Political Documentary ‘Slay the Dragon’ Has an Important and Timely Message About Gerrymandering That We All Need to Hear

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

Starring: Activists and Unaccountable Politicians

Directors: Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Politics as Usual

Release Date: April 3, 2020 (On Demand)

There’s a presidential election, as well as many other elections, happening in these here United States in the year 2020 AD. And there is also very real concern that not everyone who wants to cast a legitimate vote will be able to or that their voice will be counted the way that it is supposed to be in a democracy. A worldwide pandemic is certainly no help here, but there are other problems that have been around for much longer. One of the biggest issues, which the documentary Slay the Dragon would very much like us to be aware of, is gerrymandering. I’ve already seen this topic explained elsewhere plenty of times, but it’s useful to have it all detailed again in one feature-length package. Especially because 2020 is a census year and the next round of redistricting is scheduled to happen in the near future.

In case you haven’t been following this subject closely, gerrymandering is the practice of manipulating the boundaries of political borders for the purpose of gaining a political advantage that might not be what we citizens like to refer to as “fair.” In recent years, a bunch of oddly shaped districts have popped up with nicknames like “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck” that attempt to make some sense out of their geographic improbability. Gerrymandering has also resulted lately in Republicans gaining a majority of seats in certain state legislatures despite Democrats winning more votes in total statewide.

Slay the Dragon presents a number of folks in this fray who are very invested in changing the current system or keeping it just as it is, thank you very much. The most prominent change agent is 29-year-old activist Katie Fahey, who’s been pushing to ban gerrymandering in her native Michigan along with an initiative to institute a bipartisan redistricting commission tasked to work independently of the elected legislators. She’s a dogged, inspiring young person, and if you stick with her story, you might be able to stay sane as you attempt to hold onto the supposed fundamental principles of a representative democracy. She’s got a lot of doubters trying to shoo her away with bad faith arguments and weaponized cognitive dissonance. If she can remain resilient through it all, then the rest of us who also care about a genuine political system ought to be able to check out the diagnosis of this ongoing illness.

Slay the Dragon is Recommended If You Like: The promise of a system that works for everybody

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Ballot Initiatives

Thank You for Everything, (A) Shaun the Sheep (Movie: Farmageddon)!

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CREDIT: Chris Johnson/Netflix

Dear Shaun the Sheep,

Won’t you please my friend? After watching your first movie and now your new movie, Farmageddon (cool title, BTDubz), I feel like a lot of cool stuff happens when you’re around. But also, you keep everyone out of danger, even when danger appears to be imminent. It’s an ideal combination!

For now, I’ll satiate myself with watching your adventures and live vicariously through your already-friends. Like Lu-La! Please tell me this isn’t the last time you’ll ever hang out together. Maybe you can visit her on her home planet. I’m sure you can figure out a way to get there! I wasn’t even bothered by the fact that her presence inspired super-obvious homages to other famous space creature movies. They actually felt clever and not at all cliché! Also, I think I might start calling my own parents Ub-Do and Me-Ma.

Please let me know as soon as you can, Shaun!


It’s Time to Watch ‘Horse Girl’

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CREDIT: Katrina Marcinowski/Netflix

With so many movie theaters closed for the foreseeable future, I decided to finally watch and review some straight-to-streaming flicks I haven’t had a chance to get around to yet. And in the spirit of things being not-so-normal, these reviews will maybe be a little more, uh, shall we say, offbeat, than usual.

First up on the docket is Horse Girl, a seemingly quirky indie comedy, but actually no, it’s a psychological study of emergent mental illness, but with some trappings of low-budg sci-fi. We can use the catchall term “drama.” It stars and is co-written by Alison Brie. The other person handling scripting duties is Jeff Baena, who also sat in the directing chair. I know and love Jeff from The Little Hours, in which he previously directed Alison. It played at Sundance in January 2020 and landed on Netflix on February 7, 2020. Thanks to Alison’s presence, I knew I was going to definitely watch it eventually, as I’ve been a superfan of hers since her days on Community (which I’m legally obligated to acknowledge is my favorite show of all time whenever I mention it).

Alison plays Sarah, an introverted lass who works at an arts and crafts store and enjoys horses. Also, her stepdad is played by Paul Reiser! (That’s got to be a good sign, right?) Things seem to be going okay for her, especially when she strikes up a potential new romantic relationship on her birthday. But then, as she begins to experience lost time and unexplained visions, it appears that the mental struggles that run in her family are finally making themselves at home in her brain. Or is she actually a clone who is also dealing with flippin’ alien abductions, jeez?

