Movie and TV Reviews

Reviews for New Movies Released June 26 – July 9, 2020

All I Can Say (Photo by Shannon Hoon)
Desperados (Photo by Cate Cameron/Netflix)
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)
House of Hummingbird (Photo courtesy of Epiphany Films)
Irresistible (Photo by Daniel McFadden/Focus Features)
My Spy (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)
No Small Matter (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)
The Outpost (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)
Run With the Hunted (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
Skyman (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)
Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)
The Truth (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Complete List of Reviews

1BR — horror

2/1 — drama

2 Graves in the Desert — drama

17 Blocks — documentary

37 Seconds — drama

The 420 Movie (2020) — comedy

2040 — documentary

7500 — drama

Aamis — drama

Abe — drama

Advocate — documentary

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

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

Amazing Grace — documentary

American Woman — drama

And Then We Danced — drama

The Apollo — documentary

Artemis Fowl — fantasy

Ask for Jane — drama

The Assistant — drama

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

Athlete A — documentary

Babyteeth — drama

Bacurau — drama

Bad Boys for Life — action

Bad Education — drama

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

Banana Split — comedy

Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art — documentary

Beanpole — drama

Beastie Boys Story — documentary

Becoming — documentary

Behind You — horror

Beneath Us — horror

Big Time Adolescence — comedy/drama

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

Blessed Child — documentary

Blood and Money — drama

Blood on Her Name — drama

Bloodshot (2020) — sci-fi/action

Blow the Man Down — drama

Blue Story — drama

Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island — horror

Body Cam — horror

The Booksellers — documentary

The Boys (premiere episode) — drama

Brahms: The Boy II — horror

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists — documentary

Buffaloed — comedy

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

Burden — drama

Burning Cane — drama

The Burnt Orange Heresy — drama

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

Call Your Mother — documentary

Cane River — drama

Capone — drama

Castle in the Ground — drama

Changing the Game — documentary

Circus of Books — documentary

The Clearing (2020) — horror

Clementine — drama

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

Clover — drama

Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert — documentary

Coffee & Kareem — comedy

Color Out of Space — sci-fi/horror

Come as You Are (2020)  — comedy

Come to Daddy — horror

The Cordillera of Dreams — documentary

Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words — documentary

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution — documentary

Crown Vic — drama

CRSHD — comedy

Da 5 Bloods — drama

Daddy Issues (2020) — comedy

Dads — documentary

Dangerous Lies — drama

A Day in the Life of America — documentary

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

Decade of Fire — documentary

The Deeper You Dig — horror

The Delicacy — documentary

Desolation Center — documentary

Desperados — comedy

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 Reef — documentary

Dosed — documentary

Downhill — comedy

Dreamland — drama

Driveways — drama

Elephant (2020) — documentary

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things — documentary

Emma (2020) — comedy/drama

End of Sentence — drama

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

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga — comedy

Exit Plan — drama

Extraction (2020) — action

A Fall From Grace — drama

First Cow — drama

Flipped (2020) — comedy

For They Know Not What They Do — documentary

Framing John DeLorean — documentary

Ganden: A Joyful Land — documentary

The Gasoline Thieves — drama

Gay Chorus Deep South — documentary

The Gentlemen — action

Get Gone — horror

The Ghost of Peter Sellers — documentary

Goldie — drama

Good Posture — comedy

Greed — comedy/drama

Gretel & Hansel — horror

The Grudge (2020) — horror

The Half of It — comedy

Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics — documentary

He Dreams of Giants — documentary

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

The High Note — comedy/drama

Holly Slept Over — comedy

Hooking Up — comedy

Hope Gap — drama

Horse Girl — sci-fi/drama

The Host (2020) — horror

House of Hummingbird — drama

How to Build a Girl — comedy

Human Capital — drama

Human Nature (2020) — documentary

The Hunt — horror

I Am Human — documentary

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

I Am Vengeance: Retaliation — action

I Hate the Man in My Basement — drama

I Still Believe — drama

I Want My MTV — documentary

I Will Make You Mine — drama

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me — documentary

Impractical Jokers: The Movie — comedy

In the Footsteps of Elephant — documentary

Incitement — drama

Infamous (2020) — drama

The Infiltrators — docudrama

Initials SG — drama

Inna De Yard: The Soul of Jamaica — documentary

The Invisible Man (2020) — horror

Irresistible (2020) — comedy

It Takes a Lunatic — documentary

Jay Myself — documentary

John Henry — action

Judy & Punch — drama

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

Kill the Monsters — drama

The Kill Team (2019) — drama

The Kindness of Strangers — drama

The King of Staten Island — comedy/drama

The Last Full Measure — drama

Leftover Women — documentary

Les Misérables (2019) — drama

Like a Boss — comedy

Limerence — comedy

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice — documentary

The Lodge — horror

The Longest Wave — documentary

Los Últimos Frikis — documentary

Lost Bayou — drama

Lost Transmissions — drama

Love Wedding Repeat — comedy

The Lovebirds — comedy

Low Tide — drama

Lucky Grandma — action

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

Martha: A Picture Story — documentary

Martin Margiela: In His Own Words — documentary

Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back — documentary

Military Wives — comedy/drama

The Mindfulness Movement — documentary

Miss Americana — documentary

Most Dangerous Game — 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 Darling Vivian — documentary

My Spy — comedy

Mystify: Michael Hutchence — documentary

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind — documentary

Never Rarely Sometimes Always — drama

No Small Matter — documentary

Noah Land — drama

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin — documentary

Olympic Dreams — comedy/drama

On the Record — documentary

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band — documentary

Only — sci-fi/drama

Onward — animation

Open — drama

Ordinary Love — drama

The Other Lamb — drama

Other Music — documentary

Otherhood — comedy

Our Time Machine — documentary

Out of Blue — drama

The Outpost — drama

The Painter and the Thief — documentary

Parkland Rising — documentary

A Patient Man — drama

The Photograph — drama

Picture Character — documentary

The Place of No Words — drama

Plucked — documentary

Plus One (2019) — comedy

The Pollinators — documentary

Premature (2020) — drama

The Price of Desire — drama

Public Enemy Number One — documentary

The Quiet One — documentary

Raising Buchanan — comedy

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project — documentary

A Regular Woman — drama

The Rescue List — documentary

Resistance — drama

Rewind — documentary

The Rhythm Section — action

Ride Like a Girl — drama

Robert the Bruce — drama

Run With the Hunted — drama

Runner — documentary

Saint Frances — comedy/drama

The Scheme — 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

A Secret Love — documentary

See Know Evil — documentary

See You Yesterday — sci-fi/drama

Selah and the Spades — drama

Sergio (2020) — drama

Shadows of Freedom — documentary

Shirley — drama

The Short History of the Long Road — drama

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

A Simple Wedding — comedy

Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons — documentary

Skyman — sci-fi/drama

Slay the Dragon — documentary

Sometimes Always Never — comedy/drama

The Sonata — horror

Sonic the Hedgehog — live-action/animation

Sorry We Missed You — drama

Spaceship Earth — documentary

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

Standing Up, Falling Down — comedy/drama

Stevenson Lost & Found — documentary

The Story of Soaps — documentary

The Stranger (Quibi original) — drama

Stray Dolls — drama

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

Sublime — documentary

The Surrogate — drama

Survive — drama

Swallow — drama

Tape — drama

A Taste of Sky — documentary

The Thing About Harry  — comedy

This Is Personal — documentary

This Is Stand-Up — documentary

A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy — documentary

The Times of Bill Cunningham — documentary

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made  — comedy

To Kid or Not to Kid — documentary

Tommaso — drama

The Trip to Greece — comedy

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts — documentary

Trolls World Tour — animation

Troop Zero — comedy

The Truth — drama

The Turning (2020) — horror

Tyson — documentary

Unbelievable (premiere episode) — drama

Uncaged (also titled Prey) – horror

Uncorked — drama

Underwater — sci-fi/horror

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

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own — documentary

Valley Girl (2020) — musical

The Vast of Night — sci-fi/drama

Vas-y Coupe! — documentary

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations — documentary

Vivarium — sci-fi/drama

Watson — documentary

The Way Back (2020) — drama

Weathering With You — animation

What Will Become of Us — documentary

What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali — documentary

When the Streetlights Go On — drama

The Whistlers — drama

A White, White Day — drama

Wig — documentary

The Windermere Children — drama

The Wolf House — animation

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

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation — documentary

The Wretched — horror

The Wrong Missy — comedy

XY Chelsea — documentary

You Don’t Nomi — documentary

You Go to My Head — drama

You Should Have Left — horror

Zombi Child — horror

Review: ‘The Outpost,’ starring Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones and Orlando Bloom

July 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Caleb Landry Jones (second from right) and Scott Eastwood (far right) in “The Outpost” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“The Outpost”

Directed by Rod Lurie

Culture Representation: Based on real events and taking place in northern Afghanistan in 2009, the war drama “The Outpost” features a racially diverse (white, African American, Asian, Latino and one Native American) and almost-all male cast portraying members of the U.S. Army, Afghanistan natives and Pakistani Taliban fighters.

Culture Clash: During the war in Afghanistan, a group of U.S. Army soldiers stationed at a remote outpost come under attack by Taliban terrorists.

Culture Audience: “The Outpost” will appeal to primarily to people who like war movies that realistically portray the terrifying battles and deep emotional toll that war can take on people who fight on the front lines.

Orlando Bloom in “The Outpost” (Photo by Simon  Varsano/Screen Media Films)

Based on a true story, the effective drama “The Outpost” recreates the Afghanistan War’s Battle of Kamdesh (also known as the Battle of Outpost Keating) that took place on October 3, 2009, in such brutal and realistic detail, that some viewers watching it might feel as if they’ve gone through an emotional war zone just by seeing this movie. The battle doesn’t take place until halfway through this 123-minute movie. But by then, viewers get a sense of what life in the outpost was like for those involved before some of their lives were tragically lost.

