Review: ‘The Idea of You,’ starring Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine

April 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine in “The Idea of You (Photo by Alisha Wetherill/Amazon Content Services)

“The Idea of You”

Directed by Michael Showalter

Culture Representation: Taking place in California and various parts of Europe, the comedy/drama film “The Idea of You” (based on the novel of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A divorced American mother, who is an art-gallery owner and who turns 40 years old in the story, has a controversial romance with a British pop star, who is 16 years younger than she is. 

Culture Audience: “The Idea of You” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and well-acted movies about romances where there’s a big age gap between the love partners.

Ella Rubin and Anne Hathaway in “The Idea of You (Photo by Alisha Wetherill/Amazon Content Services)

“The Idea of You” is utterly formulaic, but the movie benefits from Anne Hathaway’s radiant and realistic performance as a divorced mother in love with a pop star who is 16 years younger than she is. Nicholas Galitzine also shines as a charismatic charmer. One of the refreshing things about the movie is that it doesn’t try to pretend that the two lovers at the center of the story are meant to be married soul mates who will live happily ever after. This movie is a celebration of living in the moment and embracing happiness where you can find it.

Directed by Michael Showalter, “The Idea of You” is written by Showalter and Jennifer Westfeldt. The screenplay is adapted from Robinne Lee’s 2017 novel of the same name. Fans of the book might want to know that although the movie’s overall plot is the same as the book, the ending of the movie is different from the book’s ending. The tone of the movie is also more comedic than the much more serious tone of book. “The Idea of You” had its world premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

In “The Idea of You,” Solène Marchand (played by Hathaway), who turns 40 years old during this story, is the owner of a successful and progressive art gallery called Marchand Collective, in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake district. Solène is a divorced mother of a vivacious 17-year-old daughter named Izzy (played by Ella Rubin), who is in her third year at Campbell High School. Solène has primary custody of Izzy, while Solène’s ex-husband Daniel (played Reid Scott) has visitation rights. Daniel is a lawyer who is married to his second wife Eva (played by Perry Mattfeld), a lawyer who’s about 15 years younger than Daniel.

The movie begins in the spring season. Izzy and her two close teenage schoolmates—flamboyant Zeke (played by Jordan Aaron Hall) and mild-mannered Georgia (played by Mathilda Gianopoulos)—are planning to go to the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California, which is about 129 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Daniel has promised to drive Izzy and her pals to the festival and be their chaperone. During this weekend excursion while Izzy is away, Solène plans to take a camping trip by herself. Solène has friends, but her life mostly revolves around her job and Izzy.

On the day that Daniel is supposed to take Izzy, Zeke and Georgia to Coachella, Daniel finds out that he has to go to Houston on a sudden business trip. Daniel persuades a reluctant Solène to be the Coachella chaperone. Daniel already bought the festival VIP tickets, as well as a VIP meet-and-greet experience for August Moon, a superstar pop singing group performing at Coachella.

August Moon used to be Izzy’s favorite group when she was in seventh grade. Izzy feels that she now outgrown August Moon, which has a “teen idol” boy band image. Izzy is now into more “serious” music, not teenybopper pop. The fact that Daniel doesn’t know Izzy’s current taste in music (and didn’t care to find out) is an indication of how he’s out-of-touch with who Izzy currently is. By contrast, Solène knows Izzy very well because they are very close. Solène and Izzy are sometimes mistaken as sisters. Izzy is at a stage in her life when she wants to assert her independence from her parents.

At Coachella, Izzy and her pals go somewhere to see a performance, while Solène is by herself in a VIP lounge area. She asks someone where the nearest restroom is, and she’s pointed in the direction of some unmarked trailers. And here comes the “meet cute” moment. Solène accidentally goes in the trailer of Hayes Campbell (played by Galitzine), the British lead singer of August Moon.

Hayes is in the locked restroom when Solène knocks on the door, just as he is leaving the restroom. They both look startled to see each other there. Hayes doesn’t ask who Solène is and what she’s doing there. When Solène comes out of the restroom, she sees Hayes lounging right near the restroom door. She makes a snarky comment to Hayes that if he’s one of these ASMR people who likes to listen to people urinate, it’s a privacy violation. It’s Hayes informs Solène that this is his private trailer.

And when he introduces himself as Hayes Campbell from August Moon, it’s Solène’s turn to be embarrassed. She tells him that she’s at the festival with her daughter Izzy, who used to be a fan of August Moon. Hayes seems a little embarrassed to hear this information but doesn’t take it as an insult. Solène explains that Solène’s ex-husband bought August Moon meet-and-greet passes for Solène, Izzy and Izzy’s two friends, so she will probably see Hayes later. By now, it’s obvious that Hayes is attracted to Solène, and she’s feeling the same way but trying to hide it.

The conversation between Solène and Hayes is cut short because he has to go on stage soon for August Moon’s performance. August Moon is portrayed in the movie as being very much like One Direction, but with much more generic songs than One Direction. Just like One Direction, the five members of August Moon didn’t know each other before auditioning to be in the group.

But unlike One Direction, the members of August Moon don’t all come from European countries. Hayes lives in London. Hayes’ closest friend in August Moon is Oliver (played by Raymond Cham Jr.), an outgoing American. Hayes describes the other August Moon members to Solène this way: Oliver has “swagger”; Rory (played by Dakota Adan) is the “Aussie rebel”; Adrian (played by Jaiden Anthony) has a heartthrob smile; and Simon (played by Viktor White) is a “brooding poet.”

Hayes might describe Rory as the group’s heartthrob, but the reality is that Hayes is the member of August Moon who gets the most “heartthrob” attention. (Hayes is August Moon’s version of Harry Styles from One Direction.) In other words, anyone who dates Hayes will get a massive amount of scrutiny from fans and the media. You know where all of this is going, of course. Luckily for Solène, Rory was always Izzy’s favorite member of August Moon.

Solène, Izzy, Zeke and Georgia are in the audience during August Moon’s Coachella performance. Izzy and her pals are mainly there for nostalgia reasons, not because they are huge fans of the group. Hayes changes the rehearsed set by singing “Closer to You” and adding a dedication before the song by saying, “I met someone today.” Solène is close enough to the stage for Hayes to make eye contact with her and to let her know that he’s dedicating the song to her. (Galitzine does his own singing in the movie and on the soundtrack album.)

Solène is aware that most of the fans in the audience would love to have this type of attention, but she feels a mixture of embarrassment and flattery. Later at the meet-and-greet event with August Moon, Hayes flirts with Solène some more. Solène doesn’t think of it as more than harmless flirting that will go nowhere.

Shortly after her 40th birthday party (where Solène met some incompatible bachelors), she gets a surprise when Hayes shows up at her art gallery and buys everything in it. Hayes flatters Solène and continues to flirt with her. His vocabulary is pretty limited—he tells Solène, “I think you’re smart and hot”—but she finds his attention pretty irresistible. She agrees to spend time with him but says she’s not looking to “date” him.

Hayes has some time in Los Angeles before August Moon begins a European tour. Hayes and Solène go on some platonic dates, but their attraction to each other grows after they open up to each other about their personal lives. Solène, who studied art history in college, tells Hayes that she and Daniel met when she moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles because she couldn’t afford to be an artist in New York.

Solène and Daniel got married after they became parents to Izzy. Solène is candid about how she has a hard time believing in love because she thought she had a solid marriage before Daniel left her for Eva, who was a junior attorney at his law firm at the time. Solène (who is no longer in love with Daniel) was the last person in their social circle to find out about Daniel’s infidelity. Solène and Daniel got divorced about three years ago.

As for Hayes (who is an only child), he mentions that his parents split up when he was young, he was raised by his mother, and his father was mostly absent from Hayes’ life. Hayes’ mother is now remarried (Hayes doesn’t say when she got remarried), but Hayes is not close to his stepfather, whom Hayes describes as traditional and boring. Hayes doesn’t go into details about how his mother’s current marriage has affected him.

Hayes’ biological father didn’t reconnect with Hayes until after Hayes became rich and famous. Hayes has mixed feelings about his father but is open to having his father back in his life, even if it’s a troubled relationship. One of the flaws in “The Idea of You” is that there is absolutely nothing that shows how Hayes is with his family, nor does Solène seem interested in meeting any of his family members.

Hayes essentially begs Solène to go on tour with him in Europe. The tour conveniently happens during the same time that Izzy will be away at summer camp. Solène is hesitant and comes up with all types of excuses not to go on tour with Hayes. One of them is that she’s too old for him. Another is that she can’t take time off from her job. Another is that she doesn’t know if she can handle his lifestyle of intrusion by media and fans, because she is accustomed to being a private person.

But you already know the decision that Solène makes. It’s the start of a hot and heavy affair between Hayes and Solène that’s kept a secret from everyone in Solène’s life except her best friend Tracy (played by Annie Mumolo), who approves of Solène having fun with a younger man. At first, Solène and Hayes tell his entourage that she’s on the tour as Hayes’ “art consultant,” but it isn’t long before Solène and Hayes show public displays of affection with each other on the tour’s private jet and in other places.

Hayes and Solène certainly have a physical attraction to each other. Their mutual emotional attraction is also obvious. But other things in the relationship indicate trouble ahead that have nothing to do with their age differences. For starters, Solène and Hayes both have very different lifestyles and incompatible social circles. In his free time, Hayes only seems to hang out with the other members of August Moon and their groupies. Solène’s friends are mature people in her age group.

Solène and Hayes also live in two different countries. In order for the relationship to last, compromises have to be made. And when someone who isn’t rich and famous is in a relationship with someone who is rich and famous, the wealthy celebrity is usually the one whose partner ends up making the most sacrifices and compromises.

Hathaway does a very good job in expressing the nuances and inner conflicts of someone who considers herself to be an independent feminist but who is caught up in a romance where she is perceived as someone who is very much not an equal to her love partner. As for Hayes, there are hints that he’s been a promiscuous “bad boy” in his recent past, but he’s ready to settle down in a monogamous relationship. However, is Solène “the one”?

“The Idea of You” has the expected sexy scenes (there’s no nudity) of Hayes and Solène in passionate trysts, as well as glamour shots of Hayes and Solène on romantic dates. And then there are the predictable scenes of Solène getting humiliated by people who want her to feel like she’s a predatory “cougar” who’s out of her league. Solène realistically vacillates between feeling shame and feeling defiance over the 16-year age difference between her and Hayes.

However, some things in “The Idea of You” are missing and prevent this movie from looking completely authentic. Hayes and Solène are supposed to be “in love,” and Hayes makes it clear he wants a long-term relationship with Solène. However, Solène and Hayes are never seen talking about they want or don’t want for their futures, in terms of marriage and parenthood. The parenthood issue is especially time-sensitive, since Solène is getting close to the age range when women begin menopause.

It’s also glaringly obvious that Hayes and Solène don’t have much to talk about outside of a few common interests in art or entertainment. The movie shows that because their relationship started off as a secret, it was built on lies of omission that required Solène to betray the trust of her loved ones. The consequences of these lies are shown in the movie. As the character of Solène, Hathaway skillfully expresses a balancing act between Solène’s vulnerabilities and Solène’s strengths. The character of Hayes is much less layered, but that’s probably because Hayes still has some growing up to do.

“The Idea of You” allows viewers to weigh the pros and cons of this couple who have the odds stacked against them in many ways. Solène likes the idea of being “swept off her feet” by a handsome and caring heartthrob, but she also wants the freedom to make her own life decisions without being overshadowed by celebrity trappings. Hayes might not be Mr. Right for Solène, but he’s Mr. Right Now—and sometimes that’s all that’s needed for people at certain times in their lives. “The Idea of You,” for all of its Hollywood movie moments, shows the reality that some love is unpredictable and might not last, but if it makes you a better person, it’s probably worth experiencing.

Prime Video will premiere “The Idea of You” on May 2, 2024.

Review: ‘Candy Cane Lane’ (2023), starring Eddie Murphy

November 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Thaddeus J. Mixson, Genneya Walton, Madison Thomas, Tracee Ellis Ross and Eddie Murphy in “Candy Cane Lane” (Photo by Claudette Barius/Amazon Content Services)

“Candy Cane Lane” (2023)

Directed by Reginal Hudlin

Culture Representation: Taking place in El Segundo, California, the fantasy/comedy film “Candy Cane Lane” features a racially diverse (African American and white) cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married father, who’s desperate to win a local Christmas decorating contest, makes a misguided deal with a corrupt elf, who forces him to gather items that are mentioned in the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Culture Audience: “Candy Cane Lane” will appeal primarily to fans of star Eddie Murphy and anyone who will tolerate badly made Christmas movies.

Eddie Murphy, Jillian Bell and Madison Thomas in “Candy Cane Lane” (Photo by Claudette Barius/Amazon Content Services)

“Candy Cane Lane” is a rotten, weird, and unfunny mess. Add this junk to the list of Eddie Murphy misfires meant to be crowd pleasers but just turn off many people. There’s also a semi-accidental animal cruelty scene that’s played for laughs. Horrendous.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin and terribly written by Kelly Younger, “Candy Cane Lane” is the type of outdated and tacky movie that could’ve been released direct-to-video in the 1990s. But the fact that some big names were involved in making this movie (Murphy and Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind” producer Brian Grazer are two of the “Candy Cane Lane” producers), and because there was a large-enough budget for the movie’s over-reliance on visual effects, “Candy Cane Lane” looks misleadingly like a cute and glossy comedy.

About 15 minutes into the movie, viewers will find out there’s nothing cute about the onslaught of bad jokes, dull scenarios, annoying characters, and a tangled story that just seems to be making up things as it goes along. “Candy Cane Lane” goes off on so many different tangents, it’s like a bunch of half-baked ideas thrown into a trash heap that’s left to fester and then gets covered up with some shiny Christmas embellishments to attract viewers. There are some very talented comedic actors in “Candy Cane Lane,” but they often look somewhat embarrassed by the utter garbage that they have to say as their lines of dialogue.

“Candy Cane Lane” is the first feature film for screenwriter Younger, whose two previous screenwriting credits are for Disney+ shows: the 2021 TV special “Muppets Haunted Mansion” and the 2020 limited series “Muppets Now.” It just goes to show that hack screenwriters can get awful screenplays made into a movie if they know the right people who are willing to waste their money in making this type of humiliating dreck. “Candy Cane Lane” star Murphy is considered to be a great stand-up comedian, and he can excel in sketch comedy, but he has very questionable taste in choosing his family-oriented projects, which are usually low-quality (even with large budgets) and way beneath his talent.