If you’re forcing me to say one or the other, Sarah probably actually is indeed experiencing mental illness. But Horse Girl makes me think: isn’t the idea of alien abduction intoxicating? What if it could be the basis of a religion? You could believe in them, though not literally, just have faith in them in some sort of way. That’s just a kernel of an idea, we’ll see if it becomes anything more. Anyway, Alison is terrific, but y’all knew that already! (Dint ya?)

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 3/13/20

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Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

The Hunt (Theatrically Nationwide)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Limited Theatrically)

Westworld Season 3 Premiere (March 15 on HBO)
The Plot Against America Series Premiere (March 16 on HBO) – David Simon is at it again on HBO.

-Grouplove, Healer

‘Bloodshot’ Offers a Sort-of Fascinating Spin on a Few Common Sci-Fi Tropes

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures

Starring: Vin Diesel, Guy Pearce, Eiza González, Lamorne Morris, Sam Heughan, Toby Kebbell, Talulah Riley

Director: David S.F. Wilson

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Bullets and Explosions Here and There

Release Date: March 13, 2020

Bloodshot strikes me as more of a cinematic experiment moreso than a narrative presentation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The medium of film is robust enough that it can accomodate things that aren’t exactly telling a story or not doing so straightforwardly. Bloodshot actually does have some sort of plot, but that’s not the most interesting part about it. Based on a comic book series, it stars Vin Diesel as a Marine named Ray Garrison who gets killed but then is very quickly brought back to life stronger and more deadly. You know, that old saw that we love from the likes of The Six Million Dollar Man and RoboCop. He is bent on revenge against the man who “killed” both him and his wife, although the scientist who brought him back, Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), has a few missions he would like him to go on, but perhaps their motivations align with each other … or do they?

Ray’s enhancement is fueled by microscopic technology referred to as “nanites,” a word that I will never not find hilarious as I primarily associate it with the creatures of that name from Mystery Science Theater 3000. Basically, the idea is that these little creatures, or tiny robots, or whatever they are, work at an atomic level to repair any injury that Ray sustains thoroughly and immediately. In visual practice, this means that when he gets hit with bullets or other weaponry, fields of blood-red strands shoot off from his body, as his molecules re-assemble in mid-air and then return back into him.

Working alongside that idea of reassembling on the fly, the other major idea fueling Bloodshot is the series of false memories that uploaded into Ray’s head. His revenge mission, it turns out, may just be what he’s been programmed to do. In practice, this generally means that it never feels fully clear exactly what the practical stakes are. But on the plus(-ish) side, it also means we get some visual flourishes that I’ve never quite seen in any other movie, like one moment that virtually recreates the setting that Ray has been trained to remember. It looks like a behind-the-scenes video that shows the rendering of visual effects. I’m not sure that sort of thing belongs in a finished cinematic product, but I’m fascinated by its presence there nonetheless.

That mix of fascination and uncertainty is my general overall reaction to Bloodshot. Pretty much everything about it feels like it was made up on the fly, or meant to be about making it up on the fly. How else to explain the presence of New Girl‘s Lamorne Morris as an English hacker and the fact that he’s the best part of the movie? The second part is easy enough to explain: he’s Lamorne Morris, and he’s awesome. But presumably, he would’ve been just as awesome with his normal speaking voice. Is his character unmistakably English in the comic? Do we Americans just love accents that much? Look, you get your pleasures where you can with a movie that doesn’t seem to have thought through every little detail. Or you turn your brain off and admire the pretty pictures. Or you tap into some part of your brain that you didn’t realize you’d need to access for a movie as surprisingly un-pin-down-able as this one.

Bloodshot is Recommended If You Like: Vin Diesel gradually figuring it out, Lamorne Morris as the comic relief, DVD bonus features about special effects

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Nanites

The Bloody Carnage of ‘The Hunt’ Works Best When You Can Actually Recognize the Human Beings in the Game

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CREDIT: Universal

Starring: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley, Glenn Howerton, Amy Madigan, Ethan Suplee, Macon Blair, J.C. Mackenzie, Wayne Duvall,  Reed Birney, Teri Wyble, Sturgill Simpson, Jim Klock, Usman Ally, Steve Coulter, Dean J. West, Steve Mokate

Director: Craig Zobel

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for Pretty Much Every Suddenly Explosive Way to Die That You Can Think Of and A Bunch of Sarcastic Profanity

Release Date: March 13, 2020

At first glance, The Hunt looks like it could be a terrible case of bothsidesism. But in fact, it is actually operating in too much of a valley of extremes to really be about the miscalculation of the scale of political differences. Instead, this is a story of conspiracy theories and misunderstanding blown out of proportion to terrifying, blackly comic heights. In a spin on the ever-popular 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” a group of self-castigating liberals have captured some so-called “deplorables” and set them some loose to be hunted as sport. (Trump’s name is never mentioned, but the use of “our ratf—er-in-chief” makes clear the context we’re operating in.) These marks have been chosen because they’re exactly the sort of people who like to propagate the conspiracy theory that elites who run the world have been secretly capturing and hunting people for years.