Capably directed by Rod Lurie, “The Outpost” begins with this on-screen text to give viewers a historical view of the story in the movie: “In 2006, the U.S. Army established a series of outposts in northern Afghanistan to promote counterinsurgency. The intent was to connect with the locals and to stop the flow of weapons and Taliban fighters from Pakistan.”

One of those outposts was PRT Kamdesh, a relatively small station that was located at the bottom of a valley surrounded by the Hindu Kush Mountains. The location was remote and an easy “sitting duck” target if attackers wanted to use the mountain range as the perfect position to fire guns and bombs down below. And that’s exactly what happened when about 400 Taliban fighters ambushed the approximately 54 U.S. Army men who were stationed at the outpost.

Before that happened, the movie shows the different personalities of several of the Army men at the outpost, as well as the culture that the Army was trying to establish while these U.S. military personnel were living among Afghan civilians. There are multiple scenes of the captain of the team trying to keep the peace with an increasingly frustrated and suspicious group of locals, led by Afghan elders, who are slightly appeased when they are offered money by the U.S. military to help build schools in the area.

Paranoia and tensions run high at the outpost and the nearby communities. The U.S. soldiers capture a young Afghan man taking photos of the outpost, and they temporarily hold him for questioning. The local Afghan people consider it to be a kidnapping.

And although U.S. military men at the outpost have Afghan men helping with translating and acting as lookouts, many of the locals start to feel disrespected by the American soldiers. Some of the soldiers are arrogantly skeptical of a local Afghan man who keeps warning them that Taliban fighters will soon come to attack the outpost.

Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson adapted the movie’s screenplay from the nonfiction book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” which was written by CNN anchor Jake Tapper. (Tapper is also one of the executive producers of “The Outpost” movie. The end of the movie also includes clips of CNN interviews that Tapper did with some of the surviving soldiers.)

There are numerous military men in the story, but some are written as more distinct than others. Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (played by Scott Eastwood) is the quintessential “good guy” soldier who, for the most part, gets along with everyone. Staff Sergeant Ty Carter (played by Caleb Landry Jones) is the group’s misfit loner.

First Lieutenant Benjamin Keating (played by Orlando Bloom) is the no-nonsense leader of the outpost. He expresses his intentions by telling his team, “We need to keep a good relationship with the locals. Respect keeps us safe.”

Another example of Keating’s leadership skills shows that he can be tough but merciful. In one scene, Keating admonishes a young soldier named Ed Faulkner (played by Will Attenborough) for smoking too much hashish.  Faulkner denies that he’s addicted to hashish, but Keating disagrees. Rather than docking Faulkner’s salary (because Keating says that money eventually doesn’t mean much to soldiers at war), Keating demotes Faulkner to the ranking of private, and tells Faulkner that this is his last chance to clean up his act.

As with any large group of people who work together, there is camaraderie and there is conflict. During the good times, the men party together and share stories of their loved ones at home. Tension-filled arguments sometimes turn into physical fights, such as when hotheaded Staff Sergeant Justin T. Gallegos (played by Jacob Scipio) angrily kicks and pushes down Private First Class Zorias Yunger (played by Alfie Stewart) for shooting bullets too close to Gallegos’ head.

And sometimes the cruelty to each other is emotional, such as when Carter is ridiculed and disrespected by some of his fellow soldiers for being a little bit of an oddball. (Carter’s eccentric ways include wearing shorts during combat.) Stephan Mace (played by Chris Born) is one of the soldiers who gives Carter a hard time.

A lot of things happen in “The Outpost” can’t be described in detail because it’s spoiler information for people who don’t know the whole story. However, it should come as no surprise that several of the men don’t make it out alive. The Taliban attack is portrayed in horrifying detail, but even among the terror, there’s a lot of inspiring bravery.

As the “misfit” Carter, Jones is the clear standout actor in the movie, particularly in the second half of the film. The dialogue in “The Outpost” isn’t very memorable, but some of the scenes were obviously written as an admirable effort to show these military men as individuals, instead of blending them all together as a generic group.

For example, there’s a sequence that shows all of the men calling home, and viewers see snippets of each and every one of their conversations. It’s a great way of showing their individuality and to give a glimpse into their personal lives. And there are small touches of humor in this serious movie, such as when a soldier holds a photo of a special female and tells another soldier that when he gets home, he can’t wait to hold and kiss her—and then it’s revealed that the female in the photo is the soldier’s dog.

Lorenzo Senatore’s immersive cinematography for “The Outpost” also makes it one of the best war movies released in 2020. In addition, the film makes a bold statement at the end by not doing the war-movie cliché conclusion of showing people being awarded medals, but instead by showing how one of the surviving heroes is wracked with survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people skip watching the end credits of a movie, but it’s worth sticking around for all of the end credits for “The Outpost.” And for viewers who get teary-eyed during realistic war movies, it might help to have some tissues nearby.

Screen Media Films released “The Outpost” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 3, 2020.

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

July 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

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

“Desperados”

Directed by LP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netflix premiered “Desperados” on July 3, 2020

Review: ‘The Truth,’ starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke

July 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alain Libolt, Juliette Binoche, Christian Crahay, Catherine Deneuve, Ethan Hawke and Clémentine Grenier in “The Truth” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Truth”

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “The Truth” features a nearly all-white cast (with some Asians briefly shown as extras) representing the upper-class/wealthy and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A screenwriter has a troubled relationship with her famous actress mother and confronts some of these issues while visiting her mother in Paris.

Culture Audience: “The Truth” will appeal primarily to people who like emotionally realistic arthouse cinema.

Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche in “The Truth” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

When filmmakers do a story about a vain and spoiled famous actress who has a difficult love/hate relationship with a daughter living in her shadow, the results are usually comedy (such as 1990’s “Postcards From the Edge) or camp (such as 1981’s “Mommie Dearest”). “The Truth” is neither. Instead, this well-acted, well-written movie is a drama that authentically shows the dynamics and tensions of a family affected by fame, career ambitions and public image.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Shoplifters”) wrote and directed “The Truth,” which is his first movie filmed outside of Japan. The story is essentially an emotional tug of war between legendary actress Fabienne Dangeville (played by Catherine Deneuve) and her screenwriter daughter Lumir (played by Juliette Binoche), as they come to terms with their relationship and how it was affected by Fabienne’s actress rival Sarah Mondavan, who died 40 years earlier.

Lumir lives in New York City with her American actor husband Hank (played by Ethan Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. All three of them go to Paris to visit with Fabienne, who has recently released her memoir, which is called “The Truth.” In addition to promoting the book, Fabienne is busy filming a new movie.

Lumir has ostensibly come to Paris to celebrate the release of the book, which is a bestseller in France, but it’s clear that Lumir is also there to possibly finished some unsettled business with her mother. One of the first things that Lumir does when she sees her mother again is confront Fabienne about not sending her the book’s manuscript before it was published.

Lumir reminds Fabienne that Fabienne had promised that Lumir would be the first person to read the manuscript. However, Fabienne insists that she did sent the manuscript to Lumir, and Fabienne claims to have no idea why Lumir never received it.

And it seems as if Fabienne has a version of the truth that contrasts with her daughter’s. In the memoir, Fabienne talks about picking up Lumir from school when Lumir was a child. However, Lumir says her mother never did any such thing because Fabienne was always too busy. “My memories, my book,” Fabienne responds dismissively.

During the course of the movie, it becomes clear that a lot of this mother-daughter tension has to do with unresolved issues that both women have over Sarah, who is never seen in this movie. At one time, Sarah’s and Fabienne’s acting careers were thriving and were approximately on the same level. But Fabienne ended up getting major fame and accolades that eclipsed Sarah, who died in a drowning that was officially ruled an accident.

Lumir has a lot of resentment toward her mother over Sarah’s death because while Fabienne was caught up in her career, she often neglected Lumir as a child, while Sarah was a devoted mother figure to Lumir. Meanwhile, Fabienne and Sarah had been competing for the same role in a movie, and the role was presumed to be going to Sarah.

However, Fabienne (by her own admission) slept with the director and got the role instead. Fabienne won a César Award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for the role, and her relationship with Sarah was never the same again. It’s implied, but not stated outright, that Sarah’s death might have been a suicide, not an accident, because she was devastated by Fabienne’s betrayal. Lumir is also upset with Fabienne because Fabienne never even mentioned Sarah in Fabienne’s memoir.

The movie that Fabienne is working on during Lumir’s visit is a sci-fi drama called “Memories of My Mother.” In the film, a terminally ill woman goes to outer space to try and extend her life, and she leaves her teenage daughter behind on Earth.  When the woman comes back to Earth after seven years of being away, she has barely aged, while she finds out that her teenage daughter is now an old woman. Fabienne plays the old woman, while an up-and-coming actress named Manon (played by Manon Clavel) has the role of the mother who’s barely aged.

Fabienne’s long-suffering personal assistant/butler Luc (Alain Libolt) tells Lumir that the main reason why Fabienne wanted to do the movie is because Manon has the starring role and because the media and public have been constantly comparing Manon to Sarah. Not only has Manon been dubbed the “second coming of Sarah Mondavan,” but her speaking voice sounds remarkably like Sarah’s.

Luc invites Lumir and her family to Epinay Studios, where the movie is being filmed. Lumir can’t help but be intrigued, so she readily accepts the invitation. The “movie within a movie” concept is masterfully delivered here to show how life can imitate art and art can imitate life. (Fabienne’s fear of aging and Fabienne being distant for years from her daughter are obvious parallels to the story in “Memories of My Mother.”) While watching her mother on this film set, Lumir observes firsthand how much Fabienne is still set in her ways and is using the movie to work out some issues that Fabienne had with Sarah.

Fabienne is every inch the self-centered diva, but she also has a very charming side that draws people to her and keeps people fascinated by her. It’s one of the reasons why Luc has been working for her for more than 40 years, but even his steadfast loyalty is tested during the course of the movie. Luc knows the history of how Fabienne and Lumir’s relationship was affected by their respective relationships with Sarah.

