There may be no March Madness this year but there’s something truly insane related to college basketball this Tuesday. Airing on HBO after its canceled SXSW premiere, “The Scheme” tells the story of Christian Dawkins, a man whose ambition and business savvy became the focus of a major federal operation to bring down corruption in the NCAA. You may remember the fallout in 2017 that led to the resignation of Rick Pitino at Louisville, but the truth is that not much seemed to change in the NCAA. Personally, I remembered Sean Miller of Arizona’s angry press conference and a few other ESPN early reports but wondered what came of it. The truth is that most people know there’s corruption in the NCAA because it’s a system designed to support it through its nonsensical arguments about amateurism. So the question of “The Scheme” becomes not so much what did the government uncover but why did they bother? And perhaps a bit frustratingly unexplored by the film, why did they just kind of gently place the cover back when they were done?
“The Scheme” is really a profile piece of Christian Dawkins, the Michigan man who was the center of this expensive sting operation. Dawkins grew up in Saginaw, a high school basketball hot spot that has produced major players like Draymond Green. His brother looked like the next NBA star but he died at a tragically young age from an undiagnosed heart condition. With his brother’s talent, the legacy of his school’s program, and a father who was a famous coach locally, it seems inevitable that Dawkins would go into something related to basketball. And it turned out that he had incredible business savvy. At a young age, he was scouting high school players and selling the results to college coaches. He was negotiating shoe deals for players in high school. It made perfect sense that he would try to get into managing players.
And so he did. In the mid’-10s, he raised some capital and worked toward founding his own company that would kind of guide players from high school through college and into the pros. Imagine finding the right guy early and getting a cut of an NBA All-Star future. Naturally, Dawkins became an essential ally for college coaches, not just offering advice but encouraging his players to go to certain schools. However, none of what Dawkins was doing was illegal. He’s a representative, someone to speak for the players and guide their future. And yet, for some reason, the government saw him as the key to a massive corruption sting.
They sent in undercover agents to basically hand Dawkins money and then encourage him to bring coaches into the financial system. While “The Scheme” is arguably one-sided—the producers reached out to the government and coaches but they refused comment—it’s hard to watch the undercover footage here and not consider this entrapment. Dawkins repeatedly tries to explain to his new investors that bribing coaches isn’t what he does and what he wants to do. It’s not out of an allegiance to a corrupt, broken system, but it just doesn’t make sense for his business model. But someone decided that college coaches are public officials and so bribing would be enough for a corruption charge and they kept pushing their way into a horrible scheme.
Clearly, the plan was to get just enough on Dawkins to turn him to then dismantle the system further, but Dawkins didn’t play along. “The Scheme” takes a bit too long to get there—it didn’t need to be a full two hours—but the final quarter of this game is ridiculously entertaining and enlightening. Without “spoiling” anything, you’ll hear the voices of some major players in the college coaching scene who will have some serious explaining to do if they want to keep their jobs next week. And Dawkins is charmingly defiant about all of it. He’s the main reason “The Scheme” works, someone who can look at all of this nonsense and see it for what it is. The filmmakers rely a bit too much on interviews—the old criticism of "talking-head movie" could be used here—but Dawkins is a fascinating subject, and there's filmmaking skill in how they get him to open up for the first time and detail everything that happened.
The headlines that dropped on Dawkins, Pitino, and others emerged from a deeply broken system, one that punishes players for minor offenses while making millions off their talents. The fact that the U.S. government wasted so much time and resources poorly trying to push into one corner of this behemoth of corruption and greed is the real story here. And it’s well-told.
“The Scheme” airs on HBO on Tuesday night at 9pm EST.
There’s more hand-me-down genre movie tropes than recognizable human behavior in the new sci-fi/horror hybrid “Vivarium,” about a young couple (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) who is abducted and forced to raise a creepy pod person child. Which wouldn’t be so bad if “Vivarium” wasn’t about the suffocating nature of marriage and parenting in the 21st century.
“Vivarium” isn’t a fun watch, and not just because it’s generally claustrophobic and insistently bleak. Even less fun: watching a pair of talented actors go through the motions of an exhausted scenario that’s based almost entirely on pat assumptions about how pre-fabricated and insidious modern suburbia is. In every dream home a heartache? Yeah, sure.
After visiting a creepy realtor (Jonathan Aris), Tom and Gemma (Eisenberg and Poots) are driven to and then abandoned in Yonder, a very bland vision of an even blander gated community. Every house in Yonder is painted green, every backyard is mowed, and every cloud in the sky resembles a matte painting. Tom and Gemma try to escape, but they cannot find Yonder’s exit. So they settle in at #9 (no street address, presumably because they’re all the same), and periodically receive care packages of flavorless, but neatly vacuum-sealed perishables, like steak, eggs, and coffee. One such box includes a human baby; on the side of the box are these instructions: “Raise the child and be released.”
Time passes differently in Yonder, especially for Tom and Gemma’s unnamed child (Senan Jennings, and then later Eanna Hardwicke). This kid is like one of the Midwich Cuckoos from “Village of the Damned,” only he’s not nearly as interesting: he ages faster than normal, like a dog, and he asks awkward questions that have negligible existential value, like what’s a dog, what’s a dream, etc. Tom and Gemma’s child also screams whenever they don’t go through the motions of parenting him, like when they don’t serve him enough breakfast cereal. He also parrots their conversations back to them, like, oh, any time that Tom and Gemma argue. This kid is creepy, mostly thanks to Jennings and Hardwicke’s performances, but he’s not interesting enough to stick in your mind for long.
