Author Archives: Jay

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal

The college admission scandal was a hot and juicy news item for a minute. Rick Singer was getting rich kids into college through a “side door” called money. Money paid to Singer inflated test scores while bribes to college coaches went to fabricating phony athletic profiles for the prospective student, allowing the coach to “recruit” them. Kids who stood no chance of getting admitted into a good college were now strolling right through a side door thanks to mommy and daddy’s wallet. This got a lot of play in the media because it meant rich white people were scamming a system already designed to highly favour them. There was not a lot of sympathy in the story (except maybe for the clueless kids whose own parents knew them to be too dumb to earn anything meritoriously). Plus the whiff of disgraced celebrities (Lori Laughlin, Felicity Huffman) was hard to resist.

This documentary enlists a host of actors including Matthew Modine and Josh Stamberg to reenact an FBI investigation that went after not just kingpin Rick Singer, but the bribed officials and the shady parents as well.

What it does particularly well, and makes it worth the watch, is keeping its target on the “victim” of these crimes, the colleges themselves. The true victims are of course the many applicants who were refused because their rightful places were taken by undeserving kids, but in the court’s eyes, it was the colleges who were defrauded. But as the documentary cleverly points out, the colleges have not only benefited (and not been required to pay back the bribes) from the situation, they’re the ones who created it. The side door was used primary by rich families who weren’t quite rich enough to use the back door that American colleges and universities leave purposefully propped open. Donations of about $10 million tend to net candidates preferential admissions consideration. And that’s to say nothing of the problematic front door, where the most elite schools are only accessible only to those rich enough to pay the exorbitant fees, privileged enough to attend schools that adequately prepare them, and white enough to ace culturally-biased entrance exams. The law may have let these schools off the hook, but Operation Varsity Blues does not.

Seaspiracy

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to watch this documentary; how smart could it be, I wondered, if it went with Seaspiracy over the rather obvious and clearly superior Conspirasea.

Film maker Ali Tabrizi is clearly passionate about the subject matter but let me tell you a little secret about documentarians: they’re not necessarily experts in the subjects they’re covering. Of course, some documentarians are well educated, and some are journalists, but some just want to make movies, or get famous. Their films’ content isn’t always deep, or thorough, or correct.

Seaspiracy is so general that I don’t doubt it’s fairly accurate. Its main thesis is: oceans are dying, and the commercial fishing industry is largely to blame. Tabrizi seems genuinely surprised by most of the facts he “uncovers” in his film and not particularly well-versed in basic ecology despite a self-proclaimed love for oceans and marine life. He’s also got a remarkable love for himself, and a good portion of his film is overshadowed by his own presence. Are the oceans being saved by shots of him shaking his despondent head as he scrolls the Internet? Or of him wiping away definitely not manufactured tears? Not likely. But he’s sad, guys, very sad, and worse, he’s disappointed. But he’s also very heroic! Don’t take my word for it – he’ll provide multiple statements to that effect, lauding him for risking his life to “report” on this important subject. Never mind that his courage is a little late to the party; his attempt to surreptitiously film a dolphin hunt at “a cove,” as he calls it, is actually The Cove, you know, the 2010 Oscar-winning documentary?

I don’t have a lot of respect for Seaspiracy but I suppose it’s an able enough introduction to the subject matter, perfect for children raised by wolves, people living under rocks, and mole women rescued from underground bunkers. If, however, you’re a normal human person, this particular doc might only be of interest for Tabrizi’s overzealous use of the word ‘equivalent.’ He loves when things are equivalent to other things! And while Seaspiracy exposes corruption and even slavery, its white saviour complex is as troubling as its integrity is suspect. Even if I agree with it in large part, I believe that almost anyone else would have done a better job.

Secret Magic Control Agency

Fairy tales come together in a new and only mildly interesting way in this buddy cop animated film with a magical twist that’ll only prove satisfying to young and undiscerning audiences.

You may have heard of Hansel and Gretel, who in this film are all grown up and sadly estranged. But they’ve reunited, against their will, to work a very important case. Gretel is a dedicated agent at the Secret Magic Control Agency while her brother Hansel is a criminal who uses magic to swindle folks. But when the King is kidnapped by a disgruntled royal chef who can bring food to life to act as her henchmen, for some reason only Hansel and Gretel together can solve the case and save the king. And, I should mention, in the process they get turned into children, making their mission even harder, as people tend to discount kids and not take them seriously and shit.