“Candy Cane Lane” (which takes place in El Segundo, California, and was filmed in nearby Los Angeles) begins by telling audiences about a big annual Candy Cane Lane contest that takes place in El Segundo. It’s a Christmas decorating contest for the exteriors of people’s homes. The household that’s chosen as the one with the best decorations is the winner of the contest. A local cable TV station called Prism Cable gives coverage to the contest, which also has a Candy Cane Lane parade. Expect to see a lot of garish and ugly Christmas decorations in this movie that is supposedly “award-worthy” by Candy Cane Lane contest standards.

Chris Carver (played by Murphy) and his neighbor Bruce (played by Ken Marino) have been extremely competitive with each other because of this contest, which Bruce has won for the past four years. Bruce and Chris put up a front of being friendly with each other in public, but in reality, they see each other as fierce and bitter rivals. Winning this contest becomes an obsession for Chris, but then other things happen in the movie where the contest becomes almost like an afterthought, and “Candy Cane Lane” really goes off the rails into irredeemable stupidity. The character of Bruce is barely in the movie; his screen time is less than 10 minutes.

Chris and his wife Carol Carver (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) have three children. Their eldest child Joy Carver (played by Genneya Walton), who’s about 17 or 18 years old, is a star on her high school’s track team and is in the process of applying to universities. Middle child Nick (played by Thaddeus J. Mixson), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, is an aspiring musician who is in the school’s marching band. Youngest child Holly (played by Madison Thomas), who’s about 9 or 10 years old, doesn’t seem to have any interests. Holly is written as a walking cliché of what bad comedies do when the youngest kid in the family is a girl: She is only there to look cute, make some wisecracks, and help the adults when they need help.

Observant viewers will notice even before it’s pointed out later in the movie that all of the Carver kids have Christmas-themed names. Nick is obviously named after St. Nicholas. Even the name Carol has a Christmas association to it. These names are supposed to be an example of how Chris has a fixation on Christmas. Chris Carver’s name is somewhat similar to Kris Kringle (also known as Santa Claus), but the frequently whiny and petulant “Candy Cane Lane” protagonist Chris Carver has none of the appeal and charm of Kris Kringle.

Christmas isn’t the only thing that’s a fixation for Chris, who is somewhat fanatical about his loyalty to his college alma mater: the University of Southern California (USC). Chris (who is a sales executive) and Carol (who’s a manager at a peanut factory) met when they were students at USC. Chris expects all of his children to also go to USC.

However, Joy announces to her parents near the beginning of the movie that she doesn’t want to go to USC and would rather go to the University of Notre Dame, which is more than 2,100 miles away in South Bend, Indiana. Chris does not take this announcement very well and thinks that Joy will change her mind about going to USC. This conflict over Joy’s choice of universities is awkwardly brought up later in one of the movie’s many poorly written and sloppily staged scenes that fall flat with unamusing jokes.

Chris will soon have more to worry about than which university Joy chooses to attend. He’s laid off from his job at a company called Sydel Twain Industrial Plastics, where he was a longtime employee, but the company’s new owner is making staff cuts. Trevante Rhodes has a useless cameo as an executive named Tre, who coldly tells Chris in a conference room that Chris is no longer working at the company.

Chris gets a wrapped bathrobe package as a parting gift from the company. “I don’t want your fleece!” Chris says angrily. He quickly changes his mind and says maybe he does want the fleece after all. If you think this is hilarious, then feel free to waste time watching “Candy Cane Lane,” because this is what the movie is trying to pass off as “comedy.”

Chris eventually tells Carol that he lost his job, but he asks her not to tell their children because he doesn’t want the kids to worry, especially during the Christmas holiday season. Carol has her own job concerns: She really wants a promotion, which could happen soon if she impresses the right people.

It just so happens that the Candy Cane Lane contest has announced that this year’s grand prize is $100,000, which makes Chris even more determined to win, considering he doesn’t know when he will find his next job. With the contest approaching, Chris forces his kids to help him get new Christmas decorations. Chris and Holly find a “pop-up store,” which sells elaborate Christmas decorations. Chris and Holly go to this store multiple times in the movie and don’t seem to think it’s strange that they are always the only customers in the store and there’s only one person working there.

The first time they visit the store, Chris and Holly are in awe of all the unique decorations. They are greeted by a seemingly helpful employee named Pepper Mint (played by Jillian Bell), who convinces Chris to buy a massive artificial Christmas tree that is packaged in a container shaped like a giant sardine can. While ringing up the sale at the cash register, Pepper tells Chris that he doesn’t have to read the fine print on the long receipt before he signs the receipt. “Honestly, it’s like signing your life away,” she says with obvious sarcasm.

It turns out that Pepper is really a corrupt elf, who tricked Chris into signing his life away. Chris gets the spectacular tree that he wants: It magically unfolds into a giant 12-tier tree that can best be described as looking like stacks of Christmas cookie circular tin containers that are glued together. The tree is such a sensation, it makes the news on Prism Cable.

Prism Cable has two irritating news anchors: perpetually perky Kit (played by Danielle Pinnock) and constantly jaded Emerson (played Timothy Simons), who are an excruciatingly ridiculous on-air duo providing commentary throughout the story. Kit has decided that her irksome nephew Josh (played by D.C. Young Fly), who has an alter ego as a social media influencer named Sunny Roberts, deserves to be on TV, so she lets this dolt become an “on the scene” correspondent.

The Carver family tree’s lights are so far-reaching, the lights can be seen by an airplane in the sky. The problem is that by opening up this tree, Chris has triggered the unwitting “bargain” that he made with Pepper. Suddenly, things mentioned in the Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” start appearing randomly in the Carver family’s lives. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” famously mentions a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, five golden rings, six geese that lay eggs, seven swimming swans, eight milk maids, nine dancing ladies, 10 leaping lords, 11 pipers and 12 drummers.

They don’t appear in the order that they are mentioned in the song. Everything is haphazard, just like this entire movie. The seven swans are the first to appear, as they end up in the Carver family’s backyard swimming pool. Somehow in this very disjointed story, Chris finds out that in order to get out of this deal with Pepper, he must give her the golden rings. And so, there’s a “hunt” to track down these rings.

But that’s not where “Candy Cane Lane” gets really mindless. There’s a huge swath of the movie about Chris discovering that there are talking miniature figurines in Pepper’s shop. The figurines (which are all dressed as Christmas people from the 19th century) look, act and move like human beings. Pepper is keeping these figurines captive against their will.

Three of the figurines get the most dialogue out of all the other figurines. Pip (played by Nick Offerman) is a top-hat-wearing Brit who is the leader of the trio. Pip’s American sidekicks are sassy maiden Cordelia (played by Robin Thede) and goofy lamplighter Gary (played by Chris Redd), who occasionally bicker with each other. The other figurines that appear briefly in the movie to sing are a group of five carolers, played by the real-life singing group Pentatonix. The members of Pentatonix are Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, Kirstin Maldonado, Matt Sallee and Kevin Olusola.

Pip, Cordelia and Gary are desperate to be “free from the torment of eternal Christmas” under Pepper’s captivity, according to Pip. This all leads to an “escape and chase” part of the story that further jumbles the already idiotic plot. It’s as if the filmmakers knew they didn’t have enough ideas for the part of the story about the Candy Cane Lane contest and decided to come up with some bad ideas as filler.

Although there’s a disclaimer at the end of “Candy Cane Lane” that says no animals were harmed during the making of the movie, there’s some obvious contempt for winged animals in this film, because depicting and seeing these animals get hurt are used as wretched jokes in the movie. For example, in a scene where Carol is giving some powerful executives a tour of her factory, she sees one of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” chickens hiding in a packing box. In a panic, while the executives aren’t looking, Carol takes the bird out of the box and cruelly throws it at some operating assembly line equipment, where she knows the bird will be immediately decapitated. This decapitation is not explicitly shown on screen, but the movie makes it clear that the bird has died because of Carol’s reckless actions, and the “Candy Cane Lane” filmmakers want viewers to laugh about it.

The acting performances in “Candy Cane Lane” range from mediocre to stiffly awful. Murphy is just going through the motions playing the “stressed-out dad” character that he has played in several other terrible comedies where he’s the family patriarch who gets involved in some problems. Bell’s depiction of the Pepper character is a weak parody of Christmas villains. Apparently, Bell thinks bugging out her eyes makes her look menacing. Pip, Cordelia and Gary can best be described as irritating as pesky flies.

David Alan Grier shows up as Santa Claus, in a cameo role that is written in a racially problematic way, considering that people call him “Black Santa” in the movie, and he speaks like a lower-class person. (“Candy Cane Lane” screenwriter Younger is white.) When a white Santa Claus is in a movie, no one in the movie says, “Oh, look, there’s White Santa.” A black man with the name Santa Claus in a movie doesn’t have to be identified as “Black Santa” by the movie’s characters, and he doesn’t have to get reduced to speaking like an angry black man from the ghetto. It’s very passive-aggressive racism from the “Candy Cane Lane” filmmakers.

And for the love of cinema, the filmmakers of these horrible “comedies” about African American families need to stop making every African American teenage boy in the family have integrity problems and/or portrayed as not being a good student in school. “Candy Cane Lane” has an unnecessary plot development about Nick being deceitful by hiding a secret from his family: He’s close to flunking in his math class, and his parents find out about this lie.

“Candy Cane Lane” is not the type of atrocious film with moments that overcome the lousy parts of the movie. “Candy Cane Lane” just gets worse and worse, until there’s no hope the story will ever recover. And just like many obnoxiously terrible movies, “Candy Cane Lane ” has end credits with a blooper reel that shows the cast members enjoyed making this trash. It’s probably more enjoyment than most viewers will get if they have the endurance to watch “Candy Cane Lane” until the very end.

Amazon MGM Studios released “Candy Cane Lane” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023. Prime Video will premiere the movie on December 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Judy Blume Forever,’ starring Judy Blume

April 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Judy Blume in “Judy Blume Forever” (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

“Judy Blume Forever”

Directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., the documentary film “Judy Blume Forever” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) who are fans, loved ones and business associates of author Judy Blume, who also participated in this documentary.

Culture Clash: Blume talks about the controversies surrounding some of her books, her two failed marriages, and various insecurities and tragedies that she’s had in her life. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of Judy Blume fans, “Judy Blume” will appeal to people interested in documentaries about famous and influential book authors.

Judy Blume in “Judy Blume Forever” (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

“Judy Blume Forever” is a fan tribute documentary in the best sense of the term. It doesn’t need a lot of exposé journalism, because Judy Blume candidly shares her flaws and failings in the movie. Anyone who is a fan of Blume should consider this documentary as essential as her best books. “Judy Blume Forever” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, “Judy Blume Forever” beings with a scene of Blume reading an excerpt from her 1973 young-adult novel “Deenie.” In this excerpt, gym teacher Mrs. Eileen Rappaport talks to her students about masturbation. It’s the type of writing that got some of Blume’s books denounced or outright banned for being “inappropriate” reading for children. This type of banning is still going on in some places for books by Blume and many other authors.

Most of the protagonists in Blume’s books are tweens and teenagers, usually girls. And for millions of people, Blume’s books were the first books that they read as children where topics such as masturbation, menstruation, bullying, eating disorders, physical disabilities and teenage sex were openly discussed as facts of life that not everyone dealt with in the same way. The books validated many underage readers’ own feelings and insecurities about these issues that these kids couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to discuss with any adults.

Former 1980s teen idol Molly Ringwald, who knows what it’s like to be thought of as a relatable “role model” for girls, is one of several Blume fans interviewed in the documentary. Ringwald says, “Everything I learned about sex, or thinking about sex or crushes, I learned from Judy.” Filmmaker/TV producer/actress Lena Dunham adds, “Judy’s books speak about the unspeakable. It’s the reason why her books were so complicated for people.”

And author Tarayi Jones comments on what it was like to read a Blume book as a child: “It was like a look into a secret world. I felt someone was being honest. That’s a gift. That’s magic.” Tony-nominated actress Caitlin Kinnunen “(The Prom”) adds, “Judy wrote these scenes that were awkward.” It was that awkwardness that made her work so realistic, say many of her fans.

Blume says in the documentary, “When I started to write, I only identified with kids, not adults.” Although Blume would later write some books about and for adults, she is most famous for her books about adolescents and teenagers. She adds, “I was an anxious child. I felt like adults kept secrets from the kids. I hated the secrets. I had to make up what those secrets were. That fueled my imagination.”

Born in 1938 as Judith Sussman, she was born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Blume describes herself as a child who loved to go to the library with her homemaker mother Esther Sussman. Her father Rudolph Sussman was a dentist. Blume describes him as a “nurturer.” She adds, “I adored my father. He tried to raise me to want an adventurous life … and to take chances.” Blume also grew up with a brother named David, who was four or five years older than her.

As an anxious child, Blume says what worried her the most was her father dying in middle-age, because all seven of her father’s siblings died before they reached the age of 60. Blume (whose family is Jewish) also remembers childhood worries about the Holocaust and World War II. Blume admits that she’s struggled with lifelong insecurities about not being “good enough.”

Joanne Stern, Blume’s best friend since childhood, describes Blume as a child: “She was a good girl. She was very cute, very pretty, had beautiful clothes. She was very thin.” Blume adds, “I was a good girl with a bad girl lurking inside.” Mary Weaver, another Blume friend since childhood, is also shown in the documentary. Weaver and Blume fondly reminisce about a boy who was a schoolmate crush.

Blume came of age in the 1950s, a decade that she describes as “the era of pretend: Pretend that we’re happy when we’re not. Pretend that everything is great when it isn’t.” You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know maybe that’s why Blume chose to be so frankly realistic in her books that are fiction but discuss issues that happen to real people.

Blume met her first husband, attorney John Blume, when she was a second-year undergraduate student at New York University. Sadly, her worst fear about her father came true, when he died of a heart attack at age 54, just five weeks before her wedding in 1959. Judy and John became the parents of two kids: daughter Randy and son Lawrence, also known as Larry. Blume said she knew she wanted a career outside of the home. And so, this avid reader decided to become a professional writer.

