Review: ‘My Old School,’ starring Alan Cumming and the voices of Clare Grogan and Lulu

September 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alan Cumming in “My Old School” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“My Old School”

Directed by Jono McLeod

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “My Old School,” a predominantly white group of people (with one black person and a few people of South Asian heritage) talk about Brandon Lee, an unusual student who was enrolled in the high school Bearsden Academy in Glasgow Scotland, in 1993.

Culture Clash: Lee had a scandalous secret, which was eventually exposed while he was a Bearsden Academy student.

Culture Audience: “My Old School” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in seeing a “truth is stranger than fiction” documentary about the lengths that people will go to achieve a goal.

A scene from “My Old School” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

With whimsical animation and compelling interviews, the documentary “My Old School” tells the strange-but-true story of an unusual student who enrolled in Scotland’s Bearsden Academy high school in 1993. It’s a bittersweet tale of deception, denial and broken dreams. Although the scandal that’s chronicled in this documentary made international news, many viewers of “My Old School” don’t know about the scandal and might enjoy the documentary more if they don’t know about the scandal in advance. For this reason, this review will not give details about the scandal, which is revealed in the last third of the movie.

Directed by Jono McLeod, “My Old School” tells the story of Brandon Lee, a student who enrolled as a third-year student in the elite high school Bearsden Academy in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1993. It just so happens that McLeod was a Bearsden Academy student at the same time as Lee, which is why this documentary is titled “My Old School.” It’s explained in the beginning of the documentary that Lee gave audio-only interviews for the movie because he did not want to appear on camera.

Instead, Scottish actor Alan Cumming is shown lip-synching what Lee said in the interviews. Several years ago, Cumming was set to star in a feature-film drama about Lee, but that movie never happened because Lee “broke off ties with the production company,” according to an intro title card in “My Old School.” In its own way, “My Old School” gave Cumming a chance to play the role that he had been set to do in the dramatic feature film.

“My Old School” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival) also has interviews with some of the Bearsden Academy students and faculty who knew Lee back in 1993. The documentary also uses quite a bit of animation to recreate descriptions of what the interviewees say happened while Lee was enrolled in Bearsden Academy. Lee had a scandalous secret that was exposed during his short-lived year at Bearsden Academy in the 1990s.

In “My Old School,” Lee describes his 1993 enrollment in Bearsden Academy as a “self-made hell.” From the beginning, he stood out because he looked a lot older than 16, which is the age he told everyone that he was. Lee’s story was that he was a transfer student from Canada. He was raised by a single mother, who was an opera singer, so he traveled and lived in many different places. Lee said that his parents were separated and that he had no contact with his father, who was described as a professor living in London.

Lee also said that he and his mother were in a car accident, where she died and he was left physically scarred. After his mother’s death, Lee said he moved in with his maternal grandmother in a council flat in Glasgow, which is how he ended up at Bearsden Academy. It’s not spoiler information to reveal that Lee was really a lot older than 16 in 1993. But it won’t be revealed in this review what Lee’s real age was at the time or why he lied about his age.

It’s not the first time there’s been a true story of an adult posing as a teenager in high school. But there are some very surprising elements to this story that make it more uncommon than most. “My Old School” also has commentary on social class issues that affected what Lee did and people’s perceptions of him.

It’s explained in the movie that Bearsden Academy is in an upper-class area of Glasgow. However, some people who lived in the Bearsden neighborhood were working-class and lived in an area nicknamed Spam Valley. It had that nickname in reference to the idea that the lower-income people who lived in the area had to eat spam, in order to afford living in the Bearsden neighborhood.

Living in a council flat (which is the United Kingdom equivalent of public housing in the United States) automatically labeled Lee as a Spam Valley person. He was enrolled in Bearsden Academy because he was highly intelligent. (Lee told people that he had a genius-level IQ.) He also had upwardly mobile ambitions to become a medical doctor.

At first, Lee was a misfit when he enrolled in Bearsden Academy. He was bullied by some of the students for his odd-looking appearance of looking much older than 16. In classes, he was clearly the smartest student in the room. Students and faculty assumed that because he was raised by an opera singer and traveled a lot, that was the reason why Lee appeared to be older and more sophisticated than a typical teenager.

Eventually, he made some friends at Bearsden Academy. One of the first friendships he formed was with Stefen Addo, one of the few black students in the school. Addo and Lee had something in common, because they were both treated like outcasts by other students. The two schoolmates got to know each other better during their biology class, where Lee often helped Addo.

Addo, who is interviewed in the documentary, comments: “He would also a do a very funny Clint Eastwood impression. He was just an all-around nice guy.” Addo says of race relations at Bearsden, “There was quite a lot of racism going on. I had quite a few hate mail letters delivered to my home … just the usual abuse, really.”

Lee adds of the neighborhood where Bearsden is located, “There were only a few people who weren’t white Anglo Saxons. It’s a little station where the rich people live, the well-to-do people. And there’s the attitude that accompanies it.” Addo says that Lee stood up for Addo when Addo got racist bullying in school, and the bullies eventually stopped attacking Addo.

Brian MacKinnon and Donald Lindsay (who are both interviewed in “My Old School”) were best friends when they attended Bearsden Academy. They also have vivid memories of Lee, who bonded with Lindsay over music. Lindsay says in the documentary, “What I remember talking to Brandon about was music.”

Lindsay adds that he secretly liked techno music, which wasn’t considered cool for guys to like at the time, but Lee admitted he also liked techno music. Lindsay remembers that Lee was a fan of music acts such as Television (a rock band) and 2 Unlimited (a dance music duo). Lindsay also became fans of those artists too.

Lee eventually became more popular with the Bearsden Academy students when they found out that he had a driver’s license and a car, so he became a useful “chauffeur” for students who wanted car rides from him. In the United Kingdom, people can get a provisional driver’s license at age 15, but aren’t legally allowed to drive a car until the age of 17. Lee explained to people that he got his driver’s license in Canada, where 16 is the minimum age to get a driver’s license.

Lee also made his mark on Bearsden Academy by being cast in the lead role of Lieutenant Joseph Cable in the school’s production of the musical “South Pacific.” Paul MacAlindin, who was a Bearsden music teacher at the time, remembers that he didn’t think Lee had the personality or talent to have this leading role. However, Lee could do an American accent very well, which is the main reason whe he got the role. Everyone at Bearsden Academy would later find out that Lee was doing a lot more acting than in his role in “South Pacific.”

The animation in “My Old School” might be a little too distracting for some viewers. However, the animation fits the tone of the movie very well and certainly works better than if the filmmakers had chosen live actors for the recreations. The story of Lee is almost cartoonish, so it seems appropriate that there’s some animation in this documentary. The voice actors in the animation scenes are Cumming (who does the voice of Lee in 1993), Clare Grogan, Lulu, Juliet Cadzow, Michelle Gallagher, Camilla Kerslake, Gary Lamont, Natalie McConnon, Joe McFadden, Carly McKinnon, Brian O’Sullivan, Wam Siluka Jr. and Dawn Steele.

“My Old School” has a breezy tone to it that makes the documentary almost seem comedic at times. That’s mainly because the people who were fooled by Lee can laugh about it now. They were easily conned, even though there were so many indications that Lee was lying about his real age. Even with comedic touches in “My Old School,” the movie also peels away the layers of Lee’s real story, which has a lot of sadness to it and is often pathetic. The main takeaway that viewers will have is that he is still living in the “self-made hell” that he started when he enrolled in Bearsden Academy under false pretenses.

Magnolia Pictures released “My Old School” in select U.S. cinemas on July 22, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on August 19, 2022.

Review: ‘On the Come Up,’ starring Jamila C. Gray, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Lil Yachty, Sanaa Lathan and Cliff ‘Method Man’ Smith

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jamila C. Gray, Justin Martin and Mike Epps star in “On the Come Up” (Photo by Erika Doss/Paramount+)

“On the Come Up”

Directed by Sanaa Lathan

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional inner-city U.S. neighborhood of Garden Heights and briefly in Atlanta, the dramatic film “On the Come Up” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 16-year-old girl, who’s an aspiring rapper involved in rap battles, has to decide if she will follow her manager’s advice to present a false image of herself as a “gangster rapper,” in order to become popular and get a record deal.

Culture Audience: “On the Come Up” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of hip-hop culture and coming-of-age stories where teenagers try to define their identities.

Michael Cooper Jr. and Jamila C. Gray in “On the Come Up” (Photo by Erika Doss/Paramount+)

Based on Angie Thomas’ 2019 bestselling novel of the same name, “On the Come Up” is a fairly entertaining but predictable drama about a 16-year-old inner-city girl who wants to become a rapper and gets involved in her local rap battle scene. There are better movies about aspiring rappers who do rap battles, but at least “On the Come Up” centers on a rare female perspective that’s refreshing from the cliché machismo in rap. The movie’s appealing performances overcome some flawed film editing.

“On the Come Up” is the feature-film directorial debut of Sanaa Lathan, who helmed the movie with a lot of heart, but the movie needed some technical finesse. Some of the scenes are choppily edited, so that instead of appearing seamless, the scene transitions look abrupt and don’t flow well with the story. However, the movie (whose adapted screenplay was written by Kay Oyegun) excels when it comes to the correct casting choices, since all of the cast members give believable performances. “On the Come Up” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

The protagonist of “On the Come Up” is 16-year-old Brianna “Bri” Jackson (played by Jamila C. Gray, making an impressive feature-film debut), a talented writer who wants to pursue a career as a rapper. She lives in an unnamed U.S. state in the South in an inner-city neighborhood called Garden Heights. Bri is polite but outspoken and not afraid to stand up for herself.

Bri and her older brother Trey (played by Titus Makin) spent much of their childhood in foster care, because their single mother Jada “Jay” Jackson (played by Lathan) abandoned them and was a heroin addict for many years. Jay has now been clean and sober for the past three years and has regained custody of Bri, but Jay is struggling financially. Trey, who is now in his early 20s, quit a master’s degree program to get a job to help with the family finances. He currently works at a low-paying job at a restaurant called Sal’s.

Bri’s father was a semi-famous rapper called Lawless, who died when she was a very young child, so Bri never got to know him. His cause of death is not mentioned in the movie. Jay met Lawless (whose real name was Lawrence) when she was hired to be a “video vixen” in one of his music videos. Lawless was the type of rapper who was on his way to becoming a big star, but he never quite reached those heights and therefore never became wealthy.

In Garden Heights though, Lawless is kind of a legend in the neighborhood. Garden Heights even has a street mural dedicated to Lawless that Bri often passes when she’s walking down that street. As an aspiring rapper, Bri feels that she’s living in the shadow of her deceased father, but she’s also proud of being his daughter. That’s why her chosen rap name is Lil Law. Even though rap is a big part of her life, Bri has a geeky side to her, because she’s a self-described “Star Wars nerd.”

Bri is currently a student Helen McCoy High School, which has a racial integration program, where low-income kids (who are usually African American and Latin) are bused to the school, which has a large population of middle-class white students. To make some money, Bri sells candy to some of her classmates. Her two best friends are also her schoolmates: laid-back Malik (played by Michael Cooper Jr.) and gossipy Sonny (played by Miles Gutierrez-Riley), who is very caught up in social media and viral videos that are trending.

