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.

Review: ‘Emergency’ (2022), starring RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon and Sabrina Carpenter

January 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

RJ Cyler, Sebastian Chacon and Donald Elise Watkins in “Emergency” (Photo by Quantrell Colbert/Amazon Content Services)

“Emergency” (2022)

Directed by Carey Williams

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city on the East Coast of the U.S., the comedy film “Emergency” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After planning a night of partying on their college campus, two African American best friends and their Latino roommate have their plans go awry when they find an extremely intoxicated and barely conscious young white female in their house, and the pals have conflicts over what do about this problem.

Culture Audience: “Emergency” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies about misadventures of college partiers, but with themes of racial tension and how it affects people’s perspectives of dealing with law enforcement.

Madison Thompson, Sabrina Carpenter and Diego Abraham in “Emergency” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Content Services)

“Emergency” repeats a familiar comedy formula of male partiers getting into a big mess on one wild night, but there’s a Black Lives Matter spin on all the shenanigans. The movie’s heavy emotional turn toward the end makes it better than the average comedy about partiers caught up in a big problem, but some movie clichés still remain. Directed by Carey Williams and written by KD Davila, “Emergency” is likely to find an enthusiastic audience of supporters because the movie centers on characters who rarely get to be the lead characters in movies: black male college students. “Emergency” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

“Emergency” opens with the introduction of the two best friends whose partying plans go haywire over fears that they’ll be wrongfully accused of a crime because they are African American. The two pals are undergraduate students in their last year at the fictional Buchanan University, which is in an unnamed city on the East Coast of the U.S. (“Emergency” was actually filmed in New York state.) Kunle, pronounced “kun-lay” (played by Donald Elise Watkins), is a straight-laced, straight-A student majoring in biology and has plans to go to graduate school at Princeton University. Sean (played by RJ Cyler) is a rebellious stoner with a vaping habit and no plans after he graduates. Sean’s college major is not mentioned in the movie.

Kunle and Sean are ready to party one weekend night in the spring, and they want to make it legendary. The university’s Black Student Union headquarters has a “hall of fame” wall displaying commemorative portrait plaques of black students at the school who were the first to achieve something at the university. For example, there are plaques for the first black student to be the school’s newspaper editor, or the first black student to be student government president. “Emergency” pokes fun of this “first black student” tribute wall by also having plaques for trivial things, such as the first black student to use 3-D printing.

Sean and Kunle want to get on the “hall of fame” wall as the first black students to do the Legendary Tour. What is the Legendary Tour? It’s a tour of seven major campus parties happening on the same night, for one night of the year. The parties are invitation-only with distributed passes, and it’s extremely difficult for anyone to score passes for all seven parties.

Not surprisingly, party-loving Sean is the one who’s more caught up than Kunle is in reaching this Legendary Tour goal. Sean is the one who goes to the trouble of getting all the passes that he and Kunle need to complete the Legendary Tour. Kunle goes along with these plans, but he has other things on his mind. He has to complete a very important scientific lab project as part of his thesis required for graduation. The lab project includes meticulous examination and storage of bacteria cultures.

On the day of the Legendary Tour, Sean and Kunle talk about their upcoming party plans and their love lives. Sean has an ex-girlfriend named Asa (played by Summer Madison), another Buchanan University student, who’s done with Sean, but he might not be completely over his feelings for her. Kunle is romantically unattached too, but he has a crush on another student named Bianca (played by Gillian Rabin), who’s in at least one class with Sean and Kunle. Sean, who can be rude and crude, says in typical Sean speak when he and Kunle talk about Bianca: “She wants your dick, bro.”

The movie has only one classroom scene, near the beginning of the film. It appears to be a sociology class, where a white British instructor named Professor Clarke (played by Nadine Lewington) says that the topic of the day is hate speech. Sean, Kunle and Bianca are among the students in the class. Not surprisingly, the first word that Professor Clarke wants to discuss is the “n” word, which she says repeatedly, as if she enjoys saying it out loud and knows she’s allowed to say it in this academic context. “What makes this word so powerful?” Professor Clarke asks the students.

Even though the professor reminded the students that this topic of hate speech comes with a trigger warning, and the students signed forms acknowledging that they might hear offensive words during this hate speech topic, Sean whispers to Kunle during the class that he’s still offended. Sean gripes to Kunle: “Why is she teaching a class that she knows nothing about?” Professor Clarke then sees Sean and Kunle talking, and she singles them out to answer questions about the “n” word, which makes Sean even more offended. However, he doesn’t voice his concerns to the professor.

Outside, after the class ends, Sean continues to rant about how Professor Clarke said the “n” word many times in class. Kunle understands both sides of the issue, but he’s also annoyed that Sean is complaining about it to him, not the professor. Kunle reminds Sean that he could’ve said something to the professor about being offended, but Sean didn’t.

Sean’s response is to say: “We got one rule that we ask for white people to respect: ‘Thou shalt not say that one word.’ But they don’t like for us to tell them what to do, so they find loopholes.”

Kunle is more willing to give Professor Clarke the benefit of the doubt by saying she probably didn’t mean any offense. It’s the first sign in the movie that Sean and Kunle have different views of race relations between black people and white people in America. Those differing opinions cause conflicts later on in the movie, which eventually shows if any opinions of the two friends change after their crazy night.

“Emergency” doesn’t go into details over how Sean and Kunle met or how long they’ve been friends, but they’ve been friends since at least their first year at Buchanan University. Conversations in the movie drop some details indicating that Kunle and Sean come from very different family backgrounds. Viewers can see these contrasting backgrounds also shape Sean’s and Kunle’s different perspectives of life as an African American man.

Kunle (who appears to be an only child, since he doesn’t mention any siblings) has parents who are doctors and African immigrants. Kunle is also somewhat of a mama’s boy, since there’s a scene where he talks to his overprotective mother (voiced by Ebbe Bassey) on the phone. There’s a scene later in the movie where Kunle and Sean have a big argument, and Kunle implies that he’s smarter than Sean and has a brighter future because Kunle had a “better” upbringing than Sean.

Sean doesn’t mention his parents, but he comes from a less privileged background where members of his family have had entanglements with police. At one point in the movie, Sean mentions an unarmed cousin who was shot in the rear end by a cop. And there’s another scene in the movie that takes place in the home of Sean’s older brother Terence (played by Robert Hamilton III), who doesn’t want to get involved in Sean’s problems because Terence is on parole for an unnamed reason. It’s hinted in this conversation that Sean has also gotten into trouble with the law in the past, but the movie doesn’t go into any details.

Sean and Kunle live together in an on-campus house with a third student, who’s also in his last year at Buchanan. His name is Carlos (played by Sebastian Chacon), and he’s a nerdy pothead who desperately wants to be accepted by Sean and Kunle to be their close friend. Carlos, who’s an aspiring mechanical aerospace engineer, spends a lot of time by himself smoking marijuana and playing video games. Kunle treats Carlos with more tolerance than Sean does. Sean thinks Carlos is very corny, immature and weird. Carlos wears a fanny pack and likes to offer granola bars to people as a way to try to make friends.