Like many famous authors, Judy’s early career was filled with a lot of rejections from publishers. She describes her earliest unpublished work as “imitation Dr. Seuss.” Judy says her mother was always her biggest supporter, who typed all of Judy’s manuscripts and never gave any criticism of her work. But Judy also admits her feelings toward her mother were complicated: “My mother had some low self-esteem issues herself. She wanted me to be perfect.”

Judy’s first children’s book to be published was 1969’s “The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo,” which went largely unnoticed by the general public at the time of its publication. And then, Judy heard that book publisher Bradbury Press was looking for realistic fiction for middle-school kids. After getting a series of rejections, Blume finally got her big break: Bradbury published Blume’s 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” It was a bestseller and is widely considered one of the most influential young-adult novels of all time. It has now been made into a movie, starring Abby Ryder Fortson as the title character.

In the book, 11-year-old Margaret Simon has parents who are in an interfaith marriage (her father is Jewish, her mother is Christian) but they chose not to raise Margaret in any religion. Margaret frequently talks to God about her hopes, dreams and fears about her life and about growing up. She is afraid of being the last in her peer group to grow breasts and get her menstrual period. And she worries about being accepted by her peers in school and in her New Jersey community.

These are all insecurities that Judy says she went through in her own adolescence. She was embarrassed that she hadn’t started menstruating yet, like most of her female friends, so she lied to her friends about getting her menstrual period. Judy says, just like Margaret, she was also self-conscious about being flat-chested. Judy can laugh about it now, but at the time, these issues weighed heavily on her adolescent life.

“I wanted the truth, the reality of being that age,” Judy says about how she wrote “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Judy adds, “Writing ‘Margaret’ gave me my sense of who I was and what I might be able to do.” Pat Scales, a librarian, comments on the phenomenal success of the book: “I knew when I read ‘Margaret’ that kids would flock to this book. The ‘realism’ that was available prior to Judy [Blume books] was not realistic at all.”

Simon & Schuster publishing executive Justin Chanda comments on the book: “It was explaining things that were foreign to me, quite frankly. But it was also speaking to me about stuff that I was thinking about, in terms of religion and where you fit in the world.” Young-adult author/historian Gabrielle Moss quips about the book: “Come for the masturbation. Stay for the empowerment.”

Judy says that although she supported the feminism movement that flourished in the 1970s at the same time as her career flourished, she was not an outspoken, public supporter. She says she wanted to march in protests and burn bras, like many feminists did at the time, “but I didn’t. I could be fearless in my writing in a way [that] in my own life I could not.

Among her other bestsellers are the aforementioned “Deenie,” whose title character has scoliosis and wears a brace; 1974’s “Blubber,” which covered issues of bullying and body shaming; and 1975’s “Forever…,” perhaps her most controversial young-adult book, because it had descriptions of unmarried 18-year-olds having sex with each other. It’s common for today’s young-adult books to have frank descriptions of teen sexuality, but back in 1975, it was unprecedented.

Judy says that even with all of her success, she’s always had many critics and opponents. “Some people weren’t necessarily wishing me well,” she wryly comments. Judy says one of the questions she would often get from literary snobs was: “When are you going to write a real book?”

After “Deenie” was published, she says a male school principal told her that male masturbation was normal, but female masturbation was not normal. During the worst of the criticism that she got from people who wanted to ban her books, Judy says that she was getting death threats, “which I took very seriously.”

At the height of Judy’s fame in 1975, she decided to end her first marriage. All she will say about why she and her first husband John were incompatible is this comment: “I married a man who, like my mother, never talked about his feelings.” Judy remembers feeling stifled in her marriage at the time: “Enough of this. I have to get out of here. I have to live.”

By her own admission, she jumped too quickly into another marriage after her first divorce. Her second husband was a London-based scientist named Thomas Kitchens. That marriage ended in divorce in 1978. Blume says her biggest regret in life is deciding to uproot her kids to live in England during this doomed marriage.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Judy comments on her second marriage. “I was rebelling in the stupidest way. It was very rough, not just for me but my kids. I still have guilt about that. The honest thing was to admit I had made a terrible mistake … Through all the worst times in my life, I’d been able to write, and my writing has gotten me through.”

Judy has been happily married to her third husband, George Cooper, since 1987. She describes him as “easygoing” and “non-judgmental.” Together, they own the retail store Books & Books in Key West, Florida. They are frequently in the store and make themselves accessible to customers and other visitors. The documentary includes footage of the couple greeting many of these people and interacting with employees, such as Michael Nelson and Emily Berg. Judy’s biological children are not in the movie, but Judy’s stepdaughter Amanda Cooper is briefly interviewed in the documentary.

Speaking of fans and admirers, one of the best parts of the documentary is how it shows that Judy considers her fan mail to be among her most treasured possessions and some of her fans to be among her closest friends. She reads some of her fan mail out loud and is obviously still emotionally touched by people telling her how her books have changed their lives and made them feel less alone in the world. Judy has kept so much of her fan mail, in 2017, Yale University acquired 50 years’ worth of her writing and fan mail to keep in the Yale archives.

Lorrie Kim, who has been writing to Judy since Kim was 9 years old, is one such superfan who became a friend. The documentary shows Judy attending Kim’s graduation from Bryn Mawr College. Karen Chilstrom, who’s been writing to Judy since Chilstrom was 12, shares her traumatic family history of having a brother who sexually abused her and who then committed suicide. Chilstrom says of how her friendship with Judy developed: “She saw a person who was hurting, and she didn’t give up on me.”

The documentary has mention of Judy’s foray into adult-oriented novels—most notably 1978’s “Wifey,” which covered the topic of marital infidelity. Judy also talks about how she’s said no to numerous lucrative offers to turn her books into movies because she’s so protective of her work. Her 1981 young-adult novel “Tiger Eyes” (which was inspired by her own real-life experiences of her father’s death) is one of the few of her books that has been made into a movie. The 2013 “Tiger Eyes” movie, starring Willa Holland and directed by Judy’s son Lawrence, was a low-budget independent film that flopped.

Many fans of Judy’s books talk about how her books helped them learn about many of life’s issues that are larger than a girl worrying about if she’ll be popular in her school. Jones comments on the impact that “Blubber” had on her: “It made me understand that just being a bystander to cruelty made you cruel.”

Other fans and associates interviewed in the documentary include comedian/media personality/author Samantha Bee, author Jacqueline Woodson, screenwriter/producer Anna Konkle (“PEN15”), author Cecily von Ziegesar (“Gossip Girl”), author Mary H.K. Choi, book publisher/editor Beverly Horowitz, author Alex Gino, sex educator Rachel Lotus and author Jason Reynolds. There are also numerous children of various races who are shown reading from her books out loud.

“Judy Blume Forever” is more of a “fan appreciation” documentary than a “fan worship” documentary. The movie doesn’t shy away from including criticism of Judy’s work, although that criticism is mostly shown in archival clips. One of the more memorable clips is from 1984, when Judy appeared on the CNN talk show “Crossfire” for a heated discussion with conservative media pundit Pat Buchanan, who was one her most outspoken critics. In the documentary, Judy comments on this “Crossfire” appearance: “It was a very strange experience.”

The documentary also mentions the uproar that some people had because of a line in Judy’s 1993 young-adult book “Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson.” The line was “Here’s to my fucking family.” This was in 1993, when most kids had access to movies and TV shows with vulgar language on cable TV and home video releases, but book publishers were still skittish about putting profanity in books geared to tweens and teens. Judy says that her editor told her that she would have full support from the editor on her decision to keep that line in the book. Judy describes her former book editor Richard “Dick” Jackson (who died at the age of 84 in 2019) as “the best editor in the world.”

The documentary probably would been more interesting if it had current interviews with Judy’s critics, especially since book banning (particularly in schools and in libraries) has been having a resurgence in recent years. Not surprisingly, Judy is vehemently in support of writers’ rights. Even with the absence of recent criticism of Judy’s work, “Judy Blume Forever” doesn’t feel like it’s an incomplete movie. The documentary undoubtedly shows that Judy Blume, who is a master of soul-baring storytelling, is indeed the best person to tell her own life story.

Amazon Studios released “Judy Blume Forever” in select U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023, the same day that the movie premiered on Prime Video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neWsO1Rk_q0

Review: ‘Air’ (2023), starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker and Viola Davis

March 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Matthew Maher, Matt Damon and Jason Bateman in “Air” (Photo by Ana Carballosa/Amazon Content Services)

“Air” (2023)

Directed by Ben Affleck

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1984, primarily in Oregon and in North Carolina, the dramatic film “Air” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Against the odds, Nike executives convince a young Michael Jordan to sign with Nike, which makes a historic deal to create the Air Jordan shoe brand entirely around him. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of fans of Michael Jordan, Air Jordan shoes and the movie’s headliners, “Air” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about landmark business deals, from the perspectives of the business executives.

Matt Damon and Viola Davis in “Air” (Photo by Ana Carballosa/Amazon Content Services)

“Air” is designed to be an awards-bait movie with mass appeal, but it has a very selective agenda in which characters get the most importance in the story. This dramatic origin story of the Air Jordan business hits many familiar beats of sports underdog movies. The acting and writing are engaging, but Michael Jordan is a sidelined character. His mother is at least given credit for being a smart dealmaker. “Air” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

Directed by Ben Affleck and written by Alex Convery, “Air” takes place in 1984, in the months leading up to the September 1984 launch of Nike’s very first Air Jordan shoes, also known as Air Jordan 1. According to several reports, Nike (which is headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon) had $5 billion in sales from Jordan Brand (Nike’s division Air Jordans shoes) in 2022. In “Air,” the underdogs and main heroes of this sports story are not athletes but the Nike executives who played crucial roles in conceiving and launching this industry-changing athletic shoe brand. It’s a very feel-good, slanted view of a fascinating story, but “Air” is a scripted drama, not a documentary.

The main protagonist of “Air” is Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon), a Nike basketball recruiter who’s been mainly working with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in selling Nike basketball shoes. Vaccaro is often credited with being the person who came up with the idea to have Nike pay NCAA colleges to have their basketball teams wear Nike shoes as product endorsements meant to influence people to buy the shoes. This type of product endorsement is now commonplace in the NCAA.

Sonny is passionate about basketball. And because he is deeply entrenched in NCAA basketball, he has a knack for being able to predict which NCAA players will be the top recruits by the National Basketball Association (NBA). But getting the top recruits for Nike endorsement deals requires a lot of money that Nike doesn’t have. The problem is that in 1984, Nike is financially struggling from decreased sales and massive money losses.

In terms of basketball shoe sales, Converse was the market leader at the time, with 54% of the market share, according to a statistic mentioned in “Air.” Converse had endorsement deals with NBA stars such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Adidas, which was Converse’s closest competition in 1984, was popular with hip-hop stars, such as Run-DMC. Adidas was also Jordan’s first choice on where he wanted to sign an endorsement deal as a 21-year-old rookie for the Chicago Bulls.

Meanwhile, in 1984, Nike had only 17% of the market share for basketball shoe sales before the historic deal with Jordan. Nike also had an image and reputation of being an outdated company whose specialty was shoes for joggers. Basketball fans come in all different races, but NBA basketball is mostly played by African Americans. As Nike vice president of athlete relations Howard White (played by Chris Tucker), who is African American, half-jokingly comments in the movie: “Black people don’t jog.”

Nike vice president of marketing Rob Strasser (played by Jason Bateman) isn’t as passionate about basketball as Sonny is, but he is passionate about making profits from his marketing ideas. Rob is cynical about Nike’s office politics, and he has a world-weary attitude about him. He gives the impression that he is very annoyed with being part of a losing company, but he doesn’t want to quit Nike because he’s convinced that he can be part of the team that turn things around for Nike. Privately, Rob is afraid that no other company would hire him if he wanted to leave Nike.

“Air” makes a point of showing that middle-aged Sonny (a bachelor with no children) is at a crossroads in his life and at Nike. Sonny’s life revolves around Nike, which is in a slump. And he’s got a lot to prove, because Sonny’s self-esteem is very wrapped up in his job. Observant viewers will also see that Sonny likes to gamble a lot in his free time, which is a possible addiction that the movie never really explores. The parallels are obvious: Sonny is about to make the biggest gamble in his career with the Jordan deal.

Someone else who’s also got a lot to prove is Nike founder/CEO Phil Knight (played by Affleck), who is exactly the type of upper-class jogger that Nike has been courting for years. But there’s no denying that basketball shoes will be a driving force of sales for athletic footwear. Nike has been slow to adapt. Sonny says to Phil: “Basketball is the future.” Phil is skeptical: “Basketball is dead.”

In a Nike executive meeting that includes Sonny, Rob and a few other employees, Rob asks everyone in the room who their top choices are for NBA recruits who should be pursued by Nike. Sonny wants Jordan. Sonny also gets frustrated because everyone else names safe choices of basketball players who probably won’t achieve greatness. Sonny berates the employees by saying: “I have no tolerance for people who have no insight.”

In the men’s restroom, Rob tells Sonny that Sonny should be more diplomatic in these meetings. Sonny brushes off this advice. He is determined to sign Jordan and will do whatever it takes. Sonny thinks Nike should be spending even more money on the Jordan deal, while Phil wants to spend less.

Part of Sonny’s goal includes persuading Phil to spend Nike’s entire $500,000 recruiting budget on Jordan, before Jordan even starts playing for the Bulls. It’s unprecedented. And at the time, its seems like more than a big risk. It seems like financial suicide for Nike.

Sonny reminds Phil that Phil took a big risk by founding Nike. And he needs Phil to take a big risk on Sonny’s gut instinct that Jordan is the one and only NBA player that Nike should sign for this basketball season. Sonny tells Phil that if Sonny is wrong about Jordan, then Sonny will probably resign from Nike.

Sonny’s enthusiasm (or obsession) to sign Jordan means that Sonny inevitably offends people with his aggressive tactics. One of those people is Jordan’s agent David Falk (played by Chris Messina), a fast-talking, foul-mouthed New Yorker, who has some of the funniest scenes in the movie when he has raging meltdowns every time Sonny bypasses David to try to close the deal. David makes threats to Sonny that’s just a lot of empty, blustering talk. David is also one of the naysayers who thinks that Nike won’t be able to afford Jordan. In real life, Falk is credited with coming up with the name Air Jordan, but “Air” pokes a little fun at this claim to fame.

