Review: ‘Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island,’ starring Lucy Hale and Michael Peña

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell and Michael Peña in “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” (Photo by Christopher Moss)

“Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” 

Directed by Jeff Wadlow

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional South Pacific locale, the horror film “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” (inspired by the 1977-1984 TV series) follows a racially diverse cast of middle-class characters who go to a luxurious island to fulfill their biggest fantasies.

Culture Clash: The fantasies turn into nightmares, as the island visitors end up in terrifying life-threatening situations.

Culture Audience: “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” will appeal mostly to horror enthusiasts or curious fans of the original TV series who already know that the movie will be filled with over-the-top entertainment.

Lucy Hale, Maggie Q, Austin Stowell, Jimmy O. Yang, Ryan Hansen and Parisa Fitz-Henley in “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” (Photo by Christopher Moss)

Here’s one thing that “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” movie has in common with the 1977-1984 TV series “Fantasy Island” TV series that inspired the film: There’s plenty of cheesiness to go around. The premise is still the same: A group of strangers fly on a private plane to a beautiful island, where they meet their host: the enigmatic Mr. Roarke, who always wears a white suit. All of the strangers are there to fulfill their biggest fantasies. And one by one, they begin to regret that their wishes came true.

The TV series had so much over-the-top ridiculousness (including Mr. Roarke fighting the devil) that people who’ve seen the show might already sense that the movie isn’t going to have any aspirations of being an arthouse film. However, the movie, which was filmed in Fiji, is a pretty good advertisement for the South Pacific country’s gorgeous landscape. The brand name for Blumhouse (the production company whose specialty is horror, with franchises such as “The Conjuring” and “Insidious”) might be an added attraction, but the quality of Blumhouse films is hit or miss.

Case in point: Blumhouse was the production company behind writer/director Jordan Peele’s 2017 Oscar-winning horror blockbuster “Get Out.” But Blumhouse also did 2017’s “Truth or Dare,” one of Blumhouse’s worst horror movies, directed by Jeff Wadlow, starring Lucy Hale, and written by Wadlow, Chris Roach and Jillian Jacobs. And guess what? All four of them have reteamed for “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island,” which is only slightly better than “Truth or Dare,” because at least “Fantasy Island” made some attempt to be a horror film that’s a little more intricate than a cliché slasher flick. Too bad that attempt results in a convoluted mess.

Who are the strangers who’ve gathered on this island and what are their fantasies? They are contest winners who, when they first arrive, cynically speculate about what kinds of elaborate stunts will be pulled to make their fantasies look realistic. Sarcastic beauty Melanie Cole (played by Hale) wants revenge on former schoolmate Sloane Maddison (played by Portia Doubleday), who bullied Melanie in their childhood. Nerdy stepbrothers JD Weaver (played by Ryan Hansen) and Brax Weaver (played by Jimmy O. Yang) want to live out their wildest party fantasies.

Patrick Sullivan (played by Austin Stowell) is a good-guy cop who has a military “Call of Duty” type of fantasy that involves someone from his past. Insecure and sad Gwen Olsen (played by Maggie Q) wants to go back in time to change a decision she made years ago in her personal life. They are greeted by Mr. Roarke (played by Michael Peña), who tells them that once they’ve started living their fantasies, they can’t go back and change their minds.

The “Fantasy Island” TV series famously had an energetic character named Tattoo (played by Hervé Villechaize) as Mr. Roarke’s assistant. In this movie, Mr. Roarke’s assistant is a woman named Julia (played by Parisa Fitz-Henley), who’s as calm as Tattoo was hyper. This movie’s Mr. Roarke is much more serious and aloof than the TV version of Mr. Roarke, although one thing is still the same: He greets his staff by saying, “Smiles, everyone. Smiles.”

Speaking of the Fantasy Island staffers in the movie, they are some of the biggest clues that all is not so wonderful on Fantasy Island. Julia gets mysterious nose bleeds and has a vacant stare. (And later in the movie, some of the employees bleed black bile from their eyes.) One of the staffers is so creepy-looking that he looks like he walked straight from an audition for playing Riff Raff in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Because the movie has numerous twists and turns, there’s only so much that can be described without giving away spoiler information. Melanie is taken to a high-tech room where she thinks she’s seeing a hologram of her former nemesis Sloane, who’s tied up and gagged and sitting in a torture-chamber chair. Melanie has fun pushing certain buttons on the control panel that cause Sloane to go through various forms of torture. But then Melanie figures out that the Sloane she’s seeing isn’t a hologram but the real person.

JD and Brax are taken to a massive pool party that looks like a commercial for a Hedonism II Resort, where they’re surrounded by gorgeous people (women for JD; men for Brax, who is openly gay) and whatever they want to get intoxicated. JD and Brax provide most of the comic relief in the film, although some of their poorly written jokes fall flatter than Mr. Roarke’s emotionless voice.

Meanwhile, Patrick isn’t having as much fun as the Weaver brothers. He’s been taken into the jungle by soldiers who start off by treating him like a prisoner, and he has to earn their respect to be part of the squad. As for Gwen, she wakes up to find herself reconnecting with someone she thought she would never see again.

The movie switches back and forth between all four fantasies until some of the fantasies start to overlap with one another. Some characters come and go without much explanation. Some characters might be real or they might be part of a fantasy. And the last 20 minutes of the film are absolutely bonkers with all the plot twists that try to tie in what happened earlier in the story.

“Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” is like a giant tangled, rotting ball of yarn that keeps gathering dustballs of bad ideas on top of more bad ideas. You can try to untangle it to sort it all out, but it’s not worth it, and it’s best to avoid it altogether.

Columbia Pictures released “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” in U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.

 

 

Review: ‘A Simple Wedding,’ starring Tara Grammy, Christopher O’Shea, Rita Wilson, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Maz Jobrani and Houshang Touzie

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Christopher O’Shea and Tara Grammy in “A Simple Wedding” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“A Simple Wedding”

Directed by Sara Zandieh 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and California’s Orange County, the romantic comedy “A Simple Wedding” features a cast of middle-class characters who are primarily of Iranian descent or white, with some representation of the LGBTQ community.

Culture Clash: A straight woman and a bisexual man fall in love with each other, despite coming from two different backgrounds: She has a conservative Iranian family and he has a non-traditional white American family.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of “opposites attract” romantic comedies or movies about contrasting families.

James Eckhouse, Peter Mackenzie, Rita Wilson, Christopher O’Shea, Tara Grammy, Houshang Touzie and Shohreh Aghdashloo in “A Simple Wedding” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

When a romantic comedy has the word “wedding” in the title, there’s a certain kind of audience it has in mind. And then there’s everyone else who’ll be repelled or will have no interest in watching what is sure to be a bunch of sappy clichés. But if you’re the type of person who hates stories that revolve around weddings because so many of these stories recycle the same tropes, then consider “A Simple Wedding,” which is a sharp and witty romantic comedy for people who usually hate romantic comedies. Even if it’s far from a groundbreaking film, “A Simple Wedding” is entertaining from beginning to end because of its unique take on cultures we normally don’t see in American films.

Directed by Sara Zandieh (who co-wrote the screenplay with Stephanie Wu), “A Simple Wedding” is about not only a couple who are opposites of each other but their family backgrounds are also very different. Nousha Housseini (played by Tara Grammy) is a Los Angeles housing attorney who’s smart, sarcastically funny, and going through a family ritual that she dreads: Her Iranian immigrant parents—mother Ziba (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo) and father Reza (Houshang Touzie), who live in nearby Orange County—have been setting up meetings with Nousha and eligible bachelors of Iranian descent, with the expectation that Nousha will enter into an arranged marriage.

Nousha, who’s in her early 30s, isn’t too keen on getting married to anyone because she doesn’t think she’s ready yet. And if she does get married, she wants it to be for love, not because it was arranged for her by other people. In the film’s opening scene, Nousha deliberately sabotages a meeting with her parents, her fiancé and his parents. It’s not shown or mentioned in the movie how long Nousha has been dating her fiancé. (Keep in mind that in certain cultures, it’s not unusual for people in arranged marriages to get engaged after knowing each other for a few days.)

While visiting at the other couple’s house with the would-be husband in attendance, Nousha offers a birthday cake to the wife and sings “Happy Birthday” in the seductive way that Marilyn Monroe famously sang the song to President John F. Kennedy. The mother doesn’t know what to make of this unexpected delivery and is very uncomfortable with the way Nousha is singing the song to her. It’s so unnerving that she cuts the meeting short and says that maybe Nousha isn’t the right match for her son. “Are you breaking up with me?,” Nousha says as she tries to hide her smile.

Mission accomplished. Her parents are disappointed that Nousha’s been eliminated as a prospective wife for this well-to-do and educated suitor, but Nousha is happy that her plan has worked perfectly to get out of being married off to him. As she argues with her parents later, she says that she thinks marriage is an outdated institution and she doesn’t want to be stifled by it. Meanwhile, her outspoken mother whines, “I can’t sleep until you get married!”

Nousha’s circle of friends includes a lesbian couple named Lynne (played by Rebecca Henderson) and Tessa (played Aleque Reid), who are mothers of a pre-school-age girl. When Nousha tells Tessa and Lynne about the breakup, they tell her that she was just in the relationship for the sex with the guy and to please her parents’ expectation that she would marry him. “Oh my God!” Nousha exclaims. “I was doing him for my mom!”