This friendship dynamic is a formula that’s been used in several other comedy films about male buddies who go out for a night of partying: Two best friends—one who’s mild-mannered and polite, the other who is cocky and foul-mouthed—end up with a “third wheel” pal/acquaintance who’s an eccentric misfit. Examples include 2007’s “Superbad,” 2009’s “The Hangover” and Hulu’s 2020 silly stoner comedy “The Binge.” You can also go all the way back to “Three Stooges” movies to find this formula. “Emergency” stands out because all three of the men happen to be people of color.

Sean has meticulously mapped out his and Kunle’s plans for the Legendary Tour, including the order in which they’ll go to each party and what they’ll be doing at each party. Even though Carlos wants to party with Sean and Kunle, Sean doesn’t want Carlos tagging along because he thinks Carlos is too much of a dork. Sean and Kunle plan to take Sean’s car for their night of debauchery. Kunle drinks alcohol but doesn’t do drugs, while Sean gives the impression that he’s up for doing any kind of drug that comes his way. Sean is drunk and stoned throughout most of the movie.

Things start to go wrong on the night of the Legendary Tour when Sean and Kunle are all set to go to the first stop on tour, and Kunle remembers that he accidentally forgot to properly refrigerate his lab bacteria cultures. In a panic, he tells Sean that if the cultures are ruined, his thesis will be ruined too, and he won’t be able to graduate. Kunle is also worried that messing up this assignment will hurt his chances of going to Princeton.

Sean doesn’t want to go to the parties without Kunle, so he agrees to go with Kunle to take care of this problem. It’s a detour that will delay their partying for about 15 to 20 minutes, so Sean is slightly annoyed but willing to go along with this change of plans. Before they go to the lab, Sean and Kunle have to stop off at their house to get the lab keys. And that’s when things get crazy.

Soon after arriving in the house, Sean and Kunle notice that the front door is unlocked. And on the living room floor is a white teenage girl, dressed in a pink mini-skirt outfit and barely conscious. She’s so intoxicated that she can barely talk, so getting any information from her is useless. The teenager has no purse or ID on her either. And then she starts vomiting, for the first of several times in the movie.

A panicked Sean and Kunle go in Carlos’ room to find out what’s going on and who this mystery girl is, but Carlos has locked himself in his room, getting stoned and playing video games. Carlos doesn’t know who the teenager is and how she got into the house. Carlos is blamed for not knowing how this teenage girl got into the house when he was home, so he’s pressured into helping fix this problem.

Kunle’s first thought is to call 911, but Sean adamantly refuses because he’s certain that because they’re three young men of color in a house with an unconscious white female, they will automatically be blamed for a crime. There’s some back-and-forth arguing over what to do. Kunle hates Sean’s idea to secretly drop the teenager off at a nearby party, but Kunle agrees to the idea that they should anonymously bring her to a hospital.

Of course, there would be no “Emergency” movie if things went according to these friends’ plans. Sean, Kunle and Carlos put the mystery girl in the back of Sean’s car, as they drive to the nearest hospital. What they don’t know yet, but the audience finds out early on, is that her name is Emma (played by Maddie Nichols), and she’s the younger sister of a Buchanan student named Maddy (played by Sabrina Carpenter), who now knows that Emma is missing and is frantically looking for her.

Maddy invited Emma to hang out with her for some campus partying but lost track of Emma. Maddy doesn’t want to call the police to report Emma missing because Maddy is drunk and doesn’t want to get in trouble for underage drinking. And so, Maddy enlists the help of her level-headed friend Alice (played by Madison Thompson) and Alice’s love interest Rafael (played by Diego Abraham) to find Emma. Luckily, Emma has a Find My app on her phone, so that Maddy, Alice and Rafael can track the general area of where she is.

This phone tracking is crucial to a lot of the twists and turns in “Emergency,” but there are still a few plot holes where viewers have to suspend some disbelief. The biggest plot hole is that Maddy didn’t call Emma’s phone while looking for Emma. Maddy sends texts instead. If Maddy had called the phone, then Sean, Kunle and Carlos would’ve heard the phone ringing and found out right away that Emma had a phone, and none of this mess would’ve happened. And where exactly was Emma’s phone? Why were Sean, Kunle and Carlos not able to see it? Those questions are answered in the last third of the movie.

“Emergency” has a few contrivances to ramp up the comedy, such as Maddy, Alice and Raphael only having a bicycle and a hoverboard to get around for transportation. A running joke in the film is that Maddy (who’s too drunk to operate anything that moves) has to be stuck on the back of the bike, while whoever is operating the bike has to work extra hard to pedal the bike because of the extra weight. The movie makes a point of depicting Maddy as a very quick-tempered, bossy and entitled person.

If Maddy is afraid of getting busted by police for underage drinking, Sean is afraid of getting killed by police, just for being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sean repeatedly warns Kunle that it could happen to them. And so, there’s a scene where Sean and Kunle try to find white or Asian friends who can call 911 for them. Even though this scene is supposed to be hilarious, there’s some biting truth in how the scene comments on racial disparities between how law enforcement treats black people compared to other races.

“Emergency” also pokes fun at the hypocrisy of white people who claim to support the Black Lives Matter movement but are quick to assume that black people are criminals. This happens in a scene in a quiet suburban neighborhood where Emma has to be taken into some shrubbery so that she can urinate. A suspicious white couple (played by Melanie Jeffcoat and James Healy Jr.) in a nearby house see Sean sitting in his car alone on the street outside the house while this is going on. You can easily guess what happens from there, because the movie makes the point that if Sean had been white, this suspicious couple might have had a very different reaction. Ironically, there’s a Black Lives Matter sign on this couple’s lawn.

“Emergency” has a lot to say about race relations, racism and how they are affected by people’s perceptions and interactions with law enforcement. Even though it’s a fictional movie, it brings up many uncomfortable truths about how people are treated and see the world differently because of racial inequalities. Some viewers might laugh at how “paranoid” Sean acts throughout the entire movie. But sadly, his outlook is the reality of many people.

As a comedy, the movie has some slapstick ridiculousness and it tends to over-rely on gross-out vomit gags, but all of it doesn’t undermine the movie’s message. Cyler and Watkins are a dynamic duo in how they portray this realistic friendship. Their emotional moments that come later in the movie are well-acted and have a resonance that goes deeper than a typical comedy film. Chacon is quite good in his role as a sweet-natured misfit, while Carpenter plays her “entitled princess” role to the hilt.

Is “Emergency” a perfect movie? No. For a movie that’s supposed to be about life from an African American perspective, “Emergency” gives very little screen time or importance to African American women. Sean’s ex-girlfriend Asa is the movie’s only black female character who has more than one scene, but she’s in the movie for less than 10 minutes. In one of her brief appearances, Asa says to Sean about Kunle: “Don’t go dragging him into your bullshit. That boy is Black Excellence.”

“Emergency” is so focused on the pain and pressure that black men get from racism, it fails to mention or show that black women share this burden too. In fact, the Black Lives Matter movement was started by African American women. Filmmakers need to be more mindful of how black women are depicted in movies like “Emergency,” because these filmmakers can be guilty of the same sidelining of black women that happens in so-called “racially insensitive” and “racist” movies.

Despite these flaws in the movie, “Emergency” skillfully blends comedy with some of the serious issues presented in the film. The cast members also elevate the material, which could have been mishandled if the cast members weren’t talented. Sean is the flashiest character in “Emergency,” but the movie wants audiences to pay the most attention to Kunle’s perspective and how Kunle is affected by what he goes through in this story.

