"Hustlers" is a Standout Secret Weapon

Hustlers

Originally published on The Knockturnal

"This story is about control." 

It's hard to believe that at first as Destiny (Constance Wu) stares at herself in a cheap backstage mirror, reflecting both on the curve of her sparkling eyeshadow and no doubt the choices she's made to get into that room filled with glitter pasties and scissors to cut tampon strings. Yet as Destiny rises and begins to walk down a corridor, an unseen announcer bellowing from the impending stage, we realize that this is in fact, in her control: shot like a prized fighter entering a ring, we only see the back of Destiny's slick black hair as she follows the chain of dancers to the spotlight, her slight quiver of anxiety immediately showing us that this is her choice, but it's a hard one. This is her story of fighting her way to the top. 

"Hustlers" has quickly been deemed one of the most relevant films of the year since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last week. Production company Gloria Sanchez, hot off of Netflix hit "Dead to Me" and indie summer gem "Booksmart," has reached the triple crown with "Hustlers," marking perhaps the most important year yet for the two-woman operation helmed by Jessica Elbaum. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria adapted New York Magazine article, "The Hustlers at Scores," for the screen, bringing the same heart and effortless charm as her 2012 directorial debut "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World."

An all-star cast featuring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lilli Reinhart, and Keke Palmer includes cameos by Cardi B and Lizzo, making "Hustlers" an easily Instagramable film; hashtags practically create themselves, with #ShowMeYourHustle encouraged at the screening. It would be easy to write "Hustlers" off as a stripper movie, THAT stripper movie that shows off J-Lo's curves and is an anthem for girl power around the world, applause included. And "Hustlers" does do all of those things, but not as you would expect. Instead, it's focused on the cracks of that story, the minute details that are caught in an oversized gold link bracelet wearing down on the wrist out of guilt or the green "Approved" message after the swipe of a credit card. 

A typical coming-of-age underdog sports story ensues at first as Destiny quickly befriends the talented Ramona (a flawless Jennifer Lopez) and the two create a lifelong friendship over their shared craft. Or something like that.

Ramona teaches Destiny how to properly pole dance, and the emphases on physical strength required is thoroughly explained. But the selective choices of how to present the strip club during this first act is what is most striking; the camera is less focused on the bodies, never lingering on an exposed breast or a grinding lap dance. Their bodies are not viewed as props like the men onscreen constantly insist on prodding. What easily could have been a "Magic Mike"-level drool fest for viewers is instead just a means to an end: this is their work, we get it, why spend any time longer than needed? 

There is only one moment where the audience is shown a full dance routine, and that is when we finally understand Destiny's enthrallment with Ramona because, let's be honest, who doesn't want to be Jennifer Lopez? It's a cinematic burlesque, an ode to the female form on a backlit stage as Lopez's toned silhouette is only visible. She as Ramona is seducing the money that is thrown at her; the eyes that are watching her are merely stepping stones to wallets. Lopez is a moving sculpture, and the camera's presence on her is out of respect, not objectification. Destiny, like the viewer, is mesmerized by the artful show-womanship.

"Does my money make you horny?" Ramona purrs as she struts past Destiny. All we can answer is yes, yes it does. 

The film cuts between a seemingly-present day Destiny (albeit 2015, present day for the original article's publication) and her retelling to journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) of meeting Ramona and their subsequent scheme. In the film, 2007 for New York City strippers was an honest girls club with a mother hen boss -- cue the "stripper with a heart of gold" subplot-- that paid well if you had the right clients. Usher in a self-effacing cameo even visited their club to "Love in This Club" as champagne is popped in slow motion. 

The subsequent economic crash in 2008, however, altered the industry forever, forcing clubs to find cheaper dancers and Destiny to seek other ways to earn. Thus Ramona's idea of drugging clients, and later utter strangers, and charging thousands of dollars to their credit cards was born.

It's Gordon Geckos post-Reagan and pre-blowjob that the former strippers target at New York bars. There is a quick summary of how banking works: a pan of crowded trading floors coupled with a voiceover explaining the hierarchy of Wall Street guys is like a montage of lambs going to slaughter. They may be the "Wolf of Wall Street" but soon they will be preyed on too.