Lynne is one of Nousha’s co-workers, and she’s already spread the word that Nousha has broken up with her latest boyfriend and that she’s available to start dating someone new. Nousha figures out that her love life has become gossip fodder at her job, because after Nousha has told Lynne about the breakup, people in the office keep asking Nousha how she’s feeling, with a sympathetic tone in their voices. And one creepy male co-worker who’s been trying to hook up with Anousha reminds her in a hilarious way how he’s available if she’s interested. (She makes it clear that she’s not interested.)

Meanwhile, Lynne has been asking people at her job to join her in a public protest against sexism and misogyny. Nousha considers herself to be a progressive liberal, so she participates in the protest, which Lynne has named “Pussies Against Patriarchy.” The turnout isn’t very large (less than 20 people), but they are joined by an all-male group of feminists who call themselves The Minstrels.

One of the Minstrels is a lanky, boyishly good-looking artist/DJ named Alex Talbot (played by Christopher O’Shea), who locks eyes with Nousha during the protest. They start flirting with each other, and Nousha gives him her business card. He doesn’t wait long to call her and ask her out on a date.

Over dinner at a hipster-looking dive café, Alex and Nousha talk about their childhood crushes that they would be embarrassed to tell most people. For Nousha, it was David Hasselhoff. For Alex, it was Celine Dion. (And he confesses that Celine is still a major turn-on for him.)

Nousha immediately assumes that Alex must be gay, but he tells her that he’s sexually attracted to men and women—and that he’s attracted to Nousha. She then reveals that she can do a pretty good Celine Dion impersonation because her mother is a big fan, and Anousha learned how to impersonate Celine Dion when she was a child so “my mother would like me better.” After much pleading from Alex, Nousha reluctantly does her Celine Dion impersonation for him while sitting at the café table. That pretty much seals the deal, so it’s no surprise that when they go back to Alex’s place, they become lovers.

During their whirlwind romance, Alex and Nousha spend as much time as they can with each other, but Nousha is very hesitant at first to introduce him to her parents. Alex is the type of free-spirited, avant-garde artist who hangs up on his wall a drawing that he did of Saddam Hussein kissing Andy Warhol. She also has some concerns about Alex’s financial stability—as a struggling artist, his low income is unpredictable—and the fact that she makes a lot more money than he does.

Although Nousha and Alex are both politically liberal, they have different personalities. Nousha is ambitious, high-strung and practical, while Alex is more of a laid-back, “go with the flow” dreamer. Because they spend so much time together and because Nousha doesn’t care for Alex’s dumpy loft in a low-income area, it’s only a matter of time before they move in together to a place that’s more suited to Nousha’s comfort level. But Nousha still doesn’t tell her parents about Alex, because she thinks he won’t fit in with her family.

It’s not just because Alex isn’t Muslim or because her family also disapproves of couples living together before they get married. It’s also because Alex has a very unconventional family, whom he affectionately calls “crazy.” His parents divorced when he was 16, and his father Bill (played by Peter Mackenzie) ended up marrying another man. Meanwhile, Alex’s mother, Maggie Baker (played by Rita Wilson), is still bitter about the divorce and has given up on finding love again. She has a lot animosity toward Bill’s husband Steven (played by James Eckhouse), whom she blames for breaking up her marriage.

During a Facetime chat that Nousha has with her mother, Ziba sees a shirtless Alex in the background, so Nousha finally tells her mother about her relationship with Alex. When the inevitable time comes to meet Nousha’s family—which includes her maternal grandmother (played by Jaleh Modjallal)—Nousha warns Alex that her family will pressure them into getting married. Needless to say, Nousha and Alex do in fact get engaged. And her family— following the tradition of the bride’s family hosting the wedding—wans to goes all-out for the occasion. However, Nousha insists that the wedding should be a small event in the parents’ backyard.

During the wedding plans, Nousha’s Uncle Saman (played by Maz Jobrani), who is her father’s brother, comes to visit the family. Saman is a war veteran who has never been married and doesn’t have kids. (People who first meet him assume that he’s gay, but he’s not.) Saman gets pulled into the rehearsals for the wedding march because Alex’s mother Maggie needs a partner for the procession. Bill and Steven are paired together and Nousha’s parents are also coupled up, and it would look awkward for Maggie to not have someone to walk with too. Because of underlying tensions and because of the big cultural differences in the two families, there are several arguments and moments of discomfort that are played for laughs in the movie.

Fortunately, “A Simple Wedding” has a well-cast set  of actors who handle their performances with believability, charm and great comedic timing. These actors know that the right pauses and facial expressions can turn a scene from something that would land with a thud to a scene that will make people burst out laughing. A lot of the dialogue also looks improvised.

As the story’s protagonist, Nousha is not a typical heroine of a wedding movie. She’s bossy, she’s impatient, and she’s frequently cynical about the concept of “happily ever after.” And even though she’s an attorney, she’s not that straight-laced, since she likes to get high on various substances—and not all of them are legal. Alex is very sweet and eager-to-please (perhaps too eager, since he decides to give himself the nickname Mohammed), but he still maintains a strong sense of identity and feels comfortable with who he is.

The movie has some slapstick moments that look a bit awkward, but the real humor is in the snappy remarks and reactions of the story’s characters. “A Simple Wedding” is worth seeking out for people looking for an enjoyable romantic comedy that has a slightly raunchy sense of humor but still has a sentimental soft spot inside.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “A Simple Wedding” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 14, 2020.

Review: ‘The Photograph,’ starring Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in “The Photograph” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“The Photograph”

Directed by Stella Meghie 

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York City and Louisiana, the romantic drama “Photograph” has a primarily African American cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: Career ambitions and the fear of commitment have affected the love lives of a museum curator and her late mother, who left behind her humble roots in Louisiana to become a famous photographer in New York City.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to audiences looking for nuanced and emotional romantic dramas that don’t fall into the trap of melodramatic clichés.

Y’lan Noel and Chanté Adams in “The Photograph” (Photo by Sabrina Lantos/Universal Pictures)

It’s about time. “The Photograph” is a rare treasure of a romantic drama that doesn’t pander to negative stereotypes of African Americans. The people aren’t constantly cursing, the men are gainfully employed and aren’t criminals, and the women aren’t mad at the men for being cheaters, abusers or deadbeat baby daddies. There used to be a time when there were dramatic films that showed a better and more realistic variety of African Americans instead of the embarrassing caricatures that unfortunately are written for many of today’s movies that have predominantly African American casts.

For people who want to see more African American films like “Love Jones” or “Brown Sugar,” fortunately “The Photograph” is a return to these types of movies where black people aren’t all poor, uneducated and/or living in crime-infested areas. “The Photograph” might be considered “boring” for people who like to see black folks yelling at each other non-stop. But for other people who can appreciate classier and more emotionally mature adult relationships, “The Photograph” is the type of movie that will be a welcome treat.

Written and directed by Stella Meghie, “The Photograph” goes back and forth in telling two different love stories from two different eras. The contemporary love story takes place in New York City, and it involves assistant museum curator Mae Morton (played by Issa Rae) and news journalist Michael Block (played by LaKeith Stanfield). They meet because Michael, who works for a news/lifestyle magazine called The Republic, is doing a story on Mae’s mother, Christina Eames, a famous photographer who has recently passed away.

The other love story takes place in late 1980s Louisiana, and it involves Christina (played by Chanté Adams) as a young, aspiring photographer and Isaac Jefferson (played by Y’Lan Noel), a local fisherman who was Christina’s boyfriend at the time. In the beginning of the film, Michael is seen interviewing a middle-aged Isaac (played by Rob Morgan), who basically says that even though he and Christina lost touch with each other when she moved to New York City in the late 1980s, she was the love of his life and he never really got over their relationship ending. Isaac shows Michael a self-portrait photograph that Christina took, and Michael takes a photo of it on his phone, which he later shows to Mae after he meets her in New York.

When Mae and Michael first meet each other at her Queens Museum job, they both think it’s going to be a work-related conversation, but they feel some romantic sparks when they first set eyes on each other. Michael is there to interview Mae (who was estranged from her mother for most of her life) and to see if Mae has any of Christina’s personal mementos that she would feel comfortable showing him. Mae has some letters from Christina that were supposed to be read after Christina died, but Mae has difficulty bringing herself to read all the letters in their entirety.

That’s because Christina abandoned her husband Louis Morton (played by Courtney B. Vance) and Mae when Mae was a very young girl. The reason that Christina gave for leaving them was that she was too devoted to her career to be a good wife and mother. Those emotional wounds never really healed for Mae. And although she feels some level of grief over the death of her mother, she didn’t really know her, and Mae has conflicting feelings about how much sadness she should feel about her mother’s death.

The movie shows flashbacks of what went wrong in the relationship between Christina and Isaac. Although they loved each other deeply, Christina was feeling too restless in Louisiana, and she wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a well-known and respected professional photographer. Meanwhile, Isaac was comfortable staying in Louisiana to become a fisherman. The couple parted ways over their different goals and lifestyle ambitions. But the way Christina left was abrupt, and Isaac never really got closure for it.

A few years later after she had married and become a mother in New York City, Christina once again, in a single-minded pursuit of her career, left behind loved ones to focus on her work ambitions. As Mae and Michael start to date and open up to each other, Mae confesses that she’s afraid of becoming just like her mother.

Meanwhile, Michael also has issues with commitment since he has a “grass is always greener” attitude about a lot of his romantic relationships. Before he met Christina, he had a long-distance romance with a woman in Louisiana, but that relationship ended around the time he interviewed Isaac. Mae finds out about the ex-girlfriend and is mildly jealous, but she gets over it when she realizes that she and Michael have something special.