The same is basically true of Tom and Gemma’s frustrated coping strategies: he tries to escape by digging a hole in their lawn while she tries to bond with Jennings and Hardwicke’s bad seed. Tom and Gemma’s respective activities define who they are in “Vivarium,” because the plot doesn’t slow down long enough to relate any valuable information beyond expository dialogue. This is especially frustrating whenever Tom and Gemma’s situation tells us how they feel about each other, because those feelings are often as vague as Tom and Gemma’s ersatz son.
Most “Vivarium” scenes are too brisk and un-nuanced to flesh out Yonder’s ostensibly forbidding world of plastic, consumer-friendly domesticity. One moment we’re watching Tom trudge from the breakfast table back to his lawn hole. Then, a few minutes and scenes later, we’re watching him cough up a lung, and pantomime bone-deep weariness. Eisenberg’s a talented performer, but he’s not good enough to suggest soul-sick mania in a few seconds.
Viewers are also left with a number of basic conceptual questions that are never really answered, because Tom and Gemma don’t waste much time talking their way through their problems. Is that lack of introspection supposed to mean something? It’s hard to tell, especially given how unyielding most of the movie’s dialogue is, like when Gemma wonderingly tells her child that “You’re a mystery, and I’m going to solve you.” Equally banal dialogue exchanges, like when she tells him that a dream is “all sorts of moving pictures in your mind, but no one else can see them,” also reminded me of the human sensitivity that’s often lacking from “Vivarium.” I know this movie is supposed to be about what it’s like to be sucked dry by social expectations … but does it have to be so empty, too?
Every moment in “Vivarium” is a frustrating synecdoche, since no single metaphor or image convey an idea that you probably couldn’t think up with yourself during an especially foul mood. Marriage is a prison; parenting is a scam; home ownership is a trap; and you’ll probably die alone, without a substantial legacy. Understood, but who cares? If all you can show me is what you think isn’t genuine, you leave me with zero idea about what you think authenticity looks like, or why I should care. “Vivarium” is the horror movie equivalent of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans: easy to reproduce, easier to forget.
Available on VOD today, 3/27.
There's something about the summer in between high school and college. Friendships break up or become super clingy, due to all that impending separation anxiety. Romances break up. People get way too drunk and hug it out. Tears are shed. Things get a little ... intense. "Banana Split" takes place during such a summer, complete with brightly-colored chapter markers: "89 Days Until Orientation," and etc. Even with the clock running down, there's an in-between feeling, a "this is forever and yet it's also ending" feeling, nicely captured by director Benjamin Kasulke, with poignant and sometimes funny needle drops, and two excellent central performances from Hannah Marks and Liana Liberato. There's a lot more complexity here than may meet the eye, even with the title's broad-stroke (so to speak) double entendre.
"Banana Split" opens with a montage, a bold and not entirely successful choice, showing the falling-in-love, virginity-losing, and eventual old-married-couple-fighting of April (Marks) and her hottie boyfriend Nick (Dylan Sprouse). As the montage reveals in a quick succession of scenes, they're together for two years (basically a 40-year-marriage in high school years). But when April gets into Boston University, all the way across the country from Los Angeles, things change. Nick is going to school locally in California. He's hurt she would make such a choice. The two don't break up in a formal way. April still thinks they're going out, until one day she notices something horrifying: Nick posting pictures on his Instagram of him making out with another girl.
April is a pretty tough cookie, and judging from her mother (a very funny Jessica Hecht), and her trash-talking younger sister (Addison Riecke), the apples all fall from the same tree. Tough as she may be, April is devastated by Nick abandoning her (and confused by him still texting her). Luke Spencer Roberts plays Ben, friend to both Nick and April, who finds himself stuck in the middle. Meanwhile, April becomes obsessed with this new girl, who has dropped into their crowd from out of nowhere. She is Clara (Liana Liberato), a coolly beautiful and confident blonde, and April glowers at her from across crowded parties, getting way too drunk, tears pooling up in her eyes. Eventually, though, the girls become friends, and decide to continue their friendship without telling anyone—not Nick, not social media, no one. It's like they are cheating on everyone with each other. They sneak around, and Clara keeps seeing Nick, and April has many mixed feelings.
The script was co-written by Hannah Marks and Joey Power (this is their second script, the first being 2018's "After Everything"). Marks also served as executive producer for the film. Marks is just 27 years old, and this alone is hope for the future. Young women creating their own work, initiating projects, getting it done, not waiting around for someone in power to "give them" roles they deserve. Marks was recently named by Rolling Stone as one of the "25 under 25 changing the world." A heady label, but Marks seems more than ready to take on all those challenges. As children, both Marks and Liberato were profiled in a 2006 New York Times Magazine article about child actors (Liberato was featured on the cover). Child actors often flame out, suffering from the "too much too soon" tradition in the industry. But Marks and Liberato have made that transition with grace: they both work all the time, in television series (Marks in "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and Liberato in "Sons of Anarchy" and "Light as a Feather"). In 2011, Liberato gave a tremendous performance in David Schwimmer's "Trust" playing a 14-year-old child lured into a "relationship" by a much-older online predator.
Here, together, Marks and Liberato make such an interesting onscreen pair. Marks is all wisecracks, but with an undercurrent of constant roiling emotion, rage and hurt and humor. She wears her mixed feelings on her sleeve. And Liberato plays a girl who presents as confident and open—but the truth is she's struggling to find her way, she's a little bit lost, even. Clara is not going to college. She doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. Sometimes flashes of deep ambivalence cross her face, showing that Clara doesn't quite like the way things are going, that she may not be as easy-breezy as she seems.