UPDATE: Amazon Studios will release “Emergency” in select U.S. cinemas on May 20, 2022. Prime Video will premiere the movie on May 27, 2022.

Review: ‘A Hero,’ starring Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Sahar Goldoust, Saleh Karimaei, Alireza Jahandideh, Maryam Shahdaei and Farrokh Nourbakht

January 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mohsen Tanabandeh, Saleh Karimai and Amir Jadidi in “A Hero” (Photo by Amir Hossein Shojaei/Amazon Content Services)

“A Hero”

Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Persian (Farsi) with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Shiraz, Iran, the dramatic film “A Hero” features an all-Middle-Eastern cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: While on a brief leave of absence from his prison sentence, a man with a history of being a chronic liar returns a lost purse filled with valuable coins, and he’s praised as a hero, but then he finds himself involved in a web of lies and mistrust.

Culture Audience: “A Hero” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of writer/director Asghar Farhadi and movies that have incisive commentaries on how media and public opinions can play influential roles in people’s images and reputations.

Sahar Goldoust in “A Hero” (Photo by Amir Hossein Shojaei/Amazon Content Services)

Can someone with a reputation of being unreliable and dishonest be redeemed by doing a single act of kindness? That’s a question posed throughout the suspenseful drama “A Hero,” which has very realistic depictions of themes exploring how media and public opinions can shape how someone in the public eye can be perceived. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, the movie takes place in Shiraz, Iran, in a culture that places an extremely high value on honor that individuals can bring to themselves and their families. That’s why the stakes are so high for the troubled protagonist who finds his attempt to clean up his reputation go awry after he does what he thinks is a good dead that will redeem him.

“A Hero” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix Prize. The movie was selected as Iran’s entry for the Best International Feature Film category for the 2022 Academy Awards. “A Hero,” which clocks in at 127 minutes, starts off a little slowly, but then it picks up its pace and becomes more intriguing about 45 minutes into the movie. It goes from being a drama about a prisoner in a family feud into a mystery thriller involving several members of the community.

The movie’s protagonist is Rahim Soltani (played by Amir Jadidi), a divorced father who’s been sentenced to prison for an unpaid debt of 150,000 tomans, which would be about $17,000 in U.S. dollars in the early 2020s, when this story takes place. Rahim owes the money to a businessman named Bahram (played by Mohsen Tanabandeh), who happens to be the brother-in-law of Rahim’s ex-wife. The ex-wife is never seen in the movie, and her name is never mentioned, although she is occasionally talked about by the people in the story.

Rahim, who has lived in Shiraz his entire life, has a prison sentence that allows him to leave the facility for a few days at a time, as long as he reports back to the prison to complete his sentence. The movie opens with Rahim going on an authorized two-day leave from the prison. What happens during those two days causes a chain of events that creates even more chaos in his life.

At first, Rahim seems to be in good spirits when he leaves the prison. He carries himself with the air of a good-looking charmer, who’s quick to dazzle people with his friendly ways and charismatic smile. But as time goes on, there are signs that Rahim has a dark side that’s he’s been trying to leave behind—or at least make people think he’s turned his life around into being a responsible and honest person.

The first person whom Rahim visits during this prison leave is Hossein (played by Alireza Jahandideh), Rahim’s friendly brother-in-law, who is married to Rahim’s sister Malileh (played by Maryam Shahdaei), a nurturing homemaker who has some health problems, such as neck pain and arthritis. Hossein works at a construction site that is renovating the Tomb of Xerxes. Rahim has enlisted Hossein’s help in trying to work out a payment plan with Bahram to erase the debt.

Rahim’s occupation before he went to prison and why he owes 150,000 tomans aren’t revealed until nearly halfway through the movie. He used to be a sign painter and a calligrapher, but business in those areas declined with the rise of do-it-yourself online graphic design. Rahim borrowed the money from Bahram to start his own business.

Rahim confidently tells Hossein how he can start paying off the debt, “I can have 75,000 tomans. Someone will give it to me. It’s not a loan.” Rahim will only say that he’s getting the money from “a friend,” but he won’t say who that friend is.

That’s where Rahim’s very loyal girlfriend Farkhondeh (played by Sahar Goldoust) comes into the picture. After leaving the construction site, Rahim goes to pick up Farkhondeh in his truck. Farkhondeh, who is elated to see Rahim, has a black purse containing some gold coins, which she and Rahim try to sell at a pawn shop. However, the shop dealer makes a calculation offer that Rahim and Farkhondeh know is too low for the types of coins that they have, so they leave the shop without making a sale.

Before Rahim and Hossein discuss this possible payment plan with Bahram, they stop off at the home of Hossein and Malileh, where Rahim will be staying before he goes back to prison. Malileh and Hossein live in the home with their two children—daughter Negar (who’s about 10 or 11 years old) and son Nima (who’s about 7 or 8 years old)—and Rahim’s son Siavesh (played by Saleh Karimaei), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. The movie doesn’t clearly explain the custody arrangement that Rahim has with his ex-wife for Siavesh, who is Rahim’s only child. However, the movie implies that the ex-wife still has contact with Siavesh, because he told Negar that his mother recently accepted a marriage proposal.

In the beginning of the movie, Rahim’s relationship with Siavesh is strained and distant. Siavesh is the only one in the household who doesn’t seem happy to see Rahim during this brief visit. Siavesh has a speech impediment that causes him to stutter and makes it difficult for him to articulate words. It’s also mentioned that Siavesh has recently gotten into a fight at school. It’s easy to speculate that Siavesh, who is quiet and emotionally withdrawn, could be bullied at school because of his speech impediment.

The lack of good communication between Rahim and Siavesh isn’t really about Siavesh’s speech impediment. It has more to do with Siavesh’s lack of trust in Rahim. Through various conversations, it’s revealed that Rahim has constantly let down the people who are closest to him. Later in the movie, when Rahim is asked about why he got divorced, he’s purposely vague and says that he and his ex-wife just didn’t get along with each other. However, Rahim’s unpaid debt to Bahram certainly didn’t help matters, since it’s caused bad blood between Rahim and his ex-wife’s side of the family.

Rahim says he’s trying to make things right by paying off the debt, which is why he wants to work out a payment plan with Bahram, who was the one who pressed charges to have Rahim arrested for non-payment of the debt. Bahram owns a copy/print shop in the area that is managed by his bachelorette daughter Nazanin (played by Sarina Farhadi), who doesn’t look pleased to see Rahim and Hossein when they show up unannounced to try to talk to Bahram. At one point in the movie, Bahram bitterly says that he had to use Nazanin’s dowry to cover the money he lost in the loan to Rahim.

Bahram isn’t at the shop, so Hossein (who acts as a mediator) insists that Nazanin get Bahram on the phone. During this phone conversation, Hossein tells Bahram that Rahim is willing to immediately pay 70,000 tomans as down payment for the debt. Bahram is extremely skeptical that Rahim has the money. “The jerk is lying,” Bahram angrily says. “Why should you expect me to trust him? He let down his family. He deserves no favor.”

After some arguing back and forth, Bahram reluctantly agrees to a tentative payment plan where Hossein will give Bahram bond checks, and Rahim will then play 7,500 tomans a month until the debt is paid off. Rahim insists he really can get about 70,000 tomans in cash. Where is he going to get the money?

