Review: ‘Time’ (2020), starring Fox Rich

October 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Fox Rich and Rob Rich in “Time” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Time” (2020)

Directed by Garrett Bradley

Culture Representation: Taking place from the 1990s to the 2010s, the documentary “Time” features a predominantly African American group of working-class and middle-class people discussing Louisiana woman Fox Rich’s quest to get her husband Rob released from prison and reunited with his family.

Culture Clash: Rob Rich was sentenced to 60 years in prison without the possibility of parole for a botched armed robbery, which is a sentence that Fox Rich and others in the documentary say is a punishment that is too harsh for the crime and rooted in racism.

Culture Audience: “Time” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about people who battle against systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Fox Rich in the 1990s (above) and Fox Rich in the 2010s (below) in “Time” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The gripping and emotionally moving documentary “Time” doesn’t follow the usual formula in a movie about someone on an against-all-odds quest to get someone else released from prison. The convict in this case isn’t someone who proclaims to be innocent of the crime. Nor is there a crusading lawyer who is the hero of the story. Instead, this movie takes a raw and intimate look at the journey of a convict’s wife named Fox Rich, who fights to get her husband Rob G. Rich freed from prison while he’s serving a 60-year sentence without the possibility of parole. It’s a story that’s a true example of extraordinary persistence, love and hope.

“Time” is director Garrett Bradley’s feature-film debut, but the movie consists of a great deal of video footage that Fox Rich filmed herself during the family’s ordeal that began in the late 1990s and continued through 2018. In the movie, she also has the names Sibil Verdette Fox (which is her birth name) and Sibil Richardson. Fox (who was born in 1971) does most of the voiceover narration in “Time,” but most of the six sons she had with Rob also narrate the film.

There are no “talking head” legal experts, journalists or other pundits who are interviewed in this documentary. “Time” is essentially a family video album that chronicles the ups and downs of Fox’s determination to emancipate her husband over the course of 21 years. Although the original footage from the early years was filmed in color, everything in “Time” is entirely in black and white. There’s also some footage of the family in happier times before Rob was incarcerated.

The movie is not shown in chronological order, and the year that footage was taken is not shown on screen, although the year is sometimes mentioned by the people in the footage. Viewers can also tell the periods of time that the footage was filmed by how Fox looks and the ages of the children. In the 1990s and early 2000s footage, Fox’s is wavy-haired and more idealistic. In the later footage, her hair is straight and she’s more realistic but still hopeful. She’s also become a businesswoman at a car dealership, as well as a passionate public speaker about reforms in the criminal justice system. In her public speaking, Fox shares her personal stories about how Rob’s incarceration has affected the family.

What happened to cause this prison sentence to devastate the family? In 1997, Fox and Rob were a married couple in their mid-20s who met when they were in high school. They were on their way to living the American Dream, with three sons, their first purchased home and a plan to open the first hip-hop clothing store in Shreveport, Louisiana.

But, as Fox tells it in the documentary, they ran into financial problems in trying to launch the business. And they got desperate. On September 16, 1997, their lives changed forever when they committed this crime: Rob, Fox and Rob’s nephew robbed the Grambling Credit Union in Grambling Credit Union in Grambling, Louisiana. Fox says she remembers that her motivation for committing the crime was she didn’t want the business to fail and she was going to do what it took to get the money that they wanted.

Fox was the getaway driver, while Rob and his nephew committed the botched armed robbery in the bank. They ended up with about $5,000 from the robbery, but they were quickly apprehended and pleaded guilty. While Fox pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison (she was released from prison after serving three-and-a-half years of that sentence), Rob lost out on a plea bargain where he would be sentenced to 12 years in prison if he pleaded guilty. Instead, through some bad luck and bad legal advice that are not detailed in the movie, he ended up facing trial and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. By any standard, it’s a very harsh sentence, considering that there are many people who get lesser sentences for murder or rape.

Just like many other people who think the U.S. criminal justice system is corrupt and flawed, Fox believes that the system is very racist, because people of color are more likely to get worse punishments than white people who commit the same crimes. She comments in the documentary: “Our prison system is nothing more than slavery. And I see myself as an abolitionist.”

Fox’s mother, a retired educator who’s not identified by her name in the movie, also says that prisons are another form of slavery. She doesn’t excuse the crime that Rob and Fox committed that landed the spouses in prison, but she believes that Rob’s punishment should have fit the crime. She says, “I’ve always been a firm believer: Right don’t come to you doing wrong.”

Fox’s mother also adds that she always thought her daughter would marry “a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief.” She comments, “I’ve got nothing against Rob. I just don’t know him.” Viewers also don’t really get to know Rob either, since Fox doesn’t really describe what her husband’s personality is like, and the movie only shows brief snippets of her talking to him on the phone while he’s in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola.

However, “Life” does have a lot of footage over the years of Fox with her and Rob’s six children, who are all sons: Mahlik, Remington (also known as Remi), Laurence, Justus, Freedom, and Rob II. Justus and Freedom (who are identical twins) and Rob II were born while Rob Sr. was in prison. The most heartbreaking parts of the movie have to do with the children not being able to grow up with their father in the home.

But the movie also has plenty of inspirational moments. Defying the negative stereotype that children of prison inmates are doomed to become uneducated criminals, Mahlik, Remi and Laurence (the three oldest sons) are all college-educated and thriving. Remi is shown graduating from dental school. Laurence graduated from high school two years earlier than his classmates and is shown to be an aspiring law student who wants to become a public advocate for criminal justice reform.

Remi comments in the documentary: “My family has a strong image, but hiding behind it is a lot of pain … Time is influenced by a lot of our emotions. It’s influenced by our actions.”

And Fox is the most inspirational of all, with her steely determination to never give up on her goal to get Rob out of prison and reunited with his family. There are moments of despair, hope, defeat and triumph. “Time” shows how Fox evolved into a charismatic public speaker, whether she gives speeches at places like Tulane University or stands up in front of a church audience and asks for forgiveness for the crime she committed.

In one of these speeches, Fox also mentions that she made amends with some of the bank robbery victims when she met with them personally to ask for their forgiveness. In private, she gives pep talks to Rob, their kids and to herself. And she’s often seen on the phone doing what she has to do to get Rob back home with the family.

One thing that might surprise people who watch this movie is that there is very little footage of any lawyers. There’s a brief scene of Fox in a meeting with attorneys in an office, but that’s about it. There are hints that Fox has become disillusioned with lawyers and the legal system in general, because she does as much as she can on her own. Fox says at one point in the movie that she paid a previous lawyer (whose name is not mentioned) about $15,000 in cash for his services, and he ended up telling the family that there was nothing he could do for Rob.

Besides being entirely in black and white, “Time” isn’t a conventional documentary about the U.S. criminal justice system because of director Bradley’s musical choices for the movie. There is no cliché musical score with rousing orchestral music, no traditional gospel songs that chime in at emotionally charged moments, no stereotypical hip-hop music with angry anthems. Instead, the jazzy score by Edwin Montgomery and Jamieson Shaw (taken mainly from 1960s piano compositions by Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou) is a lot like the frequently meandering tone of this film: “Time” flows along with no distinct “acts” or “chapters” because of the non-chronological order of the film.

However, there is a “crescendo” to the film that is an absolute must-see. People who know the Rich family’s story might already know how this film ends, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of seeing certain defining moments captured in this film. As Fox says at one point in the movie, “I came from a people who had a strong desire to have something, to make something of ourselves.” Her unshakeable loyalty to her husband and family in the face of overwhelming obstacles can be an unforgettable inspiration to people who believe in the power of love and the human spirit.

Amazon Studios released “Time” in select U.S. cinemas on October 9, 2020. Amazon Prime Video will premiere the movie on October 16, 2020.

Review: ‘Evil Eye’ (2020), starring Sarita Choudhury, Sunita Mani, Omar Maskati and Bernard White

October 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Omar Maskati and Sunita Mani in “Evil Eye” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/Amazon Studios)

“Evil Eye” (2020)

Directed by Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans and Delhi, India, the horror film “Evil Eye” features a predominantly Indian cast (with a few white people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married, middle-aged mother, who experienced domestic abuse from an ex-boyfriend when she was younger, fears that her abuser has been reincarnated in the man whom her daughter is currently dating.

Culture Audience: “Evil Eye” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that have characters and storylines focused on Indian culture and family generational issues.

Bernard White and Sarita Choudhury in “Evil Eye” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/Amazon Studios)

For better or worse, it’s become a cliché that a great deal of movies with predominantly Indian casts are about families preoccupied with the wedding or marriage of the young adults in the family. Most Indians who follow tradition have arranged marriages where members of the family play matchmaker. The horror film “Evil Eye” adds a cultural blend to this formula by having the story set in two places (the Indian city of Delhi and the American city of New Orleans) that represent the push-and-pull conflict of wanting to follow family tradition and wanting to lead a more modern, independent life. “Evil Eye” might disappoint people who are expecting more action scenes, but the movie is commendable as a sobering reflection on domestic abuse and parents’ fears that their children might be doomed to repeat the same mistakes that the parents made.

“Evil Eye” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Amazon Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. Directed by identical twins Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani, “Evil Eye” is based on the Audible Original production of the same name by Madhuri Shekar, who wrote the “Evil Eye” screenplay. The audible version of “Evil Eye” centered on a series of phone conversations between an Indian mother and her daughter over the mother’s worries about the daughter’s love life and when she’s going to get married.

The movie version of “Evil Eye” obviously goes beyond those phone conversations to  actually show the two different worlds and outlooks on life that the mother and daughter have in the story. In the “Evil Eye” movie, Usha (played by Sarita Choudhury) is a happily married mother who is constantly pressuring her daughter Pallavi (played by Sunita Mani) to find a nice man to marry, preferably someone who is also of Indian heritage. Years ago, Usha and her laid-back and pragmatic husband Krishnan (played by Bernard White) immigrated from India to New Orleans, where they raised Pallavi, but the couple moved back to India some years ago because Krishnan (who’s a science professor) was offered a great job at a university.

