Review: ‘Monica’ (2023), starring Trace Lysette, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Browning, Joshua Close and Adriana Barraza

August 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Trace Lysette in “Monica” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Monica” (2023)

Directed by Andrea Pallaoro

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

Culture Clash: A transgender woman takes a road trip for a reunion with her family, including her estranged mother, who has a hard time accepting her daughter’s transgender identity.

Culture Audience: “Monica” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in a relatively low-key drama about family issues that are often experienced by transgender people.

“Monica” cast members. Pictured in back row, from left to right: Joshua Close, Brennan or Leland Pittman, Emily Browning and Trace Lysette. Pictured in front row, from left to right: Ruby James Fraser, Graham Caldwell and Patricia Clarkson. (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The “slice of life” film “Monica” offers a glimpse into what it’s like for a transgender woman to reveal her transgender self for the first time to members of her family. Trace Lysette gives a magnetic performance in a film that is sometimes limited by mundane scenes. A lot of credit should be given to this drama for not going down a stereotypical path of setting up a deadly tragedy for the transgender protagonist.

Directed by Andrea Pallaoro (who co-wrote the “Monica” screenplay with Orlando Tirado), “Monica” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. The film often moves along at a sluggish pace, but for viewers who have the patience for a deliberately introspective film that has several moments of emotional authenticity, then “Monica” is worth watching. A less talented cast would have lowered the quality of this movie.

Many scripted dramas about transgender people often make them tragic figures, but “Monica” does not pander to those clichés. It also doesn’t make a transgender person’s life look easy either. In “Monica,” Lysette (who is a transgender woman in real life) portrays the title character, who is seen taking a road trip from California to her family hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. (The movie was filmed on location in Cincinnati.)

Monica’s purpose for the road trip is to see her immediate family and reveal her transgender self for the first time to them. Monica has not seen these family in members in “a long time,” which isn’t specifically defined in the number of years, but viewers can assume it’s been several years. Very little is told about Monica’s past until near the end of film, although it’s fairly obvious that she’s apprehensive about taking this trip.

Before and during the trip, Monica is seen leaving voice mail messages to a man named Jimmy. However, Jimmy doesn’t seem to be interested in being in contact with her. In the movie’s opening scene, Monica is seen telling Jimmy in a voice mail: “Jimmy, I know you said you wanted some space, but I don’t mean to pressure you … I miss you a lot and just wanted to talk to you about a few things. Give me a call. I love you very much.”

Monica tells Jimmy in the messages that she’s taking a road trip and should arrive at her destination in “a couple of days.” Monica continues to leave messages for Jimmy and occasionally says she knows that he told her not to call, but that she needs to talk to someone. In other words, this movie makes it obvious that Monica is a very lonely person. Even though Monica is seen giving a massage to a naked man before she takes her trip, it’s never explicitly revealed if she’s a masseuse or a sex worker.

Not much happens while Monica is going to back to Cincinnati, so the first third of the movie tends to drag with scenes of her travels. At a gas station, Monica gets leered at by a man, who flirts with her. She politely rejects his advances. There are also some dull scenes of Monica by herself in motel rooms.

Things don’t get interesting in the movie until the family reunion. Monica’s widowed mother Eugenia (played by Patricia Clarkson) seems to have early on-set dementia. Eugenia is often bedridden and refuses to live in a hospice. Instead, Eugenia has a live-in caretaker named Leticia (played by Adriana Barraza), who is a loyal and responsible employee.

Monica’s two siblings live near Eugenia and often visit her. Monica’s brother Paul (played by Joshua Close) is a bachelor with no children. Monica’s sister Laura (played by Emily Browning) is a married mother of three children: 7-year-old son Brody (played by Graham Caldwell); daughter Britney (played by Ruby James Fraser), who’s about 5 years old; and an infant son named Benny (played by twins Brennan Pittman and Leland Pittman). Laura’s husband is not seen in the movie, because Laura says that she and her husband have been going through “a rough patch” in their marriage.

Laura and Paul do the best that they can to accept Monica’s transgender identity and don’t cause any problems for her about it. Eugenia is the one in the family who has the most resistance and discomfort about accepting Monica for who she is. The mother/daughter relationship is the emotional core of the movie, which shows how Monica and Eugenia try to navigate Eugenia’s struggle with Monica’s identity. Clarkson gives a very layered performance, as someone who has an internal struggle with her memory and reality.