Mae and Michael are a great match for each other. They’re both smart and likable. Mae is funny in a sarcastic kind of way, while Michael is self-deprecating and endearing. They both have similar interests, but not so similar that they’re boring clones of each other. Over their first dinner date, they debate the merits of rappers such as Drake, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. Mae confesses that Lamar “makes me feel guilty” because she isn’t always engaged in African American empowerment the way Lamar preaches about it in his songs. That confession is later referenced in a very touching moment near the end of the movie.

Here’s what’s so refreshing about “The Photograph” and the love story between Mae and Michael: They deal with their personal issues in a respectful way with each other. There’s no craziness, no abusive language, no negative clichés such as addictions, infidelity or criminal activity that threaten to tear apart their relationship. If you think about how often these stereotypes are all over movies with predominately African American casts, it’s cause for celebration that “The Photograph” didn’t sink to these levels and does it in a beautiful way.

Another healthy and positive African American romance in the story is between Michael’s older brother Kyle (played by Lil Rel Howery) and Kyle’s wife, Asia (played by Teyonah Parris), who are parents to two young girls. Kyle and Asia offer a lot of emotional support and advice to Michael, and they aren’t afraid to keep it real with him when they think he’s making mistakes. Kyle and Asia have some of the best scenes in the movie when they’re around Michael and Mae. Their dynamic (one longtime couple, one new couple) has an authentic banter that’s great to watch.

But before you get all gooey inside from all this lovey-dovey wonderfulness, it wouldn’t be a romantic drama if the couple didn’t have a big obstacle to overcome. For Mae and Michael, just like with Christina and Isaac, their relationship might have to reach a crossroads because of a career decision. Before he met Mae, Michael applied for a London-based job at the Associated Press.

When Michael and Mae start dating, he doesn’t know if he got the job, but he tells Mae about the possibility that he might move to another country, and that revelation affects her feelings of how seriously she wants to get involved with Robert. But they can’t deny their passionate feelings for each other. And one night, when during a rainstorm that hits New York City, Michael and Mae end up consummating their relationship and they really start to fall in love.

As for the secret that’s revealed in Christina’s letters, it’s pretty obvious from the flashbacks to Christina and Isaac’s love story what that secret is. You’ll have to see the movie to find out Mae’s reaction. And as for that Associated Press job in London, it’s also revealed whether or not Michael got the job, because that also affects his relationship with Mae.

“The Photograph” is by no means a masterpiece. It’s got some pacing issues, and some viewers might want to see Michael and Mae have more people in their lives besides immediate family members and co-workers. But “The Photograph” shows how some people just don’t need a large social circle to be happy. They don’t need messy drama to validate their love relationships. Just like a grape harvester for fine wine, “The Photograph” weeds out a lot of nasty ingredients that could pollute a story like this, and celebrates love that is reaffirming and uplifting.

Universal Pictures released “The Photograph” in U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.

Review: ‘Come as You Are’ (2020), starring Grant Rosenmeyer, Hayden Szeto, Ravi Patel, Gabourey Sidibe, Janeane Garofalo and C.S. Lee

January 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise from left: Gabourey Sidibe, Hayden Szeto, Ravi Patel and Grant Rosenmeyer in “Come as You Are” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Come as You Are”

Directed by Richard Wong

Culture Representation: “Come as You Are” is a comedy about a racially diverse trio of middle-class disabled young men and their female driver who take a road trip from the U.S. to Canada, so the men can visit a brothel and lose their virginities.

Culture Clash: The men sometimes bicker amongst each other over how much they should tell people about their brothel plans, and they have overprotective parents who are against the trip.

Culture Audience: This movie will primarily appeal to viewers who like comedy films to strike a balance between raunchy humor and a story that has a lot of heart.

Ravi Patel, Hayden Szeto, Grant Rosenmeyer and Gabourey Sidibe in “Come as You Are” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

There have been plenty of comedies about road trips, but “Come as You Are” is truly a noteworthy gem not just because the main characters in the movie are disabled but also because it’s a genuinely funny ride that realistically portrays life’s ups and downs. Directed by Richard Wong and written by Erik Linthorst, the movie is a remake of the 2011 Belgian film “Come as You Are” which was originally titled “Hasta La Vista.” The movie is based on a true story, which is probably why even among some of the slapstick moments, most of the film’s emotional elements ring very true. The American filmmakers who did the “Come as You Are” remake consulted with American paraplegic Asta Philpot (who’s the inspiration for the movie), as well as the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab and the Wheelchair Athletes of McFetridge.

In the beginning of the film, viewers are introduced to the person who sets in motion the plans for the road trip. Scotty (played by Grant Rosenmeyer, who’s also one of the films producers) is a 24-year-old paraplegic virgin who lives with his overbearing single mother Liz (played by Janeane Garofalo) in Littleton, Colorado. Liz is the only caretaker for Scotty, and she’s aware but in denial that her son has sexual needs that aren’t being met. Scotty also cannot use his arms due to a congenital defect. And he’s frequently horny and frustrated because he has no prospects for a girlfriend or even a “friend with benefits.” It doesn’t help that Scotty is often abrasive and rude with people.

Scotty channels his angst into original rap songs that he secretly writes but is afraid to perform in front of anyone. He also spends time at a physical-therapy center, where he has a somewhat tense acquaintance with Mo (played by Ravi Patel), a 35-year-old who’s legally blind. Mo lives with his parents, who are also overprotective, but his parents are never seen in the movie. Scotty has a mild crush on his physical therapist Becky (played by Daisye Tutor), who is aware of Scotty’s crush but keeps things professional between them.

One day, a newcomer arrives at the center. His name is Matt (played by Hayden Szeto), a paraplegic in his 20s who can use his hands. Becky is assigned to work with Matt, and Scotty gets very jealous. Later at the therapy center, while watching a paraplegic baseball game, Scotty picks a fight with Matt and demands that Matt tell him that Becky is Scotty’s therapist. Matt, who is polite and doesn’t want a confrontation, agrees to Scotty’s demand, and the expression on Matt’s face says that he wonders if Scotty is mentally unstable.

During the baseball game, Scotty notices that one of the paraplegic baseball players is a middle-aged man who has a gorgeous young girlfriend who could pass for a model. Scotty watches in awe and then congratulates the man on being able to get someone that attractive as a girlfriend. The man then gives Scotty a business card and tells him to look up the business because it will change his life. The card is for a place in Montreal called Chateau Paradis. (In the Belgian “Come as You Are” movie, the disabled men visit a brothel in Spain.)

When Scotty gets home, he looks up Chateau Paradis on the Internet and he finds out that it’s a brothel, founded by a paraplegic (played by Philpot, in a cameo), that caters to the disabled and other people with special needs. Scotty immediately wants to go to the brothel, but he has three big problems: He can’t drive, he can’t afford to go on the trip by himself, and his mother would never allow him to go on the trip.

Scotty immediately hatches a plan to recruit other men from the therapy center to go on the trip with him. He knows that Mo is a virgin, and he figures that mild-mannered Matt might be a virgin too. (He is.) Mo and Matt are each reluctant to go on the trip at first. In fact, Matt flat-out refuses when Scotty asks him for the first time, because Matt has a girlfriend.

But when Matt catches his college-aged girlfriend heavily flirting with another student in a school library, he gets very upset, and she breaks up with him because she says she has to think about her future. It’s a short but heartbreaking moment that shows the harsh realities that disabled people often face when they’re in romantic relationships with able-bodied people, because at some point in the relationship (depending on how serious it is), the issues of how, if or when to raise a family will have to be addressed.

After the breakup with his girlfriend, Matt goes all-in on the road trip and decides he wants to lose his virginity at the brothel. He’s so eager to go that he tells Scotty that he wants to take the trip the following week. Because Scotty has a prickly relationship with Mo, Scotty enlists Matt to convince Mo to take the trip. Mo agrees because he’s always wanted to travel out of the area, but he has mixed feelings about going to the brothel.

Matt lives with his overprotective parents—Roger (played by C.S. Lee) and Maryanne (played by Jennifer Jelsema)—and his pre-teen younger sister Jamie (played by Martha Kuwahara). Although they are a loving family, Matt is feeling stifled by his parents’ unwillingness to let him do more things as an independent adult. (Not surprisingly, his parents refuse Matt’s request to go on a road trip.) Matt also has an unnamed medical condition that requires him to frequently take prescription pills.

Knowing that their parents would disapprove, it doesn’t take long for Scotty, Mo and Matt to go on the secretive trip by temporarily “running away” from home and by hiring a van service that can attend to people with disabilities. In one hilarious scene before they go on their excursion, Matt sends his little sister Jamie to a drugstore to secretly buy him supplies for the trip, including condoms. The look on the cashier’s face is priceless.

To the trio’s surprise, they find out that their van driver Sam is a woman, so they agree not to tell her the real reason for the road trip because they’re afraid of offending her. At first, Sam (played by Gabourey Sidibe) is abrupt and emotionally distant, but she eventually warms up to Mo, who is the most intellectually nerdy one of the group. However, Scotty (like he does with many people he encounters) quickly gets on Sam’s nerves, especially when he calls her “sweetheart,” and they get into some verbal spats in the beginning of the trip. Matt (as he often does in the story) plays peacemaker, and then Sam and Scotty come to an uneasy truce.

When Scotty’s mother and Matt’s parents find out that they’ve deliberately gone missing, the parents join forces to find Scotty and Matt. The story then becomes not just a road trip but also a chase movie, as the trio is in a race against time to get to the brothel before the parents catch up to them. Along the way, including stops in Nebraska and Chicago, a series of mishaps occur that won’t be revealed in this review. But it’s enough to say that Scotty’s mother has access to his email, so she’s found out where the guys are staying through an email confirmation sent by the motel. It increases the possibility that the parents will find the guys before they can get to the brothel.