Although the supporting actors in “The Truth” do a very good job with their roles, this movie is really a showcase for Deneuve and Binoche. Deneuve has the more complicated, less transparent role, and she plays it to the hilt without being melodramatic. Binoche gives a quivery-mouth, teary-eyed vulnerability to Lumir, but she also shows that Lumir is no pushover when she expresses how she feels and stands up to her mother’s attempted manipulations.

Charlotte is a typical adorable kid, while Hank is mainly there as a supportive husband. He respects his wife’s wishes to stay out of the conflict between Fabienne and Lumir. In the beginning of the story, Fabienne (who has not seen Frank since his and Lumir’s wedding) seems to show that she doesn’t have much respect for Frank, but she eventually warms up to him when she sees that he’s not going to criticize her in the way that Lumir is intent on doing.

When Frank, Lumir and Charlotte first arrive at Fabienne’s home, she has just finished being interviewed by a print journalist. When the journalist observes that she has visitors at her door, Fabienne says, “It’s nothing. It’s my daughter and her little family.” And when she talks about Frank, she says calling him an “actor” is “saying a lot.”

It turns out that Frank really is a working actor in movies, but he’s not an actor who’s had a leading role yet. He’s taken a vow not to drink alcohol until he gets a leading role, but that vow is quickly broken during the visit with Fabienne. It’s not too much of a surprise, since a lot of people would want to get drunk too if they had to be around a difficult mother-in-law like Fabienne.

Much like celebrities in real life who expect the world to revolve around them, the world of “The Truth” also revolves around Fabienne. Viewers of the movie don’t find out much about Lumir and Frank, other than that one of the reasons why Lumir moved to New York was to get away from her mother. But viewers find out a lot of Fabienne.

Fabienne has an enormous fear of being perceived as a has-been. She’s very competitive with other actresses. (And there’s a somewhat meta moment with Deneuve when Bridget Bardot’s name is mentioned in one scene.) She loves dogs and hates cats. She has an old turtle in her backyard garden that she’s named Pierre, after her ex-husband (Lumir), whom she kicked out of her life when she got tired of him.

Fabienne also lied in her memoir by saying that Pierre is dead. Pierre (played by Roger Van Hool) doesn’t find out that Fabienne has literally written him off as dead until he shows up for a surprise visit while Lumir and her family are at Fabienne’s house. Pierre is a laid-back, scruffy type who never really had big career ambitions (he used to work in the film business as an assistant), and he’s obviously faded into reclusive obscurity. And it doesn’t seem to bother him that Fabienne has told the world that he’s dead.

Although he’s of retirement age, Pierre has been vague about how he’s able to make money. And in one of the more amusing scenes in the film, when Pierre first meets Hank, he mistakenly assumes that Hank is a much-younger lover of Fabienne’s. Fabienne does have a lover, but he’s close to her age. His name is Jacques (played by Christian Crahay), and he happens to be Fabienne’s live-in chef, who’s more than happy to be subservient to her in every way.

Fabienne is clearly someone who is accustomed to using men to get what she wants. In one scene in the movie, she even tells Lumir that she’s never apologized to a man. And it’s also obvious that Fabienne is used to treating other women as rivals, since Fabienne wants to be the queen bee at all times. But that selfishness has come at a price.

A recurring symbolism in the movie is of females brushing each other’s hair. Fabienne lets her granddaughter Charlotte brush her hair, and she comments somewhat sadly that Lumir would never let Fabienne brush Lumir’s hair. Later in the story, it’s revealed that Sarah would often brush Lumir’s hair. The brushing of hair is obviously a metaphor for mutual trust and admiration.

The ending of “The Truth” is a little formulaic, but the head games and verbal sparring between mother and daughter are perfectly matched to this movie. It’s not a movie that’s going to change the world, but it’s one that will make people think about the emotional toll that comes from holding grudges against family members and whether or not refusing to forgive is worth the cost.

IFC Films released “The Truth” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on July 3, 2020. The movie was already released in France and in Japan in 2019.

 

Review: ‘Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash,’ starring Ian Shultis, Taylor Clift, Samuel Kay Forrest and Rich Dally III

July 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Taylor Clift (front row, second from right) and Ian Shultis (crouching in blue shirt) in “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

“Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash”

Directed by Jared Cohn

Culture Representation: This dramatic film, which has a nearly all-white cast (with a few African Americans as extras), tells the story of the 1977 plane crash that took the lives of six people, including four people on the team of multiplatinum American rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Culture Clash: Some members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd team had doubts and conflicts about the plane’s safety before it took that fateful flight.

Culture Audience:  Lynyrd Skynyrd fans are the obvious target audience of “Street Survivors,” but the movie should also appeal to people who want to see a dramatic recreation of what happened before, during and after the plane crash, if they can stomach the very graphic and bloody scenes in the movie.

Navarone Garibaldi, Taylor Clift and Samuel Kay Forrest in “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

The tragic story of rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd has been told many times in news reports, feature articles, books and documentaries, including the 2018 documentary film “Lynyrd Skynyrd: If I Leave Here Tomorrow.” Most of these versions of the band’s story respectfully tiptoed around describing the explicit, gory details of what happened during and after the plane crash in 1977 that killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines (Steve’s older sister), assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray. The tragedy occurred because the faulty Convair CV-240 chartered plane ran out of fuel and crashed into a wooded area near Gillsburg, Mississippi, on October 20, 1977.

“Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash” (written and directed by Jared Cohn) does not sugarcoat or gloss over the horrors of the crash. The movie is so graphic with its up-close recreation of the blood, injuries and dead bodies, that this film is bound to disturb and probably anger a lot of people. Is it exploitation?

It would feel completely exploitative if not for that fact that plane-crash survivor Artimus Pyle, who was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s drummer at the time, approved this movie, because the the story is told from his perspective. At various points of the film, Pyle does on-camera narration. As a survivor of this tragedy, Pyle certainly has the right to tell his version of events.

If a Lynyrd Skynyrd plane-crash movie had been made without any of the survivors’ input, it wouldn’t be right at all. But if a survivor, who saved the lives of several of the passengers, signed off on this movie, it’s up to viewers to decide if this dramatic recreation of the plane crash is something that’s worth seeing.

But sensitive viewers should be warned: This is one of the most graphic and disturbing plane-crash movies that you might ever see. It’s not recommended viewing for people who’ve survived an aircraft crash or who have a loved one who’s died in an aircraft crash, because this movie will no doubt be triggering for this type of trauma.

The plane crash is depicted about 50 minutes into this 92-minute film. Pyle opens the film by making this statement: “There have been many variations and accounts and contradictions to this story, but I was there. This was something that shouldn’t have happened, but it did. This is more than the story about the plane crash. It’s about the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the greatest Southern rock band of all time.”

Actually, the movie isn’t really about the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, because very little of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music is in the film. There’s a scene where the actors portraying the band are briefly shown performing “Call Me the Breeze” on stage. The full performance of “Call Me the Breeze” (which is from  Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second album “Second Helping”) is then shown during the end credits.

If people watching this movie are expecting to hear Lynyrd Skynyrd’s greatest hits, then they will be very disappointed. One can assume that this low-budget film didn’t have the money to license the rights to more Lynyrd Skynyrd songs. And that’s probably why the movie does not have a lot of scenes of Lynyrd Skynyrd recording songs or performing live.

And if people are looking for a “rise to fame” story of how Lynyrd Skynyrd went from being unknown musicians based in Tallahassee, Florida, to multiplatinum rock stars, the “Street Survivors” movie isn’t that story either. Because the “Street Survivors” movie is told from Pyle’s perspective, the film starts off with how he joined Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1975, shortly before Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded the band’s third album “Nuthin’ Fancy,” which yielded the hit single “Saturday Night Special.”

Pyle replaced original Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Bob Burns, who quit the band after having a nervous breakdown. By the time Pyle joined Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band had sold millions of records and already had several hit songs, such as “Free Bird,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The “Street Survivors” movie shows how Pyle (played by Ian Shultis) got the call to audition for Lynyrd Skynyrd and how, about two weeks later, a jubilant Pyle was asked to join the band on stage in Atlanta. Patricia Williamson, who became Pyle’s first wife, is portrayed in the movie as a loving and supportive live-in partner. Williamson is played by Kristina St. Peter in a small supporting role.

After Pyle joined the band, Lynyrd Skynyrd released fourth album “Gimme Back My Bullets” in 1976, and fifth album “Street Survivors” in 1977, just three days before the plane crash. The “Street Survivors” album had the hit songs “What’s Your Name,” “You Got That Right” and “That Smell.” After showing Pyle joining the band, the “Street Survivors” movie skips right to 1977, with the band in the middle of a tour and partying heavily with groupies and other hangers-on at a hotel.

The other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd who are portrayed in the movie are lead singer Ronnie Van Zant (played by Taylor Clift), guitarist Gary Rossington (played by Navarone Garibaldi), guitarist Steve Gaines (played by Samuel Kay Forrest), guitarist Allen Collins (played by Rich Dally III), keyboardist Billy Powell (played by Hudson Long) and bass player Leon Wilkeson (played by Nick Chandler).

Also part of the Lynyrd Skynyrd team at the time were tour manager Ron Eckerman (played by Mark Dippolito), assistant tour manager Kilpatrick (played by Mark Valeriano), and backup singers Cassie Gaines (played by Lelia Symington), Leslie Hawkins (played by Sierra Intoccio) and JoJo Billingsley (played by Julie Zimmer). All of them and other members of the entourage were on that tragic plane flight, which had a total of 26 people on the plane.

The partying scenes in “Street Survivors” are what you would expect, considering the wild reputation that Lynyrd Skynyrd had in the 1970s. Drugs everywhere, especially cocaine and marijuana. Drunken antics. More than a few fist fights. Naked groupies offering up free sex.

In one scene, Van Zant throws a TV out of a hotel room window, causing the window to break in the process. A hotel manager angrily confronts the band in the room and tells them that they have to pay for the damages. Van Zant arrogantly asks the manager who’s going to make them pay, before bass player Wilkeson hits the manager on the head with a beer bottle.

