a tiresome and repetitive slog in the movie: Father Daniel does a series of interviews with Charlie, who tells the priest that he keeps having visions of strange men crawling on his chest until he can’t breathe. At one point, Charlie does the inevitable hissing “demon child” attack on Father Daniel, just in case it wasn’t clear that Charlie needs an exorcism.

There are also some distractions to stretch out the already thin plot. Father Daniel suddenly shows that he’s got psychic abilities, so he’s able to vividly see what happened in the Giroux house and what led up to the murders. And so, that leads to scenes of Father Daniel being a ghost-like voyeur in the house, where he spies on some family arguments. It explains the type of relationships that Charlie had with his father (played by Major Dodge), his mother (played by Stephanie Rhodes) and his sister Nellie (played by Evangeline Griffin) before the murders happened.

And there’s a very unnecessary and badly written scene of Father Peter and Father Daniel interviewing some kids who around Charlie’s age at a hangout called Skate City, where the priests and the kids use a ouija board. And somehow, even though these two priests are not psychiatrists or lawyers and have no reason to be involved in Charlie’s murder case, Father Peter and Father Daniel have convinced the cops to let them watch while the police interrogate Charlie.

Longtime actors Pearce, Lang and David have considerable talent that is wasted in this junkpile movie. Fortunately for David, who has the unfortunate role of a priest killed by a crucifix necklace, he isn’t in the movie for very long. Lang has a mediocre supporting role that only gets a few scenes.

Pearce seems to know he’s in a terrible movie and makes an effort to bring some personality to a character that’s written as very hollow. Father David has a much more lackluster personality. Together, Father Peter and Father David are a dreadfully monotonous duo.

This horrendous movie is made worse by Derbez’s wooden acting and Jenness’ hammy over-acting. And because Derbez and Jenness share several scenes together, it makes for a lot of embarrassingly bad moments that are hard to watch. A more effective director should have been able to prevent this clumsy mismatch of actors by making better casting choices.

“The Seventh Day” writer/director Lange makes the same mistakes that a lot of directors of terrible horror movies make: They spend more time on violent mayhem and visual effects (none of which are that good in this film) and neglect the elements of telling a captivating and suspenseful story. The casting in this movie doesn’t work well, and there’s a plot twist which is predictable and obvious to anyone paying attention. It might be hard to pay attention though because “The Seventh Day” is so mind-numbingly boring that it might put people to sleep.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Seventh Day” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on March 26, 2021.