Fellow strippers Annabelle (an underused Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer, spot-on in tone with cutting comedic lines) join Ramona and Destiny to enact their plan of mixing ketamine and MDMA into drinks before charging cards. It's lengthy to debate the morality (a particular scene with the women dragging a corpse-like figure is especially cringe) but it's important to note the distinction between Ramona and Destiny: according to Destiny, she's the one who sympathizes with the men the most. 

"Hustlers" isn't a perfect movie, and very easily could be seen as a girl's night comedy. But there is something about it that lingers, mainly from Scafaria's choices, and the onscreen chemistry between Wu's stoic tears and Lopez's determined depth. Regardless of the reason to see it, there is always the same take away at the end: women, especially those marginalized and underprivileged, have to hustle every day in a world of men. But damn, do we make it look good.

Director Ben Berman Discusses Hulu's "The Amazing Johnathan Documentary" at Village East Cinema

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Originally published on The Knockturnal

There are simultaneously few and many words to describe comic magician John Szeles, also known as The Amazing Johnathan. From his fame as a shock entertainer on variety shows to his Vegas residencies, culminating in his diagnosis in 2014 of a terminal heart disease, Szeles has remained as much of a mystery as his morbid onstage tricks.

Director Ben Berman chose Szeles’ story for his debut feature film in part due to The Amazing Johnathan’s elusive eccentricities, yet Berman soon realizes his own experience with illness is what grounds their tumultuous friendship. Eric Andre, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Carrot Top provide commentary on The Amazing Johnathan’s extraordinary career while Berman tries to make sense of Szeles’ current comeback.

“I was just there to experiment and observe, be as vérité as I could be,” Berman explained. “The idea was just to follow where this thing goes but of course this guy is an illusionist. Documentaries are a medium that either seek the truth or present the truth. How could I ever expect to get the truth from an illusionist?”

Berman cited Orson Welles’ “F For Fake” and Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March” as inspirations for the film, explaining the ever-shifting dynamic of the story he sought and how documentary ethics of honesty inevitably became more layered. “I like that the film asks questions and leaves you with questions as well,” Berman said. “Sometimes using a little bit of deception against the deceiver, bending the truth to get the truth, is a beautiful thing.”

The film, one of the most entertaining and twist-filled documentaries so far this year, leaves viewers trying to make sense of the art of illusion, showmanship, and resilience. Subject quickly becomes director and director becomes subject, begging the question: who’s to say the rabbit was pulled out of the hat, and the hat not pulled out of the rabbit?

"De Lo Mio" Premieres at BAMcinemaFest Closing Night

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Originally published on The Knockturnal

The strikingly delicate film, De Lo Mio, closed this year's 11th annual BAMcinemaFest in Brooklyn last night.

First time feature writer-director Diana Peralta wove her personal Dominican-American upbringing into the fictional story of two sisters, Carolina (Darlene Demorizi) and Rita (Sasha Merci), as they return to Santiago to settle their grandparents' estate with half-brother Dante (Héctor Aníbal). De Lo Mio, translating to "of mine," is an ode to the Dominican Republic while transcending into a swooning memory of a universal hometown, one that fades in and out of daydreams like the sunlight through the shrouded tree branches at the family's weathered home.

Associate Vice President of Cinema at BAMcinematek Gina Duncan introduced the "achingly alive" film, citing her own experience as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants to the relatable quality of De Lo Mio. "It truly marks the arrival of not just a filmmaker to watch but one to bet on," Duncan said to applause. "I don't just hope--I know--that big things are in store for this rising talent, and it is truly an honor to host [Diana Peralta]." 

Brooklyn-based Peralta also thanked the cast and crew prior to the screening; a true family affair, Peralta's sister Michelle was a co-producer, and the house at the center of the film is actually Peralta's grandparents' house. "You don't get a lot of stories like this told," Peralta mused, turning to lead actors Demorizi and Merci. "This is your story as much yours as it is mine." 