"Banana Split"'s opening sequence is a little rough. The dialogue is presentational, and the jokey tone is a bit arch. But once the two girls start hanging out together, "Banana Split" settles into its rhythm. There are moments of poignancy and humor. This is an entertaining and often insightful look at female friendship during a particularly strange time, the hiatus before everything changes, the last gasp before adulthood and independence. The film is refreshingly frank about teenage life, the drinking and drugs, the fake IDs, the drunken Lyft rides home, all of the bad choices everyone makes. The film isn't phobic or leering about female sexuality. It's all very matter-of-fact, another refreshing choice. Even Nick gets to have complexity (eventually). This is director Kasulke's first narrative feature, but he comes to the table with a lot of experience as a cinematographer and it shows. The film looks beautiful, using natural locations and available golden sunlight, all of which creates a real sense of the environment.
Make it through the first 10 minutes. It’s just the film warming up. The rest of it flows.
Available on VOD today, 3/27.
Everybody hates mimes, we have been led to believe. But this is not true, or at least, not quite true. In the training of actors, mime is an important learned skill. And I am told that every young actor, after a period of thorough training, will long carry with them a secret yearning to be cast in a role that will somehow allow them to really show their learned mime skills, despite the fact that everybody hates mimes. It is a curious position.
When we first see Jesse Eisenberg (now in his mid-thirties, incidentally) in “Resistance,” he is wearing a Charlie Chaplin mustache and performing mime. His angry father, a Kosher butcher, pursues him into an alley. “Look at you, dressed as Hitler and performing in a whorehouse.” Eisenberg’s character, Marcel, corrects him about the Hitler/Chaplin confusion and further clarifies that it’s a cabaret rather than a brothel. The time is 1938. The place is Strasbourg, France.
Some older readers may be adding two and two here. A character named …Marcel? Who’s also a … mime? Why yes. And here’s the other contradiction of the truism that everybody hates mimes. Because Eisenberg here is indeed playing the real-life figure who would achieve world renown and fame as Marcel Marceau, the 20th century’s only universally beloved mime. Beloved not just because of his skills and innovations, but because his mime art was one of abundant humanity.
Did you know that Marceau was a real-life war hero? He was. He began working in what became known as the French Resistance well before the Nazi invasion of France, and in secret alliance with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts organization helped save the lives of thousands of war orphans. This movie, written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, a Venezuelan filmmaker of Polish-Jewish descent, who also made the 2016 “Hands of Stone,” weaves a couple of other narrative threads around Marcel’s. The movie opens with Elsbeth, a young Jewish girl being reassured by her parents and then almost immediately orphaned. Strangely, we then cut to Nuremburg after the Allied victory, and General George Patton addressing his troops. (Patton is played by Ed Harris.) Did you know that Marcel Marceau was also a liaison officer for Patton during the last days of the war? Well he was. The movie also chronicles the depredations of Klaus Barbie (while juggling, for the sake of themes, some of the facts of his personal life), the Nazi who was nicknamed “The Butcher of Lyon.”
Jakubowicz handles these threads with coherence and vigor. As for its main thrust, well you can imagine what happens when you put a trained mime in a situation where he has to handle a lot of traumatized children. Marcel distracts them with amusing routines, which Eisenberg … uses his no doubt extensive training in mime to recreate.
I know what you are thinking. But no, this is not “Life Is Beautiful.” The joy-in-the-midst-of-tragedy theme is provisional. The movie also portrays Marcel as a genuine fighter. Although it does reach a bit here. There’s a moment where Marcel uses fire eating, the venerable for-mature-audiences circus trick, in a bid to set fire to a Nazi officer. I mean, it could have happened. But as portrayed here, it’s a little on the nose. That said, it’s salutary that the movie doesn’t lean on love-conquers-all platitudes. There’s a crucial scene in which Emma (Clémence Poésy) attempts suicide after enduring torture from Barbie. (The scenes in which Barbie executes and torments prisoners are set in a converted gymnasium and its empty swimming pool; the tiles are shiny, gleaming, giving the sequences an almost futuristic quality of gruesomeness.) After saving her, Marcel explains that seeking revenge is useless; actively saving lives is all that matters. It’s a cogent expression of the proper spirit of resistance—that it should be based in love, but expressed in action. Direct, effective action.
On the other hand, this is also a movie in which a group of characters sits in the back of a van, discussing what it means to be a Jew, and one of them says “Jews are emancipated slaves,” and there’s a cutaway to the only person of color in the van perking up. That is, it’s a bit literal minded. And, yes, mime-heavy. But I give it a lot of credit for being a movie that doesn’t have its head up its own fundament concerning the question of how Nazis should have, and should be, fought.
Available on VOD today, 3/27.
The celebrity-driven documentary is a tricky one. It’s obvious that these famous faces want to talk about something they’re passionate about—they may even have talked about their cause célèbre on a talk show or shared countless links on social media. But when they take the extra step of making a movie about this issue, the challenge for them is not to steal the spotlight from the subject.
That’s the tension that plays out throughout “There’s Something in the Water,” an environmental documentary from Ellen Page and her “Gaycation” collaborator Ian Daniel. The movie is inextricable from Page, who uses her own experiences as a means to personalize the subject. However, her constant presence raises the question if she were not in front of the camera, would this documentary have any chance of finding an audience? Will her message be heard if she isn’t always in front of the camera?
