OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen.
For a romantic comedy, About Fate is about as generic a title as they come, and it certainly matches the film that follows, a predictable slice of milquetoast pap that would feel snug at home on any basic cable network or streaming service. Indeed, the biggest mystery is why this holiday-set piece of fluff, directed by Marius Vaysberg, is being dropped in the middle of September, when its target audience would snarf it down in roughly .5 seconds had it been released at a more appropriate time. Then again, the Hallmark Channel successfully celebrates Christmas in July each year with a slate of new content, so the rules are pretty vague. Star Emma Roberts is certainly no stranger to this type of material, having starred in Netflix’s wildly popular Holidate in 2020, and she reteams with that film’s screenwriter, Tiffany Paulsen, because she’s either very loyal or understands where the money train stops (or both); Scorsese and De Niro are undoubtedly quaking in their boots. Along for the ride this time out is Thomas Mann, a young actor who was last seen inadvertently separating Marcel the Shell from his family, and so is instantly met with suspicion from this critic.
As the film opens, Margot (Roberts) and Griffin (Mann) are both waking up in their respective duplexes on a crisp winter’s morn, preparing for an evening of expected enchantment: he plans on popping the question to his girlfriend of three months, while she anxiously awaits a proposal. Yet in a shocking twist revealed at the defunct chain restaurant of Benningan’s(?!), we discover that Margot and Griffin don’t actually know one another, a case of misdirect so clever that smelling salts should be administered with each ticket purchase. Griffin’s girlfriend, a social media influencer by the name of Clementine (Madelaine Petsch), is rightfully appalled that he would propose in such a hellhole of kitsch, insisting that he do it at her corporate-sponsored New Year’s Eve party the next night, even though it’s a tradition that the members of Griffin’s family get engaged on December 30, because that’s the level of bonkers this film is operating at. Margot, meanwhile, gets dumped by the dreamy Kip (Lewis Tan), who is rightfully appalled that she would expect a proposal after only three months and having never met a single one of her friends or family. Margot is especially heartbroken because, in less than 24 hours, she has to attend the wedding of her Bridezilla sister, Carrie (Britt Robertson), who, along with the rest of her family, is convinced that Kip is fake.
This is where the titular fate comes in, as a series of events far too dunderheaded to get into here ultimately result in Griffin winding up naked in Margot’s bed. After the 911 operator she rightfully calls informs her that Griffin sounds like a nice guy, Margot decides to convince Griffin to pose as Kip and accompany her to the wedding, because otherwise it would ruin her sister’s day or some such nonsense. And so the two pose as a loving couple, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s not long before the ruse starts to feel real. Too bad Griffin is still set to propose to Clementine in mere hours, and then there’s also the matter of Kip showing up at the reception, which then involves a poorly choreographed fight scene between Kip and Griffin because the dude has a third-degree black belt. (Also to this point, Mann looks to weigh roughly two pounds, which is only worth noting because the film makes this painfully clear by jumping through hoops to have him wind up in his underwear at the most inopportune times.)
If it wasn’t already clear, About Fate is incredibly stupid, but it also isn’t nearly as painful as it could have been, thanks to its two likable leads who share more chemistry than one usually expects from such a thankless endeavor. Nothing here is particularly fresh or funny — and the film really isn’t doing itself any favors by constantly referencing Breakfast at Tiffany’s — but in comparison to such soulless dreck as The Christmas Prince or A Castle for Christmas, it feels more like a semi-stale sugar cookie and a lukewarm cup of cocoa than the usual gift-wrapped pile of shit, and that’s meant as a compliment. In other words, expect Amazon Prime to promote the hell out of this thing in three months once it finally shows up for free on its streaming platform. About Fate certainly offers its intended audience no reason not to wait, especially as the holiday season might coax them into a more forgiving mood.
Writer: Steven Warner
A recounting of Jewish resistance toward, and despite, the horrors of the Final Solution, Four Winters is Julia Mintz’s attempt — one would assume — to create a cogent mosaic of this collective struggle. Unfortunately, the work is nothing but an exercise in reductionism. Cobbled together from a plethora of talking head interviews intercut with archival footage, it mostly forgoes historical continuity, divesting the memories of former partisans of cause and effect, motive and context. The film offers little in the way of contextualizing these haphazardly arranged, near-indecipherable narratives: to parse its isolated interviews and find a semblance of intention beyond superficiality and immediacy is a fool’s errand.