It’s eventually revealed that Farkhondeh doesn’t actually own the purse with the gold coins. Farkhondeh found the purse and coins on the street, she told Rahim about this discovery, and Rahim concocted a plan to sell the coins to get some easy cash to start paying off his debt. Farkhondeh and Rahim are very much in love, and he plans to marry her someday. But for now, Rahim will be unemployed and without his own place to live when he gets out of prison. He seems to want to turn his life around and prove that he can be a responsible provider before he commits to another marriage.

With a failed attempt to sell the coins and time running out before he has to report back to prison, Rahim then comes up with the idea to come forward and report that the purse was found, with the hope that the owner will offer a reward. He goes to the bank that is near where Farkhondeh found the purse, to ask if anyone was looking for the purse at the bank. However, the bank officials say that no one inquired about the purse, but they suggest they he make flyers advertising the found purse.

The bank officials let Rahim use their copy supplies to make the flyers, which he posts in various locations around the area. Rahim doesn’t have his own cell phone. Instead of putting his sister’s phone number on the flyers, he puts the phone number of the prison. It’s a decision that he will later regret.

When his leave time ends, Rahim reports back to prison, where he and some other prisoners are given the task of wallpapering a room. His supervisor on the job is Mrs. Marvasti (played by Parisa Khajehdehi), who gets a call from a woman claiming to be the owner of the purse, and the woman asks to speak to Rahim. Rahim explains to Mrs. Marvasti what happened and that he put the prison phone number on the flyers. Mrs. Marvasti is very annoyed and tells him never to give out the prison phone number to anyone again.

Rahim is allowed to take the call from the mystery woman, who correctly answers his questions about the contents of the purse. Rahim explains that he’s in prison but that he left the purse and its contents with his sister and brother-in-law. He gives the woman the address and his sister’s phone number.

The woman (played by Fatemeh Tavakoli) who shows up to claim the purse and coins is tearful and expresses gratitude that her purse was found and that all its contents returned to her. Her visit is during the day, when Malileh and Siavesh are the only ones at home. (It’s implied that Siavesh isn’t in school because of his recent fight.)

The woman explains that she found out she lost the purse in between bus stops, and that she doesn’t want her husband to know that she lost the coins. The woman insists on giving a small cash reward for the return of the purse and coins. Malileh repeatedly declines the offer and finally accepts it when the woman says she’s giving the reward money to Siavesh.

The prison officials find out from Mrs. Marvasti about Rahim’s act of kindness in having the purse and gold coins returned to the woman who came forward and claimed these items. They ask Rahim for more information, and it’s enough for them to want to take the story to the media. Two prison officials in particular—prison warden Mr. Salehpoor (played by Mohammad Aghebati) and prison chief of cultural activities Salehi Taheri (played by Farrokh Nourbakht)—immediately arrange for a newspaper and a national TV network to interview Rahim.

Salehi has a closer relationship to Rahim than Mr. Salehpoor does, so Rahim confides in Salehi that he didn’t actually find the purse and coins but his girlfriend did. Rahim also says that, for personal reasons, he would rather not reveal his girlfriend’s identity because some people in his family don’t know yet that he’s dating her. Salehi says it doesn’t matter who found the purse and coins because Rahim was the one who distributed the flyers and arranged for the purse and coins to be returned to the rightful owner. Salehi tells Rahim that it will be okay for Rahim to take all the credit without mentioning his girlfriend.

It isn’t long before Rahim becomes a local celebrity because of the media coverage. He’s praised for being a hero and treated like a hero by many people, ranging from his immediate family to complete strangers. In his interviews, he admits that he originally planned to sell the coins, but he changed his mind when he prayed about it. He says that the botched sale attempt was a sign from God that selling the coins wasn’t the right thing to do.

A local woman named Mrs. Radmehr (played by Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy) heads the Mehrpooyan Charity Association, a religious group that helps prisoners in need. She arranges a ceremony where Rahim is honored and where she announces that a local council has offered Rahim a job in its administration when his prison sentence ends. In addition, the charity launches a fundraising initiative to help Rahim pay off his debt. The fundraising immediately gets about 30,000 tomans in donations, with more money pouring in from the public.

Not everyone is impressed with Rahim’s new “hero” status. A hostile prisoner (played by Amir Amiri) outright accuses Rahim of colluding with prison officials to fabricate the story, so that the prison could get some good publicity after the recent scandal of a prisoner committing suicide. Rahim denies that the story is a lie, and he refuses the other prisoner’s challenge to get in a physical fight over it. However, the prison is so pleased with all the good PR that the story has generated, Rahim is allowed another prison leave so that he can arrange to pay off his debt with the money that was raised for him, as well as interview for the job that was offered to him.

Bahram is very skeptical that Rahim’s story is true, and he openly expresses his doubt in a meeting with Rahim, Hossein, Mrs. Radmehr and other charity officials, who try to get Bahram to accept the fundraising money to pay off Rahim’s debt. Bahram tells everyone who will listen that Rahim is a habitual liar. Bahram thinks that Rahim doesn’t deserve the charity money that was raised for Rahim because Bahram says that Rahim shouldn’t be rewarded with money for doing what any decent human being would do.

But the biggest stumbling block for Rahim in his road to redemption is when he goes to interview for the job at the local council. The human resources director Mr. Nadeali (played by Ehsan Goodarzi) says the job won’t be offered until Rahim’s story checks out as true. He asks Rahim to have the woman who claimed the purse and coins to come to the office to verify that she’s the rightful owner. The problem is that Rahim doesn’t know her name, and neither does Malileh or Siavish, who didn’t ask for the woman’s name or contact information when she went to the home.

Meanwhile, rumors are being spread on social media that Rahim made up the entire story. The rest of the movie is a rollercoaster ride as Rahim tries to find the mystery woman and prove that he’s not involved in a con game. Rahim ends up having to be his own private investigator in a race against time before he has to spend his last few days in prison. He gets some help from Farkhondeh, his family members and other members of the community, but will that be enough? Not all of the questions posed in the movie are answered.

Although “A Hero” has plenty of tension and very good acting performances, the movie does suffer a bit from some plot holes. First, with all the media coverage of Rahim’s story, it’s highly unlikely that journalists wouldn’t first try to find the woman who claimed to be the owner of the purse and coins, before making Rahim into a hero. Most journalists covering the story would at least need her name, in order for the story to check out and be reported accurately. In other words, the movie kind of gets it wrong about the fact checking needed before a story like this could be reported as real by legitimate media.

Second, during his investigation, Rahim is able to obtain a surveillance camera photo of the mystery woman, but he doesn’t use any media coverage (on social media or traditional media) to try and find her. He just shows the picture to some people in the area, who say they don’t recognize her. It’s a pretty big plot hole, considering that media coverage is a major part of the movie, in terms of how Rahim’s reputation is being handled.

Third, everyone puts the burden and blame on Rahim for not getting this woman’s name, when he wasn’t the one who gave the items back to her, and he wasn’t the one who sought media attention for this good deed. The media failed to do due diligence in checking out the story, and so did the prison officials who eagerly took the story to the media. The pile-on of shame that Rahim gets in the movie seems overly contrived for the sake of drama, when any viewer can see he didn’t plan the media coverage that he ended up getting.