To set the scene, Page and Daniel use her childhood home of Nova Scotia as an example to look at the human cost of environmental racism, or when marginalized communities suffer because corporations dump or release their toxic wastes in their neighborhoods. Or, as Dr. Ingrid Waldron, whose book inspired Page and this movie, explains, it’s when “your postal code determines your health.” Page revisits her happy childhood hometown of Halifax and her pride in Canada’s embrace of universal healthcare, LGBTQ rights and legalized marijuana, but admits that not all is well in our neighbors to the north.
After a quick primer on how corrupt politicians and corporations are still benefitting from the suffering of Black and Indigenous people, Page and Daniel hop in a car and take viewers through three different towns in Nova Scotia to see the fallout for themselves. In Shelburne, they meet local activist Louise Delisle who says a toxic landfill has caused a spike in cancer in her community, where many people die before their time. It’s just 20 minutes from Page’s hometown. Driving around Shelburne, Delisle points out the homes where people have died or are dying of cancer. The landfill has been decommissioned for years, but still its damage continues. Next is Pictou Landing, where Michelle Francis-Denny recounts the harrowing story of how paper mill lied to tribal elders, her grandfather included, and poisoned their local harbor. Tearfully, she leads the cameras to where the plant has continually pumped toxic waste since 1967. It’s a devastating scene of an unnatural water treatment facility that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie—it certainly doesn’t look like anything you’d like to drink. Finally, there’s a stop at the town of Stewiacke, where tribal water protectors are standing up to Alton Gas’ plan to poison its sacred river. They confront politicians like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil with little support in return, and it’s almost always the same dismaying results time after time.
The directors use their subjects’ backstories to show what these devastated places were like before a landfill poisoned a Black neighborhood’s drinking water and before generations of First Nations families were decimated by toxic waste. “There’s Something in the Water” is strongest when focused on their first-person accounts. It’s perhaps no accident Page and Daniel chose to feature all women-activists, and there seems to be no shortage of amazing women on the front lines of protests, unafraid to take their fight right to the country’s prime minister. There’s no more damning a testimony than hearing how a mere $10,000 would mean the difference between potable drinking water for a community or continued poisoning, and even then, the local government chose to spend almost several that amount on an annual festival. It’s not unlike what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, and countless other poor and/or rural communities.
While Page uses her experience to tie these activists together, I’m not sure she needs to. It’s dismaying to think that the only reason audiences would care about environmental racism is because a white Canadian told them to when the activists’ stories are already so compelling. Whenever the documentary gets really wrapped up in their stories, Page reinserts herself, either by awkwardly entering a home in a messy, handheld shot or having the camera drift over to her horrified reaction to an ecological disaster. Further distracting from some of the film’s more poignant moments is a score that sometimes (but thankfully, not always) incorporates choral chants or harmonized voices, muddling Page’s voiceover message.
But while the documentary has the feel of a scrappy passion project, the message itself remains powerful. Given the chaotic times, “There’s Something in the Water” also serves as a stark reminder that not all governments have their citizens’ best interests at heart.
Whether it’s a major character like in “Book Club” or a passion to be followed like in “A Good Year” or “Sideways,” wine isn’t often portrayed in American cinema as an integral part of the black experience. In his good-natured feature debut “Uncorked,” writer/director Prentice Penny (“Insecure,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) sets out to challenge and change these optics, braiding a formulaic father-and-son tale with a gifted African-American sommelier-to-be’s pursuit of his advanced palate. That scheme alone sets “Uncorked” apart from the typical “wine movie,” admittedly in short supply already. The filmmaker doesn’t really steer clear of box-ticking clichés—a tendency that often dents various Netflix-helmed movies such as “Always Be My Maybe.” But Penny still manages to put the tried-and-true template of a tale pitched between family tradition and individualism in new context, delivering something closer to a satisfying, everyday table wine than a rare, award-winning bottle.
Most of the film’s rewarding spirit is supplied by its lead Mamoudou Athie (“Underwater,” “The Circle”) in the role of the wine-enthusiast Elijah who dedicatedly works at a liquor store in Memphis. The film’s vigorous (and by all means, mouth-watering) opening sequence economically represents the world in which he dwells through a bit of slick editing—on one hand, there is the BBQ joint ran by his father, Louis (a coolly authoritative Courtney B. Vance), and on the other, there are the velvety pours Elijah sells and studies with enthusiasm while dreaming of becoming a master sommelier one day. That opening is followed by an equally endearing scene, in which Elijah spots a new customer, Tanya (Sasha Compère), and guides the inexperienced but curious drinker towards something that would align with her taste in hip-hop. “A Pinot Grigio is like Kanye West,” he suggests. Then he likens a Chardonnay, “the granddaddy of wines,” to Jay-Z and a Riesling to Drake. Tanya goes with Drake, upon which a sweet romance with palpable chemistry blooms between her and Elijah.
Meanwhile Elijah’s future, at least in his father’s eyes, seems to be decided upon—he would one day take over the family restaurant just like his father did back in the day, when it was run by the family patriarch. But things take a different turn when the young man finally decides to register for a course to tackle the impossible-to-pass sommelier exam. Two supporting characters—Matt McGorry’s initially arrogant but ultimately well-meaning “Harvard” (because, well, he went to Harvard, as he often brags about) and Gil Ozeri’s adorably awkward, often insecure Richie—furnish the film with much welcome notes of comedy. Elsewhere, Penny tries to do his best with keeping Tanya as well as Elijah’s supportive mom Sylvia (a fabulous Niecy Nash) relevant to the core of the story. Sadly, his efforts don’t always land—one labored, rushed-through plotline involving cancer especially drags down the film’s energy while failing to sell some bare-minimum teary emotions.