As part of his preparation for the deal, Sonny watches footage of Jordan’s college games and figures out the inner workings of Nike’s competition. He also gets some important advice from Jordan family associate George Raveling (played by Marlon Wayans), who was an assistant coach of the U.S. Olympics basketball team at the time. It’s a short but well-acted scene in the movie, where George tells Sonny a memorable story about being in the crowd during Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington.

“Air” depicts Sonny as being inspired to create an entire Nike shoe line around Jordan after Sonny sees an old TV ad with tennis star Arthur Ashe talking about his custom-made tennis shoes that have been replicated for people to buy. Ever the wheeler dealer, Sonny makes a bold move to pitch the idea directly to Jordan’s parents Deloris Jordan (played by Viola Davis) and James Jordan (played by Julius Tennon), by driving to the Jordan parents’ home in Wilmington, North Carolina, and showing up unannounced. (Davis and Tennon are married in real life.) Deloris is the outspoken and savvy business person of the couple, and she makes the best power play in the entire story.

And where is Michael Jordan during all of these schemes and deals that wouldn’t exist without him? “Air” depicts Michael Jordan (played by Damian Young) as an occasional bystander who says very little in this story, and he is mostly filmed with his back to the camera. There’s some archival footage of the real Michael Jordan, but the screen time in “Air” for these clips is also very brief.

In the production notes for “Air,” director Affleck explains this choice: “Michael Jordan is so famous that I truly felt if we ever saw an actor playing [him], it would be hard to get the audience to suspend their disbelief, because, in my opinion, there’s no convincing anybody that someone who isn’t Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan. We felt a more interesting way to tell the story would be for him to exist in the ether of the movie. To be talked about by everyone but not seen is somewhat analogous to the experience of celebrities and sports stars in modern life, because most people go their whole lives without ever meeting or seeing their favorite sports star or celebrity in person. So we only see Michael in clips and flashes. We don’t ever fully see him in person because to see him in person would be to put his feet on the ground in a way that the movie doesn’t want to do.”

In other words, Affleck didn’t want any character to overshadow the Sonny character, played by Affleck’s longtime friend Damon. (Affleck and Damon are two of the producers of “Air.”) The fact of the matter is that this movie could have shown a little bit more respect for Michael Jordan’s role in this monumental deal. The “Air” movie depicts Michael Jordan as mostly caring about getting a new red Mercedes 380SL as part of the deal, while his parents (especially his mother) did almost all of the talking for him. It’s hard to believe that Michael Jordan didn’t speak more in these business meetings.

Another thing that looks very fabricated for the movie is how the first Air Jordan design came about, because it’s depicted as a “race against time” over a weekend to get a prototype ready in time for a Monday meeting with Michael Jordan and his parents. It’s the prototype for the shoe that would become Air Jordan 1. Peter Moore (played by Michael Maher) is portrayed as the artistic visionary who came up with the design for the shoe all by himself. The movie mentions a team of designers who worked with Peter to bring his vision to life, but these team members are nowhere to be seen in “Air.”

It’s another misstep that doesn’t properly acknowledge the contributions of an untold number of real-life people who were essential members of the team. “Air “didn’t have to single out all of these people in the movie, but they could have at least been characters seen in the movie as background extras. It’s odd that with so much of Nike’s Air Jordan deal riding on the actual product (the shoes), so little thought in the movie is given to the shoemakers who helped make the first Air Jordans a reality. Instead, “Air” makes it look like it was only Peter Moore in a Nike shoe design room who created the first Air Jordan.

What “Air” does get right is having an infectious energy in the behind-the-scenes drama that went into making this deal happen. The dialogue is snappy and intelligent but accessible. And the performances, especially from Damon and Davis, are above-average for movies of this type of subject matter. “Air” also has excellent soundtrack choices, with well-placed pop songs from the 1980s, such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” Chaka Khan and Rufus’s “Ain’t Nobody” and Squeeze’s “Tempted.” The movie also has Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” which actually wasn’t released until 1985, but that’s a minor dateline error in an otherwise commendable soundtrack.

A movie like “Air” obviously wants to be more important than just a story about how Nike made a comeback by signing a young Michael Jordan in what would turn out to be the most lucrative celebrity endorsement deal in athletic shoe history. (For a deep dive into the cultural impact of Air Jordans, the 2020 documentary “One Man and His Shoes” is worth seeing.) The story depicted in “Air” serves as an example of how some of the best risks are taken by people who’ve got a lot to lose but take the risks anyway. It’s too bad that Michael Jordan’s perspective of this inspirational story is completely erased from the movie.

Amazon Studios will release “Air” in U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2023. Prime Video will premiere the movie on May 12, 2023.

Review: ‘Wildcat’ (2022), starring Harry Turner and Samantha Zwicker

December 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Harry Turner in “Wildcat” (Photo by Trevor Frost/Amazon Content Services)

“Wildcat” (2022)

Directed by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2018 to 2022, in Peru and England, the documentary film “Wildcat” features a group of predominantly white people (and some Latinos) from the working-class and middle-class who are connected in some way to wildcat rescuing the the Amazon forest.

Culture Clash: A British man and an American woman become colleagues and lovers while working together in Peru to rescue wildcats, such as ocelots, but their relationship is affected by the stress of the work and their respective emotional baggage. 

Culture Audience: “Wildcat” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in nature documentaries that show how wild animals and human beings can have meaningful connections and can change each other’s lives.

Samantha Zwicker in “Wildcat” (Photo by Trevor Frost/Amazon Content Services)

The riveting documentary “Wildcat” is less about animal preservation in the wilderness and more about how saving these animals can also help save a human rescuer’s sanity and can be a beneficial healing process for people dealing with emotional trauma. It’s a movie about widespread and vast issues but told in a very intimate and personal way. People who aren’t inclined to watch nature documentaries might be surprised by how much they will be affected by “Wildcat.”

Directed by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost, “Wildcat” was filmed from 2018 to 2022, and follows the personal journeys of two people involved in saving wildcats in the Peruvian Amazon from being captured and sold, as well as advocating for these wildcats to live safely in their natural habitat. Harry Turner (a British military veteran) and Samantha Zwicker (an American founder of an environmental non-profit group) met each other by chance and ended up becoming work colleagues and lovers in a relationship that was both productive and volatile.

At the time that they met in 2015, Turner was in his early 20s and a lost soul living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, stemming largely from his combat experiences in the Afghanistan war. He signed up to be in the military when he was 18 years old. After being honorably discharged from the military because of his mental health issues, Turner led an aimless life where he experienced self-harm and a suicide attempt.

In the documentary, Turner says he decided leave England and go somewhere to “disappear” where no one knew who he was. That’s how he ended up in Peru, where he met Zwicker, who was a University of Washington Ph.D. candidate and founder of Hoja Nueva (which means “new leaf” in Spanish), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the people, creatures and the environment of the Amazon region. The group’s program for wild animals is called Protect Rewild. Most of the Peru footage in “Wildcat” was filmed in the region’s Madre de Dios area, where Turner and Zwicker lived in a part of the jungle that’s described in the documentary as “five hours from the nearest town.”

Soon after Zwicker and Turner met, she asked him to help her do something that Hoja Nueva had never done before: teach an orphaned baby ocelot how to live independently in the wild. This training period for the ocelot takes about 18 months. Turner and Zwicker’s work relationship turned into a romance that went through extreme ups and downs during the making of “Wildcat.” The relationship was also tested when Zwicker had to go back to the Seattle area to continue her graduate studies, thereby leaving Turner to carry on the work in Peru, often with him having extended periods of isolation with the ocelot.

The movie’s opening scene shows Turner with one of the young male ocelots that he took care of before parting ways with him in the wilderness when the ocelot was ready to live on its own. Turner feeds the ocelot a dead bird. The ocelot jumps on Turner’s shoulder and rides on him like household pet.

Turner expresses his bittersweet feelings about letting go of an animal that he grew to love like a parent loves a child: “The reintroduction [to the wilderness] was always the one reason to put the wildcat back into the wild again. But it’s just hard. It’s hard to let go of something you love, especially if you’re letting them go into one of the most dangerous environments in the world.”

Early on in the documentary, Turner is shown with his first baby ocelot, a male named Khan, who was rescued from a tree that was cut down by loggers. Turner’s strong emotional bond with Khan is evident, and he openly says that he thinks of Khan like an ocelot son. Turner says in the documentary, “When Khan came into our hands, that’s when my life had a purpose.” Without giving away too much information, something happens to Khan that devastates Turner, and he goes into a deep depression. It takes him several months to recover.

Things start to look up about a year later, when another orphaned baby ocelot comes into lives of Turner and Zwicker. His name is Keanu, the ocelot that is featured the most in this documentary. The footage of Turner and Keanu together is heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking. It’s mostly just a delight to see the meaningful and loving bond that develops between Turner and Keanu. This bond is essentially a parent/child relationship.

Because of Zwicker’s university studies where she has to go back to the United States for extended periods of time, she is not the primary caretaker of Keanu. She’s not a background person in the documentary, but if “Wildcat” were a scripted movie, Zwicker would be a supporting character, not the main star. So much of the movie is focused on Turner, at one point, the documentary shows Turner temporarily going back to England to be with his immediate family (his parents and younger brother), and these family members then to Peru to visit him. Zwicker’s family members are not in the documentary.

“Wildcat” has some cute moments of Zwicker and Turner together as a couple, as they do things such as canoodle in bed in their ramshackle abode, spend time with the ocelot like proud parents, or going on hikes together. Turner gushes about their relationship: “We’re best friends and partners.” But things get very dark in their relationship when Turner has bouts of depression, temper tantrums, self-harming and crippling anxiety. Zwicker gets overwhelmed and is conflicted over how to handle Turner’s mental health issues.

On the one hand, Turner’s bond with Keanu has been beneficial to Turner’s recovery from PTSD and his other mental health issues. On the other hand, there’s concern over how Turner will handle the inevitable, permanent separation when Keanu will have to live on his own in the wilderness. Even if it might be obvious how this movie is going to end, it’s still compelling to watch.

Zwicker has her own emotional issues to deal with in this relationship, which might explain why she was so attracted to Turner. She opens up about having an abusive, alcoholic father and geting involved in many dysfunctional relationships in her life. Zwicker talks about how she and her mother have a tendency not to give up on people, so they stay in bad relationships longer than they should. Zwicker says of Turner, “When I came across Harry, he was extremely misunderstood … but I obviously saw something super-special in him.”

“Wildcat” shows if Zwicker and Turner break up or stay together. Regardless of where the relationship ends up, the documentary shows how these two people found each other through their mutual love of helping animals, and how the animals they rescued also taught these two human beings a few things about how to help themselves during hard times. Zwicker says in the documentary that she trusts animals more than she trusts people.

“Wildcat” is the type of fascinating documentary where viewers can tell that the filmmakers didn’t know how the movie was going to end while making the documentary. The cinematography of “Wildcat” is often breathtaking, even if a few rambling parts of this 105-minute film could have used tighter editing. “Wildcat” is a true reflection of life’s unpredictability and how taking big risks can sometimes lead to some of life’s greatest challenges and unexpected rewards.

Amazon Studios released “Wildcat” in select U.S. cinemas on December 21, 2022. Prime Video will premiere “Wildcat” on December 30, 2022.

Review: ‘Good Night Oppy,’ starring Steve Squyres, Rob Manning, Doug Ellison, Jennifer Trosper, Kobie Boykins, Vandi Verman and Bekah Sosland-Siegfriedt

November 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

A digital recreation of the robotic rover Opportunity in “Good Night Oppy” (Image courtesy of Prime Video/Amazon Content Services)

“Good Night Oppy”

Directed by Ryan White

Culture Representation: Taking place in California and Florida and on Mars, the documentary film “Good Night Oppy” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people and one person of Indian heritage), who are current and former NASA employees, discussing the journey of two identical roving robots—one named Spirit, the other named Opportunity—that NASA sent on a mission to explore Mars, in a journey that began in 2004.

Culture Clash: Spirit had frequent technical problems and other obstacles, while Opportunity (nicknamed Oppy) survived and thrived much longer than most people expected.

Culture Audience: “Good Night Oppy” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about space exploration and overcoming seemngly impossible odds.

NASA employeees in “Good Night Oppy” (Image courtesy of Prime Video/Amazon Content Services)

“Good Night Oppy” informs, entertains, and gets people emotional about robot exploration on Mars. This impressive documentary is a perfect example of how science and technology are much more meaningful when they don’t lose their humanity. One of the best things about “Good Night Oppy” is that people don’t need to have any knowledge about outer-space exploration to enjoy the movie. People who don’t think they have any interest in this topic will probably be surprised by how engaging “Good Night Oppy” can be in telling this unique story.

Directed by Ryan White, “Good Night Oppy” had its world premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. The documentary is told entirely from the perspectives of the NASA team members who were involved the journey of two physically identical robots named Spirit and Opportunity (nicknamed Oppy) that were sent to Mars (also known as “the red planet”) for an exploration mission. “Good Night Oppy” uses visual effects to recreate much of what Spirit and Opportunity saw and experienced on Mars. The movie also features many of the actual photos of Mars that the twins sent back to Earth, as well as archival footage of what was happening on Earth during this journey.

At first glance, it might seem like “Good Night Oppy” is a very one-sided documentary because it interviews only people connected to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). However, by the end of the movie, it’s obvious that it would have been a mistake for the “Good Night Oppy” filmmakers to overstuff the documentary with too many interviews of people who didn’t have direct knowledge of this history-making Mars exploration. The current and former NASA employees who tell this story have intimate details that no outside expert would be able to tell in such an informed way.

Even before this exploration of Mars began in January 2004, it was a long and often-frustrating road to get there. Steve Squryes, the principal scientist of the project, said that for about 10 years, beginning in the mid-1980s, NASA rejected his proposals about having robots explore Mars and doing things such as send images and other information about Mars back to Earth. When one of Squryes’ proposals was finally accepted, it took several more years for the robots to be designed and built up to NASA standards. Finally, the robots were ready to be sent to Mars in 2003.

Much of this work was done by NASA’s Mars Program at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It’s explained in the documentary that an ideal window of opportunity to send a robotic rover to Mars comes along once every 26 months. Ashley Stroupe, a rover driver responsible for the movements of NASA’s rovers on Mars, comments: “The overall goal of the Mars program has been the question of, ‘Did Mars actually have life?'”