Still, there are some aspects about the story that make the movie very compelling to watch. Because of the clues that Rahim uncovers, he starts to believe that this mystery woman was involved in some kind of set-ap against Rahim, and she doesn’t want to be found. For example, there was no ID in the purse, and she purposely used strangers’ cell phones to make her calls about the purse.

The movie drops some big hints over who could have been behind this set-up. But does this conspiracy theory turn out to be true, and does anyone get caught for it? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out. “A Hero” doesn’t portray Rahim as a totally innocent victim, because he makes decisions that are foolish, dishonest and self-destructive. Even though he has a charming side, Rahim also has a nasty temper that can turn violent.

One of the things that’s very noticeable about “A Hero” is that this “hero” actually needs rescuing more than a few times by his girlfriend. Without going into too many details, it’s enough to say that Farkhondeh does whatever it takes to help Rahim, whom she describes as the love of her life and the only person who makes her happy. And exactly who is Farkhondeh?

The movie gives some context over why Farkhondeh, who is 37, is willing to risk everything in her life for Rahim. In a patriarchal nation where a never-married, 37-year-old woman with no kids is considered a hopeless “old maid,” Farkhondeh is living with this societal stigma. She doesn’t have a home of her own. If she has a job, it’s never mentioned in the movie. The only times that Farkhondeh is shown in the movie is in the context of her relationship with Rahim.

Farkhondeh lives with her very domineering brother Morteza (played by Mohammad Jamalledini) and his wife. Farkhondeh has to ask for Morteza’s permission for Rahim to meet Morteza, who doesn’t approve of Rahim being a divorced, unemployed father with a prison record. Morteza changes his mind about Rahim being a loser when he sees the media coverage of Rahim’s “good deed.”

Still, Morteza warns Farkhondeh not to come crying to him when Rahim breaks her heart. And when Rahim’s credibility about the “good deed” begins to be publicly doubted, Morteza begins to think that his first thoughts about Rahim being a con artist just might be true. Despite getting a lot of criticism from Morteza about her choice in Rahim as a partner, Farkhondeh has a feisty streak that doesn’t put up with any insults that Morteza throws her way.

Another interesting aspect of “A Hero” is how the relationship evolves between Rahim and his son Siavesh. In the beginning of the movie, Rahim almost treats Saivesh like an embarrassment to the family, while Siavesh treats Rahim like a deadbeat dad. When Rahim becomes a public “hero,” Siavesh begins to respect Rahim, and they become closer.

But the true test of their relationship is when Rahim gets some public backlash after his story is doubted. That’s when Rahim begins to understand what Siavesh must feel like to be treated like a misunderstood outsider. In the last third of the movie, there’s a very powerful scene where Rahim’s protective side as a father comes out when he sees how Siavesh is being mistreated by someone.

The relationships that Rahim has with Siavesh and with Farkhondeh are the emotional centers of the movie. And that’s why, as riveting as Jadidi’s performance is as Rahim, it’s made all the more poignant because of the convincing performances of Karimaei as Siavesh and Goldoust as Farkhondeh. Without them, Rahim’s motives would appear to be entirely selfish in fighting for his integrity and reputation.

“A Hero” also has some nuanced storytelling about society’s tendency to make people sudden stars and then want to tear them down just as quickly. There’s a level of unrealistic “perfection” that many people in the public eye are expected to have. Any signs of flaws or mistakes made as a “celebrity” can result in public shaming and attempts to “cancel” the person and relegate that person back to obscurity.

The movie leaves open-ended questions for audiences to ponder, such as: “Who is worthy of this type of accelerated vaulting into ‘hero’ status? How should they be vetted? And what types of mistakes or misdeeds of these public heroes should be forgiven and when?” Despite some flaws in the plot of “A Hero,” writer/director Farhadi skillfully weaves these questions into the story in a way that will have audiences thinking about these questions long after the movie is over.

Amazon Studios released “A Hero” in select U.S. cinemas on January 7, 2022. Prime Video will premiere the movie on January 21, 2022.

Review: ‘Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,’ starring the voices of Brian Hull, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Brad Abrell, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn

January 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Blobby (voiced by Genndy Tartakovsky), Wanda (voiced by Molly Shannon), Wayne (voiced by Steve Buscemi), Griffin the Invisible Man (voiced by David Spade), Ericka (voiced by Kathryn Hahn), Dracula (voiced by Brian Hull), Jonathan (voiced by Andy Samberg), Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez), Frank (voice by Brad Abrell), Eunice (voiced by Fran Drescher), Murray (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) with (pictured at far right, in the front row) Dennis (voiced by Asher Blinkoff) and Winnie (voiced by Zoe Berri) in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation/Amazon Content Services)

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania”

Directed by Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska

Culture Representation: Taking place in Transylvania and South America, the animated film “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American and two Latinos) depicting monsters and humans.

Culture Clash: Count Dracula is ready to retire and pass Hotel Transylvania along to his daughter Mavis, but a mishap with Van Helsing’s invention changes Mavis’ human husband Johnny into a monster and Dracula and his monster friends into humans.

Culture Audience: Aside from obviously appealing to “Hotel Transylvania” movie series fans, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in lightweight animated films with cliché-ridden and predictable plots.

Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg) and Van Helsing (voicd by Jim Gaffigan) in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation/Amazon Content Services)

It’s never really a good sign when a movie studio takes a sequel film from one of its most popular franchise series and sells it to a streaming service. It usually means that the movie is considered not commercially appealing enough for the studio to release the film. It’s also not a good sign when two of franchise’s biggest stars decide not to be part of this sequel.

That’s what happened when Sony Pictures Animation dumped “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (the fourth movie in the “Hotel Transylvania” hotel series) by selling it to Amazon, which is releasing it on Prime Video. (China is the only country where Sony will release the film in theaters.) It’s easy to see why Sony thought this movie was substandard. It’s also easy to see why original “Hotel Transylvania” franchise stars Adam Sandler and Kevin James took a hard pass on being involved in this movie, whether it was because they weren’t going to paid what they wanted and/or legal issues. (Sandler and James both have lucrative movie deals with Netflix.)

Genndy Tartakovsky—who directed the first three “Hotel Transylvania” movies and co-wrote 2018’s “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation”—co-wrote “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” with Amos Vernon and Nunzio Randazzo. The first two movies in the series are 2012’s “Hotel Transylvania” and 2015’s “Hotel Transylvania 2.” Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluskais directed “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” which is not a completely terrible movie. But in terms of its story, the movie is lazy and not very interesting.

As the fourth movie in the series, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” had the potential to go on an original adventure with the franchise’s well-established characters. Instead, the movie is filled with over-used clichés that have already been in other films. “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is essentially a not-very-funny comedy with this not-very-original concept: Two characters with opposite personalities are forced to travel together and find out how much they have to rely on each other in order to reach a shared goal. Relationships and characters that could have been developed are ignored or shoved to the margins of the story. The ending of the movie is also kind of weak and abrupt.

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is also one of those sequels that doesn’t adequately explain some of the backstories of some of the main characters. If people need to watch one movie to prepare for “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” it should be “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation.” That’s the movie that introduced monster hunters Van Helsing (voiced by Jim Gaffigan) and his sassy great-granddaughter Ericka (voiced by Kathryn Hahn), who started off as enemies to the “Hotel Transylvania” protagonists and ended up becoming their friends. And in Ericka’s case, more than friends, because she and widower Count Dracula fell in love with each other.