Still, this is the story of Elijah and Louis, and Penny mostly succeeds on those grounds, demonstrating his tightest grip on the narrative when he focuses on the similar pride that drives both men. For Elijah, that pride seems to be split evenly between his career obsession and parental respect, evident both when he strolls through the streets of Paris—a course-mandated excursion he embarks upon, thanks to his caring family’s generous backing—and when he works at his dad’s BBQ restaurant. And for Louis, that pride resides in familial legacy and love. Gradually, it becomes clear that Penny is more interested in what unites the two (they are both meticulous in their professions, for instance) rather than what sets them apart, forging the way to a conclusion of genuine, mutual acceptance, without abandoning the challenges they face even in a post-Obama world that many falsely consider to be post-racial. In the days where we’re all cooped up at home, there are certainly worse things you could do than settling in front of this pleasant film and its upbeat musical tracks (original music by Hit Boy) with a positive attitude and a smooth bottle of wine. It will go down easy.
Available on Netflix today, 3/27.
We expect friends to have a common interest, but it's unusual when that common interest is a boy who is one girl's ex, and the other's current boyfriend. In "Banana Split," now available on demand and digital, co-writer Hannah Marks stars as April, who broke up with her boyfriend Nick (Dylan Sprouse) and then gets jealous when he almost-immediately starts dating the new girl in town, Clara (Liana Liberato). But her best intentions to hate her new rival are thwarted when Clara turns out to be pretty wonderful. So, they decide not to let Nick know they are friends.
In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Marks spoke about creating dialogue that is "not too quippy," the technical and dramatic benefits of characters who text each other, and what she's watching while avoiding the coronavirus.
Your characters communicate by text a lot, typical of teenagers. But for you both as a writer and as an actress, what kind of additional opportunities and challenges are there in showing texting on screen?
I think this is a more technical answer than you were looking for, but the beauty of having texting in movies is that it allows you to manipulate the story in post-production. So when you’re editing, if there’s a plotline or something that isn’t working or landing or becoming clear to people, you have the chance to manipulate it so easily, because you can just change what’s on the phone. That’s something that’s really beautiful and helpful as a filmmaker, getting that extra freedom to tweak the story. And then, as an actor, it’s just the reality of how we live our lives now, so much of it via texting, or the phone, or Instagram. It’s just impossible to avoid or be able to tell especially a teenage story, honestly and accurately. You can’t really do it without these tools, because that’s what kids are really using.
What is easier to say in a text than it would be to say in person?
Oh gosh, anything that has any kind of meaning or weight. Anything worth saying is probably easier to say over text.
And any wait for a response is more agonizing over text.
Oh yeah, there’s nothing worse than seeing those dot dot dots appear.
What is so delightful about the movie is that it’s about the friendship of the two girls, and the boy is almost incidental. How do you create that remarkable instant chemistry between the characters?
Well thankfully, Liana Liberato and I have been friends since we were little, little girls. I mean, I met her when I was 11 and she was 9. So that chemistry hopefully seemed real, because it was real! We’ve known and loved each other for a long time and it was always a dream of ours to get to work together, so it was really just about having fun together and getting to experience it, and hoping that that translated to the audience.
The music in the film is exceptionally well chosen. Were you involved in that?
I definitely made a ton of playlists, but I don’t think I can take credit for that. That was all [director] Ben Kasulke, who is a big music lover, and used a lot of his Seattle friends and Portland friends. That’s where he’s from, so he used a lot of local bands that he knew and loved, and I think he did a really great job with it.
He did! Is there a song from the soundtrack that particularly resonates with you?
When we’re hiking together, there's a song called "Crimson Wave" by Tacocat that is about periods. And I remember thinking it was so cool that our male director picked a menstrual song for that part of the movie. And then also of course, “Bling Bling Bitch” was a song that Liana and I had chosen from a list of songs that we could get the rights to for that rapping scene. We both immediately gravitated towards that song, and it was so much easier to memorize because it’s basically just “bling bling bitch” over and over!
In what ways do being a writer and being an actor inform each other? What have you learned about writing from acting, and learned about acting from writing?
When you’re writing something that you’re acting in, you know the story so well, and you know the intention of every line. Whereas when you’re an actor using someone else’s material, you have to make a lot of decisions on what the intentions were behind the lines, which you don’t always get to know, because you don’t always know the writer. So it was really exciting to get to do scenes where I knew why every line was on the page, and I could then best inform my performance around what the story needed. And then being an actor definitely helps my writing in every way because I’m so used to reading a million scripts and memorizing dialogue, that it really helps the dialogue part of screenwriting come naturally.
The dialogue, especially between April and Clara, is very witty, very sharp, and—this is a compliment—the rhythms of it had a 1930s movie feel. Do you watch old movies, and is that an influence on you?
Yeah, I watch everything, everything I can get my hands on. Anything that looks appealing to me, I watch it! Joey Power and I wrote it together, and we were always riding that line of not wanting it to be too quippy. We want it to be funny and quick and clever enough to be a movie, but not so quippy that it feels like you’re not in reality. And there’s some movies that do that fantastically, like any Diablo Cody movie. They’re so sharp and so wonderful, but that wasn’t really our style. So we were trying to create a balancing act. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach do it really really well, their characters are so sharp, but also kind of a mess.