Meanwhile, as Sam spends more time with her motley crew of passengers, she opens up about her past. Sam used to be a nurse, but she lost her nursing license because she illegally injected her ex-husband with insulin when she caught him cheating on her. Sam and Mo have a growing attraction to one another, which is sparked when Mo is able to describe Sam’s goldfinch tattoo on her arm, just by feeling the tattoo.

Sam eventually finds out about the men’s plans to visit the brothel, and she tells them that she’s actually relieved, because she thought that their secretive plans were more sinister, such as a suicide pact or smuggling drugs. During this unusual road trip, the four travelers learn more about each other and face bigotry issues and emotional challenges, which help them bond together in ways that they didn’t expect.

The entire cast of the movie does a terrific job, because it’s not easy to do a comedy where the characters could have been turned into over-the-top caricatures but instead come across as genuine human beings with full personalities and inner depth. It’s the kind of well-written, well-directed movie where viewers will wonder about some of the main characters’ histories as well as what might happen to them after the story ends.

Do they make it to the brothel? Do the parents catch up to them? Will Sam and Mo get together? You’ll have to see the movie to find out what happens. But along the way, you’ll have a raucous and fun ride with some very touching moments that might make some people shed a few tears. “Come as You Are” is the type of adult comedy that we need more of in this world, because it speaks to authentic and sometimes uncomfortable truths about life, in a way that can still make you laugh, even in the darkest moments.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “Come as You Are” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 14, 2020.

Review: ‘The Kindness of Strangers,’ starring Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim, Caleb Landry Jones, Jay Baruchel and Bill Nighy

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, Zoe Kazan and Jack Fulton in “The Kindness of Strangers” (Photo by Per Arnesen)

“The Kindness of Strangers”

Directed by Lone Scherfig

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the dramatic film “The Kindness of Strangers” has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Six strangers find themselves connected in some way when a suburban housewife takes her two young sons to New York City to escape from her abusive husband.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of independent dramas with multiple layers to the story, but the ludicrous contrviances in the screenplay will irritate people who are expecting a story with more realism and substance.

Caleb Landry Jones and Andrea Riseborough in “The Kindness of Strangers” (Photo by Per Arnesen)

If you’re someone who disliked the 2005 Oscar-winning movie “Crash” (one of the most controversial Best Picture wins in Oscar history), then you’ll really despise the drama “The Kindness of Strangers.” The movie takes a concept that’s similar to “Crash”—several strangers in a big city are connected in some way to each other and eventually meet—and makes it even more trite and ridiculous at the same time.

In “The Kindness of Strangers,” the big city is New York (“Crash” took place in Los Angeles), home to thousands of restaurants. But apparently one restaurant—a fairly upscale Russian eatery called the New York Winter Palace—is the go-to place in town for people to have their problems solved. But first, here’s a summary of the six strangers who end up being connected in the story.

Clara is a housewife who lives in Buffalo, New York, but in the dead of night, she’s left her home with her two young sons—older son Anthony (played by Jack Zulton) and younger son Jude (played by Finlay Wojtak-Hissong)—by driving to New York City. The reason for the secret trip? She’s escaped from her physically and emotionally abusive husband Richard (played by Esben Smed), who’s also been abusing the kids. She won’t go to the police or a domestic-abuse shelter because her husband is a cop, and she’s afraid that he’ll find her.

Alice (played by Andrea Riseborough) is an emergency-room nurse who never seems to go home because she’s always popping up in the story at the right momement to “rescue” someone. Not only is she a nurse, but she also does  a lot of volunteer work at a church, where she leads a forgiveness support group. She’s also a regular customer at the New York Winter Palace.

Timofey (played by Bill Nighy) is the owner of the New York Winter Palace, which he inherited from his Russian grandfather. Timofey is American, but he fakes a Russian accent when he’s on the job. He has a droll sense of humor and a “seen it all before” attitude toward life.

Marc (played by Tahar Rahim) has recently been released from prison, where he spent a little more than three years on drug-related charges. His brother was a drug addict who eventually overdosed and whose drug activity got Marc arrested and wrongfully convicted. (Marc was in the wrong place at the wrong time.) Near the beginning of the story, Marc meets with Timofey and some of his restaurant colleagues, and convinces them to hire him as a manager of the New York Winter Palace.

John Peter (played by Jay Baruchel) is Marc’s defense attorney. He’s become somewhat jaded over his job, because he says he hates defending clients he knows are guilty. He’s part of the forgiveness support group led by Alice. And after Marc gets out of prison, he accompanies John Peter to the support group too. However, every time Marc goes to the group meetings, he insists he doesn’t really need counseling and he’s just there to be supportive of John Peter.

Jeff (played by Caleb Landry Jones) is a screw-up who can’t seem to keep a job because he keeps making dumb mistakes. He also has a nasty temper, because when he’s fired from a mattress-selling job, he takes a chair and smashes a window with the chair, while his supervisor and co-workers watch in shock. Jeff is four months behind on his rent and is close to being evicted.

When viewers first see Clara and her sons in New York City, she tells them they’re taking a fun vacation. At first, she’s able to fool them into thinking that it’s an adventure and they don’t have to go back to school because “New York is going to be kind of a school for you.” But then reality sinks in (her money starts to run out) and she resorts to stealing to get money for food and other essentials.

Clara steals a designer dress and purse to sneak into upscale parties at hotels and restaurants, where she shovels some of the party food in a bag when no one is looking. One of the places where she ends up stealing food is the New York Winter Palace, where she pretends she’s part of a big family that’s throwing a party there. Marc the manager strikes up a conversation with Clara and seems a little suspicious of her story, especially when he later sees her behind the coat-check desk where the coat checker should be. Clara ended up stealing a coat, and Marc narrowly missed seeing her commit this theft before she quickly left the restaurant.

Meanwhile, broke Jeff is confronted by his landlord, who tells Jeff that he won’t wait anymore for the rent that’s four months overdue. The landlord tells Jeff he has one hour to leave the apartment. This demand is not only very unrealistic, but it’s also very illegal. Anyone who knows anything about New York City’s eviction laws knows that evicting a tenant is a drawn-out legal process that isn’t done in one day.

But this movie isn’t that concerned about details like that, because it would ruin the set-up for homeless Jeff to end up at a soup kitchen, where (you guessed it) saintly Alice happens to be working right at that moment. She gets Jeff to help out in serving people at the soup kitchen in exchange for him getting free meals.

Meanwhile, the situation for Clara and her sons has gone from bad to worse. Clara has taken her husband Richard’s car (which he could easily report as stolen), but the car is towed away because she parked in the wrong zone and has too many unpaid parking tickets. Clara and her sons had been living in the car and now need to find shelter.  And it’s the middle of an ice-cold winter, don’t you know, so that makes the situation even more pitiful.

Clara and the kids end up at the soup kitchen, where (surprise) Alice happens to be working. And then later, when the family is really desperate for a place to stay, but Clara doesn’t want to go to a homeless shelter, they end up at the church again where (surprise) Alice happens to be there too, right after she’s finished her support group meeting. Alice takes pity on Clara and the kids and offers them a room at the church for the night, even though it’s against the church rules. But wait, there’s more “coincidental” drama.

Clara and the kids barely have spent the night at the church when something almost tragic happens that involves someone being taken to the same hospital where Alice works and (surprise) she happens to be on duty that night too. And then Alice decides to break someone out of the hospital, even though it’s something that would get her fired and there are probably security cameras in the hospital that would catch her doing it.

And somewhere in this story, Clara ends up hiding underneath a table at the New York Winter Palace, where she’s seen by Marc, who doesn’t kick her out because he’s attracted to her. He lets her stay hidden under the table, as he serves her Russian food on the restaurant’s finest serving platters that he leaves on the floor like someone feeding a dog.

And then Clara finally comes to her senses and does something she should’ve done a long time ago: Decide to get a lawyer. She asks Marc if he knows any good lawyers. You already know who he recommends, even though John Peter’s specialty isn’t family law.

“The Kindness of Strangers,” written and directed by Lone Scherfig, is the kind of movie where the cast members’ acting isn’t the problem. (Although Nighy’s and Rahim’s American accents aren’t very convincing.)The biggest problem is the jumbled and hackneyed screenplay that has little regard for viewers’ intelligence.

The movie also takes the serious issue of domestic abuse and cynically uses it as just another plot device to connect the dots between these characters. And there are little details that indicate sloppy writing, such as a scene where incompetent and dim-witted Jake (of all people) puts someone on an ambulance gurney, when in reality an EMT or trained medical professional, not an untrained person, is required to do that.

Scherfig is capable of doing much better films (her 2009 drama “An Education” was one of the best movies of that year), so hopefully “The Kindness of Strangers” is not an indication that the quality of her work is going to keep going downhill. “The Kindness of Strangers” isn’t the worst film you might ever see. It’s just not a very good movie, and you won’t feel much sympathy for the characters who make very bad decisions.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Kindness of Strangers” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 14, 2020.

Review: ‘Ordinary Love,’ starring Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in “Ordinary Love” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Bleecker Street)

“Ordinary Love”

Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn

Culture Representation: Taking place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, “Ordinary Love” has a predominantly white cast of middle-class characters, with the story focusing on a middle-aged couple who’ve been married for about 30 years.

Culture Clash: The couple’s marriage is put to the test when the wife finds out that she has breast cancer, and they have disagreements about her medical treatment.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to people who want to see a well-acted, tear-jerking drama with realistic portrayals of marriage and health issues that affect millions of people.

Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in “Ordinary Love” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

It’s no easy task to make a movie about someone getting cancer. The subject matter can be extremely depressing and there’s always the possibility that it will turn off an audience. However, the drama “Ordinary Love” is probably one of the most emotionally authentic scripted “cancer movies” that’s been made in quite some time. But be warned: Some of the scenes are so realistic, they’ll be very triggering for anyone who’s gone through something similar.

In the beginning of the story, life seems to be on a tranquil keel for middle-aged Belfast couple Tom (played by Liam Neeson) and Joan (played by Lesley Manville), who’ve been married for about 30 years and appear to be retired. Viewers see them going on pleasant walks together and going on errands. But one day, Joan feels a lump on her breast and makes a hospital appointment to get a medical exam about it.

Tom accompanies Joan to the appointment, where he tells her in the waiting area that he hates hospitals because they’re depressing and they remind him of death. After the exam, they’re told that the cyst in Joan’s breast could be cancerous. The doctor tells them that on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is not cancerous and 5 is definitely cancerous, the cyst is about a 3. Joan tries to look on the bright side, but Tom is already bracing himself for bad news.

And it is very bad news: Joan has cancer, and she has to have surgery to remove two lumps and about 13 lymph nodes. As the dreaded news sinks in, Joan tries to deal with it as bravely, even somewhat cheerfully, as possible, while Tom grows despondent and pessimistic.

The cancer diagnosis and the possibility of Joan dying also opens a wound from their past: Tom and Joan’s only child, a daughter named Debbie, died when she was an adult. It’s not mentioned in the movie how she died, but Debbie’s death has left a huge void in their lives. “I’m glad that Debbie isn’t here to see this,” Joan says of her cancer diagnosis. “It would break her heart.”

While in the car on the way to checking in for her hospital stay, Joan remembers that she hasn’t had time to visit Debbie’s grave since the cancer diagnosis. She asks Tom go to Debbie’s grave to tell her about Joan having cancer. Tom thinks it’s a ridiculous request, but Joan gets very upset and emotional when Tom expresses reluctance to do what she asked. He eventually does what Joan wishes. His scene at the grave is one of the most gut-wrenching parts of the movie.

There isn’t an unrealistic moment in “Ordinary Love,” mainly because of Neeson’s and Manville’s superb performances. The movie’s greatest authenticity is not from wailing melodrama (which a lot of cancer movies have) but from the quiet moments, such as the fear in Joan’s eyes as they’re preparing her for surgery, or the small talk that she makes with a fellow patient who’s also about to go into surgery.

The movie also shows the tensions that can arise from this traumatic medical diagnosis. Joan snaps at Tom because she thinks he asks the doctor too many questions. Tom thinks that Joan is not asking enough questions. She tells him to be quiet. Viewers can tell that this bickering isn’t really about how many questions the doctor is being asked but about how differently Tom and Joan are dealing with the diagnosis.

And in one of the best scenes in the film, the emotions run really raw when Tom and Joan get into an argument about how she takes her medication. He thinks she should be more mindful of her prescription pills—what to take and when to take them—and he starts to lecture her by saying that they’re both going through this together. Joan explodes and accuses him of being unsympathetic. She tells him that that as bad as he might be feeling, she feels even worse because she’s the one who has cancer and she’s the one who’s going through the type of pain that’s so severe, she can’t even think straight.

If people who see this movie wonder why it seems so realistic, it’s because “Ordinary Love” screenwriter Owen McCafferty’s wife Peggy was diagnosed with breast cancer. And “Ordinary Love” directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn are married in real life, which no doubt added a genuine layer to how Joan and Tom’s marital dynamic is portrayed on screen.

Tom and Joan also have several moments of loving support throughout this ordeal. When Joan starts to lose her hair because of chemotherapy, she asks Tom to help her shave it all off. He then tells her, “You’re a star, kid. You’re an absolute star.” And there are moments of shared humor, such as when Joan ends up choosing a wig and they have some laughs over her new look.

There’s also a subplot where, by chance, Joan sees a fellow patient she knows from her past. His name is Peter (played by David Wilmot), and he was one of Debbie’s teachers when Debbie was a child. Peter also has cancer, and he and Joan end up becoming confidants. Meanwhile, Peter’s life partner Steve (played by Amit Shah) and Tom find common ground in the feelings of grief and anxiety that come from having a partner go through cancer treatment.

“Ordinary Love” is the kind of movie where viewers will probably end up shedding some tears or getting very emotional in other ways. The title of the film is somewhat of a misnomer because the story shows that any love that can help someone through the trauma of cancer is far from ordinary.

Bleeker Street released “Ordinary Love” in select U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.

 

 

Review: ‘Downhill,’ starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell

February 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Downhill” (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk)

“Downhill”

Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Austrian Alps, “Downhill” is the story of a middle-class, middle-aged married American couple who go on a disastrous ski trip with their two teenage sons.

Culture Clash: The bickering spouses not only have conflicts with each other, but they’re also annoyed by a younger couple who wants to tag along, and they experience some uncomfortable moments with the Austrian locals.

Culture Audience: This comedy film that isn’t very funny will appeal mainly to fans of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, whose comedic talents are stifled in a story filled with tension and misery.

Zach Woods and Zoë Chao in “Downhill” (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk)

“Downhill” is a perfect word to describe the steep slide into disappointment that your expectations will take when you think about how this movie wastes the talents of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. The pacing of this film, which follows an American couple whose marriage has hit a rough patch, is like slogging through the snow-covered Austrian Alps, where the story takes place. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, “Downhill” is supposed to be inspired by the 2014 Swedish avalanche disaster comedy “Force Majeure,” but that film had loads more humorous moments and compelling dialogue than what “Downhill” has to offer.

Ferrell has been in plenty of stinker movies before, but Louis-Dreyfus usually chooses quality over quantity when it comes to the movies that she makes. She’s one of the producers of “Downhill,” so this is a rare misstep for her. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play Pete and Billie Stanton, a long-married couple who’ve reached a point in their relationship where almost everything one of them does gets on the other’s nerves. They’ve taken this ski vacation to Austria with their teenage fraternal-twin sons, Finn and Emerson (played by Julian Grey and Ammon Ford), to have some family bonding time, with a small glimmer of hope that maybe the trip will bring positive feelings back into their marriage.

Hovering somewhere near the Stantons throughout the trip is an American couple in their 20s named Zach (played by Zach Woods) and Rosie (played Zoë Chao), who have an eager-to-impress vibe to them, as they try to latch on to Pete and Billie on awkward double dates. Pete knows Zach because they’re real-estate co-workers. Billie really doesn’t like being around Rosie and Zach, but Pete is more willing to tolerate them, even though the Stantons can’t relate to Rosie and Zach’s penchant for taking psychedelic mushrooms and Instagram selfies. Unbeknownst to Billie at first, Pete has invited Zach and Rosie to hang out with them. Pete will soon find out that the younger couple will wear out their welcome, as Rosie and Zach witness all the tension in the Stantons’ marriage.

One of the first people the Stantons meet upon arriving at the ski resort is the overly effusive Charlotte (played by Miranda Ott), who acts as if she works at the resort as some sort of concierge, but as the story goes on, it’s questionable if she really works there at all. At any rate, Charlotte is the kind of person who shares too much information about her sex life with total strangers, and she expects everyone she first meets to immediately become her confidant.

She fancies herself to be quite the seductress, but she’s so crude and annoying (such as when she brags, “I can catch a dick whenever I want”), that she’s not one of those quirky characters who ends up being endearing. She’s just unpleasant to watch, and Otto (who’s usually a great actress) isn’t helping matters by trying too hard with an unconvincing Austrian accent. This is not a droll comedy with eccentric and fascinating characters, such as in Wes Anderson’s 2014 movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

When the Stantons arrive at the resort, there are sounds of explosive rumblings off in the distance, which are ominous signs of what’s to come. That fateful moment comes when the family is outside on a café patio with several other people, and they notice that a large amount of snow is tumbling down from the mountains. As it quickly turns into an avalanche, there isn’t enough time for the café patrons to take shelter, and the avalanche goes barreling down and engulfs them.

The avalanche scene itself is very unrealistic, because the massive weight and force of all that snow would have injured and possibly killed several people. But the movie just fades to black after the avalanche hits. And then, the next scene is of the people who were on the café patio, looking dazed and getting up and brushing some of the snow off of their clothes. There’s also hardly any damage done to the café and surrounding buildings.

Billie and Pete have very different reactions to the avalanche. Billie is completely unnerved, while Pete takes it in stride and tries to enjoy the rest of the trip. In a meeting that Billie and Pete have with the resort’s manager (played by Kristofer Hivju), Billie demands that the resort make an apology for handling the disaster poorly. The manager points out that there were signs around the resort warning that there was a possibility of an avalanche. “It was handled perfectly,” the manager tells Billie, who ends up leaving the meeting in a huff, while Pete looks embarrassed over her anger.

Later, in attempt to lift Billie’s spirits, Pete arranges for everyone in the family to take a helicopter trip around the Alps. But when the time comes for them to go on the helicopter, one of the kids is missing a glove. Billie then has a mini-meltdown and refuses to get on the helicopter until the son has two gloves to wear. Pete yells that he’s paid $2,000 for the trip and he doesn’t want the money to go to waste. Billie yells back that their son’s comfort is more important and he needs to wear two gloves. The helicopter ends up leaving without them.