This movie didn’t strike me as special or interesting or good in any way, but I do think that sentient spaghetti and cupcake dogs will have a certain irresistible cachet with young kids. For adults, though, or even kids over 8 with good taste, this one’s not quite going to cut it.

Bad Trip

Chris (Eric Andre) doesn’t have much going for him – no nice house, or good job, or even a car, but when his childhood crush walks through the door, he feels like the luckiest man in the world. Unfortunately, Maria (Michaela Conlin) is just passing through Florida – though she does suggest he look her up in Manhattan if he’s ever in town. It sounds like a polite kiss-off to me and you, but Chris is desperate to take her up on the offer, so he enlists best friend Bud (Lil Rel Howery) to hit the road with him.

Neither has a car, so they borrow Bud’s sister’s car. And by borrow I mean they take it without her knowledge or permission, which she would never give. But Trina’s in prison, so what can she do? Break out of prison, for one, and pursue them all the way to New York City for another. Trina (Tiffany Haddish) doesn’t take any shit from anyone. Anyway, this flimsy plot is really just the framework to allow Eric Andre to pull a series of pranks on unsuspecting rubes up and down the east coast.

Not as political as Borat nor as foolish as Jackass, Bad Trip is thankfully not mean-spirited, but it does get to some pretty outlandish heights (or lows, really), including but certainly not limited to gorilla sodomy and projectile vomiting. I’m not really into pranks but most of their victims weren’t just good sports but good people (discounting one while guy on a golf course), which is sort of heartening to see. And the trio are clearly having so much fun getting away with their tricks it’s kind of irresistible. With a few genuine laughs, this isn’t a terrible option if you don’t mind rude, juvenile (yet still R-rated) humour, but no one’s mistaking this for great. Maybe just a bit of harmless escapism to get you through another weekend in the Red Zone.

SXSW 2021: Recovery

I watched this movie on a whim as the logline hadn’t particularly called out to me. But you know what? A single sentence movie synopsis can’t convey the charm and warmth and quirkiness of its stars.

Two directionless sisters brave a cross-country road trip to rescue their grandmother from a COVID outbreak at her nursing home.

See? It doesn’t sound terrible but I’m not sure I’m terribly invested in another COVID story. They’re already a dime a dozen on the indie circuit and truthfully, we don’t even have enough perspective or even closure on this stupid pandemic to really tell its stories. But in Recovery, COVID quarantine is merely the setting. The true meat is this delightful road trip with two sisters who I wish I knew in real life. Blake (Mallory Everton) and Jamie (Whitney Call) are fun and funny, down to earth in offbeat ways that are interesting and endearing rather than annoying. The actresses each have their own distinct style but their chemistry together is effortless and effervescent.

I loved the writing, I loved the two leads. Recovery isn’t so much about plot as it is a showcase for two talented actresses, and an opportunity to hang out with friends. An actually funny COVID comedy: who saw that coming? Breathlessly paced with an almost manic energy, Recovery will be a fun time capsule some day, but it’s got a humour that transcends the pandemic. I can’t wait to see more from these two.

SXSW 2021: We Are The Thousand

I grew up in a small town where absolutely no concerts that I didn’t perform myself were ever given. NO ONE came to town and of course we didn’t even blame them. I was lucky, though, to live a very drivable distance between several large cities, which means I didn’t miss out on much. I saw tonnes of shows (not in the last year – I miss live music!) but not everyone is nearly as lucky. Take the good people of Cesena, Italy. They were fed up with being passed over for concerts and they did something about it.

Anita Rivaroli’s We Are The Thousand documents Cesena’s attempt to lure the Foo Fighters to perform in their town by staging their own concert – 1000 musicians playing Learn to Fly at the same time. Go behind the scenes to see the year’s worth of preparation that goes into a four minute song as volunteers figure out logistics, equipment, and financing on the fly – after all, this has never been done before.

Watch the thrilling ensemble of 250 drummers, 150 bass players, 350 guitarists, and 250 singers, known collectively as Rockin’1000, on the warm day one thousand musicians learned to play together. Can this many drummers really play in sync? Can that many guitarists be convinced not to engage in musical masturbation? And even if they can, will it work? Will Dave Grohl hear their plea? Will Foo Fighters play their town?

We Are The Thousand is a heck of a great way to find out.