Two special robots named Spirit and Opportunity were about to find out and let people on Earth know what was discovered. Spirit and Opportunity are described as robotic rovers that were built as identical twins, but they ended having very different “personalities” and experiences on Mars. Both rovers were given the female gender when assigning their pronouns.

Each rover was 5’2″, which is the average height of a human being. But that’s as far as the similarities went to how much the rovers physically resembled human beings. Atshitey Trebi-Ollennu, a robotics engineer, explains in the documentary that the rovers’ arms were designed to have “multiple instruments to take measurements and microscopic images, like a Swiss Army knife.” Each rover also had six wheels for movement on the ground.

From the beginning, Spirit was the one who ran into the most problems. Spirit failed the first major test, while Opportunity passed the same test. As camera operations engineer Doug Ellison says in the documentary, “Even before they left this planet, Spirit was troublesome. Opportunity was Little Miss Perfect.”

Eventually, the twins were ready for their trip to Mars with their launch at Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Merritt Island. Spirit launched on June 10, 2003, and landed on Mars on January 3, 2004. Opportunity launched on July 7, 2003, and landed on Mars on January 24, 2004.

Due to extreme weather conditions on Mars and any unforeseen events, the rovers were expected to last about 90 days on Mars. Spirit and Opportunity lasted much longer than 90 days. And one of them lasted even longer than most of the NASA scientists and engineers even thought was possible. (How long Spirit and Opportunity lasted will not be revealed in this review, so as not to spoil this information for people who don’t know and want to find out when watching “Good Night Oppy.”)

The documentary mentions that NASA’s Mars program team would make bets on if either, both or neither of the robots would still be functioning the following year. During every bet, Squyres admits he always pessimistically predicted that Spirit and Opportunity would not make it to the following year, in order to be prepared for this disappointment. But contrast, lead systems engineer Rob Manning says that he always optimistically predicted that Spirit and Opportunity would survive through the following year.

Spirit and Opportunity landed on two very different parts of Mars, affecting each rover’s journey. Spirit landed in Gusev Crater, experienced freezing temperatures that would kill any human being, and had several malfunctions and setbacks along the way. By contrast, Opportunity landed in a small crater in the Meridiani plains, she traveled in much more moderate temperatures, and she had malfunctions that were minor, compared to Spirit’s malfunctions.

Mission manager Jennifer Trosper quips in the documentary, “Oppy was at the equator, like the vacation spot of Mars.” Earlier in the documentary, Trosper comments on why people on Earth put so much effort into outer-space travel: “Something I think we all wonder about as we look up into the night sky is if we’re really alone in this universe. And trying to understand that is one of the great mysteries we have.”

One of the main priorities of this mission was to see if Mars had any evidence of water that would be drinkable to people on Earth. Spirit’s exploration found no evidence of water on Mars. By contrast, Opportunity found evidence that there used to be water on Mars, when hematite was seen in her landing space. It’s explained in the documentary that the water from hematite had qualities like battery acid, but it was still water nonetheless. Oppy would later make an even bigger discovery related to water on Mars.

In other words, Oppy became the “star” rover of this mission, but that didn’t mean that people inside and outside of NASA didn’t get emotionally attached to both rovers. There were nerve-wracking moments when the twins experienced the same problems at different times—signals that got lost, tornado-like winds that forced the mission control team to temporarily shut the rovers down to save on battery energy, and emergency reboots that were never guaranteed to work.

“Good Night Oppy” gives a riveting behind-the-scenes look at the anxiety, joy, fear, sadness and hope that went into this mission. The movie also shows and tells in easy-to-understand details how Spirit and Opportunity were controlled by the team on Earth, and how these two rovers were given autonomy to make their own decisions.

Vandi Verma, one of the rover drivers, explains what was like to operate a rover: “It’s not like regular driving, because it takes four to 20 minutes for a signal to reach Mars. We send the commands, we go off and sleep. And the rover will execute the drive that day. And by the time the drive is done, we come back and get the results and start the planning.”

Spirit and Opportunity also had “diaries” during their journey, which are intermittently narrated in “Good Night Oppy” by Angela Bassett. The narration gives a very calm and authoritative human voice to the thought processes and actions of rovers that weren’t humans but who acted like living beings capable of making their own decisions. It’s no wonder that people got so emotionally attached to Spirit and Opportunity.

Ellison comments, “Yeah, it’s a robot, but through this robot, we’re on this incredible adventure together, and she becomes a family member.” Squyres describes how he felt when the robots he dreamed about and planned for all those years were finally completed and ready to go to Mars: “To say it’s like a child being born is to trivialize parenthood, but it sort of feels like that.” Mechanical engineer Kobie Boykins comes right out and says that Spirit and Opportunity were like his “babies,” and when they went to Mars, it was similar to how a parent feels when a child grows up and leaves home to live somewhere else.

“Good Night Oppy” does a very good job of giving the interviews a personal touch, by letting each person interviewed talk a little bit about how and why they became passionate about outer-space exploration. Boykins mentions that when he was a kid, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” character Geordi La Forge (played by LeVar Burton) was a huge inspiration for him. Trosper’s father used to work on space missiles, and she credits him with encouraging her to pursue her dream of having a NASA career at a time when many girls and women were told that technology-related work at NASA was a man’s job. Trebi-Ollennu, who is originally from Ghana, talks about his earliest memory of being interested in engineering came from his childhood, when he was fascinated by how a radio works.

Planetary protection engineer Moogega Cooper says that when she was a child, she entered NASA’s contest to name the twin rovers before the rovers were sent to Mars. She chose the names Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the god Mars from Roman mythology. Deputy project scientist Abigail Freeman was one of the 16 high school students from around the world who were chosen to be in the mission control room when Oppy’s first images of Mars were sent to Earth. Years, later Freeman would be working in NASA’s Mars program as a scientist.

Some of the interviewees talk about the parallels between what Spirit and Opportunity experienced and what was going on in their own personal lives. Verma says that she was pregnant with twins during part of the time that she spent as a rover driver during the mission. Flight director Bekah Sosland-Siegfriedt, who says that Opportunity was the reason why she wanted to become a space engineer, shares a poignant story of how her grandmother was living with Alzheimer’s disease at the same time that Opportunity was getting older and losing her memory.

In addition to having stunning visual images and heartfelt stories, “Good Night Oppy” makes excellent use of music, with an emotionally stirring score by Blake Neely and some well-chosen soundtrack song choices. One of the rituals during the mission was a morning wakeup song that usually fit the plan (or intended plan) of the day. Songs like The B-52’s “Roam,” ABBA’s “S.O.S.” and Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” are featured prominently in some of the documentary’s pivotal scenes.

“Good Night Oppy” has all of the elements of a better-than-average documentary and excels in areas where similar documentaries might stumble. “Good Night Oppy” can educate people without being a boring or condescending lecture. It tells a story that involves some of the highest levels of science, but they’re described in ways that people of many different backgrounds and ages can relate to and understand. And, most importantly, “Good Night Oppy” shows that inspiration, camaraderie and possibilities can have no borders and can extend well beyond planet Earth.

Amazon Studios released “Good Night Oppy” in select U.S. cinemas on November 4, 2022. Prime Video will premiere the movie on November 23, 2022.

Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty Show Vol. 4: photos and videos

November 8, 2022

Rihanna in “Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 4” on November 8, 2022 in Simi Valley, California. (Photo by Dennis Leupold for Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 4 presented by Prime Video)

The following is a press release from Prime Video:

Now in its fourth consecutive year, the extraordinary fashion experience continues to challenge tradition and break boundaries. The trailblazing event is raising the bar yet again with a new all-star lineup of models, actors, some of the biggest names in music, and more, debuting the latest Savage X Fenty styles. Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 4 will feature performances by global musical artists including Anitta, Burna Boy, Don Toliver, and Maxwell, and special appearances from Ángela Aguilar, Avani Gregg, Bella Poarch, Cara Delevingne, Damson Idris, Irina Shayk, Joan Smalls, Kornbread, Lara Stone, Lilly Singh, Marsai Martin, Precious Lee, Rickey Thompson, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Simu Liu, Taraji P. Henson, Taylour Paige, Winston Duke, Zach Miko, and many more.

A seductive fashion fever dream, this year’s show blends Emmy award-winning choreography, style, and music with the hypnotic essence of nocturnal nature. Featuring a star-studded cast all wearing the newest Savage X Fenty looks, the show is an un-missable visual feast.

Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 4 will stream exclusively on Prime Video in more than 240 countries and territories worldwide beginning November 9, 2022.

With the release of Vol. 4, the last Savage X Fenty collection will be available to shop in the Amazon Fashion store and at Savage X Fenty on November 9. An homage to self-expression and personal empowerment, Rihanna’s latest collection features disparate textures, unexpected detailing, and unconventional proportions that come together seamlessly to create a boundary-bending Xperience for everyBODY. Offering bra sizes ranging from 30–46 in bands and A–H in cups (up to 46DDD/42H), and underwear, sleepwear, and loungewear ranging from XS–4X/XS–XXXXL. Customers can visit the Amazon Fashion Store and Savage X Fenty for more information.

Rihanna serves as executive producer and creative director of Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 4.

About Savage X Fenty

Savage X Fenty embodies fearlessness, confidence, and inclusivity. With a team assembled from the industry’s elite, the label has disrupted and redefined the marketplace with its accessible price points, extensive assortment of styles made for everyBODY, and unique approach that celebrates individuality. “We want to make people look good and feel good,” explains Rihanna, who approaches Savage X Fenty with the same mentality she does all her projects—to make something new and fresh that everyone can relate to and feel confident in. “We want you to feel sexy and have fun doing it.” From everyday essentials, men’s underwear, and sleepwear, to elevated loungewear and more provocative pieces—Savage X Fenty has something for every mood, every vibe and everyBODY. Offering bra sizes ranging from 30–46 in bands and A–H in cups (up to 46DDD/42H), and underwear, sleepwear and loungewear ranging from XS–4X/XS–XXXXL, Savage X Fenty is available for purchase at www.SavageX.com and its retail stores.  

About Amazon Fashion 
Amazon Fashion, the fashion retail division of Seattle-based Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN), is a one-stop destination for head-to-toe style. Find apparel, shoes, accessories, jewelry, watches, handbags, and luggage from a wide range of designer, contemporary, and emerging brands for any occasion, any style and any budget. Amazon Fashion continues to expand its wide selection and create new experiences on behalf of its customers, including Prime exclusive programs like Prime Try Before You Buy, allowing you to try before you buy, and Personal Shopper by Prime Try Before You Buy, a service that provides style inspiration and curated recommendations. Amazon Fashion also introduced The Drop, an innovative shopping experience that gives customers access to limited-edition street-style collections designed by fashion influencers around the world. In 2020, Amazon Fashion unveiled Luxury Stores, a destination that brings established and emerging luxury fashion and beauty brands directly to U.S. customers. Amazon Fashion aims to reinvent shopping for fashion and uses technology to serve customers with products and brands that are relevant to them. For more information, please visit www.amazon.com/fashion.

About Prime Video

Prime Video offers customers a vast collection of movies, series, and sports—all available to watch on hundreds of compatible devices.

  • Included with Prime Video: Watch movies, series, and sports, including Thursday Night Football. Enjoy series and films including Emmy winner The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Emmy-nominated satirical superhero drama The Boys, and the smash hits Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, Harlem, Reacher, Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, The Tender Bar, Being the Ricardos, The Tomorrow War, and Coming 2 America. Prime members also get access to licensed content. 
  • Prime Video Channels: Prime members can add channels like discovery+, Paramount+, BET+, EPIX, Noggin, NBA League Pass, MLB.TV, STARZ, and SHOWTIME—no extra apps to download, and no cable required. Only pay for the ones you want, and cancel anytime.  View the full list of channels available at amazon.com/channels.
  • Rent or Buy: Enjoy new-release movies to rent or buy, entire seasons of current TV shows available to buy, and special deals just for Prime members.
  • Instant access: Watch at home or on the go with your choice of hundreds of compatible devices. Stream from the web or using the Prime Video app on your smartphone, tablet, set-top box, game console, or select smart TV. 
  • Enhanced experiences: Make the most of every viewing with 4K Ultra HD- and High Dynamic Range (HDR)-compatible content. Go behind the scenes of your favorite movies and TV shows with exclusive X-Ray access, powered by IMDb. Save it for later with select mobile downloads for offline viewing.

Prime Video is just one of many shopping, savings, and entertainment benefits included with a Prime membership, along with fast, free shipping on millions of Prime-eligible items at Amazon.com, ultrafast grocery delivery and pickup, unlimited photo storage, exclusive deals and discounts, prescription savings, and access to ad-free music, books, and games. To sign up or start a 30-day free trial of Prime, visit: amazon.com/prime


Review: ‘Thirteen Lives,’ starring Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell

July 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Thira “Aum” Chutikul, Popetorn “Two” Soonthornyanaku, Joel Edgerton, Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen in “Thirteen Lives” (Photo by Vince Valitutti/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Thirteen Lives”

Directed by Ron Howard

Some language in Thai with subtitles

Culture Representation: The dramatic film “Thirteen Lives” features a cast of white and Asian characters depicting working-class and middle-class people involved in the real-life mission to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach, who were trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand, from June 23 to July 10, 2018.

Culture Clash: The rescuers had to overcome language barriers, cultural differences and conflicts over the best rescue methods in order to complete the mission. 

Culture Audience: “Thirteen Lives” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching a very Hollywood and formulaic rescue mission story that sidelines or erases many of the perspectives of the real-life Asian people involved.

Viggo Mortensen, Tom Bateman, Colin Farrell and Thiraphat “Tui” Sajakul in “Thirteen Lives” (Photo by Vince Valitutti/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Thirteen Lives” is a bland, scripted counterpart to the superior documentary “The Rescue,” presented mainly from the perspectives of the rescuers who saved 13 people trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand in 2018. This bloated drama fails to properly acknowledge the 13 Thai survivors who were trapped in the cave, in an ordeal that lasted 18 days. This misleadingly titled movie called “Thirteen Lives” isn’t about those 13 lives. It’s mostly about the lives of the two British men who are touted as the movie’s biggest heroes, with a third man from Australia as a pivotal hero sidekick.