Damningly, Mintz accords no single interviewee the entitlement of a lone, subjective voice; she deals in fragmentation instead, which, under the already tight constraints of the documentary form (about 8 subjects and their years of experience, truncated into a digestible 90 minutes), abstracts each torment and history into sound bites and empty provocation. Is this how we respect survivors — those who fought against their oppressors? To witness the ethics of many a documentary is never without outrage, as their expositional tendencies and commercial opportunism are, even more gratingly, too often steeped in the feature-length aestheticism of a Frankensteined historiography. Inter-titles are sporadically employed to offer some context here, but all they do is remove history from historicity. The story of the Holocaust is one’s own, as it is for all those descendants of fascist atrocities. It is well past the time of conceding to a gross Holocaust industry, or reducing those experiences to consumer theater. If documentarians are to approach the subjectivities of those still alive and willing to divulge their experiences, they must do better; they must first be willing to sit alongside their interviewees for as long as the latter are individually willing to talk, and they should sit in their silences, their grief, and their solemnity. Using those moments as classical narrative fodder is of no use to anyone anymore.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind
Dio: Dreamers Never Die
Credited with reimagining and popularizing the traditional Italian hand gesture of malocchio (“evil eye”) into what’s today (in)famously known as “devil’s horns” in heavy metal and hard rock, Ronnie James Dio was undoubtedly one of the legendary artists of this scene, one who had presented many facets to explore. Sadly passing away at the age of 67 in 2010 after a battle with stomach cancer, the legacy of Dio has never even slightly waned. And yet, although the majority of the metalheads are likely to be quite knowledgeable about the mysterious Italian-American who was born and raised in a small upstate New York farming community, and certainly familiar with his lasting contributions to this too-frequently marginalized musical style, few may have a comprehensive understanding of the man thanks to the scattered nature of information that has come out across the years. Fortunate for such fans, then, Don Argott and Demian Fenton’s documentary Dio: Dreamers Never Die offers a more complete look at “The Man on the Silver Mountain,” gathering littered information into a cogent, in-depth portrait.
Mostly known for his collaboration with prototypical heavy metal acts like Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and Black Sabbath before finally lining up his group (simply called Dio), and for his extraordinary singing abilities, his epic, larger-than-life on-stage persona, and relatability as a frontman who could easily unleash the wildest dreams of his audience and inspire them to embark upon imaginary journeys to the days of dungeons and dragons, dark castles, and damsels in distress, Dio was foremost a narrator of hope and faith for his fans. And indeed, adopting this mode is precisely the right approach for Argott and Fenton, as they shape this docu-portrait into an exciting act of storytelling, one of a single man’s life and achievements and which at its core isn’t too far from a true-life version of the fables he spun in song. To that end, Dreamers Never Die takes viewers back to before Dio turned into the metal forefather he’s regarded as today, crafting a genesis tale of how and where it all began.
That being the case, in telling the story of the legendary musician’s decades-long career, Argott and Fenton choose a straightforward, chronological (AKA, generic) structure that viewers have come to expect from this type of tale, constructed from familiar talking-head interviews with Dio’s bandmates, friends (just to name a few: Tony Iommi, Rob Halford, Roger Glover, Sebastian Bach, Lita Ford, Jack Black), and, perhaps most importantly, his widow and manager Wendy. These interactions help delineate a multifaceted portrait about the particular rockstar styling of an immense character who, unlike so many of his contemporaries, never cared to involve himself with such banalities as rampant drug consumption or chasing women, and who always remained uniquely dedicated to music above all. Whether in presenting Dio as a voracious book reader, a funny, down-to-earth personality, a confident and perfectionistic fantasist (who not many headbangers may know began his career as ‘50s doo-wop crooner), even before The Beatles stepped into the spotlight, Dreamers Never Die is full of exciting stories and memories, both heartwarming and bittersweet, and a smattering of archival footage and recorded interviews with Ronnie that no heavy metal fan (or those with an appetite for expanding their music perspective and history) should be able to resist. And of course, as any rich music documentary must do, Dio: Dreamers Never Die also succeeds in capturing a broader panorama about the history of rock music — from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll to the hair metal emergence of L.A.’s Sunset Strip to MTV’s ‘80s glory days to the decline of metal stardom — alongside Dio’s on- and off-stage story.