The script, credited to Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof, operates on the premise of “What if the worst things that political opponents accuse each other in this current climate turned out to be true?” The results, as lavishly staged by director Craig Zobel, would include a baroque series of impalings, short-range shotgun blasts, limbs ripped apart by explosions, and car tires rolling over heads. The mayhem is admirably relentless, but it’s a bit too cartoonish for a movie that wants to be about real characters with genuine pain. The hunted do say some pretty awful things, but hardly enough to justify getting a round of bullets blasted into their brains. And it’s certainly worth noting that since we focus on them and they’re the ones in a state of vulnerability, they serve as our point of identification. Anyone threatened with immediate death suddenly starts to look very, very human, especially in relation to the hunters, who mostly come off like a bunch of caricatures who are prone to tout superficial accomplishments like how Ava DuVernay liked one of their social media posts. For the most part, they do not register as actual people so much as agents of self-parodic vengeful chaos. (At least It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Glenn Howerton, for one, can make a meal out of that task.)

Easily the most human of anyone in this melee is the deplorable played by Betty Gilpin. She’s shifty and resourceful enough to make you wonder if she really deserves punishment of any sort for whatever she’s guilty of, or even if she’s actually guilty of whatever she’s been accused of. The frustration that’s all over her face says, “I don’t care who you are at this point. I’m just going to do whatever I have to do to survive.” That’s kind of the fundamental, elemental appeal of a piece of exploitation like this: just who are we when faced with an outrageous, deadly situation? Too often, The Hunt‘s answer is, “A ridiculous gathering of stereotypes,” but often enough, its alternative answer is “It’s complicated. We don’t really know.”

The Hunt is Recommended If You Like: Bloody mayhem, satirical exploitation of stereotypes, mixed social messages

Grade: 3 out of 5 Deplorables

Appropriately Enough for a Movie About an Abortion, ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ is a Full-On Empathy Generator

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CREDIT: Focus Features

Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodor Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten

Director: Eliza Hittman

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Having to Be an Adult While You’re Still a Teenager

Release Date: March 13, 2020 (Limited)

Abortion remains one of the most fraught debates in American society, so it’s a bit of a small miracle when a movie about it is able to get produced and released, even when it’s something as small as Never Rarely Sometimes Always. It is reminiscent of the 2014 indie comedy Obvious Child insofar as it matter-of-factly presents the termination of an unplanned pregnancy, but with all the corresponding differences that go along with a protagonist who is a decade younger and lives in a state with more restrictive legislation. Accordingly then, it is a much more somber, exhausting affair. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is the one with the unplanned pregnancy, a teenage girl living in sleepy little Northumberland County in central Pennsylvania. Her best option for procuring an abortion is taking a bus to New York City, which is something that she is able to do if she sets her mind to it. Phrasing it that way kind of brushes aside the more difficult parts of this journey, but it’s an attitude that’s needed for Autumn to adopt to survive this experience.

Any major medical procedure is difficult to handle on one’s own both on a practical and psychological level, so luckily for Autumn, her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) is available to accompany her. I don’t like imagining how Autumn would’ve handled (or not handled) everything if she didn’t have a travel partner. From the moment she realizes she might be pregnant, her existence is in unending string of stress and indignities. She is forced to watch a graphic video discouraging abortion. She and Skylar encounter a creepy guy (Théodor Pellerin) on the bus who invites them to a show at an abandoned subway. She discovers that she has to stay overnight with no place to sleep because her pregnancy is farther along than she realized. She has to pay for the abortion out of pocket (thus depleting her bus fund) even though she has insurance, as she does not want her parents to be notified of what she’s doing. And then she must endure a series of multiple-choice screening questions (whose possible answers give the film its title) that force her to confront the pain of adolescence she’s been internalizing.

I don’t imagine Never Rarely Sometimes Always will change anyone’s minds on this issue (at least not immediately). I don’t think that’s what it was designed to do anyway. Cinema, famously, is known for its ability to generate empathy, and I hope that that power still applies even when viewers fundamentally disagree with the choices the main character makes. So while I don’t imagine that any needles on this issue will be moved anywhere significantly, I do hope that everyone who witnesses Autumn’s story can understand where she is coming from and appreciate the truth of her situation.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is Recommended If You Like: Obvious Child but wish it had been a drama

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Bus Trips

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