The voice of Count Dracula was originated by Sandler in the first three “Hotel Transylvania” movies. In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Dracula (voiced by Brian Hull) and Ericka (who is a human) are now happily married, but it’s barely explained in this sequel how they got together. The prejudice between monsters and humans, which fueled much of the conflicts in the previous “Hotel Transylvania” movies, is only used as a flimsy plot device in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania.” Dracula’s vampire daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) is married to a human named Jonathan, nicknamed Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg), who’s had a hard time getting reluctant acceptance from Dracula, who thinks Johnny is too goofy for practical-minded Mavis.

But now that Dracula is married to a human, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” does not do anything to explore this new aspect of Dracula’s life. Instead, the movie’s story goes back to Dracula disapproving of Johnny, which was the basis of the first “Hotel Transylvania” movie, when Johnny and Mavis began dating and fell in love with each other. In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Johnny and Mavis have been married for several years and have a son named Dennis (voiced by Asher Blinkoff), who is about 8 or 9 years old and who has very little screen time in the movie.

In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Dracula still owns and operates Hotel Transylvania (a hotel for monsters), but he wants to retire so that he can have more time to spend with Ericka. Dracula has decided that he is going to give ownership of the hotel to Mavis and Johnny. Mavis, who has hearing superpowers, overhears Dracula telling Ericka about his retirement plans, which he says he’s going to announce at the hotel’s 125th anniversary celebration.

Mavis is excited to find out that she and Johnny will be taking over ownership of the hotel. She tells Johnny, who’s also elated. Johnny immediately comes up with ideas of how he’s going to change the hotel.

When Johnny enthusiastically shares these ideas with Dracula, his father-in-law is so turned off, he changes his mind about wanting Johnny to co-own the hotel. Instead of telling the truth about why he changed his mind, Dracula lies to Johnny by telling him that there’s an ancient law that says hotels for monsters can only be owned by monsters. At the hotel’s 125th anniversary party, Dracula lies to everyone and says his big announcement is that the hotel will get a new restroom in the lobby.

A dismayed Johnny then asks for help from Van Helsing, who has been living as a retired eccentric who tinkers with inventions. Van Helsing has an invention called a Monsterfication Ray, which can turn humans into random monsters. The device looks like a long ray gun with a giant crystal as its source of power. Van Helsing uses the Monsterfication Ray on Johnny, who is turned into a giant green monster resembling a dragon. Even though his physical appearance has drastically changed, Johnny has the same personality, and he can still talk like a human.

Dracula is furious about Johnny’s transformation into a monster because he still doesn’t want to give Johnny ownership of the hotel. And so, Dracula angrily goes over to Van Helsing’s place to take the Monsterfication Ray and use it to turn Johnny back into a human. But the plan backfires when Dracula shoots the Monsterfication Ray at Johnny, the lasers on the ray ricochet off walls, and the rays accidentally hit Dracula, who turns into a human being as a result. Much to Dracula’s horror, he is now looks and feels like an old man, with a balding head, a stomach paunch and weaker physical strength.

Dracula’s four closest monster friends—good-natured Frankenstein (voiced by Brad Abrell, replacing James in the role), worrisome werewolf Wayne (voiced by Steve Buscemi), fun-loving mummy Murray (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) and sarcastic invisible man Griffin (voiced by David Spade)—have all witnessed this debacle. Dracula is terrified about Mavis finding out about him turning into a human and Johnny into a monster. Dracula orders his friends not to tell Mavis.

Somehow, when Dracula used the Monsterfication Ray, the device got broken, and the crystal no longer works. Van Helsing says that the crystals used for the Monsterfication Ray are extremely rare. Through a tracking device, Van Helsing finds out that the nearest crystal is in South America. Guess where Dracula and Johnny are going for most of the movie?

Meanwhile, a poorly written part of the movie has Frankenstein, Wayne, Murray and Griffin turning into humans too. It’s shown in an awkward scene where the hotel’s DJ—a green blob called Blobby (voiced by Tartakovsky)—gives the four pals a drink that has something in it which automatically turns them into humans. Blobby consumes the drink too, but he’s just turn to a green gelatin mold.

Frankenstein changes into a vain “hunk” with a tall and muscular body, Wayne transforms into a very hairy man, and Murray becomes an old man with rolls of body flab. Griffin is exposed as someone who only wore eyeglasses, so he’s naked the entire time that he’s human. Griffin’s nakedness is used for some dimwitted comedy in the movie.

Just like Dracula and Murray, Griffin is horrified that he looks old and out-of-shape as a human. This movie has not-so-subtle and problematic messages that looking like an elderly human being is a terrible fate that should be avoided at all costs. It’s the closest reason to explain why Frankenstein suddenly becomes an egotistical jerk over how he looks as a young and virile human being. This drastic personality change still comes across as too phony, and it doesn’t serve the story very well.

Mavis, Ericka, Frankenstein’s shrewish wife Eunice (voiced by Fran Drescher) and Wayne’s loving wife Wanda (voiced by Molly Shannon) find out that Dracula and Johnny have gone to South America. And so, Mavis, Ericka, Eunice, Wanda, Frankenstein, Wayne, Murray, Griffin and several of Wayne and Wanda’s werewolf kids go to South America to find Johnny and Dracula. It’s never really explained why some but not all of the werewolf kids (Wayne and Wanda have dozens of children) are along for the ride or why these kids even need to be there in the first place.

Meanwhile, much of “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” shows repetitive mishaps that Dracula and Johnny go through as they wander around Amazon River areas in South America in search of the crystal. Dracula has a hard time adjusting to life as a human. He no longer has to fear being in the sunlight, but he’s frustrated that he gets tired, thirsty and sweaty on this grueling trip. When he jumps into a waterfall that Johnny warns could be dangerous, Dracula gets bitten by several piranhas and is shocked that he can’t recover quickly from these injuries.

Johnny is the same cheerful goofball, but he still gets on Dracula’s nerves. Dracula is also jealous that Johnny now has more physical strength than Dracula does. It goes on and on like this for too long in the movie. As an example of how “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” stretches out the banality, there’s a scene with Johnny singing a Spanish version of Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” during a bus ride that Johnny and Dracula take with some local people. It’s intended to be hilarious, but it just comes across as dull and cringeworthy.

Visually, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” does nothing special, although the movie makes good use of vibrant hues in the outdoor South America scenes. The cast members’ performances are adequate. Thankfully, movie clocks in at just 98 minutes, but the story is filled with too many recycled tropes of two opposite personalities stuck together on a road trip; the hunt for a treasured item; and the central characters being chased by people who want to find them.

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” doesn’t have much use for the adult female characters, who basically just worry about and react to what their husbands are doing. And because Dracula is separated from his four closest monster pals for most of the movie, that friendship rapport is largely missing from “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania.” This rapport was one of the highlights of previous “Hotel Transylvania” movies.

The movie shows almost nothing about what Dracula is like as a grandfather to Dennis. Wayne and Wanda have a daughter named Winnie (voiced by Zoe Berri, replacing Sadie Sandler in the role), who is Dennis’ best friend/love interest, but that relationship is also essentially ignored in the movie. Instead, some the werewolf children, who do not have names or individual personalities, get unnecessary screen time when they tag along during the trip to South America.