The setbacks caused by this drug-and-alcohol-fueled lifestyle are referenced only in passing in the movie. For example, in another scene, Pyle answers a knock on his hotel door and is told by a male assistant, “Ronnie’s in jail, but here’s your gold record,” as Pyle is handed the gold plaque. It’s an example of the highs and lows of being in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Even before the plane crash, band members Van Zant, Rossington and Collins had car crashes, but those aren’t mentioned in the movie.

In one of his on-camera narrations, the real Pyle comments: “I want the world to know how funny my band was, because being the drummer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, every single day on the road was a hilarious adventure.” Therefore, it isn’t too surprising that the movie doesn’t really cover all the down sides of the band before the plane crash.

The only band members in the movie who are written as having distinct personalities are Pyle, Van Zant and Steve Gaines. All of them were heavy partiers, but Pyle is portrayed as the most responsible one of the three and perhaps the wackiest band member on stage. (Pyle would stage dive into the audience before stage diving became trendy.)

Van Zant is portrayed as a confident, outspoken leader with a quick temper but also extremely loyal to his bandmates. Van Zant had predicted to the other members of Lynyrd Skynryd that he would die before the age of 30 (he was 29 when the plane crash happened), and that ominous premonition is recreated in the movie. Steve Gaines (who was 28 when he died) was the youngest and still fairly new to Lynyrd Skynyrd (he had only been in the band since 1976, as a replacement for Ed King), so he was the band member who was the newest to the rock-star/private-plane lifestyle that Lynyrd Skynyrd was leading.

Even though “Street Survivors” avoids covering the negative effects of the band’s hedonistic lifestyle, what the movie does show is how Lynyrd Skynyrd ended up with the faulty plane that caused this tragedy to happen. In one scene, Aerosmith’s then-manager David Krebs (played by Sean McNabb) is seen in his office, with all of the members of Aerosmith there, surrounded by cocaine and women.

Krebs is shown on the phone rejecting an offer for Aerosmith to use a chartered plane because the plane didn’t meet the band’s safety standards. He also yells at the person on the other line about how the airplane pilot was seen passing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s back and forth during the plane inspection.

Guess which plane Aerosmith rejected and ended up being used by Lynyrd Skynyrd? In the movie, when Lynyrd Skynyrd first sees the plane, someone utters, “What a piece of junk!” And someone else comments on the plane, “Well, I guess that must be ours.”

In the movie, pilot McCreary (played by Tom Jenkins) and co-pilot Gray (played by Will David Jordan) introduce themselves to the band and assorted team members on the airport tarmac. Gray is portrayed as a star-stuck fan who eagerly tells the assembled group: “All my life, all I’ve dreamed of doing is to fly a big rig with rock stars. After this, I’ll die a happy man.” Cringe.

And although the movie doesn’t portray the pilots as being under the influence of alcohol or drugs while flying the plane, it does portray the pilots as very reckless and dishonest about the plane’s mechanical malfunctions. The day before the tragic flight,  Lynyrd Skynyrd flew on that plane and had a close call when one of the plane engines caught on fire. When asked about this major engine problem during the flight, co-pilot Gray brushed it off as “a little blowback” that was “normal.”

The movie shows that although several passengers on the plane were understandably freaked out by the experience, they decided to use the same plane the next day on October 20, 1977. According to the movie, the band’s tour manager made an angry phone call to fix the malfunctioning plane after they landed on October 19, 1977. Obviously, those repairs never happened.

After performing in Greenville, South Carolina, on October 19, 1977, the band had to fly to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, because Lynyrd Skynyrd was scheduled to do a concert at Louisiana State University on October 21, 1977. Because of thee band’s tight schedule, there wasn’t enough time to charter another plane, and Lynyrd Skynyrd couldn’t risk missing the Baton Rouge concert by using other travel methods that would take longer.

Before he became a professional musician, Pyle was an aircraft sergeant in the Marines. That aircraft background helped when it became obvious the plane was in serious trouble during the flight on October 20, 1977. First, the engine problems started again, and oil from the engine could be seen leaking on the airplane windows.

Then, when Pyle and other passengers started asking the pilots what was going on, they found out to their horror that the airplane’s gas gauge wasn’t working, which gave the pilots an overestimation of how much fuel the plane had. The plane had actually run out of fuel. The crash happened when the pilots decided to make an emergency landing. The movie thoroughly conveys the panic that spread throughout the airplane when the passengers knew that they were going to crash.

The bloody and shocking aftermath of the crash is also portrayed in heart-pounding detail, including Pyle having to pull a heavy part of a tree out of a passenger’s chest. Pyle also joined forces with other survivors to try and rescue Rossington, whose legs were pinned underneath part of the destroyed plane. Pyle was the one who left the crash scene to get help in the remote area. When he finally saw a farmhouse and yelled for help at a man standing in the field, the man ended up shooting Pyle in the arm because he thought that Pyle was a crazy trespasser.

The hospital scenes are also very dramatic and might be very hard to watch for some people. The movie shows that even when Pyle was going through this trauma, he had to be the one to identify the bodies at the crash site. He was also the one who had to confirm who owned which luggage items at the crash site. And he had to go through the indignity of being interrogated by a Drug Enforcement Agency officer who was ready to arrest Pyle on the spot when DEA people found legal ginseng in Pyle’s luggage and mistook it for an illegal drug.

One of the points made in the movie is how MCA Records, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s record company at the time, refused to help pay the enormous hospital bills that resulted from the crash. Pyle was the crash survivor with some of the least-severe injuries, so he was the “go to” leading witness for what happened. (He was conscious the whole time and he was still able to walk immediately after the plane crash.) In the movie, Pyle is shown being presented with the hospital bills while many of the surviving passengers are still in the hospital.

Pyle makes an angry phone call to a record-label guy named “Pete,” who coldly tells Pyle that the company isn’t responsible for the hospital bills, because Pyle’s contract was with the now-dead Van Zant. Not for nothing, Lynyrd Skynyrd never released a new studio album with MCA again.

“Street Survivors,” the band’s last album with Ronnie Van Zant, had a haunting band photo on the cover, with fire in the background. In the photo, it looks like Steve Gaines is on fire, which is very eerie, considering that he died in a fiery plane crash. After the plane crash, MCA released the “Street Survivors” album with an alternate cover of a Lynyrd Skynyrd band photo without anything in the background. The album is still available with either album cover.

Although “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash” doesn’t have top-notch acting or screenwriting, the casting for the movie is actually very good, since all of the actors resemble and capture some essence of their real-life counterparts. And the 1970s rock-star lifestyle scenes in the movie are very accurate.

However, the film’s direction and tone go back and forth between being hokey and suspenseful. Overall, it’s clear that the intention was to make Pyle look like the hero of the story. Some people will agree with that, while others won’t.

The movie has such a full-on commitment to showing realistic details of the plane crash that it might affect people on a deep emotional level. People will be really angry/sad that this tragedy happened or will feel very inspired by how Pyle handled this tragedy. There might be some people who feel both ways.

There will definitely be people who will hate this movie or feel lukewarm about it. However, it’s hard to imagine a lot of people loving this movie, because so much of it is disturbing to watch. Even if people think that “Street Survivors” is a good movie, they might have a hard time watching it again.

Cleopatra Entertainment released “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash” on digital, VOD, DVD and Blu-ray on June 30, 2020.

Review: ‘Skyman,’ starring Michael Selle, Nicolette Sweeney and Faleolo Alailima

June 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Michael Selle in “Skyman” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Skyman”

Directed by Daniel Myrick

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in California, the sci-fi drama “Skyman” features a nearly all-white cast (with a few Asian characters) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man is a social outcast in his community because he believes in UFOs and outer-space aliens, and he plans to celebrate his 40th birthday by trying to reunite with an alien that he says he saw when he was 10 years old.

Culture Audience: “Skyman” will appeal primarily to people who have the patience to sit through a very boring sci-fi movie where not much happens until the last 10 minutes of the film.

Michael Selle in “Skyman” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

If you’re type of person who hates movies where people keep talking about what they’re going to do and they take a long time before they actually follow through with it, then you’re really going to despise the sci-fi drama “Skyman.” It’s a movie that’s stuck on an irritating and boring repeat loop of the main character preparing and talking about something that doesn’t happen until the last 10 minutes of this 92-minute snoozefest.

“Skyman” was written and directed by Daniel Myrick, who is best known for the 1999 horror flick “The Blair Witch Project,” which was his first feature film and a big sleeper hit. “The Blair Witch Project” has been credited with starting the “found footage” trend that has been over-used in many horror films since then. Although “The Blair Witch Project” got some criticism for being an overly talkative movie with a very flimsy premise, most people would agree that “The Blair Witch Project” did have some moments of genuine suspense.

Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no suspense in “Skyman,” which telegraphs the very predictable ending so early in the story that by the time the ending happens, it’s anticlimactic and there are no real surprises. Instead of having a “found footage” format, “Skyman” has a faux documentary format: What we’re seeing is supposed to look like a documentary, but it’s actually all scripted with actors. The story in “Skyman” is supposed to take place in 2017.

There’s so much filler in “Skyman” that it really should have been a short film instead. One of the many unnecessary scenes in “Skyman” is the opening scene, which has a “talking head” interview with Cecil. H. Crawford, Ph.D. (played by Craig Downing), who works in psychology at the University of Washington. Dr. Crawford is speaking outside what looks like the university campus, and he’s talking about people who believe in UFOs and outer-space aliens.

“Typically, there’s a specific, socioeconomic profile that tends to make them more vulnerable to believing in the idea,” says Dr. Crawford. “They’re good people. They may be a little bit lost and looking for something that science can’t provide.” The movie then shows a montage of 1980s-era home videos of a family who lives in a desert area. The father and two sons are featured prominently in this home-video footage.