Push-and-pull scenes like that keep getting repeated in the movie. Pete tries to take his mind off of the avalanche and have a good time with Billie and the family. Meanwhile, Billie keeps obsessing over the avalanche and sees Pete’s post-avalanche behavior as flippant and uncaring about the family’s safety. Louis-Dreyfus tends to play neurotic characters, but Billie is a shrew who seems hell-bent on making everyone around her as miserable as she is.

One of the problems with “Downhill” (and it’s really noticeable if you see this movie with an audience) is that there are so many times when Ferrell or Louis-Dreyfus utters a line in such a way that viewers will expect it to turn into a joke. There’s a slight pause of anticipation, as if something that will make people laugh is coming next.  But that humorous moment never happens in scenes where people think they’ll happen.

People aren’t expecting this movie to be a slapstick or broad comedy, but during the course of the movie, it becomes very clear that Billie and Pete really are just wretched to watch. There’s no clever satire here, as this movie expects viewers to be stuck in this repetitive hell of arguments and resentment with very unlikable people. It almost makes the tension of “Force Majeure” look like an amusement-park ride compared to the slow-moving train wreck of “Downhill.”

Searchlight Pictures will release “Downhill” in U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.

 

2020 Berlin International Film Festival: programming lineup announced

February 11, 2020

Sigourney Weaver in “My Salinger Year” (Photo courtesy of Memento Films International)

These films have been announced for the largest programs at the 70th Annual Berlin International Film Festival,  which takes place in Germany from February 20 to March 1, 2020.  Updates will be added when announced.

The following descriptions are from Berlin International Film Festival press releases:

With the kind support of ZDF/3sat and CinemaxX, on February 20 at 7.20 pm, the Opening Gala of the 70th Berlinale and the premiere of the opening film will be broadcast in cinemas in four German cities for the first time. In the CinemaxX cinemas in Hamburg-Dammtor, Munich, Essen and Halle (Saale), viewers can follow the Berlinale Opening, presented by Samuel Finzi, live on the big screen. This will be followed by the world premiere of My Salinger Year by screenwriter and director Philippe Falardeau. In addition to Sigourney Weaver, who has been nominated for several Oscars, the top-class cast includes Margaret Qualley and Douglas Booth. The Canadian-Irish production is based on the novel of the same name by US writer Joanna Rakoff. Tickets and further information are now available at https://www.cinemaxx.de/film/my-salinger-year.

The Opening of the Berlinale will also be broadcast live on February 20 at 7.20 pm on 3sat.

Competition

“The Competition films tell intimate and earth-shattering, individual and collective stories that have an enduring effect and gain their impact from their interplay with the audience. If there is a predominance of dark tones, this may be because the films we have selected tend to look at the present without illusion – not to cause fear, but because they want to open our eyes. The trust cinema places in humankind, these suffering, ill-treated, manipulative beings, is unbroken – so unbroken that it consistently views them as its protagonists,” comments Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian.

The Competition programme includes 18 films from 18 countries with 16 world premieres as well as one documentary form.

Welket Bungué in “Berlin Alexanderplatz”

Competition

Berlin Alexanderplatz
Germany / Netherlands
by Burhan Qurbani
with Welket Bungué, Jella Haase, Albrecht Schuch, Joachim Król, Annabelle Mandeng, Nils Verkooijen, Richard Fouofié Djimeli
World premiere

DAU. Natasha
Germany / Ukraine / United Kingdom / Russian Federation
by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Jekaterina Oertel
with Natalia Berezhnaya, Olga Shkabarnya, Vladimir Azhippo, Alexei Blinov, Luc Bigé
World premiere

Domangchin yeoja (The Woman Who Ran)
Republic of Korea
by Hong Sangsoo
with Kim Minhee, Seo Younghwa, Song Seonmi, Kim Saebyuk, Lee Eunmi, Kwon Haehyo, Shin Seokho, Ha Seongguk
World premiere

Effacer l’historique (Delete History)
France / Belgium
by Benoît Delépine, Gustave Kervern
with Blanche Gardin, Denis Podalydès, Corinne Masiero
World premiere

El prófugo (The Intruder)
Argentina / Mexico
by Natalia Meta
with Érica Rivas, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Daniel Hendler, Cecilia Roth, Guillermo Arengo, Agustín Rittano, Mirta Busnelli
World premiere

Favolacce (Bad Tales)
Italy / Switzerland
by Damiano & Fabio D’Innocenzo
with Elio Germano, Barbara Chichiarelli, Lino Musella, Gabriel Montesi, Max Malatesta
World premiere

First Cow
USA
by Kelly Reichardt
with John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone
International premiere

Irradiés (Irradiated)
France / Cambodia
by Rithy Panh
World premiere / Documentary form

Le sel des larmes (The Salt of Tears)
France / Switzerland
by Philippe Garrel
with Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, André Wilms, Louise Chevillotte, Souheila Yacoub
World premiere

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
USA
by Eliza Hittman
with Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten
International premiere

Rizi (Days)
Taiwan
by Tsai Ming-Liang
with Lee Kang-Sheng, Anong Houngheuangsy
World premiere

The Roads Not Taken
United Kingdom
by Sally Potter
with Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney
World premiere

Schwesterlein (My Little Sister)
Switzerland
by Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond
with Nina Hoss, Lars Eidinger, Marthe Keller, Jens Albinus, Thomas Ostermeier, Linne-Lu Lungershausen, Noah Tscharland, Isabelle Caillat, Moritz Gottwald, Urs Jucker
World premiere

Sheytan vojud nadarad (There Is No Evil)
Germany / Czech Republic / Iran
by Mohammad Rasoulof
World premiere

Siberia
Italy / Germany / Mexico
by Abel Ferrara
with Willem Dafoe, Dounia Sichov, Simon McBurney, Cristina Chiriac
World premiere

Todos os mortos (All the Dead Ones)
Brazil / France
by Caetano Gotardo, Marco Dutra
with Mawusi Tulani, Clarissa Kiste, Carolina Bianchi, Thaia Perez, Alaíde Costa, Leonor Silveira, Agyei Augusto, Rogério Brito, Thomás Aquino, Andrea Marquee
World premiere

Undine
Germany / France
by Christian Petzold
with Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz
World premiere

Volevo nascondermi (Hidden Away)
Italy
by Giorgio Diritti
with Elio Germano
World premiere

Berlinale Special

“This section provides a platform for films that captivate a wide audience. We call them ‘moving images’ because they move audiences with their expressiveness and their brilliant and courageous performers. The gala premieres fulfil the desire for the stars, glitz and glamour that is part of every big festival. Berlinale Series offers an insight into new forms of storytelling while Berlinale Special presents itself as a forum for debate and discussion and builds bridges between the audience and cinema,” comments Carlo Chatrian, Artistic Director of the Berlinale.

In total, 20 films from 19 countries, among them 15 world premieres, will be shown in the section.

Omar Sy and Virginie Efira in “Police”

Berlinale Special Gala at Friedrichstadt-Palast

High Ground
Australia
by Stephen Maxwell Johnson
with Simon Baker, Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Jack Thompson, Callan Mulvey, Witiyana Marika, Esmerelda Marimowa, Aaron Pedersen
World premiere

Minamata
United Kingdom
by Andrew Levitas
with Johnny Depp, Hiroyuki Sanada, Minami, Bill Nighy
World premiere

Sa-nyang-eui-si-gan (Time to Hunt)
Republic of Korea
by Yoon Sung-hyun
with Lee Je-hoon, Ahn Jae-hong, Choi Woo-shik, Park Jeong-min, Park Hae-soo
World premiere

Berlinale Special at Haus der Berliner Festspiele

The American Sector
USA
by Courtney Stephens, Pacho Velez
World premiere / Documentary form

Golda Maria
France
by Patrick Sobelman, Hugo Sobelman
World premiere / Documentary form

Hillary
USA
by Nanette Burstein
International premiere / Documentary series

Last and First Men
Iceland
by Jóhann Jóhannsson
Narrated by Tilda Swinton
World premiere / Documentary form

Nomera (Numbers)
Ukraine / Poland / Czech Republic / France
by Oleg Sentsov in collaboration with Akhtem Seitablaiev
with Evhen Chernykov, Agatha Larionova, Oleksandr Begma, Maksym Devizorov, Iryna Mak

The Nutty Professor
USA 1963
by Jerry Lewis
with Jerry Lewis, Stella Stevens, Del Moore, Kathleen Freeman, Med Flory, Norman Alden
Screening on the occasion of the Deutsche Kinemathek receiving exclusive documents from the estate of Jerry Lewis, with behind-the-scenes footage being shown prior to the film. The film will be presented by Jerry Lewis’ son Chris Lewis.

Yi Zhi You Dao Hai Shui Bian Lan (Swimming Out Till The Sea Turns Blue)
People’s Republic of China
by Jia Zhang-ke
World premiere / Documentary form

Berlinale Special Gala at Berlinale Palast

Charlatan
Czech Republic / Ireland / Poland / Slovakia
by Agnieszka Holland
with Ivan Trojan, Josef Trojan, Juraj Loj, Jaroslava Pokorná
World Premiere

Persian Lessons
Russian Federation / Germany / Belarus
by Vadim Perelman
with Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Lars Eidinger, Jonas Nay, Leonie Benesch, Alexander Beyer, David Schütter, Luisa-Celine Gaffron
World premiere

Police (Night Shift)
France
by Anne Fontaine
with Omar Sy, Virginie Efira, Grégory Gadebois, Payman Maadi
World premiere

 

Review: ‘The Cordillera of Dreams,’ starring Pablo Salas, Jorge Baradit, Francisco Gazitúa, Javiera Parra and Alvara Amigo

February 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

“The Cordillera of Dreams” (Photo courtesy of Icarus Films)

“The Cordillera of Dreams”

Directed by Patricio Guzmán

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: This documentary examines and the past and present political culture of Chile, with the Andes mountain range as a backdrop.