Jay’s younger sister Patricia, who’s nicknamed Aunt Pooh (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), supports Bri’s dreams to become a famous rapper, and has volunteered to become Bri’s manager. Aunt Poo is also struggling financially, so she sees Bri as a potentially big ticket to a better life as the manager of a rich and successful rapper. Aunt Poo is inexperienced as an artist manager, but she tries to make up for that inexperience with a lot of sassy bravado and street smarts.

In Garden Heights, people gather on a regular basis for rap battles, which are set up like boxing matches. But instead of throwing punches, the opponents in the ring throw insults at each other in impromptu rap lyrics. The winner (whoever gets the louder cheers from the audience) receives a three-figure cash prize, usually $500. A local radio DJ named DJ Hype (played by Mike Epps) is the main emcee for these rap battles in Garden Heights. Bri compares getting in this rap battle ring to being like “‘The Hunger Games’ of hip-hop.”

Bri’s very first rap battle is a disaster for her, because she’s too nervous and freezes up when it’s her turn to speak. Unfortunately, some people in the audience took videos of this embarrassing moment. The videos go viral. Instead of being defeated by this setback, Bri is determined to win in her next rap battle.

Her opponent in this next battle is an up-and-coming rapper in his late teens or early 20s named Milez (played by Justin Martin), who is the son of a smooth-talking, successful music manager named Supreme (played by Cliff “Method Man” Smith). Supreme is at the rap battle that has Bri and Milez facing off with each other. It just so happens that Supreme has an indirect connection to Bri, because he used to be the manager of her late father, Lawless.

The outcome of the rap battle between Bri and Milez won’t be revealed in this review (it’s easy to guess), but it’s enough to say that Supreme is so impressed with Bri’s rapping skills, he offers to become her manager. Supreme tells Bri that he can take her career to the next level by getting her a record deal and making her a star. Bri accepts Supreme’s offer. Where does that leave Aunt Poo? Feeling rejected and bitter.

Meanwhile, “On the Come Up” has a subplot about law enforcement brutality by security officers at Helen McCoy High School. One day, Bri is walking in a school hallway, when two security officials named Officer Long (played by Malachi Malik) and Officer Tate (played by Cuyle Carvin) approach Bri and demand to see what’s in her backpack. Bri exercises her right to refuse, since these security officers don’t have a warrant or any reason to search her personal belongings.

Officer Long (who is African American) and Officer Tate (who is white) immediately escalate the situation. Officer Long, who is the more aggressive one, ends up tackling Bri in the hallway, and he places handcuffs on her. It’s unlawful brutality (especially since Bri is unarmed), but the school sides with the security officers and gives Bri a two-week suspension.

There are racial overtones to the unfair way that Bri was treated. In a meeting with the school’s Principal Rhodes (played by L.A. Winters), who is white, the principal talks to Bri and her mother Jay in a condescending manner. The principal, who seems to have a “guilty until proven innocent” attitude toward Bri, says that teachers have been complaining that Bri is disruptive in class. These are vague accusations that the principal never backs up with evidence.

When Bri tells Principal Rhodes that the school’s security officers target African American and Latino students more by than the white students. the principal is dismissive of this complaint. Bri finds out Officer Long felt he had a right to search Bri’s backpack because of rumors that Bri is a drug dealer. Bri vehemently denies that she’s involved with drugs (she’s telling the truth), and she says that she only sells candy out of her backpack. The principal shows a racial bias by seeming skeptical of Bri, but Principal Rhodes offers to do an investigation.

Jay is outraged that Bri has gotten suspended when Bri didn’t do anything wrong. Malik and Sonny want to have student protests against law enforcement brutality, and they want to start a viral video campaign showing Bri getting unlawfully manhandled by Officer Long. Bri refuses, because she thinks getting involved in protests will damage her rap career. During her two-week suspension, Bri’s career progresses, and she begins to wonder if going back to high school is really necessary when she could start being a full-time rapper.

Bri ends up making some money by winning rap battles. The money (which Bri gives to her mother) comes in handy, because Jay has recently been laid off from her church job due to budget cuts. Jay is having a hard time finding a new job. Things have gotten so bad, the apartment’s electricity has been turned off due to non-payment of this ultility bill.

Supreme dazzles Bri with big promises and sets up her very first recording session after he whisks away Bri, Malik, Sonny and Miles to a trip to Atlanta. During this trip, Bri meets an up-and-coming rapper named Infamous Millz (played by Lil Yachty), who is also from Garden Heights. And two romances develop between the young people in the story. One romance is more predictable than the other.

Bri’s blossoming rap career comes at a high price though: Supreme has convinced her to create a fake image of being a gangster rapper. Bri doesn’t carry guns, is not involved with crime, and has never been arrested. However, Supreme tells Bri that most people who buy rap music are suburban white kids, and the only way to become a successful rap artist is to make the type of music that will scare these kids’ parents. Needless to say, Bri’s family members and friends think she’s making a big mistake by not being her authentic self as an artist. Lathan and Gray have some well-acted scenes together when Jay and Bri have some disagreements with each other.

“On the Come Up” has some realism in how the music business works when it comes to rap, but the movie definitely takes a glossy view of how much sexism is ingrained in rap, a music genre that’s dominated by black male artists. There’s only one scene in the movie that shows a female rapper other than Bri. It’s when Bri and a young woman named Latrondra (played by Samantha Peel)—who uses the rap name Mystique and looks like a Nicki Minaj wannabe—do a spontaneous rap battle against each other in a parking lot. Latrondra/Mystique is never seen or heard from again in the movie.

Bri also doesn’t struggle much before she signs with an influential and experienced manager. As an attractive underage teenager, Bri would definitely be a target for predatory people in the music business. However, “On the Come Up” presents a very sheltered version of the harassment and discrimination that Bri would face as a teenage girl who wants to become a rapper. She gets a few snide and sexist comments, but that’s about it.

Because “On the Come Up” is rated PG-13 (suitable for people ages 13 and up) by the Motion Picture Association of America, the language in the movie is very tame compared to the langauge of hip-hop culture in real life. Therefore, the lyrics in the rap battle are sometimes a little corny. For uncensored and more adult-oriented lyrics in a rap battle movie, check out the 2017 drama “Bodied,” or for a more mainstream option, the Oscar-winning 2002 drama “8 Mile,” starring Eminem in a semi-autobiographical role.

Much of what holds “On the Come Up” together is the winning performance of Gray. Even with Bri’s realistic flaws, viewers will constantly be rooting for Bri to succeed. It’s a typical underdog story in many ways, but “On the Come Up” presents a unique and engaging story of a female rapper—the type of artist who rarely gets to be the star protagonist in a feature film.

Paramount Players/Paramount Pictures released “On the Come Up” in U.S. cinemas and on Paramount+ on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Don’t Worry Darling,’ starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll and Chris Pine

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured in center: Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in “Don’t Worry Darling” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Don’t Worry Darling”

Directed by Olivia Wilde

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional California community named Victory, the sci-fi/drama film “Don’t Worry Darling” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A homemaker wife with a seemingly perfect life finds her life unraveling when she witnesses things that are too disturbing to ignore, but other people try to convince her that she’s paranoid and mentally ill.

Culture Audience: “Don’t Worry Darling” will appeal mainly to people who fans of stars Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, but this disappointing dud of a movie serves up an over-used concept that becomes tedious and repetitive with a bungled ending.

Pictured in front, from left to right: Olivia Wilde, Nick Kroll and Chris Pine in “Don’t Worry Darling” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Take a little bit of “The Stepford Wives,” add a lot of “The Twilight Zone,” and remove any real ingenuity. What’s left is a mishandled mush called “Don’t Worry Darling.” The central mystery of the story is too easy to solve, because a similar concept has been used in much better movies. Even without that problem and even with Florence Pugh’s talent, “Don’t Worry Darling” comes undone by a sloppily constructed conclusion.

Directed by Olivia Wilde and written by Katie Silberman, “Don’t Worry Darling” is one of those movies where the off-screen drama is more interesting than the movie itself. This review won’t rehash all the tabloid stories (including all the brouhaha at the movie’s world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival), but what most people will remember about “Don’t Worry Darling” is that it’s the movie that led to Wilde and co-star Harry Styles becoming romantically involved in real life. “Don’t Worry Darling” isn’t a complete train wreck, but it spins its wheels too many times to the point of monotony, and everything goes completely off the rails in the movie’s last 15 minutes.

We’ve seen this scenario many times before: A movie starts out with a picture-perfect couple who seems to have a picture-perfect life. They seem to be passionately in love. They live in a well-kept house with a perfectly manicured lawn, and the neighboring houses have an eerily similar aesthetic. And all the neighbors lead seemingly idyllic lives too. But, of course, it’s later revealed that the community is far from perfect and is actually quite hellish.

In “Don’t Worry Darling,” the central “perfect” couple are spouses Alice Chambers (played by Pugh) and Jack Chambers (played by Styles), who live in a planned California community named Victory, which is filled with palm trees and is near a desert. (“Don’t Worry Darling” was actually filmed in Palm Springs, California.) Based on the fashion, hairstyles and cars, Alice and Jack seem to be living in the 1950s. Alice is a homemaker, while Jack (and the other men in the community) all work for the Victory Project, a mysterious technological business venture led by a charismatically creepy CEO named Frank (played by Chris Pine). Jack’s job title is technical engineer.

Alice and Jack, who are both in their 20s, have no children. Jack and Alice tell people that they haven’t started a family yet because they want to enjoy life for a while in a child-free marriage. The movie’s opening scene shows Alice and Jack having a house party, where everyone is drunk or tipsy. Alice and some of the other people are playing a game to see who can balance a tray and drinking glass the longest on the top of their heads.

Two of the party guests are a married couple in their late 30s named Bunny (played by Wilde) and Dean (played by Nick Kroll), who like to think of themselves as the “alpha couple” of the Victory community because they’re older than everyone else. Dean is especially eager to be perceived as Frank’s favorite employee at Victory. Bunny (who is sassy and sarcastic) and Dean (who is high-strung and neurotic) have a son and a daughter who are about 5 to 7 years old. Bunny half-jokingly tells Alice that the kids like Alice more than they like Bunny.

Another couple in the Victory community are spouses Peg (played by Kate Berlant) and Peter (played by Asif Ali), who are little quirky but ultimately underwritten and underdeveloped. If Peg and Peter weren’t in the movie, it would have no real impact on the plot at all. Also underdeveloped is a scowling scientist character named Dr. Collins (played by Timothy Simons), who shows up later in the movie and is described as one of the founders of the Victory community.

Frank’s wife is an emotionally aloof diva named Shelley (played by Gemma Chan), who leads the Victory women in group ballet classes. All of the women seem to be a little bit afraid of Shelley. She gives the impression that she can be ruthless if anyone betrays her or the Victory Project.

One day, at one of the ballet classes, Shelley tells the assembled women that a new couple is moving into the neighborhood because the husband will be starting a new job at Victory. The spouses’ names are Bill Johnson (played by Douglas Smith) and Violet Johnson (played by Sydney Chandler), who are both anxious to fit in with this tight-knit Victory community. Bill is a little bit wimpy and socially awkward, while Violet is very demure and introverted.

To welcome Bill and Violet to the Victory community, Frank assembles the community members outdoors on the streets and gives a rousing speech. Bill and Violet look a little overwhelmed. Dean tries to assert himself by chastising Bill for not thinking of Frank with enough reverence. Later, Alice privately tells Bunny that Violet reminds Alice of a “beautiful, terrified baby deer.”