Who is this family? They are the Merryweather family, and they’ve been living in the desert town of Apple Valley, California, for about 35 years. Something happened to the Merryweathers about 30 years ago that permanently changed their lives: When their son Carl (played by Michael Selle) was 10 years old in 1987, he and some other people in the area saw a UFO. In addition, Carl claims that he also had an encounter with a space alien that day.

The sighting of the UFO (which Carl describes as a “black triangle) and the space alien made the news, and Carl was interviewed on local TV about it. But all the publicity caused Carl to be ridiculed as crazy by most people in the community, and he’s been a socially awkward outcast ever since. However, about 30 years after the sighting, a documentary filmmaker (played by Myrick, who is mostly heard off-camera and briefly seen on camera) has taken an interest in Carl and wants to chronicle Carl’s quest to reunite with the alien on Carl’s 40th birthday. And guess what Carl  has nicknamed this creature? Skyman.

As an example of this movie’s lazy screenwriting, it’s never explained in the movie how Carl, who has been living in obscurity, got a documentary filmmaker to do a movie about him, considering that are many other people in the world who’ve claimed to have had encounters with space aliens. Did Carl contact the filmmaker, or did the filmmaker contact him? Although it’s a minor detail, it would also put into context how much of a publicity seeker Carl is or not.

Carl has such a plodding demeanor and banal personality that any good documentarian would be able to see within 20 minutes of spending time with him that he would not make an interesting subject for a documentary. And because he’s a loner, the documentary largely hinges on his character and what he does with his life. In the larger context of “Skyman,” making such an uninteresting and often pathetic character the center of this movie can only be blamed on writer/director Myrick. At least “The Blair Witch Project” had an ensemble of distinct personalities trying to solve a mystery that helped make the movie’s story intriguing.

Carl and his divorced sister Gina Campbell (played by Nicolette Sweeney), who do not have children, sit down for an interview together early in this “documentary” to talk about their family history. The Merryweather family, which includes their older bother Kenny, moved to Apple Valley when Carl was 5. Their father (whose name is never mentioned in the movie) was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, and he died of a heart attack in 2010. Carl and Gina’s mother Denise lives in a nursing home, where Gina works full-time. Gina is also a student working on getting her nursing degree.

Carl and Gina’s older brother Kenny lives in Alaska and is estranged from the family. Kenny and Carl have a long history of not getting along with each other. When they were kids, Kenny would often bully Carl. What does Kenny have to do with the story? Absolutely nothing. He’s only mentioned as an example of someone who was mean-spirited to Carl, in order to make Carl look sympathetic to viewers.

According to interviews with some of the locals, Carl is known to be an eccentric who likes tinkering with items and fixing things. Carl is described as intelligent when it comes to this type of work, but he’s had a hard time holding a steady job. It’s implied that Carl has a pattern of getting fired because when he’s at work, he can’t help but start babbling about his UFO conspiracy theories. He seems to earn some money by doing independent contractor repair jobs for people here and there.

Anyone who wants to slog through the tedious sludge that is most of this movie’s content should be warned that most of the “documentary” footage looks like outtakes from very mundane family home videos. There’s a scene of Carl giving a tour of his very cluttered “pack rat” home, where he has a large collection of UFO-related books and magazines.

He also shows some of his hand-drawn illustrations of the space alien that he encountered. (It looks like a tall creature with a typical aesthetic that’s been seen in other sci-fi movies about space aliens.) As part of his “sightings” collection, Carl keeps a hand-written book of contact information for everyone he knows about who has claimed to have encountered UFOs or space aliens. There is no subtlety in this movie. Carl is obsessed.

Carl also gives a tour of the Merryweather family’s abandoned high ground house (HGH), which is essentially a large trailer located way out in a remote part of the desert. Carl says that he considers himself to be a doomsday prepper, but he insists that he isn’t crazy. Carl’s father had the family live in the HGH for a good deal of the siblings’ childhood. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Carl reveals that his father had a UFO encounter while on Air Force duty with two other colleagues, but his father and Air Force co-workers didn’t report it because they didn’t want to be accused of having “battle fatigue.”

There’s a long stretch of the movie where the “documentary” follows Carl during his first time attending two UFO Festivals: one in McMinnville, Oregon, and one in Roswell, New Mexico. These events are essentially Comic-Cons for UFO enthusiasts. These UFO Festival scenes, if they had been written better, would have made “Skyman” a slightly interesting film, but Myrick wastes this opportunity by making these festival scenes as lackluster as the scenes of Carl back at home.

This is Carl’s reaction to experiencing these festivals: “I’ve never needed validation …  but it’s nice to know that I’m not as alone in how I feel.” In fact, Carl keeps repeating a variation of “I know what I saw was real” when talking about his UFO/space alien experience, and he says it so many times, that it could easily become a drinking game for this movie.

Even the family tension in the movie is downright dull. Carl’s mother Denise (played by Patricia Lentz) doesn’t approve of his obsession over UFOs and space aliens, but there’s not much she can do about it. When he visits her in the nursing home, all she does is mildly scold him when she finds out what he plans to do for his 40th birthday.

Meanwhile, Gina is feeling the pressure of trying to hold the family together, and she’s carrying most of the financial weight to take care of the siblings’ ailing mother. In a separate interview, away from Carl, she confesses that she feels alone because she doesn’t really have a support system. She breaks down and cries when she says about Carl: “I can’t rely on him.”

Gina is semi-skeptical about the existence of UFOs, but Carl convinces her to go with him to the family’s desert HGH on his 40th birthday. Also along for the trip is Marcus Florio (played by Faleolo Alailima), who’s known the siblings since they were in high school together. As Carl says in the movie about Marcus: “He’s one of the only people in town that doesn’t think I’m crazy.”

Marcus works at a local hardware store, where Carl buys some magnet equipment to test any electromagnetic forces that might change due to an alien’s presence. For the trip to the desert HGH, Carl also brings a small, handmade satellite dish that looks like it belongs in a junkyard. You don’t have to be a genius to see that Carl is desperate to make contact with the alien.

There are very few movies where you can watch the first 10 minutes, then skip to the last 10 minutes, and find out everything you need to know about the story. But “Skyman” is one of those films. And one of the many flaws of this disappointing movie is that it doesn’t stay consistent with the faux documentary format.

In some scenes, the movie looks like raw documentary footage with no musical score. In other scenes, it looks like a scripted drama, including the addition of a musical score that’s supposed to reflect the mood of the scene. (Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan is one of the film’s three musical composers for the sparse “Skyman” score. The other two music composers are Don Miggs and Greg Hansen.)

The acting is mediocre, and there are a few scenes where even the actors break from a naturalistic style to a more affected “it looks like we’re reading a script” style. Since Carl is the focus of the film, Selle (who makes his feature-film debut in “Skyman”) does an adequate job in the role. The acting isn’t the biggest problem with “Skyman.” It’s the very thinly constructed and monotonous screenplay, as well as the unimaginative direction, that make “Skyman” the very definition of a movie that’s overly padded to disguise that there is no real substance to this film.

While Carl, Gina and Marcus wait in the desert for a possible encounter with the Sykman alien, Carl utters, “I hope that this hasn’t been a big waste of time.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly how people will feel while watching “Skyman.”

Gravitas Ventures released “Skyman” in select U.S. drive-in theaters on June 30, 2020. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is on July 7, 2020.

Review: ‘Desolation Center,’ starring Stuart Swezey, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Einstürzende Neubauten, Red Kross, Perry Farrell and Mark Pauline

June 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Einstürzende Neubauten in “Desolation Center” (Photo courtesy of Passion River Films)

“Desolation Center”

Directed by Stuart Swezey

Culture Representation: Taking place in various locations in Southern California, the music documentary “Desolation Center” interviews a racially diverse group of people (white, African American, Latino and Asian) talking about the notable 1980s rock concerts promoted by the independent team Desolation Center, with commentaries from artists, fans and behind-the-scenes industry people. 

Culture Clash: Desolation Center concerts, which rejected anything that was corporate, often operated outside the law by not filing permits and by being held in unconventional places.

Culture Audience: “Desolation Center” will appeal primarily to people interested in the non-mainstream Los Angeles rock scene in the 1980s and stories about music festivals.

 

Perry Farrell and Aaron Sherer (both facing camera) in “Desolation Center” (Photo by Mariska Leyssius)

Imagine a well-attended music festival that takes place in the California desert. Event permits weren’t filed, people were transported by school bus to the festival, and most attendees were so excited about going that they didn’t think about bringing sunscreen, water or food. And there wouldn’t be any vendors at the festival to sell anything. This festival obviously isn’t Coachella.

The documentary film “Desolation Center” is a nostalgic and fascinating look at five of the biggest concerts staged by a Los Angeles-based independent promotion team called Desolation Center. In its relatively short existence (1983 to 1986), Desolation Center influenced several festivals that ended up becoming corporate behemoths, including Burning Man, Lollapalooza and Coachella. The five Desolation Center concerts that get the spotlight in the documentary are Mohave Exodus, Mohave Auzug, Joy at Sea, Gila Monster Jamboree and Solstice.

“Desolation Center” director Stuart Swezey, who also appears on camera for his commentary, is the best person to helm this documentary, since he founded Desolation Center and had hands-on involvement in every show presented by the team. His deep history with Desolation Center serves this film well, since it’s packed with a lot of great archival photos and video footage, as well as an extremely well-rounded set of interviews from artists, fans and behind-the-scenes industry people who usually have first-hand accounts of Desolation Center shows.

Artists interviewed include the members of Sonic Youth (except for Kim Gordon), Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Red Kross and Einstürzende Neubauten. Also giving an artist perspective are Perry Farrell (co-founder of Lollapalooza Festival and the band Jane’s Addiction); Aaron Sherer (who was in Psi Com, Farrell’s pre-Jane’s Addicition band); Kurt Schellenbach of Nip Drivers; Suzi Gardner of L7; Michael Gra of Swans; Dan Bolles of the Germs; Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag; Steve Housden of Lawndale; Ian Rakow of Valley Punk; F.M. Einheit; artist Anthony Ausgang; noise musician Boyd Rice; performance artist Ron Athey; poet John Tottenham; and performance artists Mark Pauline and Matt Heckert of Survival Research Laboratories.