Culture Clash: Survivors of Chile’s turbulent history tell their stories of what it was like to live during the political battles of democracy versus dictatorship from the 1970s to the present.

Culture Audience: “The Cordillera of Dreams” will appeal primarily to people who have an interest in South American history and nature.

“The Cordillera of Dreams” (Photo courtesy if Icarus Films)

“The Cordillera of Dreams” is part travel documentary, part Chilean history lesson and part autobiography. (The word “cordillera” means mountain range.) The movie, which is narrated in voiceover only by director Patricio Guzmán, takes viewers on a journey through Santiago and other parts of Chile, to get first-person accounts of the often painful experiences of living through turbulent times, The regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, is put under a particular spotlight in the film.

“The Cordillera of Dreams” is the third film in Guzmán’s trilogy of documentaries about how Chile’s natural land ties into Chile’s sociological history. The trilogy began with  2011’s “Nostalgia for the Light” and continued with 2015’s “The Pearl Button.” But before “The Cordillera of Dreams” gets to the history of Chilean politics during the Pinochet regime, the documentary begins by immersing viewers into the idea that while different types of government might come and go and Chile, the Andes Mountains have remained the one true constant for changing eras and social customs in Chile.

The cinematography (by Samuel Lahu) is absolutely stunning, especially when taking in the majestic views of the Andes Mountains. (The cinematography is probably one of the main reasons why “The Cordillera of Dreams” won the prize for Best Documentary at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.) The documentary interviews a few people who live in the Andes, including sculptor Francisco Gazitúa, who says: “When you live in the Andes for many years, it feels like you’re inside a large, rocky container … It’s a labyrinth.”

Another sculptor named Vicente Gajadro, who likes to extract rocks from the Andes to see what’s inside, had this to say about living in these natural surroundings: “The Cordillera is a great mystery. I believe it’s a cultural landmark.” He also says of the enormous mountains: “They protect me, but they also isolate me.”

Alvaro Amigo, a volcanologist, comments on the awe-inspiring landscape: “When I look at the Cordillera, I see millions of years of evolution exposed.” And writer Jorge Baradit says that the Cordillera is “like a sea that makes us an island.”

Guzmán says that crossing the Cordillera is like arriving in a place that’s in the faraway past. “Everything seems unreal. I feel somewhat like an alien.” He says his earliest childhood memory of the Cordillera was seeing it on matchboxes. The director then shows viewers the house he used to live in when he was young. In stark contrast to the natural and clean-looking beauty of the Andes, the abandoned house is now in an area that looks like a junkyard. Guzmán, who no longer lives in Chile, says that going to his childhood home is a sad reminder of a more peaceful time in Chile, before the political “earthquake” of September 11, 1973.

On that day, when Guzmán was 32 years old, his life and the lives of millions of other Chileans changed forever, as a military coup d’état overthrew Socialist President Salvador Allende and elevated to power Pinochet as a dictatorial and brutal leader who ordered the persecution of left-wing political activists and other left-leaning Allende supporters. Many innocent people were also caught up in the turmoil, as the police and other military raided cities. There were widespread kidnappings, tortures and murders of thousands of people.

It’s here, near the middle of the film, that the story shifts to the urban bustle of Santiago, Chile’s capital city. Guzmán revisits the Stadium in Santiago, where thousands of male civilians, ages 15 to 65, were taken from their homes by police, arrested, and then rounded up and held as prisoners at the stadium, where they often tortured. Guzmán was one of those prisoners, and he remembers how just a few years before the coup d’état, he had been a happy World Cup spectator at the stadium when Italy played against Chile.

Guzmán was a political prisoner for two weeks, and even though the military put him under duress to tell them where he had put his documentary film footage of the military committing crimes, he refused to tell them. The experience of being imprisoned was so traumatic for Guzmán that he left Chile and hasn’t lived there since. Meanwhile, sculptor Francisco Gazitúa said he was under house arrest for four years.

Another person who shares their memories of the beginning of the Pinochet regime is singer Javiera Parra, remembers as a child seeing the police raiding people’s homes and feeling fear and uncertainty as military tanks would pass by when she was in a schoolyard. The feelings and insecurity and devastation still remain with the survivors, and will probably stay with them for the rest of their lives when they think about this disturbing time in Chile’s history.”

Perhaps the most fascinating person in the documentary is photo/video journalist Pablo Salas, who has been documenting Santiago street life since the 1970s and has almost miraculously never been arrested, even though he’s been in the middle of countless protests and violence in the streets. The documentary includes some archival footage that Salas was generous enough to share, giving insight into how chaotic and brutal life was on the streets of Santiago during the Pinochet regime. (The documentary also shows Salas’ home office, which is stacked to the brim with tapes he’s saved over the years.)

The archival footage shows scenes of people literally being dragged away by police for no apparent reason, as family members and friends try in vain to stop this horror from happening. People are seen getting beaten or blasted with water by police. And then there are the full-on riots that are shown. Although life in Chile is not as violently out-of-control as it was back then, there is still a lot of political unrest.

Salas, who obviously has a passion for it job, keeps documenting it all. He says the biggest difference now, compared to when he first started, is that more citizens can videorecord what’s happening, thanks to smartphones. He says he finds this change refreshing but also sometimes annoying when he wants to get footage but other non-journalist people are in the way trying to get their best shots too.

The documentary takes a brief, somewhat distracting detour into examining the trains that carry copper, Chile’s biggest natural resource. Even more interesting is the haunting footage inside Pinochet’s former offices, which are now abandoned but symbolize a period of Chilean history that the people cannot and should forget.

Guzmán has an almost poetic way of demonstrating the rot and neglect among the beauty of the Andes, as the documentary shows a junkyard of abandoned cars. It’s an obvious metaphor for Chile’s abandoned dreams for having a completely peaceful democracy. But Guzmán and many others haven’t given up hope in Chile. Just like items in a junkyard, perhaps what was abandoned can be salvaged and restored.

Icarus Films released “The Cordillera of Dreams” in New York City February 12, 2020, and will release the film in Los Angeles on February 21, 2020, followed by released in several other cities in the U.S. and Canada in the subsequent weeks. The movie was originally released in Chile and other countries in 2019.

2020 Athena Film Festival: programming lineup announced

February 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Athena Film Festival

The 10th annual Athena Film Festival—which takes place at New York City’s Barnard College from February 27 to March 1, 2020—is once again presenting a diverse and international selection of female-focused programming. This year, there’s an unusually high number of female-empowerment films about women who are involved in the legal system, war or politics. Most of the feature-length films are those that have already been released in theaters or have premiered at other events, but the Athena Film Festival has such a unique focus that it’s worth attending for people who haven’t seen these movies yet, want to see the movies again, and/or are interested in checking out the panel discussions or short films. In most cases, the films’ directors attend the festival and do intros or Q&As at the screenings.

The opening-night film is the Helen Reddy biopic “I Am Woman,” directed by Unjoo Moon and starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey as the Australian songstress. The narrative centerpiece film is the mystery thriller “Lost Girls,” directed by Liz Garbus and starring Amy Ryan as a mother searching for her missing 24-year-old daughter. The documentary centerpiece film is the Oscar-nominated “For Sama,” directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, which chronicles al-Kateab and her family’s life in war-torn Syria. The international centerpiece film is “The Perfect Candidate,” directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, a drama about a Saudia Arbian female doctor who ends up running for her local city council. The closing-night film is “Rocks,” a drama directed by Sarah Gavron, about an London teenager who comes home to find her mother missing.

The only film to have its world premiere at the festival is the documentary “Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing,” directed by Paula Weiman-Kelman, about female rabbi/activist Rachel Cowan and how she is living with terminal brain cancer.

The festival has some movies that were originally released in 2019 and have been winning prizes and getting Oscar nominations. In addition to “For Sama,” there is also writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated version of “Little Women,” based on the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. Other films that received Oscar nominations are the animated sequel “Frozen 2” and the Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet.”

In addition, there are networking events (most are invitation-only), discussion panels and creative workshops.

Here is the programming lineup for the 2020 Athena Film Festival. More information can be found at the official festival website. (All descriptions listed below are courtesy of the festival.)

 

NARRATIVE FEATURES

Antigone

Director: Sophie Deraspe

Writer: Sophie Deraspe

Inspired by the Greek tragedy of the same title, multi-award-winning filmmaker Sophie Deraspe centers her adaptation around a brilliant teenage girl who chooses to live by her own standards of justice, love and loyalty rather than society’s.

Black Christmas

Director: Sophia Takal

Writers: Sophia Takal and April Wolfe

As Hawthorne College is quieting down for the holidays, sorority girls on campus are being killed by a stalker. In this loose remake of the 1974 Canadian “slasher” classic, the killer is about to discover that today’s generation of fearless women are not willing to become hapless victims.

Carmen & Lola – NEW YORK PREMIERE

Director: Arantxa Echevarria

Writer: Arantxa Echevarría

The love story of two Roma women: bride-to-be Carmen and street artist Lola find themselves in a secret love affair, having to hide it from their families and their community.

Clemency

Director: Chinonye Chukwu

Writer: Chinonye Chukwu

Chinonye Chukwu’s sophomore feature is an enthralling story of Bernadine (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden whose years working on death row takes a psychic toll. After a harrowing botched execution, her growing investment in the next prisoner to be executed encourages her to look more closely at her motivations and relationships and offers a tough-minded inquiry into the morality of capital punishment. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and a 2017 Athena List Winner.