Despite living so far apart, Usha and Pallavi communicate with each other on a regular basis. Lately though, their relationship has become strained because Pallavi thinks that Usha is putting too much pressure on her to get married. Pallavi is not opposed to the idea of getting married, but she’s not in a rush to find a husband and she would rather do it on her own terms.

Usha is heavily into astrology and the spirit world, which is a belief that Pallavi does not share. Krishnan is very scientific-minded, but he tolerates Usha’s superstitions with mild amusement. (For example, when Usha prays, she will say something like, “Protect my child from the Evil Eye so that she may be married.”) Krishnan also doesn’t interfere in the squabbles that Usha and Pallavi might have over Pallavi’s marital status. He tells his daughter that he’s proud of her no matter what.

Out of respect for her mother, Pallavi allows Usha to arrange for Pallavi to meet eligible Indian bachelors who are in the New Orleans area. One such bachelor (played by Satya Nikhil Polisetti) has recently moved from Houston to New Orleans. Pallavi agrees to meet him for a casual blind date at a café.

When Pallavi arrives at the café, she sees a handsome stranger in his late 20s or early 30s who’s seated at a nearby table. They make eye contact in the way that people do in movies where you know they’re going to end up being together. Pallavi’s date is more than an hour late, so Pallavi decides she’s not going to wait any longer and she gets up to leave.

The handsome stranger sees that Pallavi has been stood up for her date, and he goes over to her table and asks her if he can join her at her table. He introduces himself as Sandeep Patel, who works in the technology industry. The attraction between Pallavi and Sandeep (played by Omar Maskati) is immediate, and they end up staying at the café while they talk about their lives.

Sandeep tells her that his family also lives in India. He mentions that he used to run with a partier crowd in New York City. And he used to be engaged to a beauty contestant who was a runner-up for Miss India. Sandeep says that the relationship ended badly, and she attempted suicide after their breakup. “She wasn’t who I thought she was,” Sundeep comments morosely.

Pallavi and Sandeep inevitably begin dating each other. He’s romantic, attentive and seems like the perfect catch. He also has enough money where he buys sapphire earrings for Pallavi just one month after they begin dating each other. Pallavi politely declines the gift because she thinks it’s too much, too soon. She jokingly comments that Sandeep can give her the earrings when they get engaged.

Sandeep seems to have all of the qualities that Usha wants for Pallavi’s future husband. Pallavi thinks that Usha will be happy when she tells Usha the happy news that she’s been dating someone special and describes Sandeep in detail to her mother. However, Usha has reservations because she thinks Sandeep is too good to be true. And when Usha hears about the sapphire earrings, she feels even more alarmed.

It’s eventually revealed that when Usha was in college, she dated a fellow student, who ended up being very controlling and abusive to Usha, so she broke up with him. He took the breakup hard and began viciously stalking Usha until something happened to him to take him out of Usha’s life: He died by falling off of a bridge, not long before Pallavi was born. (The relationship is shown in flashbacks, with Nupur Charyalu as the young Usha and Asad Durrani as the ex-boyfriend, who does not have a name in the movie.)

And guess which gift this boyfriend gave Usha when they were together? Is it a coincidence that Sandeep wanted to give Pallavi sapphire earrings too? The more that Pallavi tells Usha about Sandeep, the more alarmed Usha becomes because Sandeep’s personality and the way that he courts Pallavi are strikingly similar to how Usha’s abusive ex-boyfriend was in the beginning of their relationship.

Meanwhile, the romance between Sandeep and Pallavi gets more serious when he asks her to move in with him and quit her boring office job so that she can pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Sandeep offers to pay all the expenses while she lives with him. Pallavi considers herself to be very independent, so she’s reluctant at first to accept this offer.

But the more Pallavi falls in love with Sandeep, the more she thinks it’s likely that she and Sandeep will get married, so she ends up moving into his large, upscale apartment. She also quits her job to work on a writing project that she’s always wanted to do. Usha isn’t pleased when she hears this news because she fears that Pallavi might be losing her identity and that Sandeep might be too controlling.

And now, it’s Pallavi’s turn to be upset because she thought that her mother would be happy that Pallavi is on track to get married to the man of Pallavi’s dreams. She argues with her mother and accuses Usha of being someone who will never be satisfied with the choices that Pallavi makes in her love life. But what Usha is really concerned about is her growing suspicion that Sandeep might be the reincarnation of Usha’s abusive ex-boyfriend.

Usha confides in her husband Krishnan about her fears, but he scoffs at her and thinks she’s being ridiculous. Usha is reluctant to tell Pallavi because doesn’t want to alienate her and she doesn’t want Pallavi to think that she’s crazy. But Usha’s inner turmoil and concerns about Sandeep become too much for her to bear, and eventually something is done about it in a dramatic way.

“Evil Eye” is not the type of horror movie where bad things happen to people every 15 minutes. Instead, it’s a no-frills thriller that mostly succeeds in presenting various dichotomies within a cohesive story that’s not cluttered with too many characters. There are the aforementioned dichotomies of Indian culture versus American culture; traditional marriage arrangements versus modern dating choices; and superstition versus science.

But there’s an underlying dichotomy that’s less obvious: how society viewed domestic abuse before the #MeToo movement versus how society has viewed domestic abuse since the #MeToo movement. Since the #MeToo movement, certain laws have been passed in many areas that give abuse survivors more chances to get justice. Abuse survivors are also getting more encouragement to share their stories as part of the healing process, whereas before the #MeToo movement, survivors were more likely to be shamed into silence.

This shaming is what Usha experiences—not just from society’s discomfort in dealing with abuse allegations, but also the shame she puts on herself. Usha mistakenly thinks she was somehow at fault for the abuse that was inflicted on her. And she still finds it difficult to talk about her abuse trauma to her own family members. It’s this unspoken communication barrier that affects Usha’s relationship with her daughter Pallavi, whom she fears might experience the same abuse that Usha went through when Usha was young.

As Usha, Choudhury gives a very nuanced portrayal of this inner conflict in how much of her past she wants to reveal to Pallavi. Mani is also very good in her role, although at times her Pallavi character seems a little bit underwritten. It would’ve helped if Pallavi had more of a backstory for her past relationships, so viewers would know if she’s the type to easily fall for smooth-talking charmers.

As for Maskati, his Sandeep character really does give off “too good to be true” vibes from the moment he appears on screen, so there really isn’t much to do with this character but but play the “perfect guy who might have a dark secret.” Sandeep’s over-eagerness with the sapphire earrings gift is a big red flag that something is “off” with him. Therefore, people with enough experience in life and in watching horror movies know that it’s going to be a matter of time before Sandeep’s true nature is exposed.

However, “Evil Eye” directors Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani admirably keep the movie focused on the mother/daughter relationship instead of going down the predictable “it’s all about the boogeyman” route that so many other horror films take. The movie’s climactic scene is a little melodramatic and hokey, but “Evil Eye” capably and authentically depicts the cultural and familial conflicts that American children of Indian parents experience when they have to choose one way of life over another. At the heart of Usha’s and Pallavi’s conflicts with each other is their fear that one of them might lose respect for the other. And for many people, not having the respect of your family or a ruined relationship with a beloved family member is a lot scarier than any spirit that might come back from the dead.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “Evil Eye” on October 13, 2020.

Review: ‘Nocturne’ (2020), starring Sydney Sweeney, Madison Iseman, Jacques Colimon and Ivan Shaw

October 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sydney Sweeney in “Nocturne” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Nocturne” (2020)

Directed by Zu Quirke

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “Nocturne” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and black people) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: An evil spirit affects the relationship between fraternal twin sisters who are rival classical pianists.

Culture Audience: “Nocturne” will appeal primarily to people who like teen-oriented horror stories that delivers scares that are effective but not particularly groundbreaking.

Madison Iseman and Sydney Sweeney in “Nocturne” (Photo by courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Nocturne” takes an intense sibling rivalry, mixes it in with a lot well-worn occult tropes, and lets the results slowly seep over the audience like a sticky, poisonous stew that’s hard to clean off. The movie doesn’t do a lot that’s very innovative, but quality performances from the cast and the movie’s ability to maintain an unsettling tone throughout the story make it worth watching for people who want to see a teen horror story that isn’t a predictable slasher movie.

“Nocturne” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Amazon Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. It’s the feature-film debut by British writer/director Zu Quirke, who set “Nocturne” primarily in an elite American arts school called the Lindbergh Academy. The academy, which is in an unnamed city, is also a co-ed boarding school that’s attended by students from mostly well-to-do families. It’s a school that steeped in tradition and classical music. In other words, the school isn’t for wannabe rock stars and wannabe rappers.

Many of the students have ambitions to become professional musicians in prominent orchestras or as solo stars. Such is the case with fraternal twin sisters Vivian “Vi” Lowe (played by Madison Iseman) and Juliet “Julie” Lowe (played by Sydney Sweeney), who are aspiring classical pianists. Even though their parents David (played by Brandon Keener) and Cassie (played by Julie Benz) are supportive of the twins’ dreams, they also warn Vi (pronounced “vee” in the movie) and Julie that the chances are very slim that they can make a career out of being classical pianists.

There’s a rivalry between the sisters that has been simmering for years but boils over with dangerous intensity during the course of the story, which takes place in the last year that the twins are enrolled in the academy before they graduate. Vi, the older twin, is the “golden child” who excels at everything thing she does. She’s been accepted into the prestigious Juilliard School, while Julie has been rejected by Juilliard and has decided to take a “gap year” before she applies again to Juilliard.

Vi has a loving and attentive boyfriend named Max (played by Jacques Colimon), who’s a little bit of a rebel because he does illegal drugs when he parties, and he admits that he only wants to be a musician because he likes the attention that he gets from women. Vi and Max’s relationship seems to be going well, and Vi is considered a “star” student of the school, both academically and socially. By contrast, Julie is a loner who doesn’t date and is a student who’s hard-working but not considered as exceptional as Vi. It’s no wonder that Julie feels overshadowed and jealous of Vi.

Lindbergh Academy has recently been devastated by the suicide of another star student named Moira Wilson (played by Ji Eun Hwang), a violinist who jumped off of the ledge of one of the school’s buildings. The suicide (which is shown in the beginning of the movie) is shocking because Moira had a promising future and wasn’t considered to be a troubled kid. During a school assembly after the suicide, Lindberg Academy administrators announce that the annual senior competition recital, which is the school’s biggest event, will still go ahead as planned.