SXSW 2021: Fucking With Nobody

After losing a directing gig to her nemesis Kristian, Hanna teams up with her sister and counterculture friends to create a phony Instagram romance between herself and young actor Ekku. Hanna and her friends have lofty ambitions for their Instagram account; self-described ‘social anarchists,’ this “art project” will challenge the traditional, heteronormative power structures of romantic love. Everyone’s super on board, even Hanna’s and Ekku’s current boyfriends, who are both witnesses and participants.

Of course, what starts as a commentary on how easily intimacy can be faked on social media quickly snowballs into something else entirely as Hanna and Ekku begin to rack up views. With a real following, they have a platform to really say something, but instead seem to lose the thread of their original intent.

In a complicated and complicating meta twist, film director Hanna is played by Fucking With Nobody writer-director Hannaleena Hauru. The part of her boyfriend is played by real life boyfriend (and co-writer, and co-cinematographer) Lasse Poser. Fiction and reality blur and the narrative lines become difficult to parse and perhaps more trouble than they’re worth.

This movie about making a movie (about making a movie?) bites off more than it can chew, and though I normally admire hunger, this kind of gluttony was hard to watch and ultimately unsatisfying.

SXSW 2021: Disintegration Loops

William Basinski may not be a household name, but among avant-garde ambient music composers, there are few who stand shoulder to shoulder with him. Best known for The Disintegration Loops, an elegy to the 2001 attacks, Basinski reflects on his legacy as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

The music consists of found sound sources, shortwave radio, and delay systems recorded on tape loops that, when played repeatedly as he transferred the sound to a digital format, gradually deteriorated as they passed over and over the tape head, the ferrite eventually detaching from the plastic backing, with increasing gaps and cracks in the music as it played on. The crumbling tapes leave a haunting musical memorial of their own demise. The mournful sound, produced by catastrophic decay, became the soundtrack for the terrible aftermath of the terrorist attacks. A resident of New York City, Basinski watched the towers fall from the roof of his building, and dedicated the album to the victims.

The events of 9/11 are eerily paralleled in the documentary as it is shot during the COVID-19 pandemic. Interviews over Zoom are threaded with shots of a dramatically empty New York City, and Basinski is once again composing music for the time.

SXSW Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

Racism is bad. Inarguably, unequivocally bad. And yet it’s had a persistent history in the USA (and most other places, but this is about racism in America) and is baked right into its constitution, making it all but impossible to shake.

This documentary doesn’t need to convince you that racism is bad. Jeffery Robinson is a lawyer, which makes sense, because he’s exceptionally good at building a case. America is on trial, and Robinson is the crusading prosecutor with such compelling and relentless evidence you can’t help but convict.

Although Robinson’s approach is very fact-based, his stories add up to something as moving as it is convincing. I could go on and on but the truth is, this is a strong documentary that deserves to be seen, end of story.

SXSW 2021: Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break

Paul Dood (Tom Meeten) is an odd duck, a middle aged man working part time at a second hand shop but a full time dreamer. An aspiring triple threat (singing/dancing/acting), his act has garnered very little attention on social media but this hasn’t deterred him from his ambition of auditioning for a competitive talent reality show, or from live streaming nearly every aspect of his life via a chest cam. His greatest champion, his mother/roommate Julie (June Watson), applauds his every move, despite a glaring lack of talent, and sews all his tacky, out of date, sequined costumes, of which he is terribly fond.

When the reality show is in his town holding auditions, it is of course his top priority to wow the judges and dominate the stage, but his journey there, pushing his ailing mother in a wheelchair, is fraught with bad luck and a series of unfortunate encounters which make him late for the audition, which he leaves humiliated and broken, and that’s before he realizes it’s killed his mother. Used to being disappointed, Paul returns to his dismal life, but one day at work, something in him snaps. Taking an extended lunch break, he seeks revenge on the selfish people who made him late that fateful day.

If Paul Dood wasn’t so pathetically funny, you’d call this is a horror. Five pretty spectacular and fairly graphic murders are about to take place. Yet Paul’s bumbling ineptitude and soul-crushing resilience mean these murders are more slap stick than terrifying. But do remember that Paul’s chest cam is always filming, and if his singing and dancing didn’t get many views, a murder spree sure will, no matter how sloppily executed.

Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break is low-budget and uneven, yet I found as I watched that I was drawn to the character and entertained by his hijinks. It’s not a perfect film but if you give it a chance, it’s warm and silly and I couldn’t help but join in the fun.