Frozen 2

Directors: Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck

Writer: Jennifer Lee

Why was Elsa born with magical powers? What truths about the past await Elsa as she ventures into the unknown to the enchanted forests and dark seas beyond Arendelle? The answers are calling her but also threatening her kingdom. Together with Anna, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven, she’ll face a dangerous but remarkable journey. In “Frozen,” Elsa feared her powers were too much for the world. In “Frozen 2,” she must hope they are enough. From the Academy Award®-winning team—directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, producer Peter Del Vecho and songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez— “Frozen 2” features the voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad.

Harriet

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Writer: Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard

Directed and co-written by 2014 Athena Award-winner Kasi Lemmons, “Harriet” tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.

I Am Woman OPENING NIGHT FILM AND NEW YORK PREMIERE

Director: Unjoo Moon

Writer: Emma Jenson

For the first time on screen, “I Am Woman” tells the inspiring story of singer Helen Reddy, who wrote and sang the song “I Am Woman” that became the anthem for the women’s movement in the 1970s. The film is a story of fearless ambition and passion, of a woman who smashed through the patriarchal norms of her time to become the international singing superstar she always dreamed of being.

Kuesippan

Director: Myriam Verreault

Writers: Naomi Fontaine and Myriam Verreault

Mikuan and Shaniss grew up as best friends in their Innu community. While Mikuan has a loving family, Shaniss is picking up the pieces of her shattered childhood. As children, they promised to stick together no matter what, but at 17 their friendship is shaken when Mikuan falls for a white boy, and starts dreaming of leaving the reserve that’s now too small for her dreams.

Little Women

Director: Greta Gerwig

Writer: Greta Gerwig

Writer-director Greta Gerwig ‘06 (“Lady Bird”), winner of a 2011 Athena Award, has crafted a “Little Women” that draws on both the classic novel and the writings of Louisa May Alcott, and unfolds as the author’s alter ego, Jo March, reflects back and forth on her fictional life with her three sisters.

The Long Shadow – NEW YORK PREMIERE

Director: Daniel Lafrentz

Writers: Daniel Lafrentz and Stephen Peltier

A Sheriff’s deputy takes on her Louisiana town’s old-money establishment when the woman she loves – an attorney fighting a corporate land grab that will displace the poor – is found murdered.

Lost Girls – NARRATIVE CENTERPIECE AND NEW YORK PREMIERE

Director: Liz Garbus

Writer: Michael Werwie

When 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert mysteriously disappears one night, her mother Mari embarks on a dark journey that finds her face to face with hard truths about her daughter, herself, and police bias. Determined to find her daughter at all costs, Mari Gilbert retraces Shannan’s last known steps and her discoveries force law enforcement and the media to uncover more than a dozen unsolved murders of sex workers, young lives Mari will not let the world forget.

Military Wives

Director: Peter Cattaneo

Writers: Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard

With their partners serving in Afghanistan, a band of women form a choir on the military base and quickly discover that they can rely on each other for more than beautiful harmonies. The women, who must confront the challenges of having a partner at war, find themselves at the center of a media sensation and global movement.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always – NEW YORK PREMIERE

Director: Eliza Hittman

Writer: Eliza Hittman

Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is an intimate portrayal of two teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania. Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) embark across state lines to New York City on a fraught journey of friendship, bravery and compassion.

The Perfect Candidate – INTERNATIONAL CENTERPIECE AND NEW YORK PREMIERE

Director: Haifaa al-Mansour

Writers: Haifaa al-Mansour, Brad Niemann

Maryam is an ambitious young doctor working in a small town clinic in Saudi Arabia. After she is prevented from traveling to Dubai in search of a better job, a bureaucratic mix-up leads her to stumble on the application for her local city elections and she decides to run. She enlists her two younger sisters and while they face the restriction of women’s traditional roles in the Kingdom at every turn, Maryam’s audacious candidacy starts to build momentum and challenges her conservative community.

A Regular Woman

Director: Sherry Hormann

Writer: Florian Öller

“A Regular Woman” tells the story of 23-year-old Hatun Ayhrun Sürücü, a Turkish-Kurdish woman living in Germany who in February 2005, was shot dead at a Berlin bus stop in an “honor killing” by her youngest brother. This film gives Ayhrun the opportunity to narrate her own story as she leaves her abusive marriage and struggles for a free, self-determined life in the face of her family’s opposition.

Rocks – CLOSING NIGHT FILM

Director: Sarah Gavron

Writer: Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson

In East London, teenager Shola is known as “Rocks” after protecting her childhood friend from bullies. Rocks has big dreams but one day she returns home from school to discover her life is radically altered: her troubled, single mother has disappeared, leaving her responsible for her younger brother.

Sea Fever – NEW YORK PREMIERE

Director: Neasa Hardiman

Writer: Neasa Hardiman

Siobhán’s a marine biology student who prefers spending her days alone in a lab. She has to endure a week on a ragged fishing trawler, where she’s miserably at odds with the close-knit crew. But out in the deep Atlantic, an unfathomable life form ensnares the boat. When members of the crew succumb to a strange infection, Siobhán must overcome her alienation and anxiety to win the crew’s trust, before everyone is lost.

Sister Aimee

Directors: Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann

Writers: Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann

In 1926, the world’s most famous evangelist, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, fakes her own death in order to run away to Mexico with her married lover. Once on the road, and equipped with new identities, they find themselves chased by the very persona Aimee so desperately tried to kill. They hire Rey, a former Mexican Soldadera turned smuggler, to help them cross the border, as detectives, the world, and Aimee herself all pose the question, “Who is Sister Aimee Semple McPherson?”

Stars by the Pound

Director: Marie-Sophie Chambon

Writers: Marie-Sophie Chambon and Anaïs Carpita

In this heart-warming story of friendship, acceptance, and the importance of loving yourself, Lois, 16, dreams of becoming an astronaut. Although gifted in physics, she has a big problem: she weighs over 200 pounds. When all seems lost, Lois meets three other teens who, like her, are shattered by life’s tough breaks yet ready for anything in order to leave with her for outer space.

DOCUMENTARIES

Butterfly

Director: Alessandro Cassigoli and Casey Kauffman

Irma “The Butterfly” Testa, a talented 18-year-old, is the first female Italian boxer to be selected for the Olympic Games. Butterfly is an intimate portrait of this determined athlete in the run-up to the games and thereafter, when she has more time to be with her best friend and family.

Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing

– WORLD PREMIERE

Director: Paula Weiman-Kelman

Rachel Cowan was a civil rights activist, community organizer, the first female Jew by choice ordained as a Rabbi, a beloved and influential mindfulness teacher, a grandmother and wise elder. And then she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Living each day fully, she turned dying into an opportunity to experience gratitude.

For Sama – DOCUMENTARY CENTERPIECE

Directors: Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts

“For Sama” is the incredible story of Waad al-Kateab, a journalist/filmmaker who filmed her life for over five years during the conflict in Aleppo, Syria. Waad documented her personal journey as she married a doctor who operated the only functioning hospital in their besieged area, gave birth to a daughter (Sama), and continued filming the cataclysmic events unfolding around her. At its core, this documentary serves as a love letter from a mother to her daughter, as Waad captures deeply moving scenes of love, laughter, loss, sacrifice and survival.

Objector – NEW YORK PREMIERE

Director: Molly Stuart

Like all Israeli youth, Atalya is obligated to become a soldier. Unlike most, she questions the practices of her country’s military, and becomes determined to challenge this rite of passage. Despite her family’s political disagreements and personal concerns, she refuses military duty and is imprisoned for her dissent.

Power Meri – NEW YORK PREMIERE

Director: Joanna Lester

“Power Meri” follows the PNG Orchids, Papua New Guinea’s first national women’s rugby team, on their journey to the 2017 World Cup in Australia. These trailblazers not only must win on the field but also beat intense sexism, a lack of funding, and national prejudice to reach their biggest stage yet.

Queering the Script

Director: Gabrielle Zilkha

Giving queer fandom a voice in the conversation about LGBTQ+ representation, from Showtime’s “The L Word” to FX’s “Pose,” “Queering the Script” examines the rising power of the fans and audience shaping representation on TV, the relationship between fandom and activism, and what lies ahead for visibility and inclusiveness.

Sanctuary

Director: Andrea Cordoba

Amanda Morales, a Guatemalan mother of three U.S.-born children is the first immigrant to claim sanctuary in New York since President Trump took office, publicly resisting her deportation by taking refuge in a church. “Sanctuary” gains rare and intimate access to Amanda and her family as they fight to remain together and adapt to their daily life of resistance.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

An artful and intimate meditation on the life and works of the legendary storyteller and Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison. From her childhood in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, to book tours with Muhammad Ali, the front lines with Angela Davis, and her own writing room—Morrison explores race, America, history and the human condition.

We Are the Radical Monarchs

Director: Linda Goldstein Knowlton

Set in Oakland, California, this film introduces the Radical Monarchs, an alternative to the Scout movement for girls of color, and its founders, two fierce queer women of color, who have inspired a new generation of social justice activists. The film follows the first troop and its co-founders as they respond to a viral explosion of interest in the troop’s mission while the girls complete programs on the environment, disability justice, and Black Lives Matter.

A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem

Director: Yu Gu

Football and feminism collide in this documentary that follows former NFL cheerleaders who are battling the league to end wage theft and illegal employment practices that have persisted for 50 years.