When talking to Bunny, Alice notices a neighbor named Margaret (played by KiKi Layne) standing outside on the front lawn of the house that Margaret shares with her husband Ted (played by Ari’el Stachel). Margaret, whose eyes are closed, seems to be in a daze as she clutches a red toy plane in her hand. It’s enough to say that Alice sees some other disturbing things pertaining to Margaret, including an apparent suicide attempt where Margaret is up on her house roof and looks like she’s ready to jump. (The trailer for “Don’t Worry Darling” already revealed this plot development.)

At the outdoor gathering, Margaret asks people, “Why are we here?” Ted doesn’t like the way that Margaret is asking is question, so he tells Margaret to keep quiet and whisks her away into their house. Margaret is rarely seen out of the house after that, while Alice sees indications that Ted is keeping tight control over Margaret and trying to prevent Margaret from interacting with other people.

Margaret has also been speaking out against Frank and questioning his intentions. It isn’t long before gossip spreads in the neighborhood that Margaret is a mentally ill troublemaker who must be shunned. If this Victory community sounds like a cult, a party scene at Frank’s mansion removes all doubt.

This party scene (like most of the movie’s plot) is already partially revealed in the “Don’t Worry Darling” trailer. At this party, Frank asks Dean in front of the assembled Victory people: “Dean, what’s the enemy of progress?” Dean dutifully replies, “Chaos.” Frank then says, “I see greatness in every single one of you. What are we here for?” The crowd chants, “We’re changing the world!”

Victory has a trolley that is the main form of public transportation in the community. One day, Alice is the only passenger in the trolley when she sees in the distance that a red plane has crashed into a cliff area near the desert. When Alice asks the trolley driver (played by Steve Berg) if he saw the plane crash, he says he didn’t see anything.

Alice begs the trolley driver to go to the plane crash site to get help, but the driver is too afraid and says that it’s a restricted area. Alice decides to walk to the area by herself. What happens after that sets her on a path where she and other people start to question her sanity.

Unfortunately, the trailer for “Don’t Worry Darling” already gives away the fact that this movie has men in red jumpsuits chasing after people, so it’s easy to figure out that these men are sent to oppress people who “disobey” the Victory rules. Guess who becomes one of those targets? It’s all so predictable.

Pugh does a skillful job of portraying Alice’s psychological torment, but ultimately, Alice (like all of the characters in this movie) are very hollow. Styles is adequate as Alice’s increasingly estranged husband Jack, who is torn between his loyalty to Alice and his loyalty to Victory. But after a while, the obvious and over-used plot development of “the woman who is not believed and labeled as mentally ill” gets run into the ground early and often in “Don’t Worry Darling,” At a certain point in the movie, you just know the men in the red jumpsuits will be part of a big chase scene, because it’s already revealed in the movie’s trailer.

“Don’t Worry Darling” tries to have some visual flair, with repetitive images of the people of Victory moving in sync with each other, as if they’re pre-programmed robots. This visual styling is shown in the scenes with the ballet classes, as well as the Victory community’s morning ritual of the wives going on their front lawns to wave goodbye to their husbands, who drive off to go to work in perfect sync in their flashy cars. The movie also repeats images (many of them psychedelic) of things in the shape of a circle, whether they are close-ups of eye pupils or women dancing like they’re in a Busby Berkeley musical.

All of this eye-catching cinematography comes off as shallow and a bit pretentious after a while, because the story falls so flat toward the end. “Don’t Worry Darling” hastily throws in some heavy-handed feminist messages but doesn’t have anything clever or new to say that 1975’s “The Stepford Wives” didn’t already cover decades ago. The half-baked ending of “Don’t Worry Darling” just brings up questions that are never answered.

Wilde and Silberman previously collaborated on the 2019 teen comedy “Booksmart,” which was Wilde’s feature-film directorial debut. And although the critically acclaimed “Booksmart” uses a lot of familiar teen comedy plot devices, “Booksmart” has dialogue, acting and character development that are appealing. The same can’t be said for “Don’t Worry Darling,” which has talented cast members, who look all dressed up but have nowhere artistically to go in this boring sci-fi tripe posing as an intriguing psychological thriller.

Warner Bros Pictures released “Don’t Worry Darling” in U.S. cinemas on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Sidney,’ starring Sidney Poitier

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)


Directed by Reginald Hudlin

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Sidney” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and one person of Middle Eastern heritage), including actor/filmmaker/humanitarian Sidney Poitier, from the entertainment industry and from Poitier’s family, who all discuss Poitier’s life and legacy.

Culture Clash: Poitier, who broke many racial barriers in his long and esteemed career, experienced poverty in his childhood, racism from white people, and accusations of being a “sellout” from some members of the African American community.

Culture Audience: “Sidney” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of Poitier and real stories of people who became icons after experiencing many hardships.

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The admirable documentary “Sidney” follows a very traditional format, but in telling the story of the extraordinary Sidney Poitier, it’s no ordinary biography. Poitier’s participation gives this documentary a heartfelt resonance that’s unparalleled. It’s the last major sit-down interview that he did before he died. He passed away at the age of 94, on January 6, 2022.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “Sidney” is a documentary that includes the participation and perspectives of several members of Poitier’s family, including all six of his daughters and the two women who were his wives. Some journalists and historians weigh in with their opinions, but the documentary is mostly a star-studded movie of entertainers who were influenced or affected by Poitier in some way. “Sidney” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the celebrity talking heads in the documentary is Oprah Winfrey, who is one of the producers of “Sidney.” She talks openly about how important Poitier was to her as a mentor during her own rise to fame as a TV talk show host and later as the owner of a media empire. Toward the end of the film, Winfrey begins crying when she says how much she misses Poitier. It’s a moment where viewers will have a hard time not getting tearful too.

Most people watching “Sidney” will already know something about Poitier before seeing this movie. His 2000 memoir “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” covers a lot of the same topics that’s covered in “Sidney.” But to see him talk about his life story and experiences in what no one knew at the time would be his last major interview brings an special poignancy to this documentary.

Born in Miami, on February 20, 1927, Poitier grew up in poverty in the Bahamas, his parents’ native country. He was the youngest of seven children born to famers Reginald and Evelyn Poitier. “I wasn’t expected to live,” Poitier says of his birth. “I was born two months premature.”

Poitier says that he was so sickly at birth, his father brought a shoe box into the birth room because the family thought that baby Sidney would have to be buried in the box. Sidney’s frantic mother took newborn Sidney to different places in the neighborhood to find anyone who could help save his life. Evelyn found a female soothsayer who said she couldn’t give any medical help, but she predicted that Sidney would be find and he would grow up to be an influential person who would find fame and fortune.

Getting to that point wasn’t easy and it was far from glamorous. In 1942, at the age of 15, his father Reginald had Sidney move to Miami and live with an aunt and uncle, because Sidney had a friend who was a juvenile delinquent, and Reginald feared that Sidney would fall in with a bad crowd. Little did Sidney know that he would be facing a different type of damage to his innocence.

In Miami, Sidney went through major culture shock and racism that drastically changed his perspective of the world. “Within a few months, I began to switch my whole view of life,” Sidney says of moving from the Bahamas to Miami. He got a part-time job as a delivery boy, and he tells a story of not understanding why a white woman who got one of his deliveries demanded that he only go to the back of the house to make the delivery. Later, when he heard that members of the Ku Klux Klan were looking for him because of this incident, he got so unnerved that he decided to leave town.

But even that attempted trip was fraught with danger, because he was harassed and stalked by white police officers, who didn’t want to see a black male having the freedom to travel wherever he wanted. Needless to say, when Sidney heard that black people had better work opportunities in New York City, he soon relocated to New York City, where he discovered his love of acting.

Life in New York City was a very difficult challenge too. For a while, Sidney was homeless and had to sleep in a public bathrooms. He got a job as a dishwasher while also taking acting classes, which he says he was like being in useful therapy, where he could pour all of his emotions into fictional characters. He read books and listened to radio stars (especially Norman Brokenshire) to learn how to speak with an American accent.

His motivation to become a great actor came from being rejected by audiences at the American Negro Theater because, as a black man, he was expected to sing, dance and be funny. Sidney wanted to be a serious dramatic actor. One of the American Negro Theater officials told Sidney that he should just give up acting altogether. We all know what happened after that Sidney got that horrible advice. It’s an excellent example of how someone can turn failure and discouragement into a triumph.

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Sidney’s guiding principles were to do work that would make his parents proud. That’s why, throughout his career, he rejected doing roles that were demeaning to black people. He made his film debut as a doctor in the 1950 drama “No Way Out.” And the rest is history.

The year 1950 was also the year that Sidney married his first wife, Juanita Hardy Poitier. The couple had four daughters together: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri and Gina. During the marriage, Sidney had a nine-year on-again/off-again affair with actress Diahann Carroll (who died of cancer in 2019), his co-star in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess.” Poitier and Carroll later co-starred in 1961’s “Paris Blues.” Sidney and Juanita’s marriage eventually ended in divorce in 1965. Sidney describes this period of time of his life as one of career highs but personal lows. He also expresses remorse about how his marital infidelity and divorce hurt his family.

The documentary gives chronological highlights of his career in movies and in theater. For his role in 1958’s prisoner escapee drama “The Defiant Ones” (co-starring Tony Curtis) Poitier became the first black person to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It’s mentioned in the documentary that the movie’s ending was somewhat controversial among black people, because some critics thought it was pandering to a what’s now known as a “magical Negro” stereotype.

For his role in 1963’s “Lilies in the Field,” Sidney became the first black person to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. It was a role that was originally turned down by Poitier’s longtime friend Harry Belafonte, who was busy with a music career. Belafonte also thought that the “Lilies in a Field” role (a black man who’s a nomadic worker befriends a group of white German nuns) was too corny and subservient. Belafonte does not do an on-camera interview for this documentary, but he can be heard in a few voiceover comments.

In 1967, Sidney was a bona fide superstar as the lead actor in critically acclaimed hit movies “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, with Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” All were groundbreaking in different ways in depicting race relations in cinema. And the fact that they were box-office successes are indications that times were changing, and the world was ready to see these types of movies.

For his “In the Heat of the Night” role, Sidney played a confident police detective named Virgil Tibbs, who demanded respect from everyone around him. There’s a famous scene in the movie where Virgil is slapped in the face by a racist white man for no good reason. In response, Virgil slaps the man in the face. At the time, it was rare for a movie to show a black man defending himself from this type of racist hate.

In “To Sir, With Love,” Sidney played a schoolteacher in East London who has to be the instructor for unruly white teenagers. It was another on-screen rarity at the time to see a black man in charge of white children. And in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Sidney had the role of a doctor who gets engaged to a white woman after a whirlwind romance, and she brings him home to introduce him to her shocked parents for the first time.

The documentary repeatedly mentions that for every accolade and trailblazing accomplishment that Sidney received, there were critics who thought that he wasn’t being “black enough.” Winfrey, who’s gotten the same type of criticism, remembers meeting Sidney after she became famous and was very in awe of meeting him. She says she asked him how he dealt with the “not black enough” criticism, and he gave her advice that she never forgot: He told her that as long as she was doing what felt right in her heart, that’s all that mattered.

Sidney and Belafonte, who were as close as brothers, were at the forefront of the entertainment industry’s involvement in the U.S. civil rights movement. However, the two friends had occasional estrangements over various issues. One of these issues was that Sidney tended to be more politically conservative than Belafonte when it came to the support of Black Power groups that advocated for preparing for a race war and all the violence associated with war, especially after the devastating 1968 deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. In his senior years, Sidney became an ambassador representing the Bahamas.