De Lo Mio was filmed entirely in the Dominican Republic, emphasizing its beauty and pace of life with long takes and natural sounds. The 14-day shoot was structured around Peralta's family home; like in the film, the house also faced demolition after Peralta's grandmother passed away six months prior. "Everything you see is a family heirloom, it's things that I was surrounded by since I was a child," Peralta explained. "It took a while to get inspired by that and to realize there is something beautiful to talk about there."

As the fictional three siblings struggle with loss, guilt, and reconnecting, the house remains the unifying element. Peralta mapped out each room to pair with particular scenes-- smaller quarters for the intense argument between Dante and Rita, the exposed sunlight-filled living room for an endearing dance scene with the trio as they reminisce to old records. "Every room I knew I wanted in the film, I would craft a scene around," Peralta said. "I basically wrote the story based on the location." 

Cinematographer Tim Curtin, known for neorealist film A Ciambra, proves his brilliance once again with every shot. The touches within the home are thoughtfully magnified as the camera lingers, sometimes long enough for you too to be transported into your own home, underneath the mosquito net canopy that turns to gossamer floating slightly in the unseen breeze. Through Curtin's lens we see the profound authenticity of Peralta's memories; their collaboration is what drives the film to an emotional depth, the images haunting in their comfort. 

Demorizi and Merci's sisterly chemistry is in part thanks to their own personal lifelong friendship off-screen, but Peralta's direction--especially for Merci's captivating performance--carries their inherent sibling jokes to a deeper core. Both Demorizi and Merci are comedians, and Peralta reached out to them via Instagram private message, a shocking fact given their immense onscreen talent. As to why they agreed to the roles, Merci explained it best: "It felt like something I had to do for the culture. I don't think that story is told." 

Aníbal, a quieter figure in Dante, has a magnetic intrigue, and remains an echoing presence throughout the film. It's Dante's relationship to the Dominican Republic and his resentment of their father for leaving to start a new family in the U.S. that remains at the core, and Aníbal's eyes brilliantly convey the conflicted situation for Dante. 

A stunning portrait, De Lo Mio slowly embeds itself with the audience, its final shot whispering away, moving ever so forward, and reminding us too of the childhood far lost.

"My Dad Wrote a Porno" Seduces Audiences with HBO Special

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Originally published on The Knockturnal

“My Dad Wrote a Porno”– this terrifying statement has spurred an internationally beloved podcast, and now a hilarious comedy special airing on HBO tonight. Hosted by Jamie Morton, James Cooper, and Alice Levine, the taped live show was recorded in March at the Roundhouse in London.

“One half erotica, one half business manual,” as Levine describes, the show is centered on Belinda Blinked, a series of erotic novels written by Morton’s father under the nom de plume Rocky Flintstone. The special centers on Morton reading the infamous “lost chapter” of Belinda Blinked, with Cooper and Levine adding comedic side commentary questioning Morton’s father’s understanding of the female anatomy and his unique turn of phrase. Throughout the show, audience members are encouraged to partake in ironic drinking games and reenactments of sexual positions with props mirroring some of Flintstone’s more questionable metaphors– think “nut-shaped nipple.”

The intimate subject matter is no problem for college friends Morton, Cooper, and Levine. The trio met at the University of Leeds through the Student Television Society because they were all “massive geeks,” as Morton lovingly described. “We spent three years creating our own tv and short films so by the time we graduated we were so used to making stuff, we carried on at weekends and after work,” Morton explained. “The most–and let’s be honest, only–successful thing thus far has been the My Dad Wrote A Porno podcast.”

Morton, Cooper, and Levine have all previously worked on an array of UK reality TV shows, including The Apprentice, The X Factor, The Voice UK, and Big Brother-spinoff, Bit on the Side. Their collective backgrounds in radio and TV contributed to the beginning of the podcast. “We all have very complementary skill sets–I’m a director and editor, James [Cooper] is a BAFTA-nominated producer, and Alice [Levine] worked as a radio host–so we were able to pool our experiences and resources to create a show that we had full ownership over,” Morton said.

Morton’s discovery of his father’s literary porn project was a welcome surprise. “My dad retired from his building business and decided to write a novel in all the new time he had in his life,” Morton said. “I was fully on board with this retirement plan until I discovered it was porn. He emailed me the first book one day out of the blue and that’s how I found out.”