Unlike many music documentaries that shun or limit perspectives of non-famous fans, “Desolation Center” gives almost as much screen time to fans as it does the artists. Among the fans who share their fond memories of Desolation Center shows are poet Maw Shein Win; musician Sean DeLear; community organizer Linda Kite; costumer designer Nancy Steiner; Sandy Glaze; Lisa Derrick; Janet Housden; Easter Seals COO Bev Mendes; artist Kristine Kryttre; Bertell Ferguson; Skip King; ML Compton; Mike Guerena; Fourway Cross bandmates Courtney Davies, Steve Gerdes and Tom Dolan; and married couple Joy and Ken Abbott, who’ve been together since the ’80s.

Also giving their insight are Goldenvoice founder Gary Tovar; Burning Man co-founder John Law; indie music operative Carmel Conlin; SST producer Spot; photographer/musician Mariska Leyssius; sound engineer Ed Cirino of Gold Sound; Re/Search Publications editor/publisher V. Vale, music publisher Adam Wolf; and journalists Chris Morris, Simon Reynolds, Joseph Bien-Khan.

“Desolation Center” begins with a contextual backdrop of what was going on in the Los Angeles music scene during the 1980s that laid the groundwork to form Desolation Center. If there’s any villain of this story, it’s Daryl Gates, who was chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) from 1978 to 1992. DeLear calls Gates “rotten” and “creepy” in the documentary.

And several people who comment in the film, including Swezey, describe the LAPD under Gates’ leadership as an oppressive force that targeted punk rock musicians and fans for harassment and arrests. Bolles says, “The LAPD freaked out about punk rock, like it was the second coming of the Black Panthers.”

Therefore, nightclubs and bars in Los Angeles that booked punk artists frequently had those shows shut down or heavily enforced by the LAPD. Meat Puppets lead singer/guitarist Curt Kirkwood adds, “It seems like they [the LAPD] were going through the newspaper and finding bands that sounded punk rock and making sure they didn’t happen.” Performance artist Athey comments on Los Angeles: “I grew up here. I wasn’t enlightened that you could live in a non-police state, so you figured out how to skirt around it.”

The good news is that in the early 1980s, the alternative/underground music scene was very diverse, in terms of race, gender, sexuality and economic backgrounds. Kite, who was the fiancée of Minutemen singer/guitarist D. Boone, comments on the Los Angeles punk/underground music scene during this era: “There was just as much people of color in it as there were white kids. Bands were multicultural, as well as the scene was multicultural.”

This diversity was in stark contrast to Los Angeles’ heavy metal scene and classic rock scene, which pretty much excluded musicians who weren’t straight white males. Another big difference between the punk scene and communities for other rock genres was that punk was all about rejecting conformity and corporate greed.

Swezey comments in the documentary: “In the early ’80s, I think the rest of the world saw L.A. as this brain-dead, sun baked, smoggy sprawl—which it kind of was. For those of us who grew up here, the early ’80s was actually a really vital and interesting time.”

Before Swezey founded Desolation Center, he was a 21-year-old college dropout doing phone sales for a municipal broker in 1982. Although he was a fan of punk music and went to a lot of shows, he wasn’t inspired to become a show promoter until he saw a Throbbing Gristle concert and later met its promoter Michael Sheppard. Swezey says of that fateful Throbbing Gristle show: “Their sonic assault changed the way I thought of music and performance forever.”

He took the plunge to form Desolation Center in 1983, as an independent collective to promote “alternative” rock and performance artists. At the time, Swezey was living in a very seedy and run-down part of downtown Los Angeles. He says he came up with the name Desolation Center “because that’s how I was feeling about my environment at the time.”

Desolation Center was born out of nonconformity, not just because of punk ideals but also out of financial necessity. The tiny start-up didn’t have the budget to book artists at established nightclubs and advertise those types of shows. Therefore, Swezey and Desolation Center had the great idea to do the opposite of what most concert promoters were doing.

Desolation Center booked shows in abandoned warehouses and other under-the-radar places. The shows also didn’t follow industry norms: Guests lists weren’t allowed, everyone had to pay to get inside, and the shows didn’t sell alcohol (which would get the attention of the police), but people of legal drinking age were allowed to bring their own alcohol. Desolation Center also didn’t advertise its shows and did not court publicity.

Having these shows in non-traditional venues also allowed Desolation Center to not have to deal with Ticketmaster or city permits to put on these shows. And finding about these shows, not through advertising or media publicity, but through word of mouth, gave Desolation Center a cool, underground reputation with fans. Nowadays, with insurance liabilities being more of a concern for artists and promoters, an outfit like Desolation Center wouldn’t have been able to stay in business for as long as it did.

It wasn’t long before Desolation Center wanted to do something bigger than just a small show in a warehouse, without having to go to a traditional large venue. After taking a road trip through the Sonora Desert in Mexico, Swezey was inspired to have the first Desolation Center festival in the desert. He approached Savage Republic band member Bruce Licher, who came up with the idea to have the show in the Mohave Desert, about three hours east outside of Los Angeles.

That show ended up being a mini-festival called Mohave Exodus, which took place on April 24, 1983, and featured performances by Savage Republic and Minutemen. Licher had access to a printing press, so he was essentially in charge of making the tickets and signage that were used for the show. Farrell says of Licher: “He was like the Benjamin Franklin of our scene.”

Getting to the concert site was unconventional. There was a secret place in downtown L.A. where ticketholders were told to meet. From there, rented school buses took them to the remote area in the desert. Many of the fans were completely unaware of how hot the desert heat would be and were decked out in full-on heavy punk gear.

Kryttre, an artist who attended the event, remembers how driving to the concert site was a challenge because some of truck stop managers would lock their restrooms when they saw all the “alternative”-looking young people coming out of the buses to use the restrooms. The way these fans looked back then wouldn’t be considered a big deal today, but it was a big deal back then.

The concert was so bare-bones and do-it-yourself that nothing was set up in the middle of the desert except for the band’s equipment and sound system. There was no stage separating the band from the audience. Most concertgoers had to sit on the hard desert ground, although some people thought of bringing lawn chairs. And forget about places to eat, drink and use toilets at the concert site. There weren’t any.

And they weren’t prepared for the forceful desert winds in the area. Sound engineer Cirino remembers that socks had to be put on microphones, and the buses had to be parked behind the bands to form a wall that would be a wind barrier. It was about as unglamorous and uncomfortable as you can imagine. But looking back on it, the concertgoers and band members interviewed in the documentary say they loved the experience.

Win comments, “I felt we were these young people creating this great, alternative world for ourselves out in the desert.” Guerena says, “There was no violence, no weirdness. It was like everybody was in this one cool group.” Joy Abbott adds, “I just remember thinking, ‘This is one of the coolest things I’ll ever do in my whole life.'”

After the Mohave Exodus show, Swezey quit his day job and went backpacking around Europe. While he was in West Berlin, he saw German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten perform for the first time and was completely awed by the experience. It was around this time that Swezey saw director Werner Herzog’s epic 1982 movie “Fitzcarraldo,” which also gave Swezey the idea for the next big Desolation Center festival.

In “Fitzcarraldo,” a European opera fan becomes obsessed with building an opera house in the Peruvian jungle. Swezey explains how Einstürzende Neubauten and “Fiztcarraldo” inspired him: Instead of bringing opera to the jungle, he wanted to bring industrial music to the desert.

And that led to the Desolation Center show Mohave Auzug, held in Mecca, California, on March 4, 1984. Einstürzende Neubauten headlined the show, which was more elaborate—and crazier and more dangerous—than Mohave Exodus. A pacifist percussion group Djemaa-El-Fna greeted concertgoers as they arrived.

But that peaceful atmosphere was quickly destroyed by Survival Research Laboratories, a rebellious group of performance artists (whose most famous member is Mark Pauline), who loved to literally blow things up. And the desert was their playground at the show, as they set off explosives in a cave, as well as other places outside, despite the objections of Djemaa-El-Fna and some concertgoers.

Luckily, no one was hurt at Mohave Auzug by these explosions. Pauline and the rest of the anarchists look back with no regrets and say the explosions were all in the name of fun and performance art. Lawndale band member Housden remembers that at this industrial-oriented concert, power tools were used as musical instruments and other playthings: “They were giving a hard time to our dad’s power tools … They ruined them.”

With two well-received desert concerts under his belt, Swezey decided that the next big Desolation Center concert would be at an opposite location: on the water. The Joy at Sea concert was held in the San Pedro Harbor in California, on June 15, 1984. The headliners were San Pedro hometown band Minutemen and Arizona-based band Meat Puppets. Meat Puppets bass player Cris Kirkwood says of the experience: “It was one  of the highlights of my musical career in a lot of ways—just magical as crap.”

Then, it was back to the California desert. Gila Monster Jamboree was Desolation Center’s biggest event yet, and is probably considered the most important one for Desolation Center. Taking place on January 5, 1985, the bill included Sonic Youth (in the New York City band’s West Coast debut), Meat Puppets, Red Kross and Psi Com, which was Farrell’s band before he formed Jane’s Addiction.

In the documentary, Farrell admits that Psi Com got the gig because he was Swezey’s roommate at the time. “It was really cool, so I thank you for that,” Farrell says. Meat Puppets frontman Curt Kirkwood remembers that everybody at the concert seemed to be in a good mood because most people were flying high on LSD. Montgomery, one of the fans at the concert, says: “There were very few people who weren’t tripping.”

Unlike previous Desolation Center concerts in the desert, where the concertgoers could only get there by Desolation Center’s provided buses, Gila Monster Jamboree gave concertgoers the option to take their own transportation to the concert site, although bus transportation was still provided for those who wanted it. There were was still none of the commercial trappings (merchandise booths and food vendors), sanitary facilities, or safety precautions that are presumed for today’s music festivals. Because, just like other Desolation Center concerts, the promoters didn’t have a permit to hold the event.