The documentary mentions that by the early 1970s, the Black Power movement and blaxploitation movies made Sidney seem like a somewhat a has-been and outdated movie star to some people. He began to shift his attention more to directing and producing movies. His feature-film directorial debut was the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with Belafonte. It’s mentioned in the documentary that as a filmmaker, Sidney practiced what he preached in the civil rights movement and gave plenty of jobs to people of color in front of the camera and behind the camera.

The 1970s decade was also period of change in his personal life: Sidney and Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus fell in love while co-starring in the 1969 movie “The Lost Man.” In the “Sidney” documentary, Shimkus Poitier says she never heard of Sidney until she got the role in the movie, whose love story plot mirrored their own romance. The couple had daughters Anika and Sydney Tamiia, and then wed in 1976, and remained married until Sidney’s death.

In the documentary, Sidney says that his second marriage also gave him a second chance to be a better husband and father. His daughters from his first marriage became part of his blended family. Sydney Tamiia (who is now known as Sidney Poitier Heartstrong) mentions that her parents made sure that she and her sister Anika grew up with other interracial families, with Quincy Jones and his interracial family being close friends with the Poitier family.

Jones is one of numerous stars who have joyous and insightful things to say about Poitier. Other entertainment celebrities who are interviewed include Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Lenny Kravitz, Barbra Streisand, Louis Gossett Jr., Katharine Houghton and Lulu. Also interviewed are civil rights activist/former politican Andrew Young, writer/historian Greg Tate, civil rights activist Rev. Willie Blue, journalist/historian Nelson George and University of Memphis history professor Aram Goudsouzian, who wrote the 2004 biography “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon.”

All of these interviewees have wonderful things to say and are often very witty when saying these things. That is not too surprising. However, what will stay with viewers the most is that they wouldn’t be saying those things if Sidney had not had such an exemplary life. His impact is immeasurable and goes far beyond the entertainment industry. He’s an unforgettable role model of hope, dignity and progress in striving for a better world.

Apple Studios released “Sidney” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,’ starring Gabby Giffords

September 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Gabby Giffords in “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” (Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down”

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West

Culture Representation: Taking place in Arizona, and in Washington, D.C., the documentary film “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans), representing the middle-class and wealthy, who discuss the life of former U.S. House of Representatives member Gabby Giffords, who survived a gun-shooting assassination attempt her home state of Arizona in 2011.

Culture Clash: After recovering from a coma, amnesia, a brain injury, and adjusting to life with reduced physical abilities, Giffords became an outspoken activist to pass stricter gun laws but has gotten resistance from people who think she wants to take away Second Amendment rights.

Culture Audience: “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching true stories about inspirational survival and resilience and documentaries about people working for reducing gun violence.

Gabby Giffords in “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” (Photo by Dyanna Taylor/Briarcliff Entertainment)

Moving and inspirational, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” should be required viewing for anyone facing seemingly impossible challenges. This documentary has some politics, but it’s more of a story about courage and becoming stronger after major setbacks. Regardless of how people feel about gun laws in the United States, people who watch “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” will find something to relate to in this movie about how the human spirit, rather than physical capabilities, defines real character. “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” is one of several documentaries this filmmaking duo has made about unique and remarkable people who experienced prejudices, overcame obstacles, and surpassed people’s expectations, usually in male-dominated fields. Cohen and West also directed the Oscar-nominated 2018 film “RBG,” about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice; 2021’s “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” about the gender non-conforming civil rights activist Pauli Mauray; and 2021’s “Julia,” about famed chef/author Julia Child.

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” has the most tearjerking moments of any Cohen/West documentary so far. However, viewers probably won’t shed tears of pity but tears of admiration and joy at how far Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords has come since her life was nearly taken away on January 8, 2011, when she was shot in the head outside a Safeway grocery store in Casas Adobes, Arizona, during a public speaking appearance. The lone shooter (who was 22 years old at the time and whose name won’t be mentioned here) killed six people and wounded 19 people during this rampage. He eventually pled guilty and was sentenced to life plus 140 years in federal prison.

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” shows that although Giffords’ life was permanently changed because of the killing spree and attempted murders that happene that day, she has not let this tragedy define her entire life. It’s given her a new purpose in life where she aims to make changes for the better. At the time of the shooting, Giffords (who was born on June 8, 1970) has been serving since 2006 as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Arizona’s 8th congressional district. Giffords started out as a Republican early in her political career, but she’s been a moderate Democrat since 2000.

The documentary doesn’t take a chronological approach to telling her life story. Instead, it begins with striking footage of Giffords visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where her Giffords non-profit group arranged for an installation where abut 40,000 white roses were displayed on the lawn. The roses represented the approximate number of people per year who are killed by gun violence in the United States.

Giffords says with sadness in her voice: “So many people hurt. A lot of people died. Always connected to them. Grateful to survive. I’m alive.” The movie then shows a quick montage of her life, leading up to what is in first third of the documentary: a chronicle of Giffords’ arduous and intense recovery from the gun injuries. First, she was in a coma. When she got out of the coma, she found out that she had partial paralysis in her legs and her arms. Her eyes also lost a lot of vision capabilities.

Giffords also had severe amnesia from her brain injury, and she had to learn to do basic things all over again, such as talk and eat. It’s a gut-wrenching, painful and difficult process that’s shown in the movie, but Giffords has a sense of humor that did not disappear after she experienced this tragic shooting. It’s mentioned several times that Giffords’ recovery process was helped with support from loved ones, excellent medical care, and because Giffords (who loves music and who was a skilled French horn player) used music as a therapy tool.

One of the hardest things that Giffords had to deal with in her recovery was knowing what she wanted to say but not having the motor skills to communicate what was in her head. She has aphasia, which is a language impairment that makes it difficult for someone to comprehend and express language. People with aphasia often fixate on a certain word that they say often when they can’t say another word. Early in her recovery, the word “chicken” was something that Giffords often repeated. Speech pathologist Angie Glynn is shown in the documentary as a crucial person to help Giffords in the recovery process.

Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, is true example of a loving and supportive partner in good times and bad. The documentary shows how he was by Giffords’ side during her most difficult challenges. He says about his decision to videorecord Giffords’ hospital recovery and many of her therapy sessions: “I thought at some point—maybe it was a year or 10 years later—Gabby was going to want to see what she went through. So, I got a friend of mine pck up a camera and a tripod, and he just started filming.”

The documentary chronicles how Kelly went through his own adjustments, as someone with a spouse recovering from this tragedy. He also vividly describe his his feelings in the minutes and hours after the shooting, including the trauma of hearing incorrect news reports that Giffords had died. Kelly eventually retired from his job as a NASA astronaut to help take care of his wife.

Later, when Giffords had to step down from the U.S. House of Representatives and became a full-time activist, Kelly had a successful campaign to be elected as the replacement for Giffords in the U.S. House of Representatives. Kelly (who’s somewhat of an introvert) admits that becoming a politician was outside of his comfort zone, but he and many other people (including Giffords) felt strongly that he was the next best person to carry on the legacy that she started when she was a member of the U.S. Congress.

People interviewed in the documentary predictably have high praise for Giffords. They include congressional staffer Ron Barber, who has this to say about Giffords’ charisma: “I’ve seen many people run for office, locally and nationally. I’ve never seen anyone like her. Our office manager came up with came up with the best description. She said, ‘When you meet her, you get Gabby-fied.”

Fellow Democrats also weigh in with their opinions. South Carolina congressperson James F. Clyburn, who is a Democrat, spent time campaigning with Giffords. Clyburn says, “She was someone with whom I felt an immediate kindred spirit. She had a way of putting everyone at ease.”

Former U.S. president Barack Obama adds, “Whenever you saw someone who could bridge the partisan gap and speak to people in a way that felt authentic, that was something that was really prized. She had the energy and the ambition to have gone really far in politics.”

One of the misconceptions about Giffords that the documentary puts an emphasis on is that Giffords is not about taking away people’s guns, because she’s a gun owner herself. She says of her Arizona roots and her beliefs about gun ownership: “I’m from the Wild, Wild West. I’m not against guns. I own guns. I’m against gun violence.”

Giffords believes in stricter background checks to ensure that people who are mentally unfit and people with certain violent felonies should not be getting new guns. Giffords also doesn’t believe that private citizens need to have shooting machines that are meant for war and mass destruction. Giffords Gun Safety Organization executive director Peter Ambler explains: “Gabby has a strategy to reach out to folks who weren’t part of the previous gun violence prevention movement, who may be gun owners themselves, but are committed to stop gun violence in this country.”

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” interviews some of the other survivors of the mass shooting that almost killed Giffords. These survivors include Daniel Hernandez (who was Giffords’ congressional intern at the time) and constituent Suzi Hileman, who witnessed 9-year-old shooting victim Christina-Taylor Green die in front of her. Green was a neighbor of Hileman, who had brought Green to the speaking appearance. Another shooting victim who did not survive was 30-year-old Gabriel “Gabe” Zimmerman, who was a community outreach director for Giffords at the time.

The middle of the documentary delves into Giffords’ life before the day of the fateful shooting. Giffords is described as an ideal daughter who did the types of things that would make any parent proud. She was a Girl Scout. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in Sociology and Latin American History from Scripps College in California in 1993. Then, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico. She got a master’s degree in Regional Planning from Cornell University in 1996.

The documentary shows that she has a pattern of turning failures into successes, such as when she took over her faltering family business, El Campo Tire Warehouses (founded by her grandfather), and turned it into a very profitable company. After the company was sold to Goodyear Tires in 2000, Giffords then segued into politics by winning her first election (to the Arizone State House of Representatives) in 2001.

If all of that sounds like someone who has a “too good to be true” perfect and accomplished life, Giffords says it wasn’t. In the documentary, Giffords says that she was unlucky in love for many years. It wasn’t until she was in her late 30s that she found the love of her life (Kelly), whom she married in 2007.

And becoming a stepmother to Kelly’s two daughters (Claudia and Claire) from his previous marriage didn’t go very smoothly at all. Claudia Kelly says in the documentary that she resented having Gabby as a stepmother for years. After the shooting, Claudia says she felt guilty about the fractured relationship she had with Giffords, and they both made amends for past hurts. Claudia comments, “Claire and I have a much different relationship with Gabby now. It’s definitely a much warmer and special relationship than before.”

Also interviewed in the documentary are Sgt. Charles Garcia of Pima County Sheriff’s Department, who was involved in the investigation of the mass shooting; neurosurgeon Dr. Dong Kim; Capitol Media Services reporter Howard Fischer; The Arizona Republic reporter Stephanie Innes; speech pathologist Fabi Hirsch; and Giffords’ mother, Gloria. (Gloria’s husband/Gabby’ father, Spencer Giffords, died in 2013, but he is seen in some of the footage during Gabby’s hospitalization.)

The documentary shows Gabby in various settings: in the hospital, at home, and out in public doing various things for the causes that mean the most to her. Not surprisingly, she is at her most vulnerable in the hospital, at her most relaxed at home, at her most confident in public. At the National Mall, she meets up with fellow Democratic politicians Clyburn, Chris Murphy and Val Demings, as they respectfully pay tribute to the lives lost to gun violence.