Some people might enjoy “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” if they want to see another “Hotel Transylvania” movie about Dracula and Johnny trying to navigate their tension-filled relationship. “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is being marketed as the final movie in the “Hotel Transylvania” series. If that’s true, then the “Hotel Transylvania” movie series is going out with a toothless whimper, not a bang.

Prime Video premiered “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘The Manor’ (2021), starring Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison, Nicholas Alexander, Jill Larson, Fran Bennett, Katie Amanda Keane and Ciera Payton

December 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Barbara Hershey and Nicholas Alexander in “The Manor” (Photo by Kevin Estrada/Amazon Content Services)

“The Manor” (2021)

Directed by Axelle Carolyn

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “The Manor” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A retired dance teacher checks herself into a manor facility for senior citizens and finds out that mysterious and deadly things are happening in this facility. 

Culture Audience: “The Manor” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Barbara Hershey and formulaic stories about nursing homes from hell.

Pictured clockwise from top left: Jill Larson, Fran Bennett, Bruce Davison and Barbara Hershey in “The Manor” (Photo by Kevin Estrada/Amazon Content Services)

“The Manor” starts off as an intriguing movie showing parallels between a horror story and people’s fear of aging and diseases. But the movie is ruined by a campy ending, which has a big decision that will leave viewers divided. One of the problems with “The Manor” is that it tries to frontload the movie with too much in the first two-thirds of the film, and then rushes to explain everything in the last third of the film. Not everything is adequately explained by the end of the movie, which badly mishandles depictions of Parkinson’s disease.

“The Manor” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. Written and directed by Axelle Carolyn, “The Manor” should be commended for at least trying to do something different in a horror movie, by having the protagonist/lead character as a woman who’s in her 70s. It’s also rare for a horror movie to be set in a nursing home.

However, this concept could have been treated with better attention to details over the health issues that are crucial to the plot. “The Manor” has some genuinely creepy cinematography, and the visual effects are adequate. But there are too many moments that stretch the bounds of credibility, even for a fictional horror movie. One of the biggest flaws of “The Manor” is the mind-boggling, sloppy inconsistency in depicting how the main character has Parkinson’s disease.

At the opening scene of “The Manor,” retired dance teacher Judith Albright (played by Barbara Hershey) is celebrating her 70th birthday at an outdoor party. Judith is a widow whose dance specialty was ballet. Everyone seems to be good cheer. Among the party attendees are Judith’s widowed daughter Barbara (played by Katie Amanda Keane) and Barbara’s 17-year-old son Josh (played by Nicholas Alexander), who has a close relationship with Judith. Suddenly, Judith collapses at the party.

The movie then fast-forwards to six months later. Judith is shown checking voluntarily into Golden Sun Manor Nursing Home, which is a large estate on a sprawling property near a wooded area in an unnamed U.S. city. (“The Manor” was actually filmed in Los Angeles.) It’s revealed that Judith has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and might be showing signs of dementia. Josh doesn’t think Judith belongs in a nursing home, but his mother Barbara thinks it’s the best decision for Judith because Barbara can’t or won’t be responsible for taking care of Judith.

For someone who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Judith is unrealistically nimble and in firm control of her muscles and motor skills. She’s never seen shaking uncontrollably, and she has no problems speaking. “The Manor” would have been more believable if the movie just didn’t even have Parkinson’s disease as one of Judith’s health problems and just made her someone who might be showing signs of dementia.

The dementia part of the movie is why Judith is constantly doubted when she describes her terrifying visions and suspicions that people are being harmed at the nursing home. Judith’s suspicions start when she begins to see a strange creature lurking at night in the room that Judith shares with a wheelchair-using woman named Annette (played by Nancy Linehan Charles), who has Alzheimer’s disease.

Annette rarely talks, but when she does, it’s often incoherent rambling. During one of the few times that Annette can speak clearly, she shouts out a warning to Judith: “Don’t you see? He’s watching us sleep!” It’s enough to confirm to Judith that Annette can see this ominous creature too. But who’s going to believe two people with faulty memories and diminished abilities to distinguish between reality and fantasy?

And just to make sure that Judith will feel more helpless, she’s told when she checks into the nursing home that the residents aren’t allowed to have cell phones. The excuse is that cell phones aren’t allowed, in order to have “peace and quiet” in the building. It’s just a horror movie’s way to prevent characters in distress to be unable to use a cell phone to call for help.

Judith acts surprised by this “no cell phones” rule, but the stern nursing home director Ms. Benson (played by Stacey Travis) reminds Judith that this rule was in the contract that Judith signed. Judith’s only real lifeline to the outside world is her grandson Josh, who visits her on a regular basis. Eventually, Judith tells Josh about her horrifying suspicions about the nursing home.

At one point, Judith is officially diagnosed with dementia by the resident physician Dr. Geoghegan (played by Andrew Tinpo Lee), who tells Barbara that Judith is required to have constant supervision because of her dementia. It means that the nursing home’s staff will have more control over her life. The two staffers whom Judith is in contact with the most are a friendly attendant named Liesel (played by Ciera Payton) and a no-nonsense manager named Elizabeth (played by Shelley Robertson), who always seems to be on the lookout for residents doing something wrong.

Elizabeth and a registered nurse named Gary (played by Devin Kawaoka) are the two staffers most likely to use physical force to subdue a resident or to force a resident to do something that the resident doesn’t want to do. At one point, Judith witnesses Gary overpowering a frightened resident named Imogen (played by Cissy Wellman), who lives across the hall from Judith. As Imogen is forced back into her room, Imogen screams, “I want to go home!”

It’s not the last disturbing thing that Judith will see in this nursing home. And at different points in the movie, Imogen tries to give signals to other people that she wants to escape. Meanwhile, Judith balks at any attempt to get Judith to take medication that will sedate her.

Judith’s new living situation is brightened by the fact that she makes three new friends in the nursing home: Trish (played by Jill Larson) and Ruth (played by Fran Bennett) are talkative roommates. Roland (played by Bruce Davison) is a widower who seems immediately attracted to Judith. The four of them often sit together for meals, and talk about their lives, including a lot of reminiscing about their youth.

Judith confides in her new friends that her relationship with Barbara has some tension. Judith explains that after Barbara’s husband/Josh’s father died, Barbara had a hard time coping, and Judith found herself helping take care of Josh. As a result, Judith and Josh grew closer emotionally, but Barbara has some resentment over this closeness. “He keeps me young,” Judith says proudly about Josh. “He’s the light of my life.”

Judith is allowed to walk outside on the nursing home property, as long as a staffer is with her. During one of Judith’s first tours of the outdoor area, Ciera takes her to a picture-perfect part of the woods that she says is a popular spot for young local trespassers to gather at night and party. “The Manor” is not subtle at all in showing that there’s a tree in this part of the woods that’s “special,” because there’s an almost-blinding white glow around the tree, every time it’s shown in the movie.

Despite the seemingly picturesque surroundings, too many odd and unsettling things are happening to Judith for her to think that the nursing home is a safe place. And when Judith suddenly starts acting like a senior citizen Nancy Drew by snooping around in rooms where she’s not supposed to be, her Parkinson’s disease is all but forgotten. She’s able to quickly crawl underneath a bed to hide from someone, she makes lightning-fast deductions like a seasoned detective, and she vigorously fights back against staffers who try to subdue her.