I liked your film "After Everything," very much. Would you say there’s a through line to the stories you like to tell, an issue or a situation that continues to appeal to you?
Definitely! I didn’t necessarily think there was a thread in the projects I was making, and then I looked back and realized there totally is. I really am fascinated by temporary love and temporary relationships, so really everything I’ve made so far as a filmmaker—not as an actor—has been about a relationship that was really meaningful for a certain period of time, and then just because it doesn’t last forever doesn’t mean it didn’t impact who you are as a person. So that’s really been the unintentional thread of the projects that I’ve made.
Are female friendships particularly interesting for you to explore?
Definitely, especially at the time when we were writing it. This was before "Booksmart," before a lot of these great movies came out, because it was a long journey to getting the project made. So it felt like there weren’t very many at the time, but now thankfully there are a lot of great stories. A huge inspiration was "Frances Ha," speaking of Greta Gerwig. That was one that I think really nailed the female friendship.
And what are you doing next?
I just made a movie called "Mark, Mary, and Some Other People," which I wrote, directed, and produced, but I did not act in it. That was a super exhilarating and fun experience. We just wrapped that last month. And I’m adapting a children’s book series, I’m acting, I’m doing a lot of stuff right now, thankfully. I like to stay busy!
What are you doing to take care of yourself during the era of the virus shutdowns?
It’s forcing me to take a break, which is nice. I can’t edit my movie right now because of what’s going on, but in a way that’s good, because it gives me some time away from it to have outside perspective. So I’m really just playing with my dogs, hanging out with my boyfriend. We’re staying inside, we haven't left the house in over a week. We’re binging shows. It’s nice to just be with each other.
While you’re home binging, is there any one thing that you want to recommend?
Oh my god, yeah. I just watched "Tiger King" yesterday, I watched the whole thing in one sitting. It’s a new true-crime doc series on Netflix. It’s about the big cat industry, and all the characters in that industry. People that privately own tigers and lions. It’s insane, the crimes that went down, and these crazy, twisted stories that you’ve never heard of. Definitely recommend watching it, it’s super addicting!
There are few modes of healing as cathartic as sharing one’s truth through the prism of art. It was the world of avant-garde theatre in New York that first enabled filmmaker Deborah Kampmeier to explore the abuse she endured while growing up in the South. Her first three movies center on heroines who share the psyche of their creator, forming a trilogy that chronicles the horror of rape and the process embarked upon by survivors to reclaim their wholeness. Kampmeier’s 2003 debut feature, “Virgin,” was widely praised for its portrayal of a devoutly religious teen (played in a Spirit Award-nominated performance by Elisabeth Moss) who believes she was impregnated by God, a conviction that deeply disturbs her Baptist family. The director herself faced a similar rage when her 2007 follow-up, “Hounddog,” triggered a fierce backlash upon its premiere at Sundance, not unlike the chilly, profanity-laced reception given to Jennifer Kent’s criminally under-appreciated masterwork “The Nightingale” last year in Venice. Both films gained notoriety for their uncompromising depiction of rape in which the focus is placed not on exploitative nudity but on the brutal violation reflected in the victim’s face. Violence against women has been perpetuated so often in cinema that studio executives barely flinch at it, yet when the female experience is foregrounded in all of its raw intensity, it almost always winds up blacklisted.
Kampmeier’s work foreshadowed the rise of the #MeToo movement well over a decade before it began overturning patriarchal norms in Hollywood, which makes it all the more appropriate that her latest film, “Tape,” would be released just two weeks following the sentencing of Harvey Weinstein. In many ways, it serves as the second half to an impeccable double bill with Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” where the titular young female employee, Jane (Julia Garner), suspects that her boss, an unseen Weinstein-esque mogul, is abusing his power, the traces of which register as subtle yet unmistakably toxic red flags. All Jane can do, in the end, is gaze up at the window of her boss’ office, wondering what crimes might be occurring behind its walls. “Tape” kicks down the office door, so to speak, by taking the viewer step by excruciating step through one woman’s experiences of having her trust betrayed. Whereas Green’s script was informed by numerous interviews conducted with women who had worked for Weinstein, “Tape” is based on the real story of its co-star/producer Annarosa Mudd, who was taken advantage of on-camera by a producer after hours of insidious coercion during a screen test. Mudd’s choice to come out publicly about what happened to her is a courageous one, and it adds even more layers of poignance and meaning to what is already, on its own terms, a powerful and essential film.
Just as Kampmeier’s little-seen third feature, 2016’s sublime “Split,” enabled its abused heroine (Amy Ferguson) to participate in a play that externalized her emotional journey, “Tape” provides Mudd with the opportunity to peer into her own past as lived by the character of Pearl (Isabelle Fuhrman). The entire picture hinges on the performance of Fuhrman, who has displayed exceptional range in everything from creepy thrillers (“Orphan”) to whimsical coming-of-age comedies (“Dear Eleanor”), and she is nothing short of a revelation. For large stretches of the film, Pearl is determined to rein in her feelings while putting on a brave face for the producer, Lux (Tarek Bishara), who has offered to audition her for his esteemed protégé program, though not before initially rejecting her. Only when alone in her apartment is she able to fully remove the mask. There is a wrenching scene where Pearl bursts into tears when talking on the phone with her mom, whom she wants to support financially, all the while shoveling down mouthfuls of cake that she intends on promptly throwing up. After completing the ritual, she stares at her reflection in the mirror and begins to kiss her hand, as if attempting to make peace with a body that has weathered the cruel expectations of an objectifying industry. Occupying the periphery of her narrative is Mudd’s character of Rosa, an actress previously targeted by Lux, who intends on secretly taping his screen test with Pearl in order to bring him down. Kampmeier juxtaposes Pearl’s tearful monologue on the phone with footage of Mudd on her laptop in Times Square, deftly illustrating how both women share a commonality in their mutual isolation.
