The Boy Who Sold the World

Directed by Adam Barton

Rating: 2 out of 5.

It doesn’t matter what idea you come up with, just so long as you can sell it. The thirsty fangs of capitalism seek to draw talent from any source, but if you want to plant your feet in its home territory, then America is the place to be. Ben Pasternak, “The Boy Who Sold The World” (2020), an undeniable person of brilliance, with a knack for technology, digital applications, but at the heart of it – marketing, seeks the opportunity of a lifetime. Moving to the states, with investors & financiers snapping at his heels for a chance to support him can Pasternak follow in the footsteps of high-school dropouts, who rise the ladder quickly, or are the stresses of money, success and being away from home too heavy a burden? Oh, did we mention he was fifteen during this?

By and large, the principal issue with Adam Barton‘s documentary is its framing, specifically Barton’s manoeuvres to humanise Pasternak, raising concerns to the film’s agenda. It attempts to find balance but offers much leeway for Pasternak to flaunt or to showboat, rather than posing questions or seeking answers. Barton structures the documentary with a fly-on-the-wall technique, relegating the camera to the side-lines and refraining from having an active presence. The predominant issue? A lot of this is smoke, mirrors and staging on the part of Pasternak, and given his age (between fifteen – nineteen throughout the filming) doesn’t feel authentic. Perhaps not premediated, but instead someone ‘hyped’ at the attention of filmmaking, Barton’s film doesn’t feel credible, its cinematic style is hands-off, but its storytelling is manipulative.

No doubt a marketing marvel of our times, Pasternak behaves less like a Zuckerberg, and far more like a kid out of his depth. There’s an eerie reflection of our societies gluttonous need for ‘likes’, ‘retweets’ and shares, rather than substance. Pasternak’s drive to push his creations to the peak of the app stores comes not out of pride or business ambition, but a disturbing ‘collection’ of sorts, for the thrill over success. Sam Mink’s editing results in an inability to inject much momentum into the dynamic, difficult given how much of the film is simplistic shots of Pasternak or his team on their phones, but there’s next to nothing in the way of visuals stimulation.

Quite shallowly, the film focuses its attention on the achievements of Pasternak, and when questions arise to the help he may have received, does little to counter his protestations that he managed this alone. Questions relating to teammates, previous employees and designers focus on their opinions of Pasternak, neglecting the work they have put into these ventures. Even after we hear audio-conversations with his mother, who argues that without their financial aid he would never have been able to start these ventures, the audience may be left to form their opinion, but the film still offers nothing as a rebuttal to Pasternak’s assertions.

Barton’s film, therefore, pedestals Pasternak, suggesting a large body of the work was his own, when in reality it’s quite evident there was help. In the film’s blind attempt at neutrality, it allows Pasternak to weave his own narrative, a self-made genius, who really, has had opportunities many would dream of. The lacking depth of the film struggles to engage, and while, correctly, encouraging the audience to form their own opinions on Pasternak as a person, much of the documentary feels empty. At under an hour and a half, much is glossed over, swept aside, and Barton places heavy emphasis on aspects which, to be blunt, are utterly meaningless and feel like a preamble.

The Boy Who Stole the World” won’t be stealing any hearts, nor minds, failing to capitalise on a tremendous opportunity to dive into a potential rising entrepreneur. Troublingly, perhaps the documentary reflects Pasternak’s early career, with a stratospheric rise, followed by a swift, plunge back into obscurity awaiting a future project.

A maestro of marketing, Pasternak can rest assured that despite an effort to balance opinion, “The Boy Who Stole the World” doesn’t do much to act in the way of negative PR, but then again, it doesn’t manage to do much of anything. This is a tremendous story, an authentic coming-of-age experience of a rising entrepreneur balancing the harsh world of business as it melds with an angsty, hormonal teenage mindset, the real shame is how mundane Barton’s film makes the experience: ineffective, but harmless.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2020/05/21/review-the-boy-who-sold-the-world/

We Summon the Darkness – Review

Directed by Marc Meyers

USA/ 2019/ 91 mins

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Satanists get a bit of a bad reputation, don’t they? Whether it’s John Carpenter’s hideously underappreciated Prince of Darkness, or the more recent The Blackcoat’s Daughter, the blurring of humanity and its association with the Devil is as ancient a narrative tool as possible. Then there were the slasher films of the late seventies through to the early nineties, a genre which gluttoned itself with zealous-religious killers. Marrying the two together made just about as much sense as it does now, as We Summon the Darkness begins with news reports of satanic cultists slaughtering innocents across eighties America, just as three young women embark on their road trip to the biggest ’80s metalhead gig around.

Unfortunately for our lead, Alexandra Daddario once more showcases her inscrutable taste in film choices. It’s by far the most cohesive performance in the film, principally for how out-there Daddario pushes the character, plunging headfirst into the eighties schlockfest of video nasties and cultist slasher flicks. Continuing this, Daddario’s co-stars Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth are giving tremendous energy to the film – Forsyth as a young runaway, who turns to the girls for support, brings an unexpected dynamic to the film. The imbalance between performances occurs with the men, where attempts are made at gender reversal and a comment on the ‘lamb to slaughter’ nature of women in preceding slasher films. The execution fails to convey this naturally, stemming from the meek direction, flimsy writing, and vacant performances. While the women can capitalise on their antagonism, the guys just aren’t bringing anything memorable to the table.