Once the shock dissipated, Morton saw an opportunity. “I was so confused and appalled, but curiosity got the better of me and I had to read it. It quickly became clear it was the most unintentionally hilarious book ever written so I immediately had to share it with James [Cooper] and Alice [Levine]. We read it down the pub and quickly decided the world had to hear it. So the podcast was born.”

The My Dad Wrote a Porno podcast has since been hailed a celebrity-favorite, with more than 160 million downloads since its premiere in 2015. Centered on the world of Belinda Blumenthal, the series follows its sex-crazed protagonist as she travels the world as a saleswoman for the fictional Steele’s Pots and Pans cookware company. Morton’s father is even a fan of the show, with ‘Rocky Flintstone’ even a producer of the HBO special. “Dad’s the biggest fan of the podcast. We would never had made it if he wasn’t 100% on board,” Morton explained. “He’s such a wind up merchant and has such a great sense of humour that he loved the idea from the beginning. The hardest part wasn’t convincing him to let us do it, it was explaining what a podcast was!”

The podcast features Cooper, Morton, and Levine reading and discussing a chapter from the Belinda Blinked novels. The transition into live touring shows allowed for the text to be enhanced even further. “It has given us the ability to explore Dad’s writing in a visual way, which is impossible in a podcast,” Morton discussed. “We knew very early that we’d love to explore audience interaction so it was just a question of how we could include them that felt organic and purposeful.”


Participation is key in keeping the show fresh, as Morton explained, given the possibility for spontaneous hilarious quips. For the particular segment read in the HBO special, Morton knew it called for audience reenactments. “It was clear that what dad had written was impossible, so acting it out felt almost essential!” Morton joked.

The move to performing onstage also required the trio to emphasize the simplicity of their performances while remaining as true to the podcast as possible. “We’re always wary of losing the essence and tone of the show so focusing on our relationship as we read has to be paramount,” Morton said. “For me personally, this is the first thing I’ve ever done on TV so it was kind of a jump in with both feet and sink-or-swim situation. I think that was probably a good thing because it meant I just had to be myself and our authentic rapport is the heart of the show.”

Arguably, their friendship and natural comedic chemistry is what makes the show so endearing. “We knew our concept was susceptible to being a flash in the pan so it was essential we approached it as professionally as possible,” Morton mused. “It’s one of the things we’re proudest of actually; how we’ve not only sustained My Dad Wrote A Porno, but have grown it consistently and built it into a global brand.”

Their brand extends into philanthropic endeavors too, with proceeds of ticket sales from the March tapings for the HBO special donated to MIND, a UK-based charity for mental health awareness and support– a suggestion made my Morton’s father, Rocky Flintstone himself. “We have many listeners who get in touch with us about how the podcast has helped them through some really tough times and aided with their mental health,” Morton explained. “We are always so moved by their bravery to speak publicly about their experiences so we wanted to honor them in a way that felt substantive. Therefore, MIND seemed like the perfect charity to partner with.”

As for the future of My Dad Wrote a Porno, well, Morton’s dad is still writing pornos. “Dad has been writing away for years and is constantly sending me stuff, so we aren’t in any danger of running out of Belinda adventures,” Morton exclaimed. “Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing!”



"Booksmart" Review

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Originally published on The Knockturnal

It’s not often that a movie can capture an era, or even a feeling, so precisely. Each decade brings a new wave of teenage angst, drama, fads, and lingo– all with the same inevitable ending: growing up.

For the 80s, it was Pretty in Pink, followed by American Pie, brought to the 2000s by Superbad, and now, taken to a new level with Booksmart. The authentically witty and totally relatable film epitomizes the cliched phrase ‘instant classic,’ but it’s difficult to categorize it otherwise. Debut director Olivia Wilde explores a thoroughly modern Gen Z high school, brought to life by a slew of technicolored Urban Outfitters-clad charismatic characters.

Senior class president Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) embark on their final day as high schoolers. The pair soon realize that their hard-partying peers were shockingly accepted into the same Ivy League schools they were, and Molly and Amy become determined to prove they can be fun as well as smart.