One day, while a school administrator is cleaning out Moira’s locker, one of Moira’s notebooks accidentally drops on the ground. Julie happens to be nearby and picks up the notebook. She sees many occult-like illustrations and musical compositions in the notebook. And there’s a strange symbol of the sun on the notebook’s cover. This sun symbol plays a big role in many other parts of the story.

After Julie finds and keeps the notebook, mysterious things start to happen. When she’s in a room that’s used for music practice, she hears a violin playing, but no one is there. She starts having hallucinations and blackouts. Julie is on anti-anxiety medication, but is what she experiencing the side effects of the drug, mental illness, or is it something else? This is a horror movie, so the answer is obvious.

Moira’s notebook seems to have other effects on Julie, as she becomes more arrogant and ruthless in her rivalry with Vi. Julie decides that she’s going to play the same composition that Vi chose for the senior competition recital: Giuseppe Tartini’s “The Devil’s Trill.” Vi is understandably furious with Julie for blatantly trying to copy her, so the feud escalates between the two sisters.

Julie’s one-on-one piano instructor is a middle-aged alcoholic named Roger (played by John Rothman), who used to be an important pianist, but it’s implied that his drinking problem ruined his career as a pianist, and now his job is teaching piano to teenage students. Roger’s alcoholism is still an issue, because Julie mentions during their teaching lessons that she can smell alcohol on his breath.

One day, Julie (who is constantly looking for approval) asks Roger, “Are you proud of me?” He tries to tactfully tell Julie that she’s a good student but doesn’t really have what it takes to be a star soloist. Roger says that Julie is a “sensitive accompanist” and that not everyone can be the conductor of an orchestra.

This “damning with faint praise” triggers some anger in Julie, because she then tells Roger that she wants to quit his class. It leads to an argument where something happens that gets Roger fired. Julie is then assigned to take piano lessons from Dr. Cask (played by Ivan Shaw), who’s considered one of the top instructors in the school because he will only teach the best students. Dr. Cask, who is handsome and distinguished-looking, is also in charge of the senior competition recital, which is judged by a panel of school officials.

“Nocturne” is far from subtle in telegraphing what’s behind the horror in this story. Moira’s notebook is filled with demonic drawings. And when Dr. Cask has a piano lesson with Julie, he comments to her about Vi: “You know what makes her a star? She plays like the devil’s at her door.” And he says of dead student Moira: “She played like the devil is in the room.”

There aren’t many “jump scares” in “Nocturne.” Instead, the horror is more gradual and starts to slowly ramp up as the story moves along. It’s easy to figure out what the source of the terror is, but the appeal to the story is to see how this evil presence is going to affect the relationship between these two sisters.

The movie is told from Julie’s perspective, so Sweeney is the main actor who has to carry the story. Her performance is good, but just like her Julie character, she’s not particularly outstanding. Vi is not as complex as Julie, but Iseman capably shows glimmers into Vi’s interior thoughts that don’t always line up with the “perfect student” image that Vi portrays to almost everyone around her.

The best aspects of “Nocturne” are how writer/director Quirke successfully evokes moods such as toxic jealousy and eerie foreboding in the realistic dialogue and increasingly suffocating environment that surrounds Julie and Vi. The movie’s cinematography from Carmen Cabana also persuasively immerses people into this world. “Nocturne” delivers a knockout ending that will make people wonder if certain people can be possessed by evil or if evil is a manifestation of wicked inclinations that people already have inside themselves.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “Nocturne” on October 13, 2020.

Review: ‘Black Box’ (2020), starring Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa and Troy James

October 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie and Phylicia Rashad in “Black Box” (Photo by Alan Markfield/Amazon Studios)

“Black Box” (2020)

Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi/horror movie “Black Box” has a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widowed father suffers from amnesia because of the car accident that killed his wife, and he undergoes a radical scientific experiment to try to recover his memories.

Culture Audience: “Black Box” will appeal primarily to people who like horror movies that blend science fiction with family drama and have unexpected twists.

Amanda Christine and Mamoudou Athie in “Black Box” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/Amazon Studios)

At first glance, the sci-fi/horror film “Black Box” seems to be a story about how unchecked scientific experiments can wreak havoc on someone’s life. But beneath all the creepy and mind-bending scenes is a story about yearning for chances to start over and renew relationships with loved ones. Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., “Black Box” has some familiar influences (the 1990 film “Total Recall” immediately comes to mind), but the movie has its own unique elements that make it a worthwhile offering for people who like horror movies where a lot of terror can exist in someone’s mind.

“Black Box” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Amazon Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. The movie is the feature-film debut of Osei-Kuffour, who co-wrote the “Black Box” screenplay with Stephen Herman. It’s not a straightforward movie that is supposed to be told chronologically. Instead, viewers have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, just like fragmented memories that could become whole.

In “Black Box,” Nolan Wright (played by Mamoudou Athie) is a 33-year-old photographer and widowed father who is struggling physically, financially and emotionally. He is recovering from a car accident that killed his wife Rachel six months ago and left him in a coma. When he emerged from the coma, he found out that he has amnesia, and he is now coping with feelings for guilt over Rachel’s death and the stress of not remembering a great deal of his life.

Because of his injuries and ongoing recovery, Nolan hasn’t been able to work, and the bills are piling up. There’s a wall in Nolan’s living room that looks like it was punched in anger, and it’s later revealed in the movie that he punched the wall because he got frustrated over being hounded by bill collectors. This type of violence goes against Nolan’s mild-mannered nature. He’s also a kind and attentive father.

Nolan’s lively and very precocious daughter Ava (played by Amanda Christine), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, has become the “lady” of their household. She helps Nolan get ready in the morning, makes meals and helps him remember things, since Nolan as short-term and long-term memory loss. Nolan worries that the big chunks of his life that he doesn’t remember are memories that he’ll never get back.

In the beginning of the movie, Nolan is ready to go back to work at the magazine job he used to have before the car accident. He has a meeting with his former boss Cathy (played by Gretchen Koerner), who also used to be the supervisor for Nolan’s late wife Rachel. But Cathy tells him some bad news: She can’t rehire Nolan because her publisher boss doesn’t think that Nolan’s current work doesn’t reach the same quality level as his past work.

Nolan’s best friend is a doctor named Gary (played by Tosin Morohunfola), who offers to lend Nolan money to help pay Nolan’s bills, but Nolan is politely declines to accept this offer. Nolan tells Gary about being rejected by his former job, and Gary comforts Nolan by telling him, “You don’t need to change your career, Nolan. You just need to remember who you are.”

While Nolan is visiting Gary at the hospital where Gary works, Gary recommends that Nolan try undergoing some of the experimental memory treatments conducted by Dr. Lillian Brooks (played by Phylicia Rashad), who is considered a somewhat controversial visionary because not all of her experiments have been government-approved. And it just so happens that a video of Dr. Brooks giving an instructional lecture to an audience is playing in the waiting room where Nolan is sitting.

Feeling he’s got nothing to lose, Nolan makes an appointment with Dr. Brooks, who knows Nolan’s personal and medical history and decides he’s a good candidate for her Black Box memory recovery experiments. Dr. Brooks tells Nolan that the Black Box converts memories into an “immersive virtual experience, like a dream.” Therefore, when Nolan gets a Black Box treatment, he will have a virtual recreation of his memories.

Dr. Brooks puts Nolan under hypnosis, where he sees himself in a house with different rooms. Before he goes into the trance, Dr. Brooks tells him that the first room he will be in is a “safe room.” There are no safes in this room, but it’s supposed to represent the safest room in the house and the room that Nolan has to be in if he wants to emerge safely from the hypnosis.

Nolan can go from room to room by pushing down on the crown of an imaginary analog watch. However, he cannot open the doors in the safe room. If he wants to leave the safe room, he has to use the watch. And what Nolan sees when he goes under hypnosis would be enough for most people to completely call off the Black Box experiment.

While under hypnosis, Nolan has flashes of memories, but the other people in these memories have their faces blurred out and the rooms are usually very shadowy or dark. One vivid memory that Nolan relives is his wedding ceremony in the church where it took place. But what’s supposed to be happy memory turns into a nightmare.

An unwelcome guest emerges from a church pew. It’s an unknown humanoid creature that can contort limbs at sickening angles. The menacing creature is called Backwards Man (played by Troy James), and every time it moves, you can hear the sound of bones cracking. Just like everyone else in these visions, the face of Backwards Man is obscured. Every time Backwards Man sees Nolan, the creature rushes to attack Nolan, who then has to quickly find a way back to the safe room so that he can come out from the hypnosis.

The first time that Nolan has this terrifying experience, he’s hesitant to go back under hypnosis again. But his desire to recover his memories outweighs any fear that he has, so he goes back under hypnosis again. Another vision that he sees is of a bruised and crying woman in a kitchen. It appears that someone in the home has beaten her and she’s afraid of that person.

Nolan has never seen this woman before, but he later finds out that her name is Miranda (played by Charmaine Bingwa), and she doesn’t live very far from Nolan. He also sees in his visions that Miranda has a crying baby in another room. And once again, Backwards Man suddenly appears to try to attack Nolan.

Nolan begins to wonder if the visions he’s seeing are really memories or delusions. He asks Gary if he’s ever had a history of abusing women. Gary tells Nolan absolutely not and says that Nolan and Rachel were an ideal, loving couple. Gary only remembers bits and pieces of his marriage to Rachel, so he has to take Gary’s word for it. (There’s no mention in the story if Nolan has any other relatives. If he does, he doesn’t communicate with them and vice versa.)

The mysteries of Nolan’s strange Black Box visions are explained by the end of the film. Throughout the movie, “Black Box” writer/director Osei-Kuffour achieves a delicate balance between the Nolan who’s trying to keep things together in the “real world” to be a responsible parent and the Nolan who keeps getting pulled back into the dark and murky world of the Black Box memory experiments. Nolan isn’t quite sure what’s being done to his mind but he’s willing to risk everything just to get back his memories.