The award-winning 2021 documentary “The Rescue” couldn’t have the perspectives of the trapped people (in 2018, they were 12 boys ranging in ages from 11 to 16 and their 25-year-old soccer coach) because Netflix bought the exclusive rights to their stories. However, as a dramatic and scripted film, “Thirteen Lives” (directed by Ron Howard and written by William Nicholson) had the freedom to at least give viewers a sense of what it must have been like for the 13 survivors to go through this ordeal, based on news reports and what the survivors and their families told the media. As it stands, “Thirteen Lives” gives the bare minimum of screen time to the Thai people who suffered the most during this crisis.

Instead, the movie is all about giving the most screen time and praise to the British and Australian cave divers who volunteered their services, with Thai cave divers and Thai officials treated as supporting characters. Two middle-aged Brits in particular are spotlighted as the chief heroes: Rick Stanton (played by Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (played by Colin Farrell), two cave-diving friends who volunteered their services and sometimes have to battle against stubborn Thai officials who are skeptical of Rick’s and John’s ideas. “Thirteen Lives” shows more information about John’s family than any of the families of the trapped victims combined.

The crisis began on June 23, 2018, when the boys (who were all on the same soccer team) and the team’s assistant coach decided to spend some time exploring the cave in the afternoon. Located in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province, the cave stretches for 10,000 meters or 6.2 miles. Monsoon rain storms that were expected later that summer arrived earlier than expected and flooded the cave, thereby trapping the boys and their coach. “Thirteen Lives” gives only one child in the group anything resembling acknowledgement that he is an individual human being. His name in the movie is Chai (played by Pasakorn Hoyhon), but there is very little revealed about him or his personality.

Chai’s mother Buahom (played by Pattrakorn Tungsupakul) is the only parent of the 12 boys who has screen time that shows something that looks like individuality. She’s the only parent in “Thirteen Lives” who’s given specific scenes where she’s shown talking to rescue officials (often in angry frustration) to get the latest information on the search and rescue efforts. Before she finds out that Chai is trapped in a cave, Buahom mentions early on in the movie that she wishes that she could go to more of his soccer games, but she can’t because she has to work. That’s all the information that viewers will get about her.

“Thirteen Lives” makes Bauahom such a marginal role, viewers will have a hard time remembering if her first name was even said in the movie. It’s almost offensive how “Thirteen Lives” makes Bauahom the “token family member” and brushes aside all the other survivors’ family members who were in agony too. Any other family members shown in the movie are essentially background characters, with few of them having any lines of dialogue.

Meanwhile, “Thirteen Lives” gives plenty of time for viewers to get to know John (an information technology consultant) and Rick (a retired firefighter), both natives of England who share a passion for cave diving in their spare time. John is a happily married father who is shown at home with his family before and after he goes to Thailand for this rescue mission. Rick’s personal life is not shown, but he mentions at one point that he doesn’t like kids very much.

John tends to be optimistic. Rick tends to be pessimistic. The movie shows that it was John’s idea to contact Rick to be a part of this rescue mission after it made international news. The two men, who have been on-again/off-again close friends in their social circle of cave diving fanatics, consider themselves to be experts with years of experience diving in the types of caves where most people would not dare to go.

John’s and Rick’s names end up on a list of potential rescuers given to the Thai government when the Thai Navy SEALs find out almost all of the Thai Navy SEALs don’t have the training to dive in the type of cave where the boys and their coach are trapped. Thai officials and rescuers are put in the story as either helpful or not-very-helpful to what John and Rick want to do. Expect to see trite and predictable scenes of language barriers and egos having an effect on any tension-filled communication between the non-Thai people and the Thai people.

Vern Unsworth (played by Lewis Fitz-Gerald) is another Brit cave diver who’s on the scene because he’s very familiar with the cave. He’s in his 60s and is more experienced than John and Rick when it comes to knowing about Thai government politics. He tells his fellow Brits that Governor Narongsak (played by Sahajak Boonthanakit) is on his way out of office, but the governor was asked to stay on the job during this cave crisis, “in case they need a fall guy” if anyone dies.

Other rescue cave divers who make appearances include Thai Navy SEALs named Commander Kiet (played by Thira Chutikul), Suman (played Sukollawat Kanarot) and Pichai (played by Bernard Sam), who are all written as very generic characters. If you know what happened in real life, then you know that one of these Thai Navy SEALs heroically died during this rescue. (His death and funeral are depicted in “Thirteen Lives.”) One of the rescue cave divers is a Thai medical professional named Dr. Karn (played by Popetorn Soonthornyanakij), who can speak Thai and English.

Other military officials depicted in “Thirteen Lives” include Thailand’s minister of interior General Anupong (played by Vithaya Pansringarm) and the U.S. Air Force’s Major Hodges (played by Josh Helman) and Captain Olivia Taft (played by Zahra Newman), who is the token female military character to have a speaking role in the movie. All of these supporting roles are written as ultimately following what John and Rick want to do. Because most people watching this movie already know the real-life outcome of this rescue mission, there’s no real suspense in any of these decision-making conflicts.

There are two other Westerners who end up featuring prominently in “Thirteen Lives” as rescuers: British Cave Rescue Council member Chris Jewell (played by Tom Bateman) has the role of the strapping young cave diver who is supposed to be less experienced than John and Rick. And then there’s anesthesiologist Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris (played by Joel Edgerton), an Australian who’s called on by Rick and John later in the movie to implement a radical and risky idea.

While all this political maneuvering and ego posturing is going on outside the cave, “Thirteen Lives” viewers get only the briefest of glimpses on what the trapped victims were experiencing inside the cave. There’s so much about their survival that was in the news in real life that was left out of “Thirteen Lives,” because apparently the filmmakers thought it was more important to have scenes of Rick and John moping around when they were both temporarily barred from being part of the search and rescue.

When Rick is part of the team that finds the boys and the coach, he has this to say in a private conversation with John: “I knew we’d find them. I didn’t expect to find them alive.” The movie is filled with maudlin dialogue. John and Rick show very little interest in knowing who the boys and the coach are, perhaps as a way not to get too personally involved with people who might die in the cave. In the movie, John and Rick are depicted as more concerned about their own reputations as cave divers and rescuers.

“Thirteen Lives” gives viewers only superficial snippets of what it took for these boys and their coach to survive under these extremely traumatic conditions. In one scene, the boys tell their rescuers that Coach Ek (played by Teeradon Supapunpinyo) instructed them to meditate and not let fear overtake them. The boys are depicted as stoic, with almost no filmmaker effort to put names to faces, except for Chai, who still has a non-descript personality.

Getting the trapped people out of the cave was complicated by the tricky and dangerous route to get to their location in the cave. Numerous people inside and outside the cave also had to keep diverting rain water to prevent more flooding. Therefore, it took several days after the survivors were found until they could be removed from the cave. All of this is depicted in “Thirteen Lives” in a very perfunctory, “by the numbers” manner, with little regard to what the people trapped inside the cave must have been feeling.

The stops and starts of this rescue also drag down “Thirteen Lives,” to the point where even the rescuers look bored at times. No one does a terrible acting performance in the movie, but “Thirteen Lives” is by no means going to win any major awards for its acting performances. And at an overly long total run time of nearly two-and-half-hours, “Thirteen Lives” would have greatly benefited from better editing. There are only so many times when viewers need to see clinical-looking timelines focusing on scowling Rick and worried John before it gets tedious very quickly.

While these two rescuers are brooding in their hotel or at the rescue camp, there’s a more urgent and compelling story inside the cave that’s shut out of this movie. If people expect “Thirteen Lives” to give fascinating or informative insight into what it’s like to survive while trapped in a flooded cave for 18 days with very little food and fresh water, then there will be viewer disappointment, because “Thirteen Lives” is not that movie. There’s a lot of information in the public domain about this survival story that the “Thirteen Lives” filmmakers chose not to put in the movie. The messages that the trapped people sent to their loved ones get barely one or two minutes of screen time in “Thirteen Lives.”

Toward the end of the movie, there’s a brief flash of a message board displaying the photos of the 13 trapped victims, but no one ever says all of their individual names out loud in “Thirteen Lives,” even though these survivors are the movie’s namesakes. Only a few of their names are mentioned, but the movie gives no depictions of their individual personalities. Even if the “Thirteen Lives” filmmakers couldn’t use the real-life names, they could have given viewers an empathetic sense of who these survivors are as people, but the “Thirteen Lives” filmmakers chose not to do that. This omission is a travesty and a major failing of “Thirteen Lives.”

The survivors’ family members are sidelined for most of the movie as mostly nameless, weeping and praying people whose anguish is given the Hollywood treatment. Their traumatic experiences are treated as a lot less important than pushing the narrative that the Thai people were ineffective in this crisis until non-Thai people came to the rescue with the best ideas and the best skill sets. Any teamwork shown in the movie is with a tone that the Westerners/non-Thai people are the superior ones on the team.

This real-life cave rescue has been the basis of several on-screen retellings of the story. In addition to “Thirteen Lives” and “The Rescue,” there’s the dramatic movie “The Cave,” which was originally released in Thailand in 2019, and is set for a theatrical and home video release in the U.S. (under the title “Cave Rescue”) via Lionsgate on August 5, 2022—the same date that “Thirteen Lives” premieres on Prime Video. Written and directed by Tom Waller, “The Cave”/”Cave Rescue” (which got mostly negative reviews) features a cast of little-known actors and some of the real-live cave divers portraying themselves. In addition, Netflix’s limited drama series “Thai Cave Rescue” is set to premiere on September 22, 2022.

While all these film and TV people are trying to cash in on this story, here are the names of the survivors of this crisis: Mongkhon “Mark” Bunpiam, Somphong “Pong” Chaiwong, Ekkaphon “Eak” Kanthawong (the coach), Phonchai “Tee” Khamluang, Duangphet “Dom” Phromthep, Phiphat “Nick” Phothi, Phanumat “Mig” Saengdi, Adun “Dul” Sam-on, Phiraphat “Night” Somphiangchai, Prachak “Note” Sutham, Natthawut “Tern” Thakhamsong, Chanin “Titan” Wibunrungrueang and Ekkarat “Bew” Wongsukchan.

“Thirteen Lives” might not want viewers to know their individual names, but anyone who really cares about this true story should at least acknowledge that these survivors are people with their own individual lives, hopes and dreams. Their survival story is inspirational, but “Thirteen Lives” uses it as a cynical plot device. These survivors shouldn’t be mostly nameless and generic background characters to put in a Hollywood movie, in order to make other people look more important.

United Artists Releasing/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures will release “Thirteen Lives” in select U.S. cinemas on July 29, 2022. Prime Video will premiere the movie on August 5, 2022.

Review: ‘Lucy and Desi,’ starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

March 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in “Lucy and Desi” (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress/Amazon Content Services)

“Lucy and Desi”

Directed by Amy Poehler

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Lucy and Desi” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few Latinos), representing the middle-class and wealthy, discussing the lives and legacy of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the power couple who redefined television in the 1950s and 1960s.

Culture Clash: Ball and Arnaz broke barriers for women and Latinos in charge of TV productions, while the couple struggled with several marital issues that resulted in their divorce. 

Culture Audience: Besides obviously appealing to fans of “I Love Lucy” (the TV comedy series that made Ball and Arnaz household names), “Lucy and Desi” will appeal primarily to people interested in stores about celebrity couples or chronicles of TV history from the 1950s and 1960s.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in “Lucy and Desi” (Photo courtesy of Bettmann/Amazon Content Services)

The documentary “Lucy and Desi” plays it safe in telling the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. However, the movie’s treasure trove of audio and video archives make it worth watching for anyone interested in TV history and this fascinating power couple. It’s perhaps fitting that “Lucy and Desi” was directed by Amy Poehler, a comedic actress whose life has some similarities to Ball’s, by becoming an executive producer in television and having a high-profile divorce from another comedic entertainer. “Lucy and Desi” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

One of the biggest challenges that documentarians have when doing biographies of famous people is getting exclusive access, whether it’s access to certain interviews, places or archives. There’s often a non-monetary price to be paid when given that access: In exchange for that access, there’s usually an explicit or non-explicit agreement that the documentarians won’t put any scandalous “dirt” on the celebrity in the documentary. It might compromise the integrity of the documentary, depending on how “whitewashed” the documentary becomes.

“Lucy and Desi” puts just enough information about Ball and Arnaz’s behind-the-scenes problems to not be a complete “whitewash,” but the information is not new or insightful. Instead, the movie gives a lot of the narrative over to the eldest child of Ball and Arnaz: Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, who gets the most screen time out of all the people interviewed for this documentary. Arnaz Luckinbill gives the impression that she never got over her parents’ divorce and that she wished that her parents had gotten back together.

Ball and Arnaz were married to each other from 1940 to 1960. Arnaz died in 1986, at the age of 69. Ball died in 1989, at the age of 77. At the time of their deaths, they were both married to their respective second spouses: Edith Hirsch (whom Arnaz married in 1963) and Gary Morton (whom Ball married in 1961). Even after their divorce, Ball and Arnaz continued to work together because they co-founded and shared Desilu Productions, which became one of the most powerful independent TV studios in Hollywood history.

In the beginning of the documentary, Arnaz Luckinbill comments on her family archives (audio, video and photos) that are featured in the documentary: “Underneath all of this painful stuff and disappointment, at the core it’s all about unconditional love. I find now that I’m much more forgiving when looking back on this. A lot of it is much clearer to me now.”

It’s worth noting that Arnaz Luckinbill opened up the family archives before when she produced the 1993 made-for-TV documentary “Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie,” which was televised in the U.S. on NBC. In that particular documentary, she and her brother Desi Arnaz Jr. reminisced about their parents while commenting on the footage shown in the film. At times, “Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie” resembles a family therapy session. Writer/director/former actor Laurence Luckinbill, who married Arnaz Luckinbill in 1980, was a writer of that documentary.

The Poehler-directed “Lucy and Desi” documentary opens up the film to commentaries from more people, but they do nothing but praise Ball and Arnaz. Carol Burnett says about Ball: “She was fearless in her comedy.” Bette Midler gushes about Ball: “You saw someone who was so beautiful, but she wasn’t afraid to look ugly, which we almost never saw women do.” Charo makes this statement about Arnaz: “He was the king of Latin music.”

Because Ball was the more famous person in this couple, her pre-fame personal story is told first. Die-hard fans will not learn anything new, but the documentary dutifully gives a summary of how Ball started her entertainment career in New York City, where she moved at the age of 14 to enroll in John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts and was expected to earn money for the family as a professional entertainer.