“Monica” realistically doesn’t try to wrap everything in an “only in a movie” package. There are moments—thanks to the admirable acting from the cast members—where things are left unsaid, but the characters say a lot with their body language and facial expressions. Monica’s family members don’t express emotions easily, but underneath any pain or confusion, there is still love. “Monica” probably won’t be considered a classic movie about transgender identity, but it has a credible approach to portraying sensitive issues that don’t always have easy answers or expected results.

IFC Films released “Monica” in select U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on May 30, 2023.

Review: ‘Blue Beetle,’ starring Xolo Maridueña, Adriana Barraza, Damían Alcázar, Raoul Max Trujillo, Susan Sarandon and George Lopez

August 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Xolo Maridueña in “Blue Beetle” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics)

“Blue Beetle”

Directed by Ángel Manuel Soto

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional U.S. city of Palmera City, the sci-fi/fantasy/action film “Blue Beetle” (based on the DC Comics character) features a Latin and white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Recent college graduate Jaime Reyes has his body invaded by a super-powered beetle scarab, and he becomes the superhero Blue Beetle, battling his evil former boss who wants the scarab to create an oppressive army of robotic enforcers.

Culture Audience: “Blue Beetle” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of superhero movies, the film’s headliners and adventurous stories about underrepresented people who are the stories’ protagonists.

Elpidia Carrillo, George Lopez, Xolo Maridueña, Belissa Escobedo and Damián Alcázar in “Bue Beetle” (Photo by Hopper Stone/Warnet Bros. Pictures)

“Blue Beetle” sometimes gets trapped in a familiar superhero formula, but the movie’s comedic charm, rollicking style and authentic chemistry among the cast members are a winning combination. As an origin story, “Blue Beetle” won’t rank among the very best for superhero movies based on DC Comics, because there are a few too many superhero movie stereotypes in “Blue Beetle’s” action scenes. However, “Blue Beetle” has enough uniqueness and charisma in its characters that will give this movie a loyal fan base.

Directed by Ángel Manuel Soto and written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, “Blue Beetle” tells the story of 22-year-old Jaime Reyes (played by Xolo Maridueña), an optimistic recent college graduate who has returned to his hometown of Palmera City, a fictional U.S. city based partially on El Paso Texas. DC Comics’ “Blue Beetle” stories have more than one person who is the character of Blue Beetle: archaeologist Dan Garrett (a character that debuted in 1939); inventor Ted Kord (debuted in 1966); and Jaime Reyes (debuted in 2006), a Mexican American who lives in El Paso.

In the “Blue Beetle” movie, Jaime (who is the first person in his family to graduate from college) has come back home to live in a family household that is going through some drastic changes. Jaime lives with his supportive parents Alberto Reyes (played by Damían Alcázar) and Rocio Reyes (played by Elpidia Carrillo); Alberto’s sassy mother Nana Reyes (played by Adriana Barraza); Jaime’s 17-year-old outspoken sister Milagro “Millie” Reyes (played by Belissa Escobedo); and Alberto’s eccentric brother Rudy Reyes (played by George Lopez).

Soon after arriving home, Jaime finds out that the family will be moving out of the house in the near future because the family can no longer afford the house rent, which has “tripled” due to gentrification. The family’s auto body shop is going out of business. Alberto is also recovering from a recent heart attack. Jaime is shocked to hear this news and asks why his family didn’t tell him sooner. They say it’s because they didn’t want anything to distract Jaime from his studies at school.

Jaime is hopeful that his college degree will help him get a job that pays enough to get the family out of these financial problems. He’s also hoping to go to law school someday. “I’ll get the money to save this place,” Jaime confidently tells Milagro. She isn’t so sure this goal will be as easy as Jaime thinks it will be. In the meantime, Jaime and Milagro work in sanitation and groundskeeping at Kord Industries, a massively successful technology corporation whose specialty is security.

The leader of Kord Industries is the ruthless and cruel Victoria Kord (played by Susan Sarandon), who took over the company after her brother Ted Kord disappeared. Ted inherited the company from his father. Victoria is still bitter and jealous that Ted got this inheritance. The opening scene of “Blue Beetle” shows Victoria and some of her minions discovering something near an asteroid that has fallen on Earth. Victoria gleefully says, “I’ve been looking for this for 15 years!”