It all just leads to a shoddily filmed conclusion that’s not earned or believable. Hershey does her best to play a role that gives her a lot of screen time to show some acting range. However, she’s a talented actress who deserved a much better showcase than what is essentially a substandard horror movie that makes an insulting mockery of real health problems faced by people with Parkinson’s disease.

Prime Video premiered “The Manor” on October 8, 2021.

Review: ‘Madres’ (2021), starring Tenoch Huerta, Ariana Guerra, Evelyn Gonzalez, Kerry Cahill and Elpidia Carrillo

December 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ariana Guerra in “Madres” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/ Amazon Content Services)

“Madres” (2021)

Directed by Ryan Zaragoza

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1977 in California’s fictional Golden Valley, the horror film “Madres” features a predominantly Latino cast (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Mexican immigrant and his pregnant American-born wife relocate from Los Angeles to rural Golden Valley and find themselves caught in a dangerous mystery over why women in the area have a history of pregnancy trauma and infertility. 

Culture Audience: “Madres” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies that are based on real-life horror stories.

Tenoch Huerta and Ariana Guerra in “Madres” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/ Amazon Content Services)

“Madres” is a “slow burn” horror movie that’s bound to make people uncomfortable. Even though there are supernatural elements in the story, it’s based on real-life traumatic incidents involving motherhood. The final 20 minutes of the movie make up for the aspects of the story that tend to get repetitive. The cast members of “Madres” also capably handle the material.

“Madres” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. Directed by Ryan Zaragoza and written by Marcella Ochoa and Mario Miscione, “Madres” at first appears to be a standard ghost story about a couple who have seemingly moved into a haunted house. But by the end of the movie, viewers will know that even though “Madres” takes place in 1977, the film makes an impactful statement about a shameful problem in society that still happens today.

In “Madres,” happily married couple Beto Obregon (played by Tenoch Huerta) and Diana Obregon (played by Ariana Guerra) are shown arriving in the rural, fictional town of Golden Valley in the northern part of California. Beto (who is 30 years old) and Diana (who’s about the same age or slightly younger than Beto) have moved to Golden Valley because Beto is a farm worker who has been offered a job to manage a farm. It’s his first managerial job, so the couple is excited about this job opportunity and increased salary, especially because Diana is pregnant with their first child.

Beto is an immigrant from Mexico who has been living in the United States for the past five years. He comes from a poor family, but he has the ambition and work ethic to want to achieve the American Dream. Diana was born in the United States and comes from a middle-class family who was originally from Mexico. Because Diana doesn’t speak Spanish and because she has a light skin tone, she could be mistaken for being a white American. It’s mentioned in the movie that Diana’s parents discouraged her from learning Spanish, which implies that her parents want to distance themselves from their Mexican roots.

“Madres” doesn’t just look at nationality issues. The movie also touches on conflicts that arise because of social class and colorism. In a phone conversation between Diana and her sister Veronica, viewers find out that Diana’s parents do not approve of her marriage to Beto, because he’s uneducated, he’s dark-skinned, and because the parents think Beto will be nothing but a poor farmer. Because of this disapproval, Diana has kept her distance from her parents, who seem to prefer Veronica as the “favored child.”

Diana has a journalism degree. Before she got pregnant, Diana worked as a journalist, but she got fired from her job for being pregnant, but she plans to go back to work when she can. In the meantime, during her pregnancy, Diana has been working on a book. It isn’t long after Diana and Beto are settled into their fixer-upper home that problems start happening.

Diana starts having nightmares, including one shown during the movie’s opening scene where Diana dreams that she has a newborn baby who disappears when the baby’s crib suddenly fills with dirt. Diana also starts to see and hear frightful things at various times of the day and night, such as shadowy figures, a boy with a bloody eye who’s hiding in a tree, and some egg yolk that looks like it starting to bleed.

“Madres” is definitely a “things that go bump in the night” movie, since a lot of scenes are about Diana witnessing something and starting to question her sanity. Sometimes, Beto goes to investigate things that Diana says that she’s seen, but he doesn’t find anything. In the meantime, Diana and Beto become increasingly worried about all of this stress will affect their unborn child.

At his new job, Beto’s supervisor is Tomas (played by Joseph Garcia), who seems to have a lot of confidence in Beto as a new hire. Beto earns the respect of his co-workers (who are all Hispanics/Latinos), but Diana has a harder time fitting into this farm community. At a company picnic, Diana feels like an outsider because she seems to be the only one who doesn’t know how to speak Spanish. And as a newcomer to the area, she also finds it difficult to adjust to living in a rural way of life in this tight-knit community

Even though Diana doesn’t speak Spanish fluently, she does know some words in Spanish. Therefore, Diana can still understand that she’s getting catty and jealous remarks from some of the other wives at this gathering. They think that Diana is too uppity for this clique because she’s light-skinned, college-educated, and never bothered to learn how to speak Spanish. A woman named Rosa (played by Leydi Morales), who is married to a farm worker named Rafael Ernesto (played by René Mena), seems to be the most jealous one in this group of farm worker wives.

During this picnic, Diana finds out that pregnancy and motherhood are touchy subjects in this community. Many of the women in the area have had miscarriages or can’t get pregnant. There are stories going around that maybe the women of Golden Valley are cursed.

Not long after moving to Golden Valley, Beto and Diana go to a gift shop, where they are greeted by Anita (played by Elpidia Carrillo), the shop owner. She offers to give a blessing to the Beto, Diana and their unborn child. Anita sells a lot of trinkets in shop, which looks like she caters to a lot of people who believe in superstitions. It should come as no surprise that Anita is called “The Witch Lady” by many of the locals.

One day, Anita shows up unannounced at Beto and Diana’s house and tries to give Diana a necklace for “protection.” Diana, who is put off by this unexpected visit, says that she’s not superstitious and she firmly refuses this gift. Anita insists that she gives this gift to all pregnant women in the town, but Diana still refuses to take the necklace.

The rest of “Madres” follows Diana’s pregnancy journey that goes from hopeful to harrowing. At one point, Diana ends up in a hospital maternity ward where someone named Nurse Carol (played by Kerry Cahill) is exactly like the type of nurse that you think she is when she interacts with Diana. Along the way, she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery of the house’s previous resident: A woman named Teresa Flores, who died in 1955, and left many of her possessions behind.

Why was the house unoccupied for 22 years before Beto and Diana moved there? Is Teresa possibly haunting the house? And if so, why? And does Anita know more than she’s telling Diana? All of those questions are answered in the movie.

“Madres” is not the type of horror movie that has a lot of action and gore. Anyone looking for that type of content throughout the film will probably be disappointed. The movie overall doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, in terms of jump scares or cinematography. Guerra’s performance is believable and carries the movie. Whether are not viewers like “Madres” largely depends on how much they can connect with Guerra’s portrayal of Diana.

And it takes a while for the movie to pick up its pace. The second half of “Madres” is better than the first half. By the end of “Madres,” it will become clear that the movie isn’t the usual ghost story. The biggest horror in the film doesn’t come from the supernatural but from human beings who commit heinous acts of evil.

Prime Video premiered “Madres” on October 8, 2021.

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