But the darker world of these memory experiments spills over into Nolan’s real world, as he has nightmares and blackouts that affect his ability to function as normally as he would like. For example, one day he forgets to pick up Ava from school (it’s not the first time it’s happened), and the concerned teacher who brings Ava home threatens to report Nolan to child protective services if it happens again.

As Nolan, Athie does an admirable job of portraying someone who’s torn between these two worlds, while Christine shows a lot of talent as a child who’s perceptive beyond the level of most children her age. Nolan and Ava’s father/daughter relationship is adorable and realistic. Rashad portrays Dr. Brooks as someone who is passionate about her work, but the movie doesn’t really go into details about other patients whom Dr. Brooks has treated. The only work with patients that Dr. Brooks is shown doing in the movie is her Black Box sessions with Nolan.

The Backwards Man in “Black Box” brings some chills, but this contortionist creature looks too human and familiar for it to become a horror villain that people will be talking about for years. (When the face of Backwards Man is finally revealed, it’s no surprise.) Ultimately, the message of “Black Box” is that no matter how advanced technology becomes and how many material possessions people can have, people’s human connections and memories have intangible value and are treasured the most.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “Black Box” on October 6, 2020.

Review: ‘The Lie’ (2020), starring Joey King, Peter Sarsgaard and Mireille Enos

October 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Peter Sarsgaard and Joey King in “The Lie” (Photo by Jasper Savage/Amazon Studios)

“The Lie”

Directed by Veena Sud

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the suspenseful drama “The Lie” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A divorced couple go to extreme lengths to cover up a crime committed by their troubled teenage daughter.

Culture Audience: “The Lie” will primarily appeal to people who are interested in movies that have very Lifetime TV type of concepts but with higher budgets and a higher caliber of actors.

Mireille Enos and Peter Sarsgaard in “The Lie” (Photo by Jasper Savage/Amazon Studios)

When parents cover up a crime that their child committed, who’s worse? The child or the parents? These are questions that the dramatic thriller “The Lie” wants viewers to think about and possibly change their minds about the answer several times during the course of the movie. Unfortunately, “The Lie” (written and directed by Veena Sud) is so caught up with trying to fool viewers with twists and turns in the story (including an ending that people are going to either love or hate) that the movie could be considered one big lie if viewers are expecting a coherent plot. Above-average acting from the lead actors in the cast can’t quite save this convoluted mess of a movie.

“The Lie” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Amazon Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. “The Lie” definitely has a strong female point of view, since two of the three main characters are female: troubled 15-year-old Kayla (played by Joey King) and her mother Rebecca (played by Mireille Enos), a former homicide cop who’s now a corporate executive for an unnamed company. (Sud and Enos used to work together on the crime drama series “The Killing.”)

The other main character in “The Lie” is Kayla’s rock singer/musician father Jay (played by Peter Sarsgaard), who’s been divorced from Rebecca for about five or six years. Jay and Rebecca have moved on to new love partners. Jay is dating his bandmate Trini (played by Dani Kind), while Rebecca’s boyfriend Greg (Alan Van Sprang) is planning to move in with Rebecca and Kayla. Jay doesn’t know it yet though, and Rebecca wants to postpone telling him this big news.

It’s established early on in the movie that Rebecca has primary custody of Kayla because she’s the more reliable parent with the steadier income. The income disparity is obvious, since Rebecca and Kayla live in a spacious, upper-middle-class home, while Jay lives in a cramped apartment. Jay isn’t a complete deadbeat dad, but there’s tension between Jay and Rebecca because he’s been an irresponsible, inattentive parent in the past (a lot of it has to do with him being a musician), so Rebecca often has a hard time trusting him. She also thinks that Jay can be too lenient with Kayla, maybe out of guilt for being a sometimes-absentee father.

Kayla’s relationship with Jay is less resentful than how Rebecca feels about him, but there’s still some tension between Kayla and Jay because Kayla wishes that her father paid more attention to her. Jay is the type of musician who’s still trying to make it big. He’s not completely broke, but he’s not at a level where he has a comfortably steady income. He’s the lead singer of an indie rock band that releases its own music and doesn’t get played on the radio, but is able to make money by playing nightclubs. Viewers of “The Lie” will get the impression that he’s been at this level for his entire career.

On the fateful winter day that the lives of Kayla, Rebecca and Jay change forever, Jay is driving Kayla to a ballet retreat that she doesn’t really want to go to but is being pressured to attend by Rebecca. There’s a lot of ice and snow outside, and when Kayla sees a teenage friend named Britney (played by Devery Jacobs) standing alone at a bus stop, Kayla asks Jay to pull over so they can talk to Britney, who’s going to the same ballet retreat.

Britney (who sometimes goes by the name Brit) says that she’s taking the bus because her father backed out on his promise to drive her to the retreat, so Kayla asks Jay if they can give Britney a ride to the retreat. Britney mentions that she and her divorced father haven’t been getting along lately, and that’s probably why he bailed out of driving her to the retreat. It’s later revealed in the movie that Britney moved to the area with her father Sam about two or three months ago. Britney’s mother abandoned Britney and Sam years ago.

As Kayla and Britney sit in the back of the car and make small talk, Kayla notices that Britney has a bruise on her chin. When she asks Britney about it, Britney avoids answering the question and jokingly tries to make Kayla feel intrusive by calling Kayla a “stalker.” The drive goes by fairly uneventfully on a deserted road near the woods until Britney and Kayla ask Jay to stop the car so they can go in the woods and relieve themselves. Jay obliges their request, but he’s reluctant because it’s cold outside and he’s wary about the two girls being in an isolated wooded area. Jay doesn’t go with them into the woods, out of respect for their teenage privacy.

After a reasonable period of time has passed, the girls still haven’t come back to the car, so Jay goes into the woods to find out what’s going on. To his horror, he sees Kayla, who looks like she’s in a state of shock, on a small bridge overlooking icy and treacherous water. Britney is nowhere in sight. When Jay frantically asks where Britney is, Kayla says that they were “joking around,” and Britney fell off of the bridge into the water.

A few minutes later, after Jay tries desperately to find Britney in the water, Kayla changes her story and makes a darker confession to Jay: She says that she and Britney actually had an argument, and Kayla deliberately pushed Britney off of the bridge. Kayla and Jay decide to stop looking for Britney, who is presumed to be dead. Kayla, who’s asthmatic, also seems to be having an asthma attack, so Jay decides that they’re going to leave the scene of the crime and pretend that they never saw Britney that day.

Kayla is too distressed to go to the ballet retreat, so Jay also decides that he will just take her back home and they will pretend that she was sick and use that as an excuse for why she didn’t show up for the ballet retreat. Jay also decides that during the time that they were on the road, he and Kayla will lie and say that she was with Jay at his place before he drover her back to the house where Kayla lives with Rebecca.

While Kayla and Jay are near the parked car, a truck passes by, and Kayla and Peter duck down quickly, so they won’t be seen. It’s a possible problem with their fake alibi if anyone in the truck remembers seeing Jay’s car on the road at that specific time. There are other things that happen later in the story that could unravel and expose the lie.

But before that happens, Kayla and a panicked Peter go to Rebecca’s office. Rebecca is furious to see that Kayla is not at the ballet retreat. But Jay pulls Rebecca aside and tells that she needs to go back to her house. He will bring Kayla there and explain everything. When Rebecca hears what happened, she is shocked, but she has a very different idea on how they should handle the situation.

Rebecca wants to go immediately to the police and report what happened, as well as try to see if a search team can look for Britney. Peter insists that it’s a bad idea because Britney is probably dead already, and he will get in trouble for not going to the police sooner. It’s also why Jay rejects Rebecca’s suggestion that they tell police that it was an accident: If it were an accident, Jay would’ve called 911 for help in trying to rescue Britney from the water.

Jay thinks the best thing to do is to stick to the lie and get a good lawyer for Kayla. After much arguing back and forth, Rebecca agrees to Peter’s idea to tell the lie to cover up for Kayla. They agree to craft an airtight alibi for Kayla and stick to the story no matter what.

And what does Kayla think about what’s going on? At first, she seems to feel guilty about what happened and wants to go to the police. But then, when she sees that her parents have joined forces to protect her, she seems to find comfort in that situation, and Kayla lets her parents handle everything. They coach Kayla on what to say when the police inevitably start questioning Kayla, who seems to be one of Britney’s closest friends.

But the morning after the incident, Kayla is oddly calm and acts like nothing really happened. She exhibits this nonchalant behavior several times throughout the movie. But then other times, she loses control of her emotions, such as she when she has a public meltdown outside the house and her father has to restrain her.

Kayla’s meltdown in the front yard is loud enough for neighbors to see and hear, but there are conveniently no neighbors who report suspicious activity coming from Kayla’s home. And the police certainly don’t find out about it, because the meltdown is written in this movie for melodrama purposes only.

Later in the story, Kayla reveals to her father Jay that she’s been cutting herself. “It helps take away the pain,” Kayla tells Jay, as she shows him the cutting scars on her wrist. “No one likes me at school,” she adds.

Jay seems disturbed by finding out that Kayla is a cutter. And he’s in for more of a shock when he finds out that Kayla has been cutting herself for a few years, and Rebecca has know about it too. Rebecca gives Jay a weary excuse that she tried to get Kayla help for this self-harm problem, but nothing worked.

If it isn’t obvious enough, Kayla is deeply troubled. But is she a sociopath? Is she bipolar? The movie plays guessing games with viewers over what Kayla’s state of mind really is. Her parents know that something is very wrong with her, but they’re more concerned with covering up the crime she confessed to rather than trying to get her professional help for her mental problems.

Britney’s father Sam (played by Cas Anvar) eventually comes over to Rebecca’s house to see if he can talk to Kayla about where she thinks Britney might be. It isn’t the first time that Britney has disappeared for a few days without telling anyone, so Sam isn’t too worried when he first goes over to the house to talk to Kayla. Rebecca stalls Sam, with the excuse that Kayla has been sick. Rebecca plays the part of a concerned parent by giving Sam her personal cell phone number so that he can contact Rebecca, but it’s really Rebecca’s way of finding out what Sam is going to do about Britney’s disappearance.