Aesthetically, Argott and Fenton admittedly skew quite conventional, but it’s clear that their priority and commitment here is rather to assemble a full portrait of this quite singular subject, and in that regard, few viewers — metalhead or otherwise — should emerge disappointed. In one of the film’s recordings, we hear Dio expressing in detail ideas about his work, stating: “I’m a narrator. I give people avenues which they can go down. Safe avenues.” Argott and Fenton likewise provide such safe avenues for the fandom of this mystical rockstar to delve into, ripe in their explorations. And if Dio is ultimately rendered here as a kind-hearted and humble but powerful messenger of faith in oneself and the importance of finding purpose in living, Dio: Dreamers Never Die also captures this particular dreamy joyfulness. It’s an unassuming, respectful tribute, a genuinely feel-good story that serves as an appropriate salute to the life and art of Ronnie James Dio, replete with double devil’s horns up in the air.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
It has been 37 years since John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club graced the silver screen and ushered in a new era of films aimed at teenagers, stories that had the audacity not to portray its characters as simple-minded horndogs, but as complex individuals desperately trying to make sense of both the world around them and their precarious emotional states. Hughes treated his protagonists as equals, never deigning to talk down to them or make them feel inferior. One could certainly argue that state of the average teen flick has regressed over the years — thanks, American Pie — and times have certainly changed, so a remake of that seminal work isn’t exactly heresy. To be clear, writer-director Nicholas Celozzi’s new teen dramedy The Class is not a direct remake of The Breakfast Club, but to call it a reimagining wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate, credits be damned. Hell, we even get original Brat Packer Anthony Michael Hall in the mix, this time playing the stern authority figure originally embodied by the great Paul Gleason — and let it be said upfront that Hall is no Gleason, although Gleason never had to enact particularly lame bits of physical comedy like doing a backwards summersault into a large potted plant, which is what the original was sorely missing if you ask The Class.
You see, Celozzi’s film isn’t about a group of troubled teens at a Saturday morning detention session, but rather a group of troubled teens at a Saturday morning drama class final exam make-up session, the results of which will either allow them to graduate high school or send them to summer school. The stakes are high, dear reader. Also, this film trades in an all-white cast for a culturally diverse group of individuals, all of whom look like they stepped off the pages of an old school Benetton ad. Such a modern-day touch is certainly appreciated, but also scans as a tad disingenuous, especially when the script only hints at using it in meaningful ways, often times backing down in obvious fear of offending anyone. There are also six students this time around instead of five, with Celozzi adding Jeff Spicoli into the mix, making one wonder if the filmmaker is aware that Fast Times at Ridgemont High was an entirely different movie. We’ve got the Brain, Jesse (Hannah Kepple); the Athlete, Max (Colin McCalla); the Basket Case, Casey (Lyric Ross); the Princess, Allie (Juliette Celozzi); the Criminal, Michael (Michael Sebastian)… and then the Spicoli, Jason (Charlie Gillespie). To be fair, Jesse isn’t really the Brain, as at no point does anyone mention her impressive intellect, but she does sing, so ok, the Singer. Yeah, The Class is breaking boundaries. They have all gathered because their obnoxious drama teacher, Miranda — played by ‘80’s pop songstress Debbie Gibson, of all people — believes this all-day session will prove therapeutic, their final exam being a dramatic scene they must write and act out. Meanwhile, assistant principal Faulk (Hall) is around to constantly belittle both her and the kids, because this woman apparently needs a babysitter. But he’s honestly right to be wary, as this adjunct is out of control, carefully building up and then breaking down these kids all in the name of art therapy. Or something. Honestly, this individual would have been fired ages ago, regardless of good intentions or curricular ideology.
The Breakfast Club worked so brilliantly because it was so simple, the story of a group of disparate teens who learned to both embrace and defy their social labels by discovering the common ground they shared. The Class truly believes itself to be thematically no different, when in reality it’s about six teenagers who don’t so much bond as tell the saddest stories you’ve ever heard and basically guilt one another into feeling sorry for them. The problems faced by the kids of The Breakfast Club were universal because they were so relatable and authentic to a broad teenage experience; The Class piles on one horrific backstory after another, thinking that all it takes to be meaningful in its modern-day setting is to throw out such provocative and controversial buzzwords as “abortion” and “Columbine.” For the record, the student that confesses that they have terminal cancer wins this particular sad-off; that the film throws this out as the second confession tells you where Celozzi’s priorities lie — sorry, but cancer isn’t sensationalistic enough, tough luck, kid. Pity the student who has to follow that act and simply comes out of the closet, which is somehow, someway treated as an even more shocking revelation. Perhaps if Celozzi had anything resembling filmmaking chops, or if the acting wasn’t across-the-board terrible — save for Ross, she’s a keeper — more could be forgiven. It’s inevitable that someday, someone will make a worthy successor to The Breakfast Club. The Class certainly isn’t it, performative wokeness be damned.
Writer: Steven Warner