From Lyft rides to RBJ references to gender-neutral bathrooms, “Booksmart” reminds us that we’re in 2019, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film uses the tried-and-true nostalgic teen rom-com format to its advantage, allowing for a snappy script and outstanding performances to shine independently. Wilde proves to be a selfless director, showcasing the innate brilliance of Feldstein and Dever, along with talented supporting stars Jessica Williams, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, and Wilde’s real-life husband Jason Sudeikis. The ensemble production, predominantly featuring young newcomer actors, was no doubt a labor of love.

Feldstein, a standout in 2017’s Lady Bird and fellow actor Jonah Hill’s younger sister, is a comic scene-stealer, proving depth and intensity in an emotional performance. Dever and Feldstein’s quirky chemistry, culminating in a tearful airport departure, complete the film. With honest takes on high school love–Molly grapples with the plight of how to be a proper feminist while still crushing on a stereotypically dumb jock while Amy lusts after the chill skater girl–Booksmart is a refreshing girl-powered comedy. Timeless yet modern, Booksmart is a must-see for summer.

"Missing Link" Review

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Originally published on The Knockturnal.

Quaint never looked so cute.

Missing Link, the latest stop-motion film from writer-director Chris Butler, is a charming tale of eccentricity and acceptance.

The animated story is centered on adventurer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) as he strives to prove himself to a Victorian-era gentleman’s club of skeptical elite older explorers. After a failed attempt at photographing the Loch Ness monster, Sir Frost seeks out to find proof of the Sasquatch–believed to the be the missing evolutionary link from ape to man–in the Pacific Northwest. Much to his surprise, the Sasquatch is none other than a eight feet tall, fur-ridden, lovably gullible literate creature whom Sir Frost dubs “Mr. Link” (Zach Galifianakis). The duo embark on a journey to the Himalayas in search for the fabled Shangri-La to reunite Mr. Link with his ‘cousin’, the yeti, along with the help of Sir Frost’s former love and fellow explorer Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana).

While the political metaphors may seem obvious to adults– breaking out of the hypocritical old guard white men’s club and the Victorian setting no doubt signifying the antiquated systems of today–the film’s messages of nonconformity, acceptance, and staying true to oneself are subtly ingrained into the narrative for its target child audience to appreciate and learn from.

Portland-based stop-motion animation company LAIKA created the stunning visuals for the film, and Missing Link marks the company’s fourth collaboration with writer-director Butler behind ParaNorman, Coraline, and Kubo and the Two Strings. Butler publicly credits films like Sherlock Holmes and Raiders of the Lost Ark as inspiration for the bond between Mr. Link and Sir Frost.

The charm of Missing Link is due in large part to the charismatic voice work of Jackman, Saldana, and the scene-stealing Galifianakis. It’s a film about friendship, one clearly made out of love. Although a quiet movie, it’s no doubt one to see.

"Missing Link" Premieres at Regal Cinemas Battery Park

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Originally published on The Knockturnal

Missing Link, the highly-anticipated new LAIKA stop motion animated film, brought stars and families together on the red carpet at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park.

The movie tells the story of adventurer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) and his quest to reunite the fabled Sasquatch, nicknamed Mr. Link (Zach Galifanikis), with ‘cousins’ in Shangri-La with the help of fellow explorer Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana). A tale of self-discovery and acceptance, Missing Link brings whimsical fun for an endearing twist on a classic coming of age story.

Stars Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, and Amrita Acharia walked the red carpet alongside writer-director Chris Butler and producers Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner. A kids-centric reception featuring face painting, a ball pit, and life-sized characters entertained younger fans prior to the film screening.

Actress Paula Garcés and son Antonio Andres Hernandez enjoyed the reception, with former “Real Housewives of New York” stars Kristen and Josh Taekman and influencers Eva Chen, Brianne Manz, Mary Wassner, and Suzanne Cohen attending with their respective children in tow.

Missing Link lead actress Zoe Saldana explained her personal admiration for stop motion animation as one of her motivations to be involved in the film. “I’ve loved stop motion since I was a child. I have massive respect for the artists that devote their career to this form of art and filmmaking,” Saldana said. “Also the story was really inspiring.”