Rebecca and Jay do everything possible to prevent Kayla from talking to Sam and other people, by lying and saying that Kayla is too sick to talk to anyone. Rebecca and Kayla also avoid returning Sam’s messages. As Britney’s disappearance stretches into more than 48 hours, Sam gets more frantic and suspicious that Kayla and her parents might be hiding something.

Rebecca and Jay end up doing some despicable and extreme things to throw any suspicion off of Kayla and possibly put the blame on someone else. Rebecca gets in touch with Detective Kenji Takada (played by Patti Kim), a former colleague at the police department, and manipulates her into thinking that someone else could be involved with Britney’s disappearance. Kenji just happens to be part of the investigation with her cop partner Detective Rodney Barnes (played by Nicholas Lea), who shows more than a hint of racism when he suspiciously asks Britney’s father Sam (who’s Pakistani American) what his ethnicity is.

One of the big flaws in the screenplay is in all the illogical decisions made by Rebecca and Jay. By keeping Kayla isolated at home and preventing her from continuing her routine school activities, it actually makes Kayla look even more guilty and suspicious. At one point, Jay and Rebecca tell Sam that Kayla is at a doctor’s appointment, but since that’s a lie, there are no medical records to back it up in case Sam tells the police this information. And Jay and Rebecca’s attempts to prevent Sam from talking to Kayla just makes it look like Kayla has something to hide. Sam senses it too.

And about that lawyer that Jay said should be hired to help Kayla. It’s one of the reasons why Rebecca agreed to go along with Jay’s idea to cover up for Kayla. However, it’s not a spoiler to say that a lawyer is never hired for Kayla, although Jay and Rebecca are going to need attorneys, based on all the illegal things that Rebecca and Jay do to cover up for Kayla and all of their lies. The non-existent lawyer is one of many ways that “The Lie” dangles something in front of viewers and then just leaves it hanging.

And the ending of the movie is basically undermined by the fact that earlier in the film, the police investigating Britney’s disappearance found some important email between two people involved in the case. In order for the ending of the movie to be plausible, viewers would have to believe that the police overlooked other email and cell phone records from the same two people. And that investigator oversight doesn’t seem logical or plausible, considering the email between those two people that was already discovered by the police. Even if text and email messages are deleted, they can still be retrieved on hard drives through computer forensics that are available to police investigators.

Although the screenplay is problematic, “The Lie” does have very good acting from King, Enos and Sarsgaard, who do the best they can with the flawed script that they’ve been given. There are plenty of suspenseful moments, but too often they are followed by another ludicrous and extreme act by one of the loathsome main characters.

And what makes the cover-up worse in this story is that Rebecca is a former cop who makes some dumb decisions that no self-respecting person with police training would make. Main characters in a suspense thriller don’t have to be likable heroes, but they should at least be believable. And because the movie has too many characters who do too many incredibly stupid things, “The Lie” lacks credibility as a suspense thriller.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “The Lie” on October 6, 2020.

Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2 for fall 2020 collection headed to Amazon Prime Video

Rihanna at the Savage X Fenty Fall/Winter 2019 Show at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York on September 10, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video)

The following is a press release from Amazon Prime Video:

Amazon Prime Video presents the highly anticipated Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2, a unique fashion show celebrating the new Fall 2020 collection from music and fashion icon Rihanna. The extraordinary fashion experience features a combination of models, actors and dancers wearing the latest savage styles, with special performances from some of the hottest names in music. Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2 will stream exclusively on Prime Video in more than 240 countries and territories worldwide beginning Friday, October 2.

As a follow up to last year’s ground-breaking event, this year’s Savage X Fenty Show is raising the bar. Debuting the bold and fearless Fall 2020 line, Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2 will include performances from an all-star lineup including hip-hop icon Travis Scott and international superstars Bad Bunny, Ella Mai, Miguel, Mustard, Roddy Ricch, and Rosalia during the experience. Savage X Fenty Show veterans Bella Hadid, Big Sean, Cara Delevingne, Christian Combs, Normani, and Paloma Elsesser return, walking alongside newcomers Lizzo, Demi Moore, Erika Jayne, Gigi Goode, Irina Shayk, Laura Harrier, Paris Hilton, Rico Nasty, Shea Couleé, Willow Smith, Chika, Miss 5th Avenue, Jaida Essence Hall and many more, wearing the latest savage styles and debuting Savage X Fenty’s fierce and unapologetic Fall 2020 collection.

For the release of Vol. 2, the Savage X Fenty Fall 2020 Collection will be available to shop in Amazon Fashion’s store and at Savage X Fenty. All Savage. Zero Apologies. The high-voltage collection is packed with unexpected pairings and surprising new styles that push the boundaries of individuality. With sizes ranging from 30A-42H/46DDD and XS-3X, customers can shop the collection at Amazon.com/savagexfenty and Savagex.com.

Rihanna served as Executive Producer and Creative Director of Savage x Fenty Show Vol. 2.

Music and fashion icon Rihanna embarks on her newest venture: lingerie designer. Inspired to create a line of intimates that complements a variety of shades and shapes, Savage X Fenty celebrates fearlessness, confidence, and inclusivity. In partnership with a team assembled from the industry’s elite, the label has disrupted and redefined the marketplace with its accessible price point and extensive assortment. “We want to make people look good and feel good,” explains Rihanna, who approaches Savage X 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.” With sizes from 32A – 42H in bras, and XS-3X in undies and sleepwear, Savage X Fenty is available for purchase at www.SavageX.com.

Review: ‘Get Duked!,’ starring Rian Gordon, Viraj Juneja, Lewis Gribben, Samuel Bottomley, Eddie Izzard, Georgie Glen and Katie Dickey

September 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rian Gordon, Viraj Juneja, Lewis Gribben and Samuel Bottomley in “Get Duked!” (Photo by Brian Sweeney/Amazon Studios)

“Get Duked!”

Directed by Ninian Doff

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Scottish Highlands, the comedy “Get Duked!” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one person of Indian descent) representing the working-class, middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Four teenage boys are sent on a wilderness-styled camping trip, where they are hunted by middle-aged aristocrats who think young people are pests that need to be eliminated.

Culture Audience: “Get Duked!” will appeal primarily to people who like wacky and slapstick-heavy comedies that have underling social commentary.

Eddie Izzard and Georgie Glen star in “Get Duked!” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The generation gap between underage teenagers and adults has been fodder for a lot of movies and TV shows. But the absurdist comedy “Get Duked!” makes some biting social commentary about how mass shootings, terrorism and alarming predictions about the environment have created a feeling among many teenagers that the adults of the world have screwed up everyone’s futures, while adults think that teenagers are spoiled, lazy and selfish. This generational animosity is the basis for most of what happens in “Get Duked!,” which cloaks its social messages in a lot of unrealistic, slapstick humor that might seem goofy on the surface. But by the end of the film, it’s clear that it’s a satire of a very real malaise in society.

Written and directed by Ninian Doff (who makes his feature-film debut with this movie), “Get Duked!” was formerly titled “Boyz in the Wood,” in a cheeky nod to writer/director John Singleton’s 1991 South Central Los Angeles drama “Boyz n the Hood.” In the production notes for “Get Duked!,” Doff said that the movie title was changed from “Boyz in the Wood” because of “the passing of director John Singleton and the awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, using the title ‘Boyz in the Wood’ didn’t feel respectful to John’s legacy or the Black community, especially as ‘Boyz [n] the Hood’ was such a meaningful Black cultural moment in cinema. ‘Get Duked!’ was always our working title, and we felt it was better to return to that.”

The four British teenage boys (who are about 15 or 16 years old) at the center of “Get Duked!” don’t come from a gang-ridden environment, but they’ve been sent to the remote Scottish Highlands by authority figures to try out for the Duke of Edinburgh Award, a real-life prize that has been spoofed in this movie. Getting the award consists of successfully completing a wilderness camping trip without much supervision, modern comforts or safety precautions.

Three of the four teenagers on this trip are delinquent schoolmates who’ve been sent unwillingly by their school headmaster. Dean Gibson (played by Rian Gordon) is a working-class, cynical guy who’s the delinquent group’s unofficial leader and who believes that going to college is a waste of time. Duncan McDonald (played by Lewis Gribben) is the one who’s the least “book smart,” the most unpredictable and the one most likely to come up with off-the-wall ideas. DJ Beatroot (played by Viraj Juneja) is a wannabe rapper originally from London who keeps pretending that he comes from a “ghetto” background to make it seem like he has “street cred,” but he really grew up in a comfortably upper-class family and his real name is William Debeauvois.

What kinds of trouble have these three boys gotten into that’s prompted them to go on this disciplinary trip? The usual teen delinquency problems: skipping school, vandalism, doing drugs. Duncan, who’s the “wild card” wacko of the group, also blew up a toilet in a bathroom at their school. He brags about it in the beginning of the trip, before they find out that their “toughness” will definitely be tested.

Joining this tight-knit trio of friends at the beginning of the trip is someone who’s around their same age but who’s almost the opposite of these three rebels: Ian Harris (played by Samuel Bottomley) is a straight-laced, homeschooled kid who was volunteered for the trip by his mother “so he can make friends and thrive,” according to Mr. Carlyle (played by Jonathan Aris), the adult who’s been tasked with giving orders and supervising the teenagers on this trip. Mr. Carlyle’s supervision is minimal though, since his only job is to drive them to the place where the teens begin their hiking, meet them at a couple of destination points, decide if any of them is worthy of getting the Duke of Edinburgh Award, and then drive them home.

The four teens are given instructions to hike through the woods, meet at a campsite, (where they are supposed to sleep overnight), and then complete the rest of the trip through the woods until they reach the coastal site that’s the end of their destination. They aren’t given anything except a large foldout map, which they have a difficult time reading because it’s a paper map, not a map they can look at on their phones. And it’s not as if they can really use their phones anyway, since phone reception is almost non-existent where they are in the Scottish Highlands.