This gender reversal is almost well-constructed, exhibiting an otherwise unexpected depth. Placing the men as powerless, now-stripped pieces of gaze material to be massacred is a clever aspect to take, but the film doesn’t run with the concept for long. The revelation that a patriarchal cultist is manipulating these young women removes the agency they have, going against what has been set up.  While the notion of a female killer is far from original, the trio had potential as a unique force, particularly in the droning era of post-modern slashers where remakes from the golden ’80s era are cycling the motions. There’s a small, niche territory of genuine pieces which distort the conventions such as The Guest orIt Follows, and We Summon the Darkness had the promise to join these and reclaim the genre from television, which seems to have taken up the mantle. 

Giving Marc Meyers credit, We Summon the Darkness superficially achieves what it sets out to in capturing a distinctly cult/slasher flair. Ridiculous, and borrowing heavily from more engaging films, We Summon the Darkness drapes itself in attempted pastiche but fails to cover itself in much bloodshed. For a script that has glints of wickedness, it plays it remarkably safe. The threat posed to the trio is almost immediately doused by the inadequacies of the cultists, whose ineptitude and inexperience, while a plot point, serves little in the way of horror. An inexperienced killer should be terrifying, their motivations clouded, but instead, it strips any power from the points the film is attempting to make.

Beneath the slasher homages and incessant borrowing from the horror library, We Summon the Darkness wastes rich potential as it falls victim to its execution. Leaning on the angle of nostalgia, suffering from tedious performances, and a substantial lack of terror means any attempts at a neo-slasher going for the throat of misogyny is all but put to rest by Meyers’ inability to brandish these weapons effectively.

We Summon the Darkness is available on Video-On-Demand Now

Review originally published for The Wee Review:https://theweereview.com/review/we-summon-the-darkness/

The Willoughbys – Netflix

Based on the book by Lois Lowry

Written by Kris Pearn & Mark Stanleigh

Directed by Kris Pearn, Cory Evans & Rob Lodermeier

Rating: 4 out of 5.

At one point or another, we’ve all fallen out with our folks, maybe to the extent we wish we had been adopted but hopefully not to the extreme where we send them on a deadly holiday. The Willoughbys, however, are perhaps as dysfunctional as it is possible to be. As twisted as they are colourful, this update on A Series of Unfortunate Events focuses on the titular Willoughbys and their pursuit of a loving family. From the mind of author Lois Lowry, directors Kris Pearn and Mark Stanleigh have adapted the original book for Netflix in a bid to increase the platform’s original children’s content. 

Tim, Jane and the twins Barnaby A and B are frequently starved, left to sleep in the coal bin and generally made to feel like they are burdens on their mother and father. Their parents are neglectful, callous and, worst of all, can’t even grow a proper moustache. After encountering an orphan and sending it to live with Commander Melanoff, an eccentric candy factory owner, the children forge a relationship with their nanny, the cheapest one their parents could find. Animated with weaving motions, where the illustrations offer weight to the characters, much of the story focuses on physical humour and offers levity to the often macabre narrative.

Detaching themselves from the story (for the most part), The Willoughby’s narrator is a blue tabby cat, an otherwise unassuming character who provides off-the-cuff remarks with a voice courtesy of Ricky Gervais. While that may put some viewers off, it should be known that Gervais’ performance is limited and also one of the film’s better casting choices. His narcissistic tones suit the animation of the feline prowler, while his performance, as expected, is certainly the most recognisable and little is done to distinguish the fact it’s Gervais. Love him or loathe him, there’s an element of comedy brought to the performance, and a genuine sense of romanticism for traditional storytelling.

Of the four children, Tim and Jane are voiced by Will Forte and Alessia Cara respectively, and the twins by noted voice artist Seán Cullen. With this Cara’s first foray into the animation genre, the singer effortlessly captures an authentic sense of childlike innocence and thirst for adventure and contributes the film’s sole musical number – a touching song, with haunting edges contrasting against the bouncy nature of the score. Really, though, as one would naturally expect, Jane Krakowski and Martin Short catapult the film well above the heads of the kids and directly into the notorious realms of adult humour as Mother and Father. The pair are despicable and have a dimension of sliminess that just cannot be resisted.

The intention to maintain this bright, almost patchwork style of animation works marvels with the deceptive nature of characters. Craig Kellman’s character creations, recognisable from his work on Hotel Transylvania, avoid the pitfalls of visual bluntness. While animated films are notorious for drawing attention to antagonists with obvious designs, The Willoughbys staves off this idea for the most part. Our antagonists are evident from their actions, not their aspects, and our misunderstood supporting cast members are redeemed too with words and deed. It enables a more precise lesson for children, where a character’s motivation speaks louder than their image.

Across the board, fragmentation occurs when The Willoughbys is considered as a whole as opposed to scene-by-scene. Segments of the story are undeveloped, emphasising mundane details or characters, but these loose threads in an otherwise fantastical and inventive tapestry cannot detract from the overall aesthetic, which rivals any major feature churned out from juggernauts of the children’s media empire.

Marrying whimsy with the brutality of a classic Dahl tale, The Willoughbys may conjure perceptions of a flimsy (and perhaps cheap) children’s amusement tool, but Netflix stands toe-to-toe with the Mouse and the Moon and far outshines Illuminations with their recent addition to the animated library.

The Willoughbys is available to stream now on Netflix

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/the-willoughbys/