Viewers later see that what they found is a blue beetle (about the size of a hand) called the Scarab, which has extraordinary powers and a mind of its own. Victoria wants the Scarab for a new Kord Industries invention: One Man Army Corps, a group of super-powered robots described as “the future of private policing.” Victoria’s brooding, hulking henchman named Conrad Carpax (played by Raoul Max Trujillo) is her most-trusted right-hand man to do her dirty work. Victoria’s leading scientist who works for her is Dr. Sanchez (played by Harvey Guillén), a long-suffering employee who experiences some of Victoria’s noticeable racism.

Not everyone is happy with Victoria’s plans for One Man Army Corps. Ted’s smart and independent daughter Jenny Kord (played by Bruna Marquezine), who is in her early 20s and is originally from Brazil, is the complete opposite of Victoria, when it comes to their outlooks on life. Jenny cares about humanity, the environment, and having socially responsible and ethical business practices. Jenny suspects but can’t prove that Victoria is behind her father Ted’s disappearance. (Jenny’s mother died years ago.)

Over the course of the movie, Jenny and Victoria clash in a number of ways. Anything that Victoria wants to do, Jenny wants to dismantle. Jenny isn’t afraid to openly defy her domineering aunt, who becomes infuriated and vengeful when she sees how far Jenny is willing to go to stop Victoria from Victoria’s nefarious plans. Early on in the movie, Victoria snarls to Jenny: “You are nothing to this company. You are a brat … Your father abandoned this company, and he abandoned me.

At first, Jaime is eager to impress Victoria. When Jaime sees Victoria on the company property, he tries to get her attention, but Victoria doesn’t even notice Jaime and other low-paid workers at the company. Milagro is with Jaime when he tries and fails to get Victoria’s attention. Milagro comments to Jaime: “We’re invisible to people like that.”

It isn’t long before Jaime and Jenny meet when Jenny is at Kord Industries headquarters. Jaime’s attraction to her is immediate. Jenny plays it cool, but it’s obvious that she will be Jaime’s love interest. Perpetually skeptical Milagro thinks that Jenny is out of Jaime’s league and tells Jaime, Milagro assumes that Jenny is just another spoiled rich kid who wouldn’t want to associate with people in the Reyes family. Through a series of events, Jaime will cross paths with Jenny until they both find out that they have a common goal.

Jaime and Milagro get fired after Jaime tries to defend Jenny during an argument between Jenny and Victoria. Later, Jenny (disguised as a Kord Industries lab worker) steals a security key card to gain entrance to the lab where the Scarab is being secretly kept. Jenny then takes the Scarab, which she knows Victoria needs to make the One Man Army Corps. However, Dr. Sanchez (who was not in the lab during this theft) comes back and sees the Scarab has been stolen and quickly gives a security breach alert.

The Kord Industries building goes on a security lockdown, but Jenny quickly gives the Scarab (which is in a box) to an unwitting Jaime, who is headed for the exit with other visitors, who have been told to evacuate the building. Jenny tells Jaime that what’s in the box is an important secret, and she warns him not to open the box. But, of course, as shown in the “Blue Beetle” trailers, Jaime opens the box when he’s at home with his family.

The Scarab enters Jaime’s body (painfully), and he becomes the Blue Beetle, a superhero with physical characteristics of a giant beetle and a blue superhero suit of armor. This transformation is shown in the “Blue Beetle” trailers, so there’s no mystery about it. After the Scarab melds with Jaime’s body, he can hear the voice of the Scarab as being an entity called Khaji-Da (voiced by Becky G), who gives Jaime/Blue Beetle advice on what to do when he’s in superhero mode.

The rest of “Blue Beetle” goes through a lot of over-used superhero movie motions of “we have to save the world from an evil villain.” However, thanks to engaging dialogue (some of it is hilarious, some of it is hokey) and a likable rapport between the Reyes family members, “Blue Beetle” can be very enjoyable to watch. It’s suspenseful and dramatic in all the right places.

Maridueña, who was previously best known for his supporting role as Miguel Diaz in Netflix’s “Cobra Kai” karate drama series, gives a star-making performance in “Blue Beetle.” He perfectly embodies Jaime’s amiable personality, which is a mixture of hopeful, curious and insecure about what he perceives as his shortcomings. Maridueña also adeptly handles the wide range of emotions that Jaime goes through in the movie.

It should come as no surprise that Lopez, who has a long history in comedy, gets the best and funniest lines in the movie as Uncle Rudy, who just happens to be an underappreciated tech whiz. Barraza as Jaime’s seemingly mild-mannered grandmother also has a few moments to shine in ways that aren’t too surprising, since the movie keeps dropping hints that there’s more to Nana Reyes than being a kind grandmother. Alcázar, who portrays the easygoing Alberto, has some well-acted heartfelt moments in scenes between Alberto and Jaime, who inherited is father’s positive attitude.