Before Mr. Carlyle leaves the boys to fend for themselves, he warns them that their journey could be fraught with danger. He doesn’t go into details, but Dean, Duncan and DJ Beatroot aren’t too worried, since they don’t take the trip seriously at all. By contrast, worrywart Ian, who comes from a very sheltered environment, is paranoid about things that could go wrong. He also insists that they do things by the rules, because he’s serious about winning the award.

At first, nothing out of the ordinary happens as they begin hiking, except that they encounter a low electrical fence. They persuade Duncan to be the one to test the fence’s wiring, and he predictably gets electrocuted. Dean has brought some hashish on the trip, but Ian objects to the boys doing illegal drugs.

That doesn’t stop the other boys from giving Ian some of the hash to eat, without telling him it’s hash until after Ian ingested it. Ian is very upset by being tricked into taking hash, and the other boys mock Ian’s horrified reaction. Dean tells Ian that this trip is well-known as a way for stoners to get high in a remote area: “The Duke of Edinburgh Award is all about getting shit-faced.”

Because Dean is the de facto leader, his opinion means a lot to DJ Beatroot, who asks Dean what he thinks of DJ Beatroot as a stage name. Dean admits that the name will make people think of the vegetable beetroot and that it doesn’t sound like a tough street name at all. DJ Beatroot is crushed by this criticism. When he’s alone, DJ Beatroot pulls up his shirt and looks in dismay at the DJ Beatroot name that he had newly tattooed on his torso.

During their wayward hiking, the four teens encounter an elderly farmer (played by James Cosmo), who is driving a tractor. DJ Beatroot takes the opportunity to promote his music by giving the farmer a postcard-sized DJ Beatroot promotional card. DJ Beatroot has also brought along a CD of his music, which comes in handy later on in the story.

Unbeknownst to the four boys, someone has been stalking them with a gun. And it isn’t long before they find out that this won’t be an ordinary hiking trip. The gunman shows himself when he fires his rifle at the boys, whose main defense “weapons” are eating utensils. And it’s obvious that he’s shooting to kill, as the chase begins throughout the rest of the movie.

Who is this psycho on the loose? His name is The Duke (played by Eddie Izzard), and he’s later joined by his wife The Duchess (played by Georgie Glen), who’s literally his partner in crime. They are aristocrats who are hunting teenagers for no other reason than they think the teenagers who are on this trip must be the type of delinquents who deserve to die. The Duke keeps repeating this mantra: “We’ve got to cull the weakest animals for the good of the herd.”

Not all of the action in “Get Duked!” takes place in the woods where the boys are being hunted. There’s also a subplot showing two bungling local police officers—Sergeant Morag (played by Katie Dickie) and PC Hamish (played by Kevin Guthrie)—who are so country bumpkin-ish and bored that they jump at the chance to investigate anything that might be a crime. They usually make wrong assumptions and blow things out of proportion, based on broad stereotypes. Morag’s judgment is also clouded because she’s desperate to get promoted.

For example, when Morag and Hamish find the four teens’ hash and DJ Beatroot’s CD in the woods, Morag jumps to this conclusion: “Drugs and hip-hop. We’re dealing with a London gang.” And then Hamish calls in a racist report to the department by saying: “We’re on the lookout for 15 to 20 young black males in hoodie tops.” It’s the movie’s obvious satire of real-life racial profiling done by police.

There’s also some other racial commentary in the film. When the boys are being hunted, Dean says to blonde, blue-eyed Duncan that Duncan is in the least danger because “You’re the whitest guy here” and that Duncan is “practically albino.” And when the bumbling cops at the police station get a call about delinquent Duncan being in their area and get a mug-shot-styled photo of him, the cops have his name misspelled as if it’s an Arabic name (Doonkhan Mach D’Naald) and they label him as a “suspected terrorist.”

As The Duke and Duchess are hunting down their prey, he comments to her about the teenagers, who aren’t giving up easily and are fighting back: “We are old. That’s why they’re not scared of us.” The Duchess replies: “When did that happen? We used to be invincible.” Later on, Dean gives a semi-epic rant about how older generations have ruined things for future generations because they’re short-sighted and greedy.

Izzard plays The Duke as fairly calm and calculating, but it’s clear that the actor is having fun with the role in a way that doesn’t become too camp. Glen’s portrayal of The Duchess is more unhinged. Even with their contrasting styles, it’s hilarious to see these two villains’ reactions in some of the scenes where they don’t have the upper hand like they thought they would. All of the movie’s actors are well-cast in their roles and have a great sense of comedic timing. And it will come as no surprise that Bottomley’s Ian character is the one who goes through the biggest metamorphosis.

Many of the characters in “Get Duked!” (usually the adults) are presented as clueless buffoons who are out of touch with the real world and rely on racist stereotypes to automatically judge people. The obvious metaphor of The Duke and Duchess’ deadly hunt is that older generations are callously killing off young people—maybe not by going around and shooting them on camping trips but by destroying the environment that will make the world a much more unstable and dangerous place to live environmentally for future generations.

It’s a message that’s undoubtedly sympathetic to the teenagers, but at times it rings a little hollow because someone like Dean (who’s the most vocal about his disdain for older authority figures) isn’t exactly doing anything to make his life better either. His self-defeatist attitude that he’s doomed to a life of bleak despair can’t all be blamed on older generations, because he should take responsibility for how he lives his life. That’s not to say that Dean should become a political activist, but he actually does have a lot of the “lazy” and self-centered characteristics that The Duke and The Duchess say they abhor in young people.

However sympathetic that “Get Duked!” might be toward the plight of young people, the movie, under Doff’s mostly well-paced direction, doesn’t lose its sense of humor as it takes viewers on a madcap ride in the teens’ fight for survival. The adults aren’t the only ones to make bad decisions, which is another point made by the movie. In all the finger pointing about which generation is worse, the fact is that no generation is immune from people who embody the worst of humanity. It might be conveyed with over-the-top and raunchy comedy, but the overall message of “Get Duked!” is that the strongest who survive in life are the ones who are not complacent.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “Get Duked!” on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘Radioactive,’ starring Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley and Anya Taylor-Joy

July 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rosamund Pike in “Radioactive” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Radioactive” 

Directed by Marjane Satrapi

Culture Representation: Taking place in France (and briefly in Poland) from 1878 to 1934, the biographical drama “Radioactive” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and black people) representing the middle-class in telling the story of scientist Marie Curie.

Culture Clash: Curie battled against sexism and xenophobia, and she was at the center of a scandal when her affair with a married man went public.

Culture Audience: “Radioactive” will appeal primarily to people who like biopics about scientists or women who break through in male-dominated professions, with an emphasis on melodrama over substance.

Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley in “Radioactive” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Watching a biographical movie about a scientist, even if the scientist is a world-famous pioneer, might not appeal to a lot of people. And it’s a greater challenge when the story is set more than a century ago. But perhaps to ward off any potential viewer boredom, the filmmakers of the Marie Curie biopic “Radioactive” made the movie as if it’s a both a music video (with lots of flashy, quick-cutting editing) and a melodrama (with plenty of soap opera-type dialogue and over-acting). It’s an overcompensation that ultimately sinks this movie, which had the potential to be a fascinating, award-worthy film, but instead ended up as an unevenly toned misfire.

It’s clear that “Radioactive” was intended to be an “Oscar bait” movie, considering that it was partially financed by Working Title, a British production company that has won several Academy Awards for its films, including 2017’s “Darkest Hour,” 2014’s “The Theory of Everything” and 2012’s “Les Misérables.” “Radioactive” cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle won an Oscar for 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” And several Oscar nominees were involved in making the film, including star Rosamund Pike (who plays Marie Curie); director Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”); and producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner.

However, all that talent still doesn’t make “Radioactive” an Oscar-worthy film. Jack Thorne (who has done work mostly in British television) wrote the screenplay as an adaptation from Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout.” And that’s exactly what the movie looks like on screen: a movie version of a graphic novel.

Scenes that would have benefited from richly witty conversations and glorious, lingering camera shots are instead served with basic, simplistic dialogue and whiplash-like editing that cuts a scene like boxy panels in a graphic novel. Pike certainly gives it her all in this performance, but she’s hemmed in by the hokey screenplay that portrays Marie Curie as less like a brilliant scientist and more like a whiny and egotistical shrew.

The movie begins in Paris in 1934, the year that Marie died of Aplastic anemia from exposure to radiation, at the age of 66. Marie is being rushed to a hospital, and while she’s lying on a gurney, she starts having flashbacks of her life. Those flashbacks are the majority of this story.

The flashbacks begin in Paris in 1893, when an unmarried Marie (whose maiden name was Skłodowska) was the only female scientist in working in the University of Paris industrial laboratory of Professor Gabriel Lippmann (played by Simon Russell Beale). Marie, a native of Poland who moved to Paris for her university studies, had changed her first name from Maria to Marie, in order to better fit in with French citizens. In 1893, she had earned a degree in physics and was enrolled in a graduate program while working at Lippmann’s lab. (She would eventually earn a doctorate, supervised by Lippmann, in 1903.)

The movie doesn’t waste time in trumpeting its intent to show Marie as a feisty feminist who constantly has to battle sexism and misogyny. The first flashback scene is of Marie storming into a room where Lippmann and his all-male team of colleagues are seated. She angrily demands to know why her lab equipment has been moved again.

Lippmann tells Marie that it’s because her lab equipment takes up too much space. When she mentions that some of her male colleagues have lab equipment that takes up even more space than her equipment does, Lippmann tells her that she’s been fired. When she protests her dismissal, Lippmann tells her that if she doesn’t like it, she can start her own lab. Marie replies dejectedly that she doesn’t have the funds.

Meanwhile, Marie and a handsome stranger see each other on a street and make small talk. She sees this stranger again while they happen to be attending the same dance performance. They find themselves standing right next to each other, as they watch a female dancer twirling around in a white flowing costume, like she’s auditioning for a Cirque du Soleil show in a future century. This is the “meet cute” moment, because he is a scientist/professor whose name is Pierre Curie (played by Sam Riley), and he confesses to Marie that he’s been admiring her from afar.

Pierre tells Marie that he already knows her name and who she is because (1) “You’re one of only 23 female scientists with the department; (2) I’ve heard about your run-ins with Professor Lippmann; and (3) I read your paper on the magnetic properties of steel. It contains some exceptional science.” Of course, Marie is flattered by his compliment and gives Pierre a compliment too: “I have read your paper on crystallization, which I enjoyed very much.”