Like all skilled predators, Lux knows precisely how to alienate his prey from the rest of the group, insisting that he’s the only one who understands them and is therefore solely capable of making their dreams come true. He goes out of his way to appear normal, making friends with a guy at the local coffee shop where he plans on meeting Pearl. The empty, authoritative terms—“Sprezzatura!” “Claim your power!”—he spews are like a shield, clouding the air with white noise as a diversion from his true intentions. “Tape” is an intentionally challenging film to watch, and for its first half hour or so, that is primarily due to its fragmented visual style. In addition to viewing the action from a more straightforward audience perspective, Kampmeier and cinematographer Valentina Caniglia fluctuate between the male gaze of Lux’s camera and the hidden lens kept by Rosa, which represents the female experience that often proves elusive. The cocktail of confusion and tremulous faith that guides Pearl toward Lux’s lair is suggested by the blurring of Rosa’s camera as it struggles to bring the deceptively innocent interactions, and all the unwelcome memories they resurrect, into focus. Once Pearl’s one-on-one audition with Lux begins around the film’s midpoint, the visuals take on a piercing clarity, while Mikaela Martin’s production design brilliantly mirrors the disorientation felt by abuse victims as their world grows increasingly smaller. The dingy brick walls of Lux’s audition space form a towering barrier blocking any view of the outside world, aside from thin windows placed near the ceiling that chart how quickly the sun appears to have sunk below the horizon.
What makes this nearly 40-minute sequence so ingenious is how it is staged like a theatrical production, with Lux going through the motions of his routine lines as they are mouthed by Rosa—who knows them all too well—behind the scenes, watching from her laptop while perched in the alley. Rosa’s warrior-like attire pays homage to Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, while a shot of menstrual blood seeping through the sheets and onto Lux’s mattress calls to mind another Shakespeare classic, namely the “Out, damn spot!” monologue from Macbeth, a play that Fuhrman performed to perfection last year Off-Broadway. The wall that Rosa leans against in the alley splits conspicuously down the middle of the frame, recalling one of the defining themes of Kampmeier’s oeuvre, namely the reclamation of self when our sexuality and power are robbed from us. The split that resided within Mudd manifests itself in the parallel stories of Pearl and Rosa, who respectively embody the actress’ past and present selves. By looking directly into Pearl’s eyes via the concealed camera and seeing her own disillusionment and bewilderment reflected within them, Rosa is able to free herself from the prison of unearned shame, in much the same way that Mudd felt “less stupid” after seeing Fuhrman’s performance. When the two women finally embrace, the moment is tantamount to any survivor of abuse—many of which we hear from in the film’s final moments—achieving a newfound sense of wholeness through the empowering strength of community. “Tape” isn’t just a movie. It is a rallying cry.
"Tape" will have virtual screenings from Thursday, March 26th, through Wednesday, April 8th. For more information, click here.
“This camp changed the world, and nobody knows this story.”
Produced by Michelle and Barack Obama, “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” is not your typical inspirational documentary. In my years in this business, I’ve seen a lot of manipulative documentaries that pull at the heartstrings—so many that I’ve grown a little immune to them and downright annoyed by the ones that feel more like exploitation than empowerment. This is not one of those movies. This is a movie that starts with powerful memories of childhood but uses them as merely seeds for something much greater—a look at how formative experiences can really shape the future. Expertly editing together moving interviews with its subjects with archival material, "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution" becomes a commentary on how to change the world. It’s not just common human decency that should lead to equality for disabled people, but the truth that empowerment for everyone is the only path to true progress for anyone.
Streaming today on Netflix, “Crip Camp” starts with home movies and memories of life at a place called Camp Jened. Founded in 1951, Jened ran for about a quarter-century in the Catskills, open to young people with disabilities. What was remarkable about Jened wasn’t just the sense of family for people who felt ostracized by society but how that freedom of emotion and expression opened up entirely new aspects of the human personality for people being taken seriously for the first time in their entire lives. These kids who had to worry about getting around or being bullied were free to express themselves in ways that the counter-culture revolution of the ‘60s would help enable. When someone is told their feelings and needs are as valuable as anyone else’s, they feel able to express those feelings and needs in ways they never would otherwise.
And so “Crip Camp” draws the line from those days at Jened to the disability rights movement of the ‘70s, which included several alumni of the camp. The title is kind of misleading because most of the film takes place after camp goers' time at Jened. It follows several key alumni, and the directors balance them incredibly well in terms of focus, probably spending the most time with Judy Heumann, who led the cause for disability rights in New York City in the ‘70s and then became even more of a public figure during the 504 Sit-In of 1977, at which dozens of disabled people demanded equal rights by refusing to leave the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The event got national attention and led to major change. The Black Panthers even ended up bringing the protesters food to keep it going.
Importantly, directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht (a former camper) don’t use melodrama or manipulative filmmaking techniques to hammer home the clear lesson here, which is that Heumann’s passion and confidence likely doesn’t exist without Camp Jened. And they allow you to take that idea a step further and ask yourself how just listening to young people, abled or disabled, can give them the tools to express themselves in the future. The leaders of tomorrow need to be empowered today. With deep filmmaking empathy that strikes a remarkable balance between delivering a universal message and telling very individual stories, “Crip Camp” offers something we could all use more of—hope for the future.