Born in Jamestown, New York, Ball came from a troubled family background. Her father Henry Durrell “Had” Ball died of typhoid fever when she was 3 years old. The family (including Lucille’s younger brother Fred Ball) moved around a lot in her childhood. By the time Lucille became a teenager, she had lived in New York state, New Jersey, Montana and Michigan.

Her mother Désirée Evelyn “DeDe” Ball married second husband Edward Peterson four years after the death of her first husband. When Lucille was a child, she and her brother sometimes lived with their mother’s parents and later Peterson’s parents. Not having a true sense of home security had profound effects on Lucille, but it also toughened her and prepared her for the harsh realities and erratic nature of showbiz.

Ball’s younger brother Fred says in an archival interview that his mother Dede was very “commanding and authoritative,” and that Lucille had those personality traits too. In 1927, when Lucille was 16, her maternal grandfather was sued when Fred’s girlfriend at the time accidentally shot and paralyzed a neighborhood boy. As the adult who was in charge of supervising Fred and his visiting girlfriend (who were both underage teenagers at the time), the grandfather was held liable for the shooting, and the family’s finances were destroyed.

Lucille’s relocation to New York City was partially motivated by her family expecting her showbiz earning to help the family financially. She became a showgirl (the documentary has an archival audio where she says she “was a dud” as a showgirl), then briefly a model (under the name Diane Belmont) and then a theater actress. She soon got an opportunity to be in movies and moved to Los Angeles. Lucille says in an archival interview: “I loved Hollywood. I had no thought of ever going back.”

But it wasn’t all glitz and glamour. For years, Lucille was stuck in bit parts or in forgettable supporting roles in mostly B-movies. Her first movie role was an uncredited part in 1933’s “Roman Scandals.” She studied acting under the tutelage of RKO Talent’s Lela Rogers, the influential manager/mother of actress/dancer Ginger Rogers. When the movie roles weren’t getting Lucille very far, she turned to doing radio serials. Her radio career set her on the path to the phenomenon of “I Love Lucy.”

Arnaz (who was born and raised in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba) came from a more privileged background than his future first wife. He was born into a multi-generational family of influential politicians and business executives, including having a maternal grandfather who was an executive at rum company Bacardi. But when the Cuban Revolution happened in 1933, when Arnaz was 14, his family lost their fortune.

He fled to Miami as a refugee and became a musician performing a mix of Latin music and big band music. He eventually led the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, which became a well-known music group in the United States. In 1939, Arnaz was cast as the star of the Broadway musical “Too Many Girls.” After “I Love Lucy” became a hit, Arnaz changed the name of his band to the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra, named after his Ricky Ricardo character on the show.

Arnaz and Lucille had something else in common besides their families losing their fortunes: They both had domineering mothers. Arnaz’s mother Dolores “Lolita” De Acha was as demanding of Lucille as she was of her son, according to a comment that Lucille makes in the documentary. After Arnaz and Lucille became rich and famous, they both took care of their respective mothers for the rest of their lives.

It’s already well-known that Lucille and Arnaz met on the set of the 1940 movie “Too Many Girls,” where Arnaz reprised his starring role from the Broadway show. The couple had a quickie courtship and eloped on November 30, 1940. Ten years later, Lucille was starring in and producing a comedy radio show called “My Favorite Husband,” which was loosely based on her marriage.

Television executives offered her a starring role in a TV series version of “My Favorite Husband,” and she accepted the offer on the condition that Arnaz play her husband on the show. It would be the first time that a Latino became a star in an American TV series. The show was called “I Love Lucy,” which had the couple portraying the characters of Lucy Ricardo and Ricky Ricardo. In the United States, “I Love Lucy” premiered on CBS on October 15, 1951. And the rest is history. (The documentary includes some footage from an unaired pilot episode of “I Love Lucy.”)

Not only did the couple star in “I Love Lucy,” but they were also executive producers of the show, at a time when it was rare for women and people of color to be executive producers of TV shows. Arnaz and Lucille also broke barriers for women and people of color in television when they co-founded Desilu Productions in 1950. In addition to producing all TV series starring Lucille Ball from 1950 to 1967 (the year that Desilu shuttered), Desilu produced a long list of hit shows in the 1950s and 1960s, including “Star Trek,” “The Untouchables,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Our Miss Brooks” and “The Ann Sothern Show.” “I Love Lucy” is credited with being the first TV series turn reruns/repeat episodes into a lucrative way to make money.

“I Love Lucy” famously became the first American scripted TV show to depict a woman’s pregnancy, at the insistence of the couple, because Lucille was pregnant in real life at the time with son Desi Arnaz Jr. Her childbirth was written into show, and the 1953 episode about the birth of Ricky Ricardo Jr., also known as Little Ricky, became a ratings bonanza. Arnaz Jr. played Little Ricky on “I Love Lucy,” until the show ended in 1957. Arnaz Jr. appears briefly in the “Lucy and Desi” documentary and makes this comment: “I was in the public eye before I could even communicate.”

Arnaz’s impact on Latino representation on American television cannot be underestimated. The documentary interviews Cuban playwright/professor Eduardo Machado, who remembers being a child in California’s San Fernando Valley and learning to speak English because he saw Arnaz on TV. Machado comments, “Desi brought sophistication where Latinos are hardly seen as sophisticated.” Spanish musician/band leader Xavier Cugat also comments on how influential Arnaz was in breaking barriers for Latinos in a white-dominated entertainment industry.

The role of women in positions of power on television also changed because of “I Love Lucy” and Desilu Productions. Emmy-winning TV showrunner/creator Norman Lear comments in the documentary: “‘I Love Lucy’ did a lot for helping Americans understand that just because a guy was male, that doesn’t mean he was the dominant character. Women could be the dominant character too.”

The documentary mentions Lucille’s reputation for being a tough taskmaster, but only puts a positive spin on it. National Comedy Center executive director Journey Gunderson comments, “There’s such a disparate focus on how hard-nosed she could be. But think about how many times she must’ve been ‘mansplained’ to on the set.”

National Comedy Center director of archives and research Lauren LaPlaca says about Lucille Ball’s legacy: “I don’t like when people call her work ‘effortless’ … She really built her success … It’s pretty clear that she had a scientific approach to what generates a laugh.”

The 2021 dramatic film “Being the Ricardos” (starring Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, in Oscar-nominated performances) focused on a week in the life of the couple while dealing with three main issues that were in real life spread out over a period of years. “Being the Ricardos” includes the controversy over Lucille being branded a Communist in the media because she once filled out a voter registration form and listed herself as a member of the Communist Party. This controversy came during the U.S. government’s Communist witch hunt known as the Red Scare, which ruined the lives and careers of many people who were labeled Communists. “Being the Ricardos” also depicted the battles that the couple had with executives at CBS’s then-parent company Westinghouse and “I Love Lucy” chief sponsoring company Philip Morris about the pregnancy storyline. And the couple fought with each other over ongoing media reports that Arnaz was an unfaithful husband.

Another issue brought up in “Being the Ricardos,” which is a subplot in the movie, is the nature of the relationships between Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and their “I Love Lucy” co-stars Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played the Ricardos’ best friends/neighbors Ethel Mertz and Fred Mertz. The “Lucy and Desi” documentary doesn’t dwell too much on any behind-the-scenes drama between these four stars. Gregg Oppenheimer, son of “I Love Lucy” head writer Jess Oppenheimer, repeats a well-known story that Vance thought that Frawley was too old to portray her husband, and Frawley (who was 22 years older than Vance) was offended when he found out that Vance felt that way. (In “Being the Ricardos,” Vance is played by Nina Arianda, while Frawley is played by J.K. Simmons, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance in the movie.)

“Lucy and Desi” avoids detailing any infidelity that contributed to the demise of the Ball/Arnaz marriage. And the Communist issue is barely given a mention, with Arnaz Luckinbill only making this comment how her parents dealt with the Communist controversy: “She was scared. My father took charge.” (In real life, the FBI cleared Lucille of suspicion of being a Communist when it was determined that she was never an active member of the Communist Party.) As for the pregnancy storyline, everyone knows who won that battle and how everything turned out.

What the documentary does detail is how the pressures of showbiz led to the breakdown of the marriage. Several people in the documentary, including Arnaz Luckinbill, describe it this way: Lucille wasn’t as interested in the business side of Desilu as Arnaz was, and he eventually scaled back on being a musician/actor to focus on running Desilu. However, because Lucille was more famous than he was, many people perceived Lucille as being more powerful, which caused jealousy and resentment from Arnaz, who also became an alcoholic and began spending less time with his family at home.

This alcohol addiction took a toll until Arnaz couldn’t really function in his job, and Lucille had to take over his duties at Desilu, which she resented because she didn’t really like the “office executive” parts of the job. Even though Arnaz’s productivity declined in the final years of Desilu, he’s praised in the documentary for being an underrated TV visionary who was able to bring out the best in people. David Daniels, son of original “I Love Lucy” director Marc Daniels, comments: “Desi was a collaborator in the supreme sense of the word—and that’s where you get the best stuff.”

Arnaz Luckinbill says of her parents’ troubled marriage: “He hurt her by his actions. She hurt him by her words.” According to the documentary, Arnaz was the one who wanted to end the marriage, but Lucille was the one who filed for divorce first. Arnaz Luckinbill comments, “The hard edge softened the minute they got divorced, but they did love one another.” She also shares a touching story of what happened when her parents talked for the last time when Arnaz was on his deathbed: They both said, “I love you” several times to each other during this last goodbye.

“Lucy and Desi” is capably directed and edited in a traditional documentary style. There’s nothing really substandard about the documentary, but it gives the impression that a lot more could have been in the movie but was left out because it would be unflattering to the Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz legacy. For die-hard fans, the “Lucy and Desi” documentary can be considered entertaining but a tad redundant, considering the plethora of biographies in many formats that have exhaustively covered this legacy. “Lucy and Desi” is ultimately a tribute-styled summary that will only be truly revelatory to people who know little to nothing about this legendary couple who changed television forever.

Prime Video premiered “Lucy and Desi” on March 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Master’ (2022), starring Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam and Amber Gray

February 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Regina Hall and Amber Gray in “Master” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Content Services)

“Master” (2022)

Directed by Mariama Diallo

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Ancaster, Massachusetts, the horror film “Master” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy who are connected in some way to a prestigious university.

Culture Clash: A college professor, who is the first African American leader of a co-ed dormitory, finds herself getting involved in the problems of another African American woman, who is a first-year undergraduate student and might be the target of a curse that has haunted the college campus.

Culture Audience: “Master” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in horror movies that have social commentary about race relations in America.

Zoe Renee in “Master” (Photo by Linda Kallerus/Amazon Content Services)

“Master” has similar racism themes that were explored in filmmaker Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning 2017 horror movie “Get Out,” an impactful story about an African American man who goes with his white girlfriend to meet her parents for the first time and experiences terror that he did not expect. Instead of an upscale suburban house that’s the setting for the horror in “Get Out,” the horror in “Master” takes place on an upscale college campus and through the perspectives of African American women. In many ways, “Master” skillfully depicts the parallels between supernatural horror and realistic racism, but other parts of the movie needed improvement in resolving certain characters’ storylines.

Some viewers might find the ending of “Master” to be underwhelming or unsatisfying. However, the movie delivers enough suspense-filled scenes to be an entertaining thriller, especially for people who prefer horror movies that don’t have a lot a bloody gore. “Master” also has the benefit of a talented ensemble cast convincingly portraying the characters that are sometimes underdeveloped in the movie’s compelling but flawed screenplay. “Master” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Written and directed by Mariama Diallo, “Master” takes place almost entirely on the campus of the fictional Ancaster College in Ancaster, Massachusetts. Ancaster College is a prestigious institution that is one of the oldest colleges in the United States. The college campus was built on the land where a woman named Margaret Millett was hanged for witchcraft on December 3, 1694. And you know what that means for a horror movie.

“Master,” which is set in the present day, opens with the arrival of a freshman undergraduate student named Jasmine Moore (played by Zoe Renee), who immediately catches the attention of the other students. Why? For starters, she’s one of the few African American students on campus. Secondly, Jasmine has been assigned a dorm room (Room 302) that has a notorious and sinister reputation for being haunted. Jasmine is living in a co-ed dormitory called Belleville House. Not far from Belleville House is the site where suspected witch Margaret Millett was hanged.

Jasmine finds out later why the room is said to be cursed. But on her move-in day, she has no idea that there’s anything wrong with the room. She gets a hint though, when she tells some students that she’s in Room 302 at Belleville, and they react by telling her that she has “the room.” The tone in their voices indicates that “the room” means that Jasmine is either going to be the target of danger or the target of some cruel pranks.

Jasmine’s roommate is a spoiled and jaded student named Amelia (played by Talia Ryder), who is also in her first year at Ancaster College. The college has recently appointed a new “house master” for Belleville: Gail Bishop (played by Regina Hall), a tenured professor who is the first black person to become an Ancaster College house master. Gail is also an alum of Ancaster College, so she is accustomed to being in this predominantly white environment. However, based on the fact that it’s taken this long for Ancaster College to appoint a black person to a house master position, this elite institution isn’t as progressive as some of its politically liberal officials would like to think it is.

The use of the word “master” for the title of a house leader is also very outdated, since it conjures up images and attitudes of what it meant to be a “master” of a house when slavery was legal in the United States. According to the production notes for “Master,” when writer/director Diallo was an undergraduate at Yale University, the word “master” was still used at the university as the title for a dormitory house leader. Yale stopped using the word “master” for this house leader title in 2016, after students protested over the slavery connotations of the term.

In the “Master” production notes, Diallo describes an experience that she had years after she graduated from Yale, when she saw a former “master” of a Yale house where she used to live: “I was so excited to see him that I called out hello, addressing him as Master. He looked hugely uncomfortable because we were in earshot of a ton of people … Anyway, we went on to have a lovely conversation. But as soon as I walked away, I told myself I had to make a film about it because it really threw into relief how bizarre that term, that relationship is. And I knew I wanted to call it ‘Master’ because of the multiple layers of meaning.”

In “Master,” Gail thinks of herself as an approachable, qualified and inspirational leader. At her first meeting with the students living in Belleville House, she reminds them how privileged they are to be Ancaster College students: “Two U.S. presidents and an army of senators count this school as their alma mater,” she declares proudly. She adds, “I am more than a professor. I am a confidante, an ally, a friend.”