Steve and Jeff McDonald, the brothers who co-founded Red Kross, remember the nerve-racking experience of having a driver who got lost for hours, making the band very late for the concert. Red Kross was the first “glam rock” band to perform at a Desolation Center festival. And ironically, the band was so late, the members of Red Kross didn’t have time to change into their glammed-up stage clothes and instead performed in jeans and sweatpants, which was outside their comfort zone for their stage wardrobe.

Desolation Center’s permit-avoiding ways eventually caught up to the team, which was fined $400 for the Gila Monster Jamboree show. Swezey says that $400 was a lot of money to them at the time. So, in true D.I.Y. fashion, Desolation Center held a Trespass Benefit show to raise funds to pay off the fine. Minutemen and Nip Drivers performed at the fundraising concert, which was held at the Anti Club on Augusts 4, 1985.

Desolation Center’s last big hurrah was the Solstice concert on December 21, 1985. Sonic Youth and Swans topped the bill for the show, which had the unusual distinction of being partially funded by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Swezey says that a friend who received NEA grant money approached him to do the show.

But tragedy struck on December 22, 1985, when Minutemen lead singer D. Boone was killed in a car accident that injured his fiancée Kite and permanently disabled Kite’s sister. It was an end of an era. Swezey says in the documentary that Boone’s death and the stricter laws being enforced for concert promotion led to the decision to say goodbye to Desolation Center and move on to other things. Swezey then founded Amok Books, an alternative publishing company.

“Desolation Center” isn’t just for people who remember what it was like to be a fan of alternative music in the early ’80s. It’s the type of documentary that people of many generations can enjoy if they like the bands in the film and if they want to get a meaningful historical time capsule of a specific subculture of the Los Angeles music scene in the early-to-mid-1980s.

It might also make people wistful for a bygone era when people went to concerts and festivals and lived in the moment, instead of worrying about how things were going to look on social media. Remarkably, no one was killed or maimed at a Desolation Center concert, which is in stark contrast to all the concerts that have happened since the ’80s that have experienced mass shootings, bombings and other weapons of war against innocent concertgoers.

Desolation Center wasn’t exactly about “peace and love” all the time, but one of its greatest legacies that’s been largely abandoned by most big concert promoters is that the shows embraced people from all sorts of backgrounds, by not excluding people through ticket prices that are too high for certain people’s budgets. Those days might be long gone for music festivals, but this documentary is a significant reminder of how it was possible back in the ’80s and how well it worked.

Passion River Films released “Desolation Center” on digital, VOD and DVD on June 23, 2020.

Review: ‘Run With the Hunted,’ starring Michael Carmen Pitt, Ron Perlman, Dree Hemingway, Mitchell Paulsen, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Sam Quartin and Kylie Rogers

June 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Michael Carmen Pitt and Dree Hemingway in “Run With the Hunted” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Run With the Hunted”

Directed by John Swab

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the crime drama “Run With the Hunted” has a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans) portraying the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-old boy runs away from home after killing a man, and he grows up to lead his own group of runaway lawbreakers.

Culture Audience: “Run With the Hunted” will appeal primarily to people who like emotionally dark movies about people haunted by their past, but the film fails to deliver a well-written, well-paced story.

Kylie Rogers and Mitchell Paulsen in “Run With the Hunted” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Much like the hoodlums in the crime drama “Run With the Hunted,” the movie wastes a lot of potential to have a better purpose in existing and instead wallows in self-indulgence and excessive violence. Written and directed by John Swab, “Run With the Hunted” benefits from solid acting from most of the cast. However, the movie ruins a compelling story idea with nonsensical scenes and uneven pacing.

“Run With the Hunted” (which takes place in unnamed U.S. cities) has an intriguing but dark concept of a boy who runs away from home after murdering a man and who grows up to become an adult leader of a gang of lawbreaking children. The first two-thirds of the film are told from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy named Oscar Grey (played by Mitchell Paulsen), who lives in a very rural area with his mother Josephine (played by Mykle McCoslin), his father Augustus (played by William Forsythe) and his sister Lollie (played by Tatum Stiles).

Josephine, nicknamed Jo, is a nurturing and loving person, while Augustus is stern and judgmental. In the beginning of the movie, Augustus is seen asking Oscar if he listened to the sermon that day while they are both standing by a small pond. Even although Augustus and his family are apparently churchgoing people, apparently Augustus doesn’t believe in being charitable to neighbors, because he scolds Josephine for wanting to give their dinner leftovers to a neighbor family who’s financially struggling.

When Josephine asks Oscar to take the dinner plate over to the neighbors’ place, Augustus warns Oscar: “I don’t want you to catch whatever virus lingers in that house.” The neighbors are the Robbins family, consisting of a drunk and mean-spirited father named Persey (played by Brad Carter) and his kids Amos (played by Evan Assante) and Loux (played by Madilyn Kellam), who are around the same age as Oscar. The children’s mother isn’t in the home, and it’s implied that she’s dead.

It’s clear from the first few minutes of Oscar being in the house that Persey is violent and abusive. Not even Oscar escapes from Persey’s physical aggression and shouting. Persey rudely refuses Oscar’s dinner and orders him to leave the Robbins’ run-down and messy house. Persey growls to Oscar: “I want you to tell that daddy of yours that I don’t need your mother’s backhanded charity. Take it back. Get the fuck out of my house!”

In a later conversation that Oscar and Loux have by themselves while outside in a field, Loux tells Oscar that she wants to escape from her home, but she can’t. It’s implied, but not shown in detail, that Persey has been sexually abusing her, since there’s a creepy scene where Percey makes Loux sit on his lap, strokes her hair and tells her that Loux that reminds him of her mother.

One night, while Percey is passed out drunk on his living room couch, Oscar sneaks into the house, takes a fire poker from a lit fireplace, and stabs Percey to death. The gory details are shown later in the movie as a flashback. The next thing you know, Oscar is about 100 miles away in a city that’s big enough for him to hide for a while but not so big where the city has a large police department. (“Run With the Hunted” was actually filmed in Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

While he’s homeless and alone in the city, Oscar is picked up for violating curfew. Since he has no identification and presumably won’t tell the authorities who he is, Oscar spends the night locked up by himself in an adult jail cell. While Oscar is sitting in jail, a police officer on duty at the station named Jim Flannery (played by Slaine) gets a faxed alert that Oscar Grey is wanted for murder.

Even though the alert has a clear photo of Oscar, Flannery stupidly assumes that the kid locked up in the jail cell couldn’t be the same boy, because he thinks a boy who lives in that rural area wouldn’t have the means or intelligence to travel 100 miles away by himself. He also comments to a desk-clerk colleague named Keryn (played by Renée Willett) that the boy who’s in the jail cell doesn’t look like a murderer. Keryn cynically agrees that all these delinquent kids start to look alike. Therefore, Oscar is let back out onto the streets.

This is a badly written part of the movie, because even if Flannery wanted to assume that Oscar wasn’t the same boy who was wanted for murder, an obvious underage runaway like Oscar would not be let back out on the streets so quickly by police, since child-protective services would be called. And people watching the movie won’t get over the fact that the photo of Oscar in the alert looks exactly like him.

The only purpose of this gaping plot hole is to establish that Flannery (who’s in the latter third of the story too) is a dumb, corrupt cop. This plot hole is also a set-up so that Oscar is free to be on the streets when he has a fateful meeting with another street kid named Peaches (played by Kylie Rogers), who takes a liking to Oscar. She shows him the abandoned, remote warehouse where she and other kids around their age hang out and get training to become thieving criminals. Their leader is a scruffy middle-aged loser named Sway (played by Mark Boone Junior), whose real name is Neville.

Sway is excited to have a new recruit join their ranks. He tells his boss Birdie (played by Ron Perlman) while Birdie is at beauty salon getting a pedicure. It looks as ridiculous as it sounds. This slightly comical scene is also supposed to establish that Birdie is well-connected to corrupt politicians, since he’s meeting with a congressman (played by Darryl Cox) at the salon.

Peaches and Oscar start to have a teen romance (she’s his first kiss), and he confesses to her that he’s a fugitive for murder, but that he killed an abusive man to save his kids from the abuse. Oscar doesn’t go into details by telling Peaches the last name of the family involved, but Peaches understands.

Peaches tells Oscar: “Someday, Loux will find you. For now, you have me. I believe fate brought us together.” Peaches makes it clear that she wants Oscar all to herself, and she tells him to promise that he will never leave her.

And there’s something else about Peaches: Her father is Birdie. In one scene, he has a father-daughter talk with her in his car while she’s eating an ice cream cone. Birdie gives this advice to Peaches: “You’ve got to grab what you want, because no one is going to give it to you.”

Meanwhile, Sway is having second thoughts about having Oscar in his gang of juvenile delinquents and he wants to kick Oscar out of the group. The word gets back to Birdie, who wants to keep Oscar in the group, especially since Oscar and Peaches have started dating each other. How far will Sway go in defying Birdie’s orders? That question is answered in the movie.

When the movie flashes forward 15 years later, it’s shown that Oscar (played by Michael Carmen Pitt) and Peaches (played by Dree Hemingway) are still together. Peaches works as a stripper, and she and Oscar have a very co-dependent relationship where she’s still very needy.

However, Birdie and Peaches have kind of a sleazy father-daughter dynamic that looks borderline incestual. There’s a scene Birdie tells Peaches sits on his lap and she sort of acts like she’s his girlfriend by the way she hugs and kisses him. (Peaches’ mother, just like Loux’s mother, is nowhere in sight.)

The dumbest scene in “Run With the Hunted” is one that has absolutely no bearing on the overall story. It’s 15 years after Oscar has committed the murder, and he’s now tutoring a gang of four teenage hoodlums to commit armed robbery. They rob a grocery store and hold everyone hostage. And not surprisingly, one of the customers gets shot. (This isn’t a spoiler. It’s in the movie’s trailer.)