Note: Tonight, at 9pm EST, click here for a virtual Q&A with directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, sponsored by the Chicago Media Project.
“Tiger King” is Netflix comfort food of the highest order: it immerses viewers in a mind-boggling lifestyle and series of scandals, and yet the term “true-crime” doesn’t do justice to its greatness. This is animal-print Shakespeare; a sociological excursion into the minds of eccentric Americans who are addicted to the power that comes from owning tigers, AKA big cats. Theirs is a dramatic, intricate hierarchy, and co-directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin study its every facet. “Tiger King,” arriving on Netflix today, includes approximately five different true-crime tales (including arson, a disappearance, and an alleged murder plot), and bundles them into one obsession-ready seven-episode series. It’s the kind of story that’s rife for binging as much as extensive conversations about all the bonkers stuff that unfolds.
To top it off, after watching "Tiger King" you can get lost in the YouTube channel of the doc's main focus Joe Exotic, whose original country ditties ("Here Kitty Kitty") are used to accompany many of the miniseries' major developments. Joe Exotic is, in his own words, “A gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet,” and is also the owner of the G.W. Zoo in Oklahoma, where he breeds tigers for his zoos or for other owners, to the horror of animal rights activists. Joe is larger than life and fixated on fame, so much that he creates his own reality show about running the zoo. (The show's producer, Rick Kirkham, encapsulates Joe as “a mythical character living out in the middle of Bumf**k, Oklahoma, who owned 1,200 tigers and lions and bears and monkeys and sh*t.”) A lot of the amazing footage that gives “Tiger King” its big laughs and scope comes from Exotic’s consistent documentation—and a lot of these videos have been on YouTube for years.
But “Tiger King” only starts with Joe Exotic. It branches out to his workers, his two husbands, and also zoo-owning peer Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who exercises his own god complex at his South Carolina Zoo, and believes that there's nothing sexier to people than a tiger. Then there’s Jeff Lowe, who sneaks cubs into Las Vegas penthouses, among other cons. One tiger owner, Mario Tabraue, was the inspiration for Tony Montana in “Scarface,” and talks about his actual crimes in between footage of tending to his big cats. To give you some perspective on the scandalous figures who populate “Tiger King,” Tabraue only appears for a few minutes.
Each player here has a decades-long love of wild animals, an enigmatic presence in front of a camera, and a cadre of dark secrets. Perhaps no one has more than Carole Baskin, whose popular Big Cat Rescue tiger haven down in Florida is aligned with PETA against Joe and other breeders. As you can imagine, Joe hates her as much as he loves his cats, and his bravado knows no censorship when it comes to disparaging her, threatening to kill her, or trying to convince the world that it was Carole who made her missing ex-husband Don disappear. Part of the hilarious madness of “Tiger King” comes from how Joe and Carole’s shared passion is a life sentence, the two constantly clashing, often in the most petty ways, because they have a wildly different approach to the same dream of tiger preservation.
The aesthetics of this story alone—Americana, tiger memorabilia, guns, bizarre facial hair—are a gold mine for a true-crime story, and many other stories would stay at the surface. But “Tiger King” digs deeper, seeking to explore what kind of person would own big cats, or give their life to someone who does. With nary a weak episode, “Tiger King” establishes rich dynamics of possessiveness, of individual kingdoms that can be destroyed from the inside just as much as the outside. This makes everyone's many back-stabbings all the more vivid, especially as Joe later on has to fight for ownership of his zoo, while balancing his political aspirations.
Take episode two, “Cult of Personality,” which focuses on the control that Joe, Doc, and Carole have over the people in their enterprises. Joe has workers who are given miserable living conditions and are fed with expired meat; Don has a cult of women animal trainers that he grooms from a young age; Carole has volunteers who skip Christmas in order to tend to her big cats. Are these leaders providing a sense of direction to their helpers, or taking advantage of them? “Tiger King” has no answers about this, but it gives everyone a chance to comment on the other, and a full picture is painted in the process. Every key player tries to analyze and rat on somebody else, like whenever Joe talks about Carole’s business, his words then reflecting back on himself. Everyone also clings to overdue karma, and thinks that the police didn't do their job regarding the series' multiple baffling, unsolvable crimes. “Tiger King” also becomes one of those docuseries, like “Wild Wild Country” before it, in which your favorable opinions will volley back and forth.
Chaiklin and Goode's miniseries has some Netflix doc storytelling mainstays (such as an opening that functions like a trailer, and a whimsical score), but the very scope of "Tiger King" makes it stand out from its contemporaries. “Tiger King” works through its saga while eschewing the narrative order of a strict timeline—it was shot over five years, and the doc’s five credited editors organize it as a series of events and thematic explorations that completely fill the seven episodes with natural comedy and juicy big cat owner drama. There is an immense amount of care to this story, which shines in its nuanced tone—it’s not as plainly silly as its absurdity guarantees.
The miniseries even gets a boost from a first-person perspective, with co-director Goode (the more on-camera of the two directors) acting as surrogate for our active astonishment (like when Tabraue casually brings up Doc’s cult of tiger trainers, it sends the doc off on a ten-minute exploration of that). Goode and Chaiklin seem to be learning about the next bizarre detail at the same time we do, and “Tiger King” always has that addictive quality of seeing that there's even more to such an unbelievable tale.