She also makes a statement where she might be psychologically projecting how she feels about Ancaster College: “My last fact: You will never go back home again. When you head to your hometowns over break, it will be as visitors … All I can say to you now is, ‘Welcome home.'” Gail’s comment assumes that everyone will feel at home on the Ancaster College campus—or at least at Belleville House, which she’s been tasked to lead. Gail will soon find out how wrong she was with this assumption.

The movie makes a point of showing that Gail’s life revolves around her work. There are clues that even though she’s been given this “master” position, things won’t go smoothly for her. She’s had to move into the “master” living quarters near Belleville. She lives alone and doesn’t have much of a personal life.

Gail is not particularly close to anyone at work, she doesn’t seem to have any friends outside of work, and she doesn’t mention having any love interests. Gail is an only child, and her only family appears to be her mother, who lives far away. This lack of a nearby support system adds to the isolation Gail feels when things start to go wrong.

In an early scene in the movie, Gail tries to open the door to the house where she’s recently moved, but the lock is jammed. As she walks away in frustration, the door mysteriously opens on its own. It can be interpreted as a sign of a ghostly presence. However, if viewers look at “Master” as a way of showing how institutions and people can be haunted by racism (which is Diallo’s overall message of this movie), the eerie incident with the locked door is a symbolic way of showing Gail might have been invited into the elite echelon of house masters, but she’s still going to face some barriers.

One of the best things about “Master” is the way it accurately shows racism in its many forms. People who are racist or have unconscious racist biases often don’t think they are racists. But their racism comes out in subtle ways, such as when they immediately ask a black person why they are in a place that happens to be populated with mostly white people—as if the black person has to justify a reason to exist in that place. Meanwhile, white people in the same place aren’t given the same type of scrutiny.

Another form of racism is automatically assuming that a black student at a prestigious university got there because of an athletic scholarship, Affirmative Action/tokenism, or because they’re related to a celebrity. People who have this type of racism find it hard to believe that a black person can get into a prestigious university based on intellectual merit, such as excellent academics and being a well-rounded student—the same reasons why many people automatically assume white students are at prestigious universities.

Jasmine experiences some of this subtle racism when she interacts with Amelia and Amelia’s campus friends, who are all white. Amelia and her friends don’t really exclude Jasmine, but they make it clear that they don’t want Jasmine to be their close friend without even getting to know her first. On the first night that Jasmine and Amelia hang out with some other first-year female students at Ancaster College, Jasmine finds out that Amelia already knows some of these students because they were in the same network of elite high schools. By contrast, Jasmine (who is quiet and reserved) doesn’t know anyone at Ancaster College when she arrives there.

The teens play the drinking game Never Have I Ever. And it soon becomes obvious to Jasmine that Amelia and her friends are more sexually experienced than Jasmine is, since one of the challenges in this drinking game is “Never have I ever been part of the Mile High Club.” As Amelia and her friends brag about their partying antics during high-priced vacations, Jasmine looks a little uncomfortable. She gives the impression that she’s the bookish type.

And so, when the drinking challenge is “Never have I ever pissed on myself,” Jasmine seems relieved that she has a “wild” story to share too. She’s the only one in the group who admits that she’s urinated on herself. Jasmine explains it happened once when she was sleepwalking. The other teens look horrified and a little disgusted with Jasmine’s story, even though it’s hard to believe (considering all their drunken partying) that no one else in the group ever urinated on themselves.

Jasmine experiences racism one evening when she goes back to her dorm room and finds Amelia hanging out with some of Amelia’s male and female friends. Jasmine is the only person of color in the room. The other people look at Jasmine as if she’s intruding (even though it’s her room too), and they invite her to join the conversation, with a hint of reluctance. A guy named Tyler (played by Will Hochman) immediately zeroes in on Jasmine to question what she’s doing at Ancaster College.

Tyler asks sarcastically, “Who are you? Beyoncé?” He then rattles off some names of other famous black female entertainers, such as Nicki Minaj and Lizzo. Even though he says it in a joking manner, his racist condescension is obvious. Jasmine tries to laugh off Tyler’s backhanded insult disguised as a joke, but viewers can see that it bothers Jasmine, and she’s hurt.

There are three main reasons why Tyler’s “joking around” is racially offensive. First, Tyler doesn’t see Jasmine as being intellectually worthy of being at Ancaster College, so he questions why she’s there, and then compares her to entertainers as a reason for why she’s at this elite college. He doesn’t question why the white students are there. Second, Tyler lists only black female entertainers who use sexuality to sell their images, so he immediately tries to put Jasmine in a sexual context, which is a racial stereotype that many people have of black women. Third, even though Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Lizzo look nothing alike, racists often think people of another race all look alike.

It’s at this get-together that Jasmine first hears about why the Belleville House dorm room she’s living in is reportedly haunted: A female student died there in the 1960s. Somehow, the legend of Margaret Millett got entangled in the story of this death, because there’s a story that Room 302 is cursed by this suspected witch. According to the story, the witch will show herself to a freshman student at 3:33 a.m. and take that student to hell.

Jasmine then starts to have nightmares, and she senses that a shadowy figure is following her on campus. It should come as no surprise that Jasmine goes to a library to do research about the student who died in the room. Jasmine finds out that the student who died in the room was an 18-year-old named Louisa Weeks, who was found dead of suicide by hanging in the room on December 4, 1965. Louisa was also the first black student at Ancaster College.

Gail starts to experience some strange things too. As a tradition, house masters get their portrait painted, and the painting is hung with the portraits of the other past and present house masters at Ancaster College. After she gets her portrait painted, Gail finds maggots and flies coming out of the painting. The movie’s jump scares aren’t very original, but “Master” keeps people in suspense about what will happen next.

Gail also experiences how race and racism affect the power structure and barriers in her own career at Ancaster College. At a faculty party, two white colleagues—Diandra (played by Talia Balsam) and Brian (played by Bruce Altman)—congratulate Gail on being named Ancaster College’s first black person to become a house master. Diandra’s and Brian’s titles aren’t mentioned in the movie, but they have more seniority and more power than Gail at Ancaster College.

In a racially insensitive remark, Diandra and Brian compare Gail to Barack Obama and laugh because they think it’s a clever joke. The way that Diandra and Brian go on and on about Gail breaking this racial barrier at Ancaster College, it’s clear that Brian and Diandra think it’s more important to congratulate themselves for looking “progressive” in being among the decision makers for Gail to get the house master job, instead of giving validation to Gail that she earned this position on her own merits, not because she was a “token” black hire.

In another scene, Diandra dictates over the phone to Gail about how Gail should write a speech for an upcoming event attended by numerous Ancaster College donors. It will be the first big event where Gail is formally introduced to donors as the college’s latest house master. Diandra wants the speech to be worded in such a way where Gail will sound like a subservient black employee who’s grateful to the Ancaster College “powers that be” for appointing her as the first black person in this position. Gail has to tactfully steer Diandra away from that verbiage and let Gail write a speech where Gail’s accomplishments and goals are the focus, not her race.

“Get Out” brilliantly lampoons this type of racial condescension from white people who want to project a “progressive liberal” image, but who secretly think people who aren’t white are inferior. “Master” doesn’t blend these issues with horror as well as “Get Out” does, but “Master” does show a black female perspective that was lacking in “Get Out.” Because women of color have to deal with racism and sexism, “Master” adeptly depicts how this double-edged sword of bigotry can be used against accomplished black women whose capabilities and intelligence are constantly questioned or underestimated.

Gail and Jasmine both experience racist micro-aggressions throughout the movie. When Jasmine goes to an on-campus party by herself, a white guy at the front door won’t let her in, and he says that the party is “at capacity.” Meanwhile, white students are seen going into the party with no one stopping them. Jasmine is allowed entry into the party only after one of Amelia’s friends named Katie (played by Noa Fisher) sees Jasmine and tells the racist at the door that Jasmine is with her.

After getting racist comments from Tyler, Jasmine changes her hairstyle from natural curls to straightened hair. She also stops dressing in casual street wear and starts to dress more like a preppy student, as if she wants to assimilate more into the so-called white elitist culture at Ancaster College. Observant viewers will also notice how Jasmine goes back to her original way of dressing and wearing her hair as she grows more disillusioned with Ancaster College.

“Master” also effectively shows that even among black people, allyship isn’t always guaranteed. A “blink and you’ll miss it” moment comes early on in the movie, when Jasmine is in a school cafeteria, and a black female cafeteria worker (played by Angela Grovey) gives Jasmine a very dirty look without saying a word to Jasmine. It’s indicative of the resentment that some working-class black people might have of other black people they assume are too “uppity” and “trying to be white” if they’re accepted into a predominantly white and elite institution.

And there’s an outspoken Ancaster College professor named Liv Beckman (played by Amber Gray), who wears her hair in African-styled braids. Liv constantly talks about race and considers herself to be a progressive social justice warrior. Liv has very different relationships with Gail (who is a colleague/peer) and Jasmine (who is a student) because of the power structure involved.

At the faculty party shown early on in the movie, Gail and and Liv have a private conversation outside, where Liv comments to Gail about how there are very few black women who are part of Ancaster College’s faculty: “Us sisters are an endangered species.” Liv invites Gail to go on a weekend getaway trip with her to Boston. Gail politely declines the offer. But eventually, Liv and Gail start to become friends and go on a short getaway trip together.

This friendship might cloud Gail’s judgment when she’s part of a committee evaluating whether or not Liv will get tenure at Ancaster College. Diandra, who is also on the committee, is skeptical that Liv is qualified for tenure, while Gail seems to vacillate over whether or not to support Liv in these committee discussions. This subplot of “will Liv get tenure or not” makes the movie a little clunky and distracting from the main plot.

Liv is extremely friendly to Gail, but the same can’t be said of how Liv treats Jasmine, who is one of Liv’s students in an English literature class. Liv gives the class an assignment to do a critical race analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter,” which is about a woman who is publicly shamed for committing adultery. The challenge of this assignment is that all the characters in “The Scarlet Letter” are white; therefore, the book isn’t really about relations between different races.

In a classroom discussion of this assignment, Liv dismisses Jasmine’s ideas. But then, when a white British student named Cressida (played by Ella Hunt) essentially says the same things that Jasmine said just a few minutes earlier, Liv profusely praises Cressida for her comments. In a private student-teacher meeting between Liv and Jasmine, Liv tells Jasmine that she thinks Jasmine has trouble adjusting to the demanding nature of the class because Jasmine might be overwhelmed at being in a predominantly white environment.

Liv then continues to be dismissive of Jasmine, by assuming that Jasmine grew up in a predominantly black and poor area. In other words, Liv thinks that Jasmine is a “charity case” student. But then, when Jasmine tells her that she actually grew up in the (predominantly white) city of Tacoma, Washington, and Jasmine was president of her school class, Liv seems shocked and a little embarrassed that she made racist assumptions about Jasmine.

It doesn’t improve the relationship between Jasmine and Liv though. In fact, it seems to make to things worse. Jasmine confides in Gail about it, but Gail tries to stay neutral, since Liv has become Gail’s friend. However, Jasmine really begins to suspect that Liv is unfairly targeting her when Liv gives Jasmine the failing grade of “F” on her “Scarlet Letter” assignment, while Cressida gets a “B+” grade. Jasmine is so upset about it, that she files a formal dispute with the school’s administration.

Around the same time, Jasmine and Amelia start having conflicts with each other. Their relationship started off as cordial, but things eventually go downhill. There’s somewhat of a love triangle introduced in the story when Amelia tells Jasmine that she’s attracted to Tyler, but Amelia and Tyler are just “hanging out” and not officially dating. But then, something happens to reveal that Jasmine is attracted to Tyler too. Even though Tyler racially insulted Jasmine when they first met, her attraction to him is an indication that a part of her wants to fit in with this clique, even if the guy she wants to date probably sees her as inferior to him because of her race.

“Master” puts these types of subplots into the story in ways that make the movie a little cluttered. But there are some mystery elements that will keep people intrigued, including a couple of scenes where someone named Esther Bickert (played by Mary Catherine Wright) calls Gail on the phone to try to talk to Gail about her daughter Liz, who is at Ancaster College. Gail doesn’t know anyone named Liz Bickert, so she tells this mystery caller to contact the school’s directory department.

Meanwhile, Jasmine continues to have nightmares and appears to be sleepwalking. On more than one occasion, Jasmine wakes up from these nightmares in her room, with an alarmed Amelia telling Jasmine how Jasmine was acting strangely before Jasmine woke up. The nightmares get worse, of course. And so does the tension between Jasmine and Amelia, who starts to think that Jasmine is mentally ill.

One of the more surprising elements to “Master” is a plot twist that’s intriguingly dropped in the movie and then left to dangle unresolved. This plot twist was clearly inspired by a real-life controversial former professor. It’s a sudden turn in the movie’s story that could have been handled better, in terms of how certain characters react to this plot twist. Considering what the consequences would be if this shocking revelation happened in real life (and it has happened in real life), this plot twist just opens up more questions that the movie never answers.

Despite some of the clumsily plotted aspects of “Master,” the movie never gets too boring. “Master” seems a little torn in how much to focus on Gail and how much to focus on Jasmine. In the end, Gail is really the main protagonist, because she’s the title character. Gail has stronger and more emotional ties to Ancaster College than Jasmine does. It’s why Gail’s journey in this story is more fascinating than Jasmine’s journey. Gail has to rethink her longtime loyalty to a college that isn’t exactly the “safe space” that she thought it was.

All of the cast members give admirable but not outstanding performances. Hall (who is an executive producer of “Master”), Renee and Gray bring emotional authenticity to their roles that give “Master” the credibility that it has in depicting how life can be for black women at predominantly white academic institutions. The movie might help viewers better understand how racism can still be condoned and perpetuated, even by well-meaning white people who politically identify as liberals.

Most of the movie’s best scenes aren’t with the jump scares but in moments that show the similarities between racism and a horror story. There’s a scene where Gail is comforting Jasmine, who has become convinced that she’s being tormented by a ghost. “You can’t get away from it, Jasmine,” Gail says, “Believe me, I know.” Jasmine might be talking about a ghost, but Gail is talking about racism. Viewers might like or dislike the story in “Master,” but the main takeaway from the film is that racism is like a hateful ghost that haunts everyone, whether people want to admit or not.

Amazon Studios will release “Master” in select U.S. cinemas and on Prime Video on March 18, 2022.

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