Victoria obviously represents corporate greed that’s out of control. Sarandon plays this villain role to the hilt, but Victoria might not impress some viewers who like superhero movies to have chief villains with superpowers. “Blue Beetle” also has some commentary and observations (but not preaching) about racism, such as a scene where Jaime goes to a Kord Industries reception area, because he has a meeting with Jenny, and the snooty receptionist (played by Brianna Lewis) automatically assumes that Jaime is a delivery person.

The visual effects in “Blue Beetle” are perfectly fine, but they’re not going to win major awards. Some of the action scenes are clumsily staged and could have been better, in terms of visual style and how events unfold in the screenplay. A mid-credits scene in “Blue Beetle” hints that a certain character will be in a “Blue Beetle” sequel, while the end-credits scene in “Blue Beetle” is a bit of fluff that has no bearing on any DC Comics movie. Overall, “Blue Beetle” is a solid superhero movie that doesn’t have a lot of originality in its “good versus evil” story, but the movie has appealing messages about family unity during tough times that can resonate with audiences of many different backgrounds.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Blue Beetle” in U.S. cinemas on August 18, 2023.

Review: ‘Bingo Hell,’ starring Adriana Barraza, L. Scott Caldwell, Richard Brake, Clayton Landey, Jonathan Medina, Bertila Damas and Grover Coulson

December 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Richard Brake in “Bingo Hell” (Photo by Brian Roedel/Amazon Content Services)

“Bingo Hell”

Directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional U.S. city of Oak Springs, the horror film “Bingo Hell” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Latino, white, African American and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A working-class city affected by gentrification gets targeted by a sinister gambling mogul, who promises to make people rich by playing bingo. 

Culture Audience: “Bingo Hell” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching horror movies that put more emphasis on campiness than being scary.

Clayton Landey, Bertila Damas, Adriana Barraza, L. Scott Caldwell and Grover Coulson in “Bingo Hell” (Photo by Brian Roedel/Amazon Content Services)

“Bingo Hell” takes a good concept for a horror movie and squanders it on a cheap-looking flick that’s short on scares and too heavy on campiness. It’s like a very inferior episode of “Tales From the Crypt” but made into a movie. Not even the charismatic talent of “Babel” Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza can save this misguided and monotonous film, because the “Bingo Hell” filmmakers make her protagonist character into a simplistic and annoying parody of a busybody senior citizen.

“Bingo Hell” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. The movie touches on issues that many underprivileged people of color face when they are priced out of neighborhoods that become gentrified. However, this social issue is flung by the wayside when the movie devolves into a predictable and dull story about a demon taking over a community, culminating in a badly staged showdown with no surprises.

Gigi Saul Guerrero directed “Bingo Hell” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Shane McKenzie and Perry Blackshear. For Hulu’s “Into the Dark” horror anthology series (another Blumhouse production), Guerrero directed and co-wrote 2019’s “Culture Shock,” which did a much better job of combining horror with socioeconomic issues of race and privilege in America. One of the worst aspects of “Bingo Hell” is the movie’s musical score, which sounds like irritating sitcom music. The score music (by Chase Horseman) is very ill-suited for a horror movie that’s supposed to be terrifying.

In “Bingo Hell,” Barraza plays a widow named Lupita, a feisty, longtime resident of the fictional U.S. city called Oak Springs. Most of Oak Springs’ residents are low-income, working-class people. Senior citizens and people of color are a large percentage of the city’s population. Lupita, who lives by herself, has been getting letters in the mail from real-estate developers asking her to sell her home, but she refuses.

As an example of how she feels about being unwilling to sell her home, an early scene in the movie shows Lupita getting one of these letters, from a company called Torregano Real Estate. She takes a lit cigar and stubs it on the letter. Lupita rants to anyone who listens that no amount of money can make her sell her home. She also doesn’t like that some of her friends have taken offers to sell their homes, and she fears that more of her neighborhood friends will also sell their homes and move away.

And if it isn’t made clear enough that Lupita hates that her neighborhood is being gentrified, when she walks down a street and sees a young hipster woman drinking coffee, Lupita deliberately bumps into the woman so that she spills the coffee. Lupita pretends to be sorry for this “accident,” but she really isn’t sorry. She has a smug grin on her face, as if she’s glad that that she caused this mishap. Lupita is a senior citizen in her 60s, but she has the emotional maturity of a 16-year-old.