In real life, Pierre and Marie were introduced by a mutual friend, but that might have been too boring for the filmmakers, so they invented this scene to make Marie and Pierre’s “meet cute” scene seem more romantic, since the dance performance is filmed to make everything look more fantastically beautiful. At the time that Marie and Pierre met, he was an instructor at the City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution. But Pierre had his own up-and-down relationship with the University of Paris (which was his alma mater too), so Pierre and Marie bond over being “misunderstood” by the university, and they connect over their mutual love of science.

Pierre offers Marie a room to work in his lab. She politely declines, and then she changes her mind after he invites her to look at the work space. Marie firmly tells Pierre that she will not be his mistress, in case he thinks that she’s supposed to repay him by letting him have sex with her. Pierre says that it isn’t his intention, but he does tell her with that certain look in his eye: “I have an instinct about you.”

Of course, since most people watching this movie already know that Marie and Pierre ended up falling in love and getting married, this part of the relationship is shown very quickly. The next thing you know, after a few scenes of Marie and Pierre working together, he proposes (in the most soap opera-ish way possible), they’re married and then expecting their first child.

“Radioactive” does not show much of Marie’s life before she moved to Paris, except for flashbacks of her as a child (played by Harriet Turnbull) having grief-filled moments visiting her terminally ill mother (played by Georgina Rich) in a hospital. (Marie’s mother Bronisława died of tuberculosis when Marie was 10 years old.) According to the movie, this trauma led to Marie’s lifelong fear of being in a hospital. This fear is portrayed in the movie as full-blown panic attacks whenever Marie is asked to go to a hospital and ends up refusing to go.

The only other link to Marie’s Polish past that’s portrayed in the movie is Marie’s sister Bronisława, also known as Bronia (played by Sian Brooke), who was older than Marie by two years and was Marie’s closest female confidant. Bronia doesn’t do much in this movie except give calm and supportive advice when Marie inevitably has to rant or complain about something. (And she gets angry a lot in this movie.)

It’s clear that the filmmakers didn’t want “Radioactive” to be a movie that’s “too smart” for the general public, so Marie and Pierre’s scientific work is explained and depicted in the simplest of terms. When the couple gets a lab in Versailles, France, they discover and present two new elements: polonium and radium. Marie also coins the term “radioactivity.”

Marie and Pierre get widespread acclaim, while viewers of this movie have to sit through a lot of cringeworthy dialogue, with Marie and Pierre saying things like, “We have changed science forever” and “I can feel our work glowing out. I can feel it changing the world.” And if these “change the world” proclamations weren’t enough, “Radioactive” has several moments that cut into the story to actually show examples how the Curies’ discoveries were used in the future.

There’s the scene of a Japanese father and son experiencing the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. There’s the scene of an atomic bomb being tested in Nevada in 1961, complete with a model house being bombed and life-sized dolls melting inside. There’s the scene of Russian workers rushing in a panic during the Chernobyl accident in 1986.

Of course, when two spouses work together, there are bound to be conflicts and ego clashes. In 1903, Marie, Pierre and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie’s name was added only after Pierre insisted on it because of her crucial contributions to their discoveries. And so, Marie made history by becoming the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in science.

However, because she was a woman, Marie was not allowed to give a speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm. Pierre says in the movie that Marie could have attended the ceremony, but she declined because she had recently given birth. This is a factual error in the movie, because Pierre and Marie were awarded the Nobel Prize in December 1903. They had two daughters: Irène (born in 1897) and Ève (born in 1904). Ève was born in December 1904, a full year after that Nobel Prize ceremony.

And in the movie, it’s shown that Marie gets very angry with Pierre for deciding to go to the ceremony without her. Did she really expect him to stay at home with her and not got to the ceremony to accept this prestigious award on behalf of both of them? Yes, according to this movie.

Even though Pierre effusively gave praise and credit to Marie in his Nobel Prize speech, that’s still not enough for Marie. When Pierre gets home, she rips into him, as if he committed a major betrayal. As far as Marie is concerned, she did more work than Pierre did, and therefore she deserves more recognition and praise than he gets.

And she cruelly tells Pierre that she will always be smarter than he is. “You stole my brilliance!” she shrieks at him during one of their quarrels over him attending the Nobel Prize ceremony without her. We’ll never know if Marie ever uttered those words to Pierre, but the movie definitely portrays Pierre as a long-suffering husband who has to put up with a mean-spirited wife who has a massive ego.

No one is expecting Marie Curie to be put on a pedestal and look like a saint. But one of the problems with “Radioactive” is that it doesn’t really show Marie being a lot more brilliant than her husband, to justify all the arrogance she has in the movie. The movie shows them working side-by-side as, more or less, equal partners.

And all the temper tantrums that Marie has in “Radioactive” make her look unprofessional to the point where the movie undermines any respect that the filmmakers might have intended for this pioneering scientist. To make matters worse, “Radioactive” continues down the soap opera route when it shows Marie’s life after Pierre tragically died in a carriage accident in 1906.

Marie is understandably devastated by this loss. The movie portrays Marie as someone who was so overcome with grief over Pierre’s death that she began to have hallucinations/visions of seeing him. You get the feeling that the filmmakers would’ve gone as far as Marie consulting a psychic to talk to Pierre from the dead, but that wouldn’t be very scientific, would it?

Instead, there’s a scene where Marie has a breakdown with a photographer, because in Marie’s distraught state of mind, she thinks that there can be a photo conjured up of the spirit of her husband. “Please let me see my husband again!” she shouts numerous times in this over-the-top scene. It looks like a series of retakes from a soap opera.

Two close friends of Marie and Pierre Curie are a married couple named Paul Langevin (played by Anuerin Barnard) and Jeanne Langevin (played by Katherine Parkinson), who are seen earlier in the movie having a pleasant couples dinner with Marie and Pierre. But after Pierre dies, Marie and Paul end up having an affair, and he moves in with her.

The way that the affair is portrayed in the movie, Marie tells Paul that she isn’t in love with him, but he’s clearly in love with her. Marie is obviously using Paul as a way to cope with her grief. And the film makes this abundantly clear when it shows Marie waking up next to Paul and initially hallucinating that Pierre is in his place.

Marie also doesn’t seem too concerned about how this infidelity relationship is affecting her two young children. When Irène and Ève see that their mother has a new man in her bed, and they go in her bedroom to try to talk to her, she asks them if they are hungry. When they say no, she then coldly dismisses them and tells them that if they’re not hungry, then they need to leave her alone.

Of course, the affair causes a major scandal when it’s made public. In the movie, Paul’s wife Jeanne tells Marie that she hired a private investigator and leaked information about the affair to the press. Marie is then the target of intense bullying by strangers, who yell ethnic insults at her about her Polish heritage and tell to go back to Poland.

And so, by the time Marie won her second Nobel Prize (this time for chemistry) in 1911, there was a lot of controversy over her getting the prize because of the scandal in her personal life. People not only protested that she was attending the ceremony but also that she received the prize in the first place. (The movie doesn’t really address the hypocrisy of people never protesting over the untold number of male Nobel Prize winners who openly committed adultery.) Marie was allowed to give a speech at that Nobel Prize ceremony, but the scandal and controversy really tainted what could have been a completely triumphant moment.

Irène is shown as a young woman (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) who would also become a scientist, but the young-adult Irène doesn’t have enough screen time in the movie to get a good sense of what kind of mentorship she got from her mother. It’s yet another missed opportunity in a movie that is more concerned about showing Marie being self-absorbed in her own achievements and the recognition that she thinks she deserved.

Marie Curie remains the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. But all of her accomplishments and intellectual prowess are devalued by the way “Radioactive” reduces her story to a melodrama. The movie frames her major life events as results of a relationship with whichever man she was sleeping with at the time.

If you were to believe what’s in this movie, Marie saw her first Nobel Prize not as an achievement that she could proudly share with her husband but as a weapon to use against him out of spite, just because other people didn’t want her to give an acceptance speech at the ceremony. That is one of the lasting impressions of Marie Curie that “Radioactive” wants to give, but surely her legacy deserves better.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “Radioactive” on July 24, 2020.

Review: ‘7500,’ starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Omid Memar, Murathan Muslu and Aylin Tezel

June 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “7500” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“7500” 

Directed by Patrick Vollrath

English, German and Turkish with subtitles

Culture Representation: The drama “7500,” depicting an airplane flight from Berlin to Paris, has a cast of white and Middle Eastern characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: The flight is taken hostage by violent terrorists.

Culture Audience: “7500” will appeal mostly to people who like suspenseful thrillers.

Omid Memar in “7500” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The dramatic film “7500” is the type of “hijacked plane” movie that is utterly formulaic and predictable, but the film does such a terrific job at maintaining a suspenseful edge that it’s somewhat easy to forgive the film’s obvious flaws. A good performance from leading actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt also makes the movie worth seeing.

Directed by Patrick Vollrath, who co-write the original screenplay with Senad Halilbasic, “7500” doesn’t delay its action-filled scenes, which start within the first 15 minutes of the film. Before that happens, there’s a little backstory presented about the movie’s main character Tobias Ellis (played by Gordon-Levitt), the mild-mannered American co-pilot of a German commercial jet plane that’s on a night flight from Berlin to Paris.

Tobias, who is 31, has been a pilot for about 10 years. His live-in girlfriend Gökce (played by Aylin Tezel), who is of Turkish-German heritage, is the mother of their 2-year-old son. Gökce is also a flight attendant who happens to be on the same flight as Tobias. Before the flight takes off, Gökce visits the cockpit to tell Tobias the bad news that they weren’t chosen for a bid on a new home that was their first choice, since the place was near a kindergarten that they want their son to attend.

Tobias is optimistic that something will work out, but Gökce is more panicked about it because they’re running out of time to find a new place to live. As Tobias tells the plane captain Michael Lutzmann (played by Carlo Kitzlinger), he and Gökce eventually plan to get married. Tobias also tells Michael that he and Gökce have been able to keep things professional while they’ve been working together.