The song choices in “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” are expertly and almost predictably paired with certain scenes, and they sound like the life soundtrack of a Generation Xer’s youth, with songs from the 1980s and 1990s. It should come as no surprise that a movie with this title uses Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” for an emotion-stirring scene. Another prominently featured song is U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” might not change people’s minds about gun laws in the United States. However, the movie greatly succeeds in showing a powerful human story of someone whose life was forever changed by gun violence and how she didn’t let a tragedy defeat her. It’s a heartwarming reminder that good things can sometimes come from horrible and senseless actions that were meant to harm others.

Briarcliff Entertainment released “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” in select U.S. cinemas on July 13, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 5, 2022.

Review: ‘Summering,’ starring Lia Barnett, Lake Bell, Sarah Cooper, Ashley Madekwe, Madalen Mills, Megan Mullally, Eden Grace Redfield and Sanai Victoria

September 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise from top left: Madalen Mills, Eden Grace Redfield, Lia Barnett and Sanai Victoria in “Summering” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)


Directed by James Ponsoldt

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Utah, the dramatic film “Summering” features a white and African American cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In the summer before they start middle school, four 11-year-old girls find a dead man’s body in the woods, and the four friends decide to keep this discovery a secret among themselves.

Culture Audience: “Summering” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in stories about the lives of American tween girls, but “Summering” has very boring and often-ludicrous portrayals of how real tween girls act.

Lake Bell and Megan Mullally in “Summering” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Summering” is a monotonous pseudo-mystery about four 11-year-old girls who find a dead man’s body, and talk and act in ways that are very unrealistic for pre-teen girls. This pointless waste of time gets more irritating as it goes along. Avoid at all costs.

Directed by James Ponsoldt (who co-wrote the “Summering” screenplay with Benjamin Percy), “Summering” has a majority-female cast, but these female characters (especially the underage girls) are given fake-sounding dialogue that sounds like male filmmakers trying to pander to men’s ideas of how “progressive” women and girls should be. Almost everything in this movie looks phony and overly staged. “Summering,” which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, is undoubtedly one of the worst, most self-indulgent movies that screened at the festival this year.

“Summering” is very off-putting because you can tell that the filmmakers thought that they were making a great American movie about tween girls. It’s this pretentiousness that obviously clouded their judgment in not seeing how dull and clumsy everything turned out in “Summering.” One of the biggest problems is that the movie dangles a potentially good story in front of the audience, and then ruins the movie with a nonsensical plot that rambles, becomes unfocused, and ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere or have anything interesting to say.

What’s worse is that Ponsoldt claims he knows how to write about girls, just because he has a daughter. This movie is proof of what might have been a well-intentioned film to celebrate the female gender actually resulting in a tedious, mansplaining fantasy of how tween girls are supposed to act when experiencing something traumatic and making big decisions. In a director’s statement given to the media about why Ponsoldt made “Summering,” he had this to say, in part:

“‘Summering’ was born from a desire to make a film for my children, and especially for my daughter. It grew into a film about fears and anxiety—and ultimately, hope—in the age of COVID … While I’ve always loved films about childhood, our first encounters with death, and how young people use imagination to process trauma in a way that’s different than the logic of adulthood, I’m not sure I could’ve made ‘Summering’ until I became a parent. As the parent of three young children, I find myself constantly in this delicate gray space of both needing to protect my children and wanting them to live fearlessly.”

The statement continues, “As my daughter began seeking out more complex narratives, ones that mirrored her own hopes and fears, I became acutely aware of the privilege I enjoyed when I was her age: I could easily see myself in stories, because the protagonists were boys and young men. My sister didn’t always enjoy this same privilege. Neither did my wife. Or my mother.”

Ponsoldt’s statement adds, “There are notable exceptions, of course, but in many instances the ‘classic’ coming of age stories about friendship and first brushes with mortality involve boys. In most of the movies of my sister’s childhood, or my mother’s, the female characters were love interests, or the main character’s sister. And female friendship was often defined by trauma—a victimization, or a rupturing of a friendship (when boys or men enter the story). I wanted to make a film in which my daughter could see herself. And her friends. I hoped to dignify the emotional inner lives of young female characters, to explore their imaginations and fears and hopes while they’re on the cusp of adolescence.”

If Ponsoldt didn’t want to make a movie about female friendship defined by “trauma … (when boys or men enter the story),” then why did he make “Summering” a movie about how four 11-year-old girls react to finding a dead man’s body in the woods? For almost the entire movie, the girls talk about what they’re going to do (or not do) about this gruesome discovery. Finding a dead body would be traumatic for people of any age. The girls who find this corpse act like it’s not a big-enough deal to tell any adults or anyone else.

At first glance, “Summering” looks like it’s trying to be a ripoff of director Rob Reiner’s classic 1986 film “Stand by Me” (adapted from Stephen King’s 1982 novella “The Body”), which is about four adolescent boys who find a dead boy’s body near a swamp. In “Stand by Me,” the boys intentionally looked for the body of this missing boy and know his name before the corpse is found. In “Summering,” the girls accidentally find the dead body of a man who is a complete stranger to him.

Before anyone thinks that “Summering” is trying to copy “Stand by Me,” think again. “Summering” is too lazy to even be an imitation of a good film. A movie that tries to be a ripoff of a classic movie should at least be inspired by the best elements of that classic movie. “Summering” doesn’t even make any effort to be any good at all. “Summering,” which is cringeworthy from the very first scene, gets worse as the movie lumbers along at a sluggish pace.

“Summering,” which was filmed on location in Utah and takes place in an unnamed city, opens with four best friends (who are all 11 years old) walking through the woods together. It’s the last week of summer before they all start middle school. The four pals are outspoken feminist Daisy (played by Lia Barnett), rebellious brat Dina (played by Sanai Victoria), eccentric introvert Mari (played by Eden Grace Redfield) and mystic enthusiast Lola (played by Sanai Victoria).

Daisy gives intermittent voiceover narration throughout the movie. She says in one of these voiceovers: “Sometimes, I worry I need my friends more than they need me. But it’s hard to be sad when the sun is so huge and so right.”

Daisy continues, “Sometimes, my house has so many shadows in it, it feels so heavy, like it could sink into the earth. But I never felt that way with my friends. Summer has no walls. We can go everywhere, see everything.”

If that isn’t enough to roll your eyes at this pretentious, adult-sounding monologue that’s supposed to be coming from an 11-year-old girl, there will be plenty of other badly written and horribly staged moments in “Summering” that will make you roll your eyes at the thought that anyone thought this tripe was good filmmaking. During this walk through the woods, Dina says, “I hate skirts.” Daisy replies, “They’re so patriarchal.” This feminist speak might sound more believable coming from a teenager, but not an 11-year-old.

The girls are walking through the woods to bring incense, myrrh and gum to a Terabithia shrine that they made. The shrine was probably Lola’s idea, because much later in the movie, the four girls hold a seance at Lola’s urging. It isn’t long before the four friends find the dead body in the woods. The deceased man, who appears to be in his 30s, is fully clothed in a blue business suit. The girls speculate that he could have fallen from a bridge that’s 100 feet above them. This bridge has the nickname The Suicide Bridge.

Mari’s first reaction to seeing the dead body is to call 911. (All of the girls have cell phones with them.) However, Dina convinces her not to call for help or to tell any adults: “I mean, what’s the rush?” Dina asks. “He’s not in any rush,” she says of the dead man. Dina also says if they tell anyone else about the dead body, the girls’ mothers and the police will just ask “a million questions” that Dina doesn’t want to to answer.

Lola comments on this dead man, who is a total stranger to these four grls: “This is on us. This is our [dead] body.” The girls all agree that they should wait one day before telling any adults about this body. But that one day turns into two days, and then several days where they don’t tell anyone. The girls keep the body a secret because they want to try to find out the mystery of this stranger all by themselves.

What kind of garbage is “Summering” selling? Most 11-year-old kids would not be able to keep something like finding a dead body a secret just because they think it would be cool to play dectective and find out more about a dead man whom they found in the woods. This atrocious movie depicts these girls in such a phony manner, none of them has nightmares about the body. These girls don’t show any real guilt about hiding information about someone who’s probably been reported missing.

Instead, the girls decide to move the body and use latex gloves, so their fingerprints won’t get on the corpse. While they hide this secret from everyone but themselves, the four pals do somersaults on lawns and frolic around the neighborhood, as if they don’t have a care in the world. It’s all just so heinous.

Another thing that’s very fake about “Summering” is that it takes too long in the movie for the girls to do an Internet search about this mystery man they found in the woods. An Internet search would be one of the first things that 11-year-old kids with access to the Internet would do. It just makes these girls look less-than-smart, which is not exactly the “female empowerment” message that director Ponsoldt claims to have for this terrible movie.

And where are the parents during all of this nonsense? In its bungled effort to be a strong, female-oriented film, “Summering” mainly shows the girls’ mothers interacting with them in mostly shallow ways. Daisy’s divorced father (played by Dale McKeel) is shown briefly as being a deadbeat dad. All of these parents are underdeveloped characters and are in the movie’s many filler scenes.

Daisy’s no-nonsense mother Laura (played by Lake Bell) is a police officer. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. “Summering” wants you to believe that a cop’s 11-year-old daughter is moving a dead man’s corpse around in the woods with three of her other 11-year-old friends, because the girls think it’s an adventurous thing to do before they start middle school.

Mari’s goofy mother Stacie (played by Megan Mullally) has a close relationship with Mari, the only one of the four pals who shows a little discomfort about their big secret. But it’s not enough discomfort to tell any adults about this huge problem. Even though Stacie thinks she knows Mari very well, Stacie has no clue that Mari is essentially involved in serious crimes (tampering with evidence; unauthorized removal of a corpse) related to a dead body.

Dina’s high-strung mother Joy (played by Ashley Madekwe) has her hands full with Dina’s mean-spirited teenager sister Carol (played by Willow Corner-Bettweiser) and Dina. Carol and Dina frequently feud with each other. Lola’s laid-back mother Karna (played by Sarah Cooper) is an artist who is usually seen painting something on an art canvas. What these mothers do have no big impact on the movie’s main plot of the girls hiding the secret of the dead body.

In addition to the off-balance tone of “Summering,” the movie badly stumbles in its mismatched casting of talented and experienced cast members (the actresses who play the mothers) with less-experienced cast members (the actresses who play the four 11-year-old friends), whose talent doesn’t reach the same level. On screen, the disparity in these two levels of talent just makes everything look worse.

“Summering” is not presented as a satire or as an absurdist escapist film. This dreadful movie really wants to be viewed as a serious drama that’s supposed to accurately reflect the interior lives of 11-year-old girls. When it comes to this attempt at authenticity and being an influential film about girlhood, “Summering” is a complete and utter failure.

Bleecker Street released “Summering” in select U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022.

Review: ‘Fall’ (2022), starring Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner and Jeffrey Dean Morgan

September 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Grace Caroline Currey in “Fall” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Fall” (2022)

Directed by Scott Mann

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the dramatic film “Fall” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two young women set an adventure challenge for themselves by climbing a 2,000-foot TV tower in a remote desert area in California, but then they get stranded on the tower without being able to get signals on their phones to call for help.

Culture Audience: “Fall” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching survival thriller movies that aren’t award-worthy but offer plenty of suspense and satisfactory entertainment.

Virginia Gardner in “Fall” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Fall” is a suspenseful “lives in peril” thriller with a key part of the story that requires some suspension of disbelief. The movie also runs longer than necessary. However, there’s enough realism and competent acting to overcome any of the movie’s flaws.