Lupita is a stereotypical nosy old lady who has to be in everybody else’s business because she has too much time on her hands. One by one, she visits her four closest confidants. Yolanda (played by Bertila Demas) is a friendly owner of a hair salon, where gossipy grandmother Dolores (played by L. Scott Caldwell) is a regular customer. Just like Lupita, Dolores says she doesn’t want to sell her house.

Clarence (played by Grover Coulson) is a laid-back mechanic who’s been working on one of his vintage cars for years. He’s been working on it for so long, it’s become an inside joke among these friends. Morris (played by Clayton Landey) is a “regular guy” plumber who comes into the hair salon one day to do some pipe repairs. Morris has a crush on Yolanda. Since they are both single, there’s some flirtation between them that’s not very interesting.

The community has been talking about the mysterious death of a widower named Mario (played by David Jensen), who is shown dying in the movie’s opening scene. He is sitting at a table in his home with a crazed look on his face, as he says: “I sold the house to him. I love him.”

A sinister-sounding male voice in the distance can be heard saying, “She would be so proud,” in reference to Mario’s late wife Patricia. Mario suddenly begins gorging on bingo balls until he chokes and dies. Meanwhile, a suitcase of cash is seen nearby in the room where Mario has died. All of these are obvious clues about what’s to come later in the story.

Meanwhile, Dolores has been having some family drama at home. Her rebellious teenage grandson Caleb (played by Joshua Caleb Johnson) and Caleb’s single mother Raquel (played by Kelly Murtagh) have come to stay with Dolores because Raquel has been having financial problems. Dolores’ son is Caleb’s father, who is described in the movie as a deadbeat dad who is not involved in raising Caleb.

Raquel and Dolores frequently clash because Dolores thinks that Raquel is a terrible mother who’s too lenient with Caleb (who’s about 15 or 16), while Raquel thinks Dolores is too strict and a failure as a mother because Dolores’ son turned out to be an irresponsible person. The movie wastes a lot of time with this family squabbling. The only purpose is to show that Raquel is money-hungry but she’s too lazy to want to find a job, which is an attitude that affects her decisions later in the movie.

It’s also problematic that the one character in the movie who’s a young African American male is portrayed as someone who commits crimes. Caleb’s misdeeds include breaking into cars. It’s such a lazy and unnecessary negative stereotype that is over-used in movies and TV. This gross stereotype doesn’t accurately represent the reality that most African American teens are not troublemaking criminals.

Dolores spends a lot of time at Oak Springs Community Center East, where she and some of her friends like to play bingo. The community center is also a place for support-group meetings. Eric (played by Jonathan Medina) is a local man in his 30s who leads a support group meeting.

Lupita invites Eric to the next bingo game, but he declines, by saying: “Bingo is not my thing. Maybe in 50 years, when I’m your age.” Eric isn’t disrespectful to Lupita, because he calls Lupita and Dolores “legends” of Oak Springs. Lupita feels good enough about the community center that when she finds a $100 bill on the street (the bill is covered with a mysterious white gummy substance), she donates the $100 to the community center by dropping the bill in a donation box.

Not long after this act of generosity, a big black Cadillac shows up in town. The driver calls himself Mr. Big (played by Richard Brake), a gambling mogul who speaks in an exaggerated Southern drawl and has an evil smirk. Mr. Big has come to town because he’s opening Mr. Big’s Bingo, a gambling hall specifically for bingo games.

Mr. Big talks in the type of grandiose clichés that you might expect from a carnival huckster or an infomercial hawker. He shouts to a crowd in Oak Springs: “They say that money can’t buy happiness! I disagree! You know what kinds of people believe this nonsense? Losers! Now tell me, Oak Springs, are you losers?”

Mr. Big makes a big splash in the community by showing off his wealth and with a flashy ad campaign where he promises that people can win thousands of dollars per game at Mr. Big’s Bingo. After this bingo hall opens, people in the community who play at Mr. Big’s Bingo inevitably get greedy and competitive. Because it’s a horror movie, you know where this is going, of course.

The horror part of “Bingo Hell” is frustratingly undercut by hammy acting from Brake and the aforementioned sitcom-like musical score. Meanwhile, the characters in the movie act increasingly like caricatures, as the cast members give average or subpar performances. What started out as a promising portrait of how gentrification and greed can cause horror in a community turns into a silly gorefest with ultimately nothing meaningful to say and nothing truly frightening to show.

Prime Video premiered “Bingo Hell” on October 1, 2021.

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