There’s a slight delay to the plane’s takeoff because two college-age passengers (played by Max Schimmel Pfennig and Anna Suk) have checked in their luggage but have not yet boarded the plane. When the late-arriving passengers are on board, the plane (which has about 85 passengers) takes off smoothly.

Not long after the takeoff, the terrorists attack. There are four of them who are featured in the story: Kinan (played by Marathan Muslu), who appears to be the hijackers’ leader; Vedat (played by Omid Memar), an 18-year-old who follows orders; Kalkan (played by Passar Hariky), another henchman; and Daniel (played by Paul Wollin), a white German who has become a radical Islamic terrorist.

During the attack, some of the terrorists have stormed into the cockpit, and a big fight ensues. The terrorists are using broken glass as knives and have stabbed Michael and Tobias. Michael is severely wounded, but Tobias has been able to defend himself by knocking out Kinan with a fire extinguisher. Tobias is able to fight off further attacks by pushing the terrorists out of the cockpit door and locking it behind him.

Vedat, Kalkan and Daniel, who are locked out of the cockpit, continue to terrorize the passengers and try to break their way back into the cockpit. The situation escalates as Daniel (who is the most vicious one in the group) threatens to take lives if Tobias doesn’t open the cockpit door.

Tobias has been able to call for help to air traffic control, which is in communication with him during the pandemonium. (The movie’s title comes from the 7500 air traffic control code for a hijacking.) Tobias tells the authorities that he plans to make an emergency landing in Hanover. He also makes this announcement over the intercom to help calm down the passengers.

Meanwhile, Tobias is trapped in the cockpit with an unconscious terrorist, a plane captain who might be dying and the terrible burden of knowing that not opening the cockpit door could mean that innocent people could be killed. Tobias can see some of what’s going on outside the cockpit through a video monitor. The terrorists communicate with him by using the cockpit phone placed outside the door, which they keep battering in an attempt to gain access. And later in the movie, as if things weren’t stressful enough, it predictably starts to rain heavily while the plane is still in the air.

Tobias is written as someone who manages to keep a fairly level head during all of this stress and trauma, to the point where some viewers might think that his reactions are initially too calm for all the violence going around him. But an explanation for that is perhaps Tobias is just in shock. He definitely has some big emotional moments later in the film.

In the production notes for “7500,” Vollrath explains that he wanted to make the Tobias character the opposite of an action hero and more relatable to the average person. In other words, if this were a movie starring Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson, the main character would definitely make different choices.

Although many things that happen in “7500” are easy to predict, the movie is different from other “hijacked plane” films because almost everything in the movie takes place in the cockpit, not the passenger area. The production notes for “7500” mention that the filmmakers purchased a decommissioned Airbus A320 plane and made it into the “7500” film set. That authenticity makes a difference, since nothing about the film’s production design looks like a replica of a plane.

Tobias is undoubtedly the main character of “7500,” but it would have been a little better to get more of a backstory from the other characters, particularly one of the attackers who gets the most screen time. The movie makes some subtle references about immigration, but all of their backgrounds are mysteries.

As for Tobias, very little is known about him either. For example, viewers don’t find out how he ended up living in Germany or even why he wanted to become a pilot. The focus of the movie is “fight for your life in the moment.” As the debut feature film from Vollrath, “7500” is far from a masterpiece, but it shows that this filmmaker has knack for telling a simple story that hits a lot of the right notes for crowd-pleasing suspense.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “7500” on June 18, 2020.

Review: ‘The Vast of Night,’ starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer and Bruce Davis

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“The Vast of Night”

Directed by Andrew Patterson

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1950s in fictional Cayuga, New Mexico, the sci-fi drama “The Vast of Night” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two young people unexpectedly find out about mysterious UFO occurrences that appear to involve massive government conspiracies and cover-ups.

Culture Audience: “The Vast of Night” will appeal mostly to people who like movies that explore issues about life in outer space and what the U.S. government knows about it.

Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

People who don’t know anything about “The Vast of Night” before seeing this sci-fi drama will get some pretty obvious clues within the first 20 minutes of this slow-burn-to-intensity film that’s clearly been inspired by “The Twilight Zone.” Taking place in the 1950s, the movie is set entirely during one night in the fictional city of Cayuga, New Mexico, where some of the people have reported unidentified flying objects (UFOs) in the sky during a night with a full moon.

There have also been some strange interruptions in the electrical lighting in certain buildings. “The Vast of Night”—directed by Andrew Patterson and written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger—takes a while to get the action going, but the last third of the film is worth sticking around for, as the movie deliberately builds up to a suspenseful pace.

The city of Cayuga in this movie at first appears to be the type of tranquil, middle-class suburb where the majority of the city residents will turn up for a Cayuga High School basketball game as a major social event. That’s what is going on in the beginning of the film, as viewers are introduced to Everett Sloan (played by Jake Horowitz), a radio DJ who goes by the on-air name “The Maverick” when he works at the local station.

Everett, who appears to be in his late teens or early 20s, has in his possession a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, which was a fancy new technology invention at the time. He’s making the rounds at the school’s gym during the pre-game practice to test out the recorder, which he plans to use to record the basketball game. Everett interviews people in the gym because he’s an aspiring investigative news journalist, but there’s also a sense that he wants to show off this recorder too.

Everett’s activity is briefly interrupted when he’s asked to help out some school administrators who have reported an electrical power problem in the room where the generators are stored. Apparently, the lights have been blinking off and on in certain parts of the school, and they don’t want any of these problems during the basketball game.

When Everett arrives, he finds out that there was an identity mix-up, and they wanted to send for a guy named Emmett (the school’s electrician), not Everett. The administrators mention that the electrical glitches are probably because of a small animal, such as a mouse or squirrel. As the movie continues, it seems like the only purpose of this scene is to establish that the town is having some unexplained electrical problems.

One of the people whom Everett encounters when he’s showing off his tape recorder is 16-year-old Fay Crocker (played by Sierra McCormick), who’s fascinated and a little intimidated by this new technology. Fay and Everett aren’t close friends, and he treats her like an older brother who doesn’t want his younger sister tagging along. But tag along she does, as Sierra and Everett make their way into the school’s parking lot, where several families are in their cars, waiting to be let in for the basketball game. Everett goes from car to car to further test his new tape recorder.

Although the dialogue in “The Vast of Night” is spoken with a rapid-fire pace (in the manner that many American sci-fi/thriller films did back in the 1950s), the story unfolds in a leisurely manner in the beginning of the film. Not much happens in the first third of the movie, in order to create an atmosphere that this is supposed to be just a regular night in Cayuga, where the biggest thing going on is the basketball game.

Sierra and Everett aren’t staying at the basketball game because they have to work elsewhere. Everett is headed to the radio station, where he has a live broadcast for his music/talk show. Sierra is scheduled to work a shift alone as the city’s telephone switchboard operator.

Before they walk to their respective workplaces, Sierra and Everett have a lively discussion about some of the future technology that’s she’s read about in magazines like Modern Mechanics. She tells Everett that by the year 2000, there will be vacuum-tube transportation that can travel at incredible speed; phones that will look like tiny TVs; and lifelong telephone numbers as IDs that will be assigned to babies at birth, with the numbers disconnected upon death. Everett tells Sierra: “I believe the train tubes in the highways, but the tiny TV phones—that’s cuckoo.” (It’s the screenwriters’ obvious inside joke, since smartphones now exist.)

As soon as Sierra begins her switchboard operator shift, a few strange things start happening. She gets a call where all she hears is a repeated clicking-echo type of noise and nothing else. Then another call comes in, with a terrified woman saying that there appears to be a tornado coming toward her. A barking dog can be heard in the background, and then the caller is suddenly disconnected.

A concerned Sierra then calls a neighbor named Ethel to check on Sierra’s  pre-school-age sister Ethel and the babysitter Maddie, who are both home alone at Sierra’s house. Sierra has been listening to Everett’s radio show while she works. She hears the strange clicking sound at the beginning of the show’s news broadcast, so she calls Everett to ask him if he heard this strange noise too.

Everett didn’t hear it, but Sierra hooks him up to the phone line where he can hear it, and he records the noise. They both decide that Everett should play the noise on the air and ask listeners to call in and say if they recognize what this mysterious sound is.

A retired military man who identifies himself by the name Billy (played by Bruce Davis, in a voice role only) then calls in, and begins to tell a story live on the air. This story takes Everett and Sierra down a path of trying to uncover a mystery. Everett also gets a call from an elderly shut-in named Mabel Blanche (played by Gail Cronauer), who also has some information that’s part of the mystery, as the movie accelerates to a breakneck speed with a heart-pounding conclusion.

“The Vast of Night” uses a visual device of framing the story as if it’s an episode of a fictional show called “Paradox Theater” (an obvious nod to “The Twilight Zone”), by having some scenes open with the action playing out on a  tiny, 1950s-style black-and-white TV.  The movie’s cinematography by Miguel Ioann Littin Menz is infused with a lot of sepia tones that were common in movies of the 1950s, when color technology in films was still fairly new. And “The Vast of Night” also takes an unconventional approach by having the screen go completely dark during some suspenseful moments (one “blackout” scene lasts for about five minutes), which might give the viewers the impression that something is wrong with the screen or the movie’s playback.

Avid sci-fi fans will also notice some Easter eggs in “The Vast of Night,” such as Cayuga is the name of “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling’s Cayuga Productions. And the radio station that Everett works at is WOTW, which is an acronym for “War of the Worlds,” even though radio and TV stations west of the Mississippi River are supposed to have call letters that start with the letter K.

The only real flaw of “The Vast of Night” (and it’s a fairly minor one) is that the movie never really feels like it takes place in New Mexico, because “The Vast of Night” was actually filmed in Texas with a cast of mostly Texans and Oklahomans who keep their heavy Southern accents in the film. It’s kind of distracting for the cast to have the wrong accents, but this discrepancy in regional accents doesn’t take away too much from this engaging story. “The Vast of Night” might not be completely original in its subject matter, and the acting is good (not great), but the way the story is told with some unique touches should please die-hard sci-fi fans.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “The Vast of Night” on May 29, 2020.