Directed by Scott Mann (who co-wrote the “Fall” screenplay with Jonathan Frank), “Fall” is starts off as a fairly straightforward survival story, but it has two major plot twists that should surprise most viewers. One of the plot twists has a soap opera element to it, and it’s not as surprising as the other plot twist. “Fall” could have used better film editing, which drags out the movie’s middle section and then rushes the movie’s ending.

“Fall,” which takes place in California, opens with a scene of three adventurous people in their late 20s on a mountain climbing trip where they are using ropes for safety but are climbing the rocks with bare hands. The three people on this trip are Becky Connor (played by Grace Caroline Currey); Becky’s husband, Dan Connor (played by Mason Gooding); and Becky’s best friend Shiloh Hunter (played by Virginia Gardner), who wants to be called Hunter. Suddenly, a bird flies out of a crevice and startles Dan, who slips and falls to his death.

The movie’s timeline then fast-forwards nearly one year later (51 weeks, to be exact) and shows a grieving and depressed Becky, who has become a recluse on her way to becoming an alcoholic, if she’s not an alcoholic already. Her father, James (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), has become very worried about Becky’s physical and mental health, but she brushes off his concerns. She’s been ignoring his phone calls and avoiding him in other ways.

In one of his voice mail messages, James tells Becky: “A horrible thing happened to you, but you have to start living your life again. There’s a whole big, wide world that needs you. And believe it or not, I need you.” It’s mentioned early on in the movie that James did not approve of Dan, and it’s one of the reasons why Becky has been estranged from James.

One night, James sees a drunk Becky coming out of a bar. He offers to give her a ride home, but she refuses. James then tells Becky something that makes an emotional impact on her: James says that if Becky had died on that fateful trip, and Dan had lived, Dan would not be “drowning in his sorrows.” Later, when Becky is at home, she finds out that Dan’s cell phone number, which she had been calling just to hear his outgoing voice mail message, has now been disconnected.

Becky sees this phone disconnection as a sign that she should start trying to move on with her life. Around the same time, Becky hears from someone she hasn’t really been in touch with since Dan’s death: Hunter, the best friend who also witnessed everything in Dan’s fatal accident.

Becky and Hunter have had opposite reactions to Dan’s death. Becky has become emotionally withdrawn and is now terrified of heights. Hunter has become more of a daredevil and has created a social media persona for herself called Danger D, so that she can become famous for doing risky stunts.

Hunter has reached out to Becky to pitch an adventure challenge that Hunter wants to put on Hunter’s social media channels: Hunter and Becky will climb to the top of the B67 TV Tower, which is 2,000 feet high and in a remote desert area. The B67 TV Tower is a fictional name for the movie, but it’s based on the real-life 2,000-foot KXTV/KOVR radio tower, also known as the Sacramento Joint Venture Tower, in Walnut Grove, California. A much-smaller replica (about 60 feet high) of the Sacramento Joint Venture Tower was used for “Fall,” and the 2,000-feet-high appearance was created through visual effects.

Becky’s first reaction to Hunter’s invitation is to immediately say no. Hunter pleads with Becky: “It would be an adventure, like old times. And you can scatter Dan’s ashes on top [of the tower] … If you don’t confront your fears, you are always going to be afraid.”

After thinking about it for a short time, Becky agrees. She says to Hunter, “If you’re scared of dying, don’t be afraid to live. That’s what Dan used to say. Let’s do it. Let’s climb your stupid tower.”

The two pals go on the trip, which includes walking about one mile to get to the tower. The movie never really explains why Becky and Hunter couldn’t drive closer to the tower except to say that they just couldn’t. Another unexplained aspect of the story is why Becky and Hunter didn’t carry enough food and water with them for their tower climb. Hunter and Becky only brought a few granola bars and two bottles of water. It’s a foolish decision they will soon regret.

Becky and Hunter have their cell phones with them though. Hunter uses her phone to take photos and videos to post on social media. Hunter also announces to her several thousand followers on social media that she and Becky will be climbing the B67 TV Tower. When Becky and Hunter get to the tower, Becky hesitates and says she can’t go through with climbing it. But once again, Hunter convinces Becky to change her mind.

On the climb up, the movie foreshadows the danger to come by showing how, unbeknownst to Becky and Hunter, a few screws have come loose from the tower during their climb up. Becky and Hunter are too far away to see these screws fall out of their sockets. However, what Hunter and Becky do see is that this creaky tower is rusty and rickety, but that doesn’t stop them from continuing to climb up this shaky-looking structure.

Most people who see “Fall” will probably know before watching the movie that the story is about two women who get trapped on a very high tower in the desert. (It’s also shown in the movie’s trailer.) Hunter and Becky get trapped when the tower’s ladder falls down, due to the missing screws, and both women find out that they can’t get signals on their phones from where they are trapped on the tower.

The rest of “Fall” is about Hunter and Becky’s desperate efforts to get help, since the now-useless ladder was their only means of getting down from the tower. Becky and Hunter have ropes, but the ropes aren’t long enough to slide back down to the ground. Perhaps the movie’s biggest plot hole is that it tries to make it look like no one will come looking for Becky and Hunter. But this wasn’t a secret trip: Hunter already announced in real time on social media that she and Becky were going to climb this tower.

In the meantime, the movie depicts the dangers of being stranded in a remote area without enough food and water. And, as expected in a movie titled “Fall,” there are plenty of scenes that are meant to give the feeling of vertigo to anyone watching. Hunter and Becky come up with some ideas to try to get help, but there are some setbacks when they try these ideas.

When “Fall” tends to get repetitive and the pacing gets a little sluggish, what makes the movie worth watching are the believable performances by Currey and Gardner as estranged friends who share a tragedy and whose attempt to reconnect goes terribly wrong in many ways. No one is going to get nominated for any major awards for “Fall,” but the cast members are convincing in the roles that they perform for this movie. “Fall” also shows in effective ways that the movie isn’t only about conquering a fear of heights but also about conquering a fear of heartbreak.

Lionsgate released “Fall” in U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022.

Review: ‘Aftershock’ (2022), starring Shawnee Benton Gibson, Omari Maynard, Bruce McIntyre, Helena Grant, Neel Shah, Felicia Ellis and Paul Ellis

September 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Shawnee Benton Gibson and Bruce McIntyre in “Aftershock” (Photo by Kerwin Devonish/Hulu)

“Aftershock” (2022)

Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, Boston, Houston and Tulsa, Oklahoma, the documentary film “Aftershock,” which was filmed from 2019 to 2021, features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and a few Asians) talking about the systemic racism in U.S. maternal health care that results in a disproportinately high death rate of African American women who died from childbirth or complications from childbirth.

Culture Clash: Family members of African American women who died in hospitals during childbirth have become activists to try to end systemic racism in maternal health care, but they face uphill battles and resistance from people who want to enable or deny this racism.

Culture Audience: “Aftershock” will appeal mainly to people who are interested seeing true stories about how race relations and social classes affect the type of health care that people get in the United States.

Shawnee Benton Gibson, Omari Maynard and Khari Maynard in “Aftershock” (Photo by Kerwin Devonish/Hulu)

“Aftershock” is a disturbing but necessary documentary to watch for a reality check about how systemic racism in the U.S. health care system has resulted in black women dying after childbirth at disproportionately higher rates than other races. The film isn’t just about spouting statistics and facts, although that important information is included. What will emotionally resonate with viewers the most are the stories of real people whose lives have been permanently changed by these medical injustices.

Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, “Aftershock” is a no-frills documentary that thankfully isn’t overstuffed with too many talking heads. “Aftershock” (which is Lewis Lee’s feature-film directorial debut) had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where “Aftershock” won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award called Impact for Change. “Aftershock,” which is filmed and edited clearly and concisely, is certainly the type of documentary that will motivate people to want improvements in the U.S. medical care system.

“Aftershock” essentially tells three main stories of African American people who’ve been affected by maternity health care in the United States. Two of the stories are about two families coping with the deaths of a woman in their family who died after childbirth. The third story is about a married couple who have to decide if the pregnant wife will give birth in a hospital or opt for an alternative location. Meanwhile, some experts and activists weigh in with their perspectives and sharing of information.

One of the documentary’s main stories is about the aftermath of the October 2019 death of 30-year-old Shamony Gibson, who died in New York City from pulmonary embolism (blood clotting in the lungs), 13 days after giving birth by C-section to her second child, a son named Khari. “Aftershock” shows how Gibson’s mother Shawnee Benton Gibson and Gibson’s partner Omari Maynard (the father of Khari) became activists as a result of Gibson’s death, which they believe could have been prevented if she received adequate medical care from the medical professionals who knew about her blood clot symptoms.

Before she died, Gibson had been suffering from shortness of breath and chest pains, which are two symptoms of pulmonary embolism. Gibson’s reported these health problems to medical professionals, who dismissed her concerns and told her that she just needed to rest more. According to Gibson’s family, she also was repeatedly asked by medical professionals, “Are you on drugs?”

Gibson was not using drugs, and the medical people were repeatedly told that information, but they didn’t seem to believe it, because they kept asking the same question. The family members believe that the medical people who repeatedly asked this “Are you on drugs?” question would not have been so stubborn in assuming that Gibson was a drug user if Gibson were a white person. They also believe that medical professionals would not have been so quick to dismiss Gibson’s health problems if she were white.

Unfortunately, the hospital where Gibson was taken was underfunded and understaffed. According to Gibson’s family (including her sister Jasmine Gibson, who is interviewed in “Aftershock”), Gibson was taken to the emergency room, where she had to wait 12 hours before getting medical treatment. By then, it was too late. She died at the hospital.

In “Aftershock,” Benton Gibson says that she worked at the hospital as a loyal employee for 25 years and never thought that the hospital would play a role in her daughter’s death. It was a rude and tragic awakening that fuels a lot of Benton Gibson’s activism. One of her biggest messages, particularly to Black women who give birth, is to not be fooled into thinking that what happed to her daughter can’t happen to them.

Another documentary story is about what happened after the April 2020 death of 26-year-old Amber Rose Isaac, who passed away after having a C-section at Montefiore Hospital in New York City’s Bronx borough. Isaac’s son, Elias Isaac McIntyre, survived the C-section, but Isaac did not. Bruce McIntyre (Elias’ father) eventually met Maynard, and they formed a support group for single fathers whose partners died from maternity health care that’s believed to be inadequate and rooted in racism.

While in the hospital for the childbirth, Isaac was diagnosed with HELLP (Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes and Low Platelets) syndrome, a pregnancy complication that affects the blood and liver. Isaac’s family members believe medical negligence caused Isaac’s death and are suing Montefiore Hospital with this claim. The plaintiffs’ lawsuit contends that Isaac could have been diagnosed with HELLP syndrome long before she was in the hospital to give birth. Isaac’s family also believes that Isaac would have received better medical attention if she were white.

The third main story in “Aftershock” follows married couple Felicia Ellis and Paul Ellis as they prepare for the birth of their first child in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Felicia and Paul know about the horror stories about black women (especially low-income black women) getting treated as inferior in the U.S. health care system, compared to women of other races. The documentary shows Felicia and Paul being wary of Felicia going to a hospital for the birth of their child and looking into the birth center Breathe Birth and Wellness as an alternative. The documentary includes footage of Felicia giving birth.

It would be very easy for skeptics to say that people are just being paranoid when it’s pointed out that racism exists in the U.S. health care system. However, plenty of statistics from independent reports back up the racism claims. “Aftershock” has those statistics, which are also publicly available to anyone who wants to find them.

One of the alarming trends is that childbearing black women in the U.S. are more likely than childbearing women of other races to be told that they need a C-section when giving birth. C-sections take less time than vaginal births, but because C-sections are surgeries, women giving birth are more likely to die fom C-sections than from vaginal births. In addition, “Aftershock” points out the cold, hard fact that hospitals get more money from C-sections than they do from vaginal births.

Helena Grant, director of Midwifery at Woodhull Medical Center (a public health facility in New York City), comments in the documentary: “Very early on in my career, black women were used as guinea pigs.” Grant, who is also a certified nurse-midwife (CNM), mentions that people training in obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN) in the U.S. usually do their training in hospitals and clinics in low-income communities, which are often largely populated by people of color. These inexperienced OB-GYN professionals are more likely to be the lowest-paid in the OB-GYN field and most likely to make mistakes. And guess who suffers the most as a result?

Multiple people in the documentary mention that Black women are at the most risk of getting the worst maternity health care in the U.S. because of attitudes that still linger from the enslavement of black people in America. Enslaved black women were considered “property,” not human beings, and therefore were not given the health care that people who were not enslaved were entitled to get. There’s also a persistent misconception, stemming from America’s shameful slavery history, that black women are more tolerant of physical pain than women of other races.

“Aftershock” also mentions how patriarchal and sexist attitudes changed practices of assisting during childbirth. Before the 20th century, midwives and home births used to be more common in the U.S. than they are now. During the years when slavery was legal in the U.S., enslaved black women were often the midwives for the white families who enslaved them.

When men wanted to take over the practice of assisting during childbirth and make money from it, the OB-GYN profession was born in the 1700s. In the OB-GYN profession’s earliest years in the U.S., the profession was open only to people who had access to a getting a medical degree, which usually meant white men only. And although medical schools in the U.S. can now enroll people of all races and genders, to this day, most OB-GYN doctors in the U.S. are white men.

“Aftershock” also mentions the money-motivated campaign that began the early 1900s to get more women to go to hospitals to give birth, in order to take business away from midwives who helped women give birth in places other than hospitals. There are certainly advantages to having a doctor rather than a midwife assist in childbirth. However, “Aftershock” shows that more people are considering alternatives to giving birth in a hospital (options include licensed birth centers or home births) if they think the hospital will be giving incompetent care due to a patient’s race.

Neel Shah, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School, comments: “I think the well-being of moms is the bellwether for the well-being of society in general. That’s why every injustice in society shows up in maternal health care.” Shah also notes that it wasn’t until 2018 that the U.S. federal government began tracking maternal health trends. Many racial disparities can be found in these trend reports.

“Aftershock” includes footage of Shah leading an OB-GYN seminar, with McIntyre as a guest speaker. The seminar’s students (who are mostly women of various races) are visibily moved by McIntyre’s story and seem to have learned a lot from his personal account of how racism can affect the health care that someone can get. One of the students speaks to McIntyre after his talk and says to him that she had heard about Isaac’s death on Twitter, but it made a difference to see firsthand how her death affected someone in Isaac’s family.

“Aftershock” also has powerful moments of Benton Gibson, Maynard and McIntyre doing activism work to try to raise awareness about racism in maternity health care and to pass better laws about maternity health care. They attend rallies and do community outreach in these endeavors. In one scene, Benton Gibson passionately testifies during a New York City Council hearing on maternal health. New York City Council member Carolina Rivera expresses her support of Benton Gibson during this hearing.

In New York City’s Brooklyn borough Maynard and McIntyre choose Weeksville Heritage Center as a meeting place for other single fathers who have experienced similar tragic losses of their partners who died from childbirth-related deaths. Maynard says of this meeting place: “I want to create a space where we can star to try to change policy, where we can have hundreds of thousands of people backing what we’re saying, because that’s the only way it works.”

Maynard, who is an artist who paints portraits, also began painting portraits of other women of color who died as a result of inadequate maternity health care. Maynard has met many of these women’s families through his advoacy/activist work, and he gives these portraits as gifts to the surviving family members. In one of the documentary’s emotionally potent scenes, Maynard gives a portrait of the late Maria Corona to her surviving partner Sam Volrie Jr., who is moved to tears by this gift.

Other people featured in the documentary include registered nurse Giselle Chebny; certfied nurse-midwife Regina Kizer; and Tulsa Birth Equity Initiative executive director LaBrisa Williams; and doulas Nubia Martin, Ashlee Wilson and Myla Flores. Toward the end of the documentary, Maynard and McIntyre are shown making plans to eventually open birth center in the Bronx, with the intention to help low-income pregnant women in particular, since these low-income women are less likely to get the proper medical care that they need.

“Aftershock” is not propaganda for birthing centers, nor is it a sweeping and unfair condemnation of all hospitals and OB-GYN medical professionals. However, the documentary does a very good job at sounding the alarm that pregnant black women in America are more likely to die from inadequate or incompetent medical care than pregnant women of other races. “Aftershock” is an effective presentation of facts and human stories to serve as a reminder that this problem is not just a concern for people of color but for all people who are against racism.

Hulu premiered “Aftershock” and released the movie in select U.S. cinemas on July 19, 2022.

Review: ‘Sniper: The White Raven’ starring Aldoshyn Pavlo

September 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Aldoshyn Pavlo in “Sniper: The White Raven” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Sniper: The White Raven”

Directed by Marian Bushan

Ukrainian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Donbas region of the Ukraine from 2014 to 2022, the dramatic film “Sniper: The White Raven,” which is based on real events, features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After his pregnant wife is murdered by invading Russian soldiers, a former pacifist Mykola Voronin joins a paramilitary group, where he becomes an expert sniper fighting against invading Russians.

Culture Audience: “Sniper: The White Raven” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in seeing war movies that are set in the Ukraine, but this movie quickly becomes tedious and formulaic.

Aldoshyn Pavlo (pictured at far left) in “Sniper: The White Raven” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

There’s no other way to say it: “Sniper: The White Raven,” which takes place Ukraine’s Donbas conflict from 2014 to 2022, is one of the dullest war movies you’ll ever see. The movie becomes cliché-ridden, with acting as hollow and action as trite as anything in a shoddy video game. “Sniper: The White Raven” is based on the real-life story of Ukrainian sniper Mykola Voronin, whose life is a lot more interesting that what this snoozefest of a movie portrays.

Directed by Marian Bushan (who co-wrote the “Sniper: White Raven” screenplay with Voronin), “Sniper: The White Raven” starts out promising when it shows Mykola Voronenko (played by Aldoshyn Pavlo), before his life was turned upside down by a horrific tragedy. In the beginning of the movie, it’s 2014 in the Ukraine region of Donbas. Mykola is a physics teacher and ecologist who is living a lifestyle that’s very different from his peers: Mykola and his wife Nastya (played by Maryna Koshkina) have decided to live in a solar-energy house in an isolated field. Mykola and Nastya call themselves “eco settlers”: people who live off of the land in fully sustainable lifestyles, without using any fuel or electricity.

This lifestyle is unusual enough that Mykola and Nastya are interviewed about it on the local news. Mykola comments on his eco settler lifestyle: “We have a chance to save the planet and save ourselves.” Nastya is pregnant with the couple’s first child. In a TV interview, Mykola and Nastya say that they plan to raise their child in this eco settler lifestyle. Mykola gets some teasing about his lifestyle from some of his work colleagues, who think he’s a little weird. Mykola is also a staunch pacifist when this story begins.

“Sniper: The White Raven” gets its title from a scene early in the movie, when Mykola talks about an ancient legend about a white raven. The raven created the world out of darkness, by waving its wings. The world was a black ocean with a shore that soon became inhabited by people. The raven felt pity for the humans and turned the ocean’s salt water into fresh water and food. But in return, the raven had to sacrifice its white feathers.

Trouble is brewing in the Ukraine in 2014. Mykola sees a TV news report that Vicktor Yanukovych, who was Ukraine’s president since 2010, refused to sign an agreeement with the European Union that would “set a course for improving relations with Russia.” Yanukobyen exited his commander-in-chief position, leaving Ukraine vulnerable to a Russian invasion. It’s a fate that happened to Crimean Peninsula, which Russia invaded and then annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.

When the Russians invade Ukraine, it hits Mykola in one of the most brutal ways possible. He races home on his bicycle to find two Russian soldiers who are holding Nastya hostage on the property. The invaders physically assault Mykola and Nastya, who beg for Nastya to spared, in order to save the life of their unborn child. The soldiers ignore their pleas, shoot Nastya dead, and then burn the couple’s home to the ground.

One of the soldiers also takes an illustration of a white raven in the home and burns it. This movie is not subtle at all with its heavy-handed symbolism. Mykola manages to escape this home invasion, but he is the taken by two local men to join a paramilitary group that is fighting the invading Russians. Needless to say, an embittered and angry Mykola is no longer a pacifist. He now has one goal in life, when it comes to invading Russians: “I want to drive them out of our land.”

The rest of “Sniper: The White Raven” is a tedious slog of Mykola training as a sniper and going into combat zones. This former pacifist suddenly has an extraordinary ability to use guns. His super-skills are shown in such a quick period of time, these skills look too good to be true and exaggerated for a movie. For example, soon after joining this paramilitary group, Mykola (who now goes by the name Private Raven) assembles a gun blindfolded in just 18 seconds, during one of his early training sessions.

The problem with “Sniper: The White Raven” is that after a while, all of the characters (including Mykola) are presented as killing machines, with no sense of real camaraderie between these paramilitary soldiers. Not everyone makes it out alive, but the actors in this movie’s cast aren’t convincing enough that the surviving soldiers feel any genuine loss about their fallen comrades. Expect to see a lot of dragged-out scenes of snipers just lying in wait, with their guns ready to aim, but no real action happening.

Mykola predictably has a brigade commander (played by Roman Semysal), who becomes his mentor. The brigade commander is so generic, “Sniper: White Raven” never even bothered to give this character a name. By the end of this forgettable film, you probably won’t remember much about any of the supporting characters. And when a war combat movie doesn’t make the people in combat worth remembering, that’s always a sign of a lousy war movie.

Well Go USA released “Sniper: The White Raven” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 1, 2022. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 13, 2022.

2022 Toronto International Film Festival Awards: winners announced

September 18, 2022

The following is a press release from the Toronto International Film Festival:

The Toronto International Film Festival has announced its award recipients for the 47th edition of the Festival, which concluded last evening with the Closing Night screening of Mary Harron’s Dalíland at the Visa Screening Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall.

“2022 brought an exceptional selection of films that excited festival audiences around the world,” said Cameron Bailey, TIFF CEO. “Our lineup showcased beloved auteurs alongside fresh voices in filmmaking, including numerous women powerhouses. TIFF welcomed guests, press, industry, international stars, and directors back to the city and into cinemas. The sweeping range in cinematic storytelling from around the world is a testament to the uniqueness of the films that are being made. We’re so grateful and proud of this year’s Festival.”


For the 45th year, the People’s Choice Awards distinguish the audience’s top title at the Festival as voted by the viewing public. All films in TIFF’s Official Selection were eligible.