Similarly, actress Amrita Acharia was drawn to the movie specifically due to LAIKA’s animation. “I love their stuff, and it was just amazing to be part of something so magical,” Acharia said.

Missing Link marks the fourth collaboration between writer-director Butler and Oregon-based animation company LAIKA. The notably lighter subject matter compared to previous films such as Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings was just one of the many changes Missing Link posed for LAIKA. According to LAIKA head of production and producer Arianne Sutner, Missing Link was the largest scale project for the company, spanning 65 unique sets and requiring over 400 people. Sutner credits the heartwarming story as the driving force behind the five-year project. “It’s [about] what all humans face: you want to belong, and sometimes that’s with your family of origin and sometimes you work to create your own identity and find that family,” Sutner explained. “It’s universal and true. I enjoy spending time with these characters.”

Writer-director Butler was inspired to tell a story that was “a little brighter, a little bolder, a little more comical” in Missing Link to explore another side of his work. “I think what we try to do each time is tell a different kind of story and it was time to be a bit more playful, have a bit more fun,” Butler said. Missing Link also marks the first film with adult main characters, no doubt changing the tone as well.

The premiere itself was similarly full of wonder and fun as Hugh Jackman posed with children on the carpet and Zoe Saldana spoke in Spanish to young fans. The warmth of the cast and crew behind Missing Link only speaks to the film’s charm, making it a welcomed kid-friendly movie in time for spring.

Netflix's "Fyre" Documentary Captures the Flames of Failed Festival

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Originally published on The Knockturnal

Some things are just too good to be true. The Netflix Original documentary "Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened" traces how the promise of a luxury private island music festival became a full-fledged scam. Famed documentarian Chris Smith ("American Movie," "Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond"sewed together behind-the-scenes festival footage alongside present-day interviews investors, festival contractors, island locales, and Fyre Festival concertgoers. Those featured in the film were in attendance at the Metrograph Theater premiere last night, with one glaring exception: the incarcerated mastermind of it all, Billy McFarland. A collectively-dubbed "sociopath," McFarland remained an elusive character with Jordan Belfort business practices and the presence of a snake charmer.

Director Smith beautifully recreated the infectious excitement surrounding the festival, reminding audiences of its original purpose to showcase the fledgling celebrity booking app McFarland and rapper Ja Rule had announced. The initial promotional video for the festival was seductively intriguing: Pablo Escobar's private Bahamian island inhabited only by bikini-clad supermodels like Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski, accessible solely by private jet or yacht. Festival headliners ranged from Disclosure to Blink-182. The infamous reality of Fyre instead included reused hurricane relief tents, cheese sandwiches, and plane delays. As the film suggests, Fyre Festival is an intimate example of the dangers of influencer marketing. "Fyre is Instagram coming to life," musician Major Lazer mused on screen.

The uniquely candid documentary is told primarily from the organizers and marketers like Matte Projects and Jerry Media, also sympathetic victims of McFarland's insatiable fabrications. "I felt the contractors were really the soul of the festival," Smith said during a Q&A session moderated by Time Out New Yorksenior film critic Joshua Rothkopf after the screening. "They were dealt a really bad hand of cards."

Director Smith actively chose to portray the full arc of the festival's conception, rather than solely focus on its blatant failure. "There was this very snarky take on the festival and it was interesting to me to just sort of try to put a human face on it and show why people got involved and how this thing built up," Smith explained. "It's very easy after it collapsed to say 'obviously this wasn't going to work' but I think that with any creative endeavor, you sort of jump off the diving board and just hope there's water in there."

The inclusion of interviews with the Exuma-based festival workers emphasized the entitled sense of colonialism that McFarland practiced. After employing dozens of locales to build tents and stage platforms, McFarland abandoned the island without paying wages, inciting strikes and riots.

The Vice Studios-produced documentary offers a snapshot of this unique era, one where a reality star is President and the amount of social media likes declares the worth of celebrity. "Fyre" isn't just about a singular event, but rather a generation.

"Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened" will be available in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York on Friday, January 18, and available to stream on Netflix.