What’s incredibly moronic about the scene is that Oscar and his gang do nothing to disguise themselves when they commit the robbery. Even if there’s the unlikely possibility that the store doesn’t have surveillance cameras, there were several hostages as eyewitnesses. And a grocery store, compared to a bank or jewelry store, isn’t exactly the best place to get a large haul of money to steal. Most grocery stores keep a limited amount of cash in their registers, so it’s no surprise that Oscar and his gang don’t end up with a lot of money from the robbery.

What’s also laughable about this badly written part of the movie is that Oscar and his four teenage followers (two who are white, two who are black) all live together in the same house, which is not a remote house but a place on a suburban-looking neighborhood street. Therefore, it’s obvious that this motley group would stick out in any neighborhood and would be easy to identify after the robbery.

Oscar is supposed to be 28 in this part of the story, but Pitt (the actor playing the adult Oscar) looks like he’s closer to 38. Any respectable neighbor would think, “Why is a man that age living with underage teenage boys who aren’t related to him? Who and where are these kids’ parents?” That living arrangement alone would be enough to attract attention to Oscar, who’s supposed to be an “underground” criminal.

Wherever this city is that Oscar ran away to and now lives, the city must have the dumbest law enforcement not to catch on to the fact that there’s a coordinated gang of young criminals who are committing a lot of the thefts (including pickpocketing) right out in the open on the streets and in stores where there should be surveillance cameras. The city is obviously not isolated enough for these kids to be able to stay in hiding for long.

And just as Peaches predicted years before, an adult Loux (played by Sam Quartin) does come looking for Oscar. (Again, this is not a spoiler, since the movie’s trailer already revealed this part of the story.) Loux ends up in the same city and gets a job working for a private investigator named Lester Rineau (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a widower who might or might not be helpful to Loux’s stealthy investigation into Oscar’s childhood disappearance.

As a crime thriller, “Run With the Hunted” is a lot duller than it should have been, with much of the pacing dragged down by the relationship problems of the adult Oscar and Peaches, who have grown up to be very miserable human beings. And after Loux comes to town, the plot basically goes down the toilet, in terms of how people in the story react to her investigation.

One of the best things about “Run With the Hunted” is the talented performance by Paulsen as the young Oscar. He gives a completely credible and effective depiction of a kid who’s caught up in circumstances that are way over his head. The casting of Paulsen in this movie was definitely a very good choice.

Pitt and Perlman have been typecast (Pitt often plays troubled souls, Perlman often plays villains), so there’s not much of an acting stretch for them in this movie. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles. The few women in this movie aren’t given much to do except react to whatever the men are doing.

“Run With the Hunted” has the expected violence and foul language, but sensitive viewers should be warned that the film has violence that usually isn’t seen in crime dramas—scenes of underage kids killing other people. It’s a disturbing aspect of “Run With the Hunted” that comes across as exploitative for the sake of appearing provocative and “edgy.” It’s also an example of how “Run With the Hunted” is more concerned with having violent scenes instead of having a coherent and plausible story.

Vertical Entertainment released “Run With the Hunted” on digital and VOD on June 26, 2020.

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

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘No Small Matter,’ starring Rachel Giannini, Andrew Meltzoff, Myra Jones-Taylor, Deborah Phillips, Geoffrey Canada, Matthew Melmed, and Nadine Burke Harris

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rachel Giannini (pictured at right) and a student in “No Small Matter” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“No Small Matter”

Directed by Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel

Culture Representation: The documentary “No Small Matter,” about children’s learning abilities before kindergarten age, interviews a racially diverse group of people (white, African American, Latino and Asian) who are educators, academics and parents representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A child’s ability to learn can be hampered by poverty, abuse, and a lack of caring adults in the child’s life, and it’s become increasingly harder for middle-class parents to afford childcare for pre-school children.

Culture Audience: “No Small Matter” will appeal primarily to parents, educators and other people who are concerned about how to teach children under the age of 6.

Larry Johnson, Wahnika Johnson and their daughter Laryn in “No Small Matter” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The documentary “No Small Matter” tackles two different but related topics, and handles one topic better than the other. The first topic (which is the one that’s handled better) is an exploration of children’s learning abilities from birth to the age of 5. The second topic is about the increasing struggles for non-wealthy parents in the United States to give their pre-school children the best possible education and learning experiences.

“No Small Matter” directors Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel do a very good job of balancing interviews with experts and footage of real middle-class/working-class parents and pre-school children. The documentary gives a fairly comprehensive overview of children’s learning abilities before they reach school age. The movie also advocates for better support systems for parents of pre-school children, as affordable childcare become increasingly difficult for parents who have to work outside the home.

The best scenes in the film are with childhood educator Rachel Giannini, who was working at the time at Highland Park Community Nursery School and Day Care Center in Highland Park, Illinois. Her infectious enthusiasm for teaching kids and giving them positive encouragement to be themselves in their learning process are inspiring for anyone who wants to know how a good pre-kindergarten teacher should be.

Narrated by Alfre Woodard (who is also the documentary’s executive producer), “No Small Matter” covers subject matter that a lot of people might already know. For example, it’s fairly common knowledge that babies can start learning from birth. Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, tells a story of interacting with a baby who was just 42 minutes old. He saw that when he stuck out his tongue, the baby immediately did the same, which is an indication of how quickly newborn babies can learn imitation skills.

The documentary also mentions the new technology that’s available to study babies’ brain activities. Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences co-director Patricia Kuhl declares that it’s possible to see what’s going on in a baby’s brain before the baby can talk. However, the documentary could have used a little more discussion about how devices such as smartphones and tablets can affect brain activity for pre-school children.

One of the best aspects of “No Small Matter” is that the film has an impressive and diverse list of experts who are interviewed. The academics include University of California at Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnick; Georgetown University psychology professor Deborah Phillips; Temple University psychology professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek; University of Wisconsin pediatrics professor Dipesh Navsaria; and University of Wisconsin psychology professor Seth Pollak.

There are also several leaders of children-oriented nonprofit organizations, such as Center for Youth Wellness founder/pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris; Zero to Three executive director Matthew Melmed; Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada; Child Care Aware of America executive director Lynette Fraga; National Association for the Education of Young Children CEO Rhian Allvin; ReadyNation co-founder Robert Dugger and AVANCE executive director Jessica Atlas.

One interview that seems a little out of place is with Sesame Workshop senior vice president of curriculum and content Rosemarie Truglio, because during the interview, she’s interrupted by “Sesame Street” character Cookie Monster, who does a comedic skit with her. It’s supposed to be funny, but it comes across as too staged, awkward and perhaps some kind of sponsorship deal that the filmmakers made with Sesame Workshop. If people want to watch “Sesame Street” skit, they can watch “Sesame Street.” It doesn’t need to be in this documentary during what’s supposed to be a serious interview.

Several people in the documentary say things are already well-known: There’s a direct link between poverty, lack of education and crime. People who end up in prison are more likely to be poor and uneducated (not completing a high-school education) than people who not poor and not educated. Aside from the fact that prisons are filled with poor people who can’t afford good legal representation, poor and uneducated people are less likely to get jobs that can pay a living wage, thereby increasing the possibility that they will turn to crime to make money.

It’s a vicious cycle that experts say has the greatest chance of being broken by giving poor people the education that can increase their chances to climb out of poverty. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections secretary John Wetzel says, “True criminal justice reform is investing in early childhood education.” Arthur Rudnick, a former economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, adds: “You won’t find a better return than investing in early childhood education.”

But the rising cost of that early education is something that’s become increasingly difficult for working-class and middle-class families. Shea Gattis is named in the documentary as an example of someone who benefited from early education as a way to prevent some of the negative lifestyle circumstances and choices that plague low-income communities. Gattis is part of the Carolina Abecedarian Project, launched in 1972, which has been tracking him for more than 40 years since his childhood. He came from a low-income community, but received early education through the project and has been thriving as a law-abiding citizen with a good career.

The documentary shows three families who are struggling with making ends meet and having affordable child care for their pre-school children.

  • A married couple in Yorktown, Virginia—special-education teacher Wahnika Johnson and systems administrator Larry Johnson—have to put their daughter Laryn in day care after Wahnika’s maternity leave ends and she has to go back to work. The movie shows that how this transition has an emotional effect on Wahnika.
  • A married couple in Henderson, Nevada—nail technician Shannon Poff and security guard Donnie Poff—work two different shifts so that one can be home to take care of their son Daymean, who was born with a heart defect. Daymean’s medical bills have put the couple heavily in debt.
  • A single mother in Waco, Texas—Maria Hernandez—uses the nonprofit AVANCE program, which provides free child care for low-income families in the area.

It’s not exactly news to report that many families struggle with being able to afford childcare. What the documentary could have explored better is how a program like AVANCE works and is able to get funding and how a program like AVANCE can be implemented in other communities who need these programs the most.

Melmed comments that the U.S. military has “the best family support system in the United States.” It’s a belief confirmed by U.S. Army first-class sergeant Keacha Simmons, a mother who is interviewed kin the film. That’s great, but considering that most families in the U.S. don’t get military benefits, “No Small Matter” could have taken a closer look at people and organizations that are doing something about the problem of making good childcare affordable to families.

People already know that teachers/educators of children are grossly underpaid in the United States. With most budgets of cities, counties and states already stretched to the limits, it seems as if the future of early childhood education has to rely more on private funding. Where are all the billionaires who can help? And if a lot of wealthy people are helping, where is the money going? No one seems to ask these questions in the documentary.

Melmed has this to say about one of the best ways to rethink childcare and to make it more fun and educational for kids: “It’s not babysitting. It’s brain building.” “No Small Matter” is a good documentary that examines the issues of problems of educating pre-school age children in the United States. However, the documentary would have been much better if it also focused on realistic and attainable solutions.

Abramorama released “No Small Matter” on digital and VOD on June 26, 2020. The movie’s DVD release date is June 30, 2020.