TIFF 2022 People’s Choice Award winner is
The Fabelmans
dir. Steven Spielberg

The first runner-up is Women Talking dir. Sarah Polley
The second runner-up is Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery dir. Rian Johnson

TIFF 2022 People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award winner
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story
dir. Eric Appel

The first runner-up is Pearl dir. Ti West
The second runner-up is The Blackening dir. Tim Story

TIFF 2022 People’s Choice Documentary Award winner
Black Ice
dir. Hubert Davis

The first runner-up is Maya and the Wave dir. Stephanie Johnes
The second runner-up is 752 is not a Number dir. Babak Payami


The 2022 IMDbPro Short Cuts Awards are for Best Film, Best Canadian Film, and the Share Her Journey Award for best film by a woman. Each winning film will receive a bursary of $10,000 CAD and a one-year membership to IMDbPro, the essential resource for entertainment industry professionals, to help them continue achieving success in their careers. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, IMDbPro empowers entertainment professionals to discover new talent and projects and has an ongoing commitment to supporting and collaboratively working with organizations that create greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in the entertainment industry, including TIFF’s Share Her Journey campaign. IMDbPro also supported the TIFF Tribute Award for Performance presented by IMDbPro, which was presented to Brendan Fraser for his outstanding performance in The Whale at the TIFF Tribute Awards gala fundraiser on September 11, 2022.

“As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of IMDbPro, we are honoured to present four TIFF Awards that so perfectly align with our mission to help entertainment industry professionals launch and grow their careers and our commitment to highlighting diverse artists and inclusive storytelling,” said Col Needham, Founder & CEO of IMDb. “We congratulate these Award recipients and all professionals whose work was featured at TIFF, and look forward to watching their careers continue to grow following this breakthrough moment.”

The winners of the three awards are:

IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Film:
Snow in September
dir. Lkhagvadulam (Dulmaa) Purev-Ochir

Jury’s statement: “Told through a bold and sophisticated lens, this tense yet poignant portrayal follows a young man’s shift from wide-eyed boy to yearning pursuer. The jury is pleased to present the IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Short Film to Snow in September directed by Mongolia’s Lkhagvadulam (Dulmaa) Purev-Ochir.”

Honourable Mention:
For its wildly entertaining and incredibly realized portrait of a flight attendant’s personal crisis, the jury is very pleased to present an honourable mention for the IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Short Film to Airhostess-737 by director Thanasis Neofotistos. Centred on Lena Papaligoura’s impressive performance, the film is an unhinged, compelling, and memorable tragicomedy.

IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Film:
dir. Aziz Zoromba
Jury’s statement: “Featuring convincing, natural performances and tight direction, the film astutely plays off of narrative conventions to deliver an unexpectedly tender take on growing up in an all-male immigrant family. The jury is delighted to give the IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Short to Aziz Zoromba for Simo.”

Honourable Mention:
For its intensely taut and pulsating tale following an aging delivery driver’s movement through a gritty, desperate night in the city, the jury is pleased to present an honourable mention for the IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Film to Same Old by director Lloyd Lee Choi.

IMDbPro Short Cuts Share Her Journey Award:
dir. Carol Nguyen (2022 TIFF Filmmaker Lab)
Jury’s statement: “With skill, precision, and sensitivity, this film stood out for its delicate and assured portrayal of love and sacrifice within a multi-generational household. The jury is thrilled to give the IMDbPro Short Cuts Share Her Journey Award to Carol Nguyen for Nanitic.”

The 2022 jurors for the IMDbPro Short Cuts Awards are Sally Lee, Thyrone Tommy, and Lisa Haller.


The 2022 NETPAC jury members include: Ida Yoshinaga and Diana Ashimova. TIFF is delighted to announce that the 2022 NETPAC Jury has selected Sweet As, dir. Jub Clerc as this year’s NETPAC winner.

The 2022 NETPAC jury released the following statement: “A model road film in all aspects with great locations and a strong cast, Jub Clerc’s Sweet As convincingly tells the story of an Indigenous girl on a youth-therapy bus tour — dealing with family, friendship, inspiration and self-identity.”


The 2022 FIPRESCI jury members include: Andrew Kendall, Marriska Fernandes, Márcio Sallem, Andrea Crozzoli, and Max Borg. The jury is delighted to announce Basil Khalil’s A Gaza Weekend as this year’s FIPRESCI winner.

The 2022 FIPRESCI jury released the following statement: “For its empathy and intelligence in capturing the zeitgeist, and with its daring approach to contemporary satire and world cinema, we award Basil Khalil’s A Gaza Weekend the 2022 FIPRESCI Prize. Basil Khalil’s direction finds space for the more sorrowful, more tender moments of interpersonal crises even as he deftly escalates the bawdy humour on display, capturing the nature of survival as very serious and very funny business for these characters.”


Canada Goose embraces diversity in all its forms and definitions, including technique and passion that transports storytelling to the screen. This year, Canada Goose presents the Amplify Voices Awards to the three best feature films by under-represented filmmakers. All feature films in Official Selection by emerging filmmakers who are Black or Indigenous or persons of colour and Canadian, were eligible for these awards, and the three winners will receive a cash prize of $10,000 each, made possible by Canada Goose.

The three Amplify Voices Awards presented by Canada Goose winners are:

Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature Film:
To Kill a Tiger
dir. Nisha Pahuja
Jury’s statement: “It’s not easy to film love. In Nisha Pahuja’s To Kill a Tiger, a father defends his daughter, and together they change a village, a country and, maybe, the world.”

Special Mention for Best Canadian Feature Film:
dir. Stéphane Lafleur
Jury’s statement: “The jury would like to acknowledge Stéphane Lafleur’s brilliant satire, Viking, exploring the intersection of technology and ego.”

Amplify Voices Award:
Leonor Will Never Die
dir. Martika Ramirez Escobar
Jury’s statement: “Leonor Will Never Die, for its original voice, made by a fearless filmmaker who knows how to bring the fun and an incredible lead performance. This film is truly one of one.”

Amplify Voices Award:
While We Watched
dir. Vinay Shukla
Jury’s statement: “While We Watched is a compelling, urgent film that collapses our differences. It is a wake-up call to how perilous and fragile the relationship between a free press and democracy is everywhere.”

Special Mention for Best Feature from an Emerging BIPOC Filmmaker:
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On
dir. Madison Thomas
Jury’s statement: The jury would also like to give special mention to Madison Thomas’s Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, because “everyone should know about Buffy Sainte-Marie.”

The 2022 jurors for the Amplify Voices Awards presented by Canada Goose are Ann Marie Fleming, Anne Emond, Nathan Morlando, Jennifer Holness, Albert Shin, and Luisa Alvarez Restrepo.


Presented by the Shawn Mendes Foundation, the 2022 Changemaker Award is awarded to a Festival film that tackles issues of social change, and comes with a $10,000 cash prize. The winning film was selected by TIFF’s Next Wave Committee, a group of young film lovers who recognize cinema’s power to transform the world. The Shawn Mendes Foundation will also be making an annual contribution in support of TIFF Next Wave, helping TIFF deliver key initiatives to elevate young voices.

The 2022 jurors for the Changemaker Award are members of TIFF’s Next Wave Committee: Naiya Forrester, Arjun Persaud, Norah Daudi, Honora Murphy, Ellie Tripp, Celina Tang, Simona Williams, Faven Tesfamichael, Tara Sidhu, Keertan Somasundaram, Maggie Kane, and Dev Desai.

The 2022 Changemaker Award is presented to Luis De Filippis’ Something You Said Last Night. Director De Filippis (2018 TIFF Filmmaker Lab, 2020 TIFF Talent Accelerator) offered this statement: “It is an honour to have Something You Said Last Night be acknowledged by the next generation of filmmakers. Thank you to the Next Wave Committee for seeing this story. I am so excited to watch you lead our industry in the coming years. Thank you to the team behind this film who supported, and believed, and put their all into it, even on the bad days — which there were a few. It’s hard not to ignore the building tide of new voices this year at TIFF, and I am so happy to see our stories finally being told and celebrated — a new wave is coming.”

TIFF’s Next Wave Committee provided this statement: “The TIFF Next Wave Committee announces Luis De Filippis as the 2022 Shawn Mendes Foundation Changemaker Award recipient for her debut feature Something You Said Last Night, an honest, immersive, and intensely relatable portrayal of an Italian Canadian family on a summer vacation. Ren (Carmen Madonia, 2022 TIFF Rising Stars) is a character unlike any other we’ve seen. She is talented, she is struggling, she is flawed, she is loved, she is passionate, and she is accepted. She is all of these things, and she is also a young trans woman finding her place in the world. Created with queer and trans creators in front and behind the camera, Something You Said Last Night finds its power in the complex, imperfect truth of humans and our relationships with family. With her film, Luis De Filippis is changing the game — giving a voice to trans people along the way, and creating a future where queer representation exists beyond the one-dimensional stories and characters we’ve seen over and over again. We hope the visibility and recognition of this award will help more young people see and be inspired by the film like we were, and support De Filippis in her development and journey as a filmmaker.”


Named after Jia Zhang-ke’s trailblazing second feature, Platform is the Toronto International Film Festival’s competitive programme championing bold directorial visions. Platform was curated by Anita Lee, Chief Programming Officer; and Robyn Citizen, Director, Festival Programming and TIFF Cinematheque. The Platform Prize Jury members for 2022 are Patricia Rozema (Jury Chair), Iram Haq, and Chaitanya Tamhane and they are delighted to announce that their selection is Riceboy Sleeps, dir. Anthony Shim.

The Platform jury provided this statement: “The 2022 TIFF Platform Jury announces the unanimous choice for the Platform Prize — Riceboy Sleeps, written and directed by Anthony Shim for its deeply moving story and precisely-observed characters as they navigate racism, dislocation, family, and love. It balances social realism with pure poetry. Plus, it’s very funny. The leads Choi Seung-yoon (2022 TIFF Rising Stars), Ethan Hwang, and Dohyun Noel Hwang deserve top honours. Riceboy Sleeps touches on, in a most accessible way, some of humanity’s biggest challenges — how to merge cultures without erasing individuals, how to grow up whole in fragmented families, and how to defend ourselves from internalizing the subtle and not so subtle discriminations of the privileged.”

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About TIFF
TIFF is a not-for-profit cultural organization whose mission is to transform the way people see the world through film. An international leader in film culture, TIFF projects include the annual Toronto International Film Festival in September; TIFF Bell Lightbox, which features five cinemas, learning and entertainment facilities; and innovative national distribution program Film Circuit. The organization generates an annual economic impact of $200 million CAD. TIFF Bell Lightbox is generously supported by contributors including Founding Sponsor Bell, the Province of Ontario, the Government of Canada, the City of Toronto, the Reitman family (Ivan Reitman, Agi Mandel and Susan Michaels), The Daniels Corporation and RBC. For more information, visit

TIFF is generously supported by Lead Sponsor Bell, Major Sponsors RBC, Visa and BVLGARI and Major Supporters the Government of Canada, the Government of Ontario, Telefilm Canada, and the City of Toronto.

TIFF is grateful for the generous support of the 2022 festival from the Government of Canada through FedDev Ontario and Telefilm Canada.

TIFF is grateful to Canada Goose for their generous support of the Amplify Voices Awards.TIFF is grateful to IMDbPro for their generous support of IMDbPro Short Cuts Awards for Best Film, Best Canadian Film, and the Share Her Journey Award for best film by a woman.TIFF Short Cuts Programme is made possible through the generous sponsorship of TikTok, and supported by the Ontario Arts